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Posts Tagged ‘India’

In the kingdom (or is it the mall?) of the West, consciousness has lifted the transcendent ever higher and further away from actual life. The bridgeable chasm has become a cosmic void.

(James Hillman – The Soul’s Code: in search of character & calling – page 110)

Sharon Rawlette put me on to Leslie Kean’s brilliant and rigorous exploration of the evidence for an afterlife, Surviving Death. It was a compelling and inspiring read that triggered me to go back and re-read a book – David Fontana’s Is There an Afterlife? – which I had read long before I started blogging and from which I took no systematic notes.

As I went back over Fontana’s book I slowly became aware that there was a key issue I needed to explore that is flagged up strongly in both books. I decided that this took precedence for me at this point over their impressive research, because the feeling came through strongly from both writers that no matter how compelling the evidence and no matter how rigorous their presentation of it, there would be obdurate resistance to even considering it let alone accepting it. As I will examine later in this post such denial of legitimate evidence is far from uncommon in our supposedly scientific culture, and is not confined to matters of the spirit.

A key passage from Fontana reads (page 94):

We can go further and say that not only is the dogmatic approach by materialistic science to the mysteries of the human mind misleading it reveals a disturbing ignorance. Ignorance is not so much the act of not knowing something, it is the act of not knowing something but claiming to know. . . . . . Lacking any personal acquaintance with inner spiritual or psychic experiences, the materialistic scientist ‘knows’ that those who have such experiences are wrong in their interpretation of them, while he or she is of course right.

This insight follows immediately after his account of the life and death of Socrates and the conclusions he draws from that (page 93):

How interesting that nearly two and a half thousand years ago Socrates was giving very much the same explanation of mediumistic gifts and their inhibition by the conscious mind that we might give today. This brings home to us an essential but often forgotten truth, namely that the knowledge of the spiritual dimension possessed by the ancients has hardly been bettered. The myth of eternal progress in human understanding, which lies behind so much of our delusory intellectual arrogance in modern times, can clearly be seen at least in spiritual matters for what it is, a myth.

In his view we have sold ‘the birthright of our innate spiritual wisdom for the mess of potage of material progress.’

The arrogance of our ignorance goes back a long way and across more than one dimension of human experience.

Take for example John Fitzgerald Medina’s exploration of the misguided attitude of the European settlers to the native American mode of agriculture in his book Faith, Physics & Psychology.

The sophistication of the Native American model lay not just in politics (pages 199-200):

Contrary to the American colonists’ misinformed judgements, much evidence now exists to show that the American Indians were in fact, quite adept at cultivating a large variety of plants in a diversity of climates, soils, and environmental conditions. They utilised the Earths resources wisely, gently, and reverently.

This system may be at least equal if not superior to our environmentally disastrous monoculture (pages 201-02):

Unlike the Europeans, who planted row after row of the same plants, the Indians throughout North and Central America cultivated small plots of land that often looked like wild, haphazard gardens. . . . Scientific studies have shown that such Indian-style plots, call milpas in Mexico, are resilient to pests and weeds and protect the topsoil from erosion. . . . . .

Modern agronomists marvel at the simplicity and productivity of Indian-style agricultural plots, and some are actively studying it as an alternative to the European style, monocultural plantation form of farming, which leads to widespread soil erosion and degradation of topsoil due to the massive use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilisers.

Nonetheless, in the arrogance of our ignorance we dispossessed the native Americans of their land in the mistaken conviction that we knew better and they just didn’t know how to grow crops properly, justifying our actions by a distortion of scripture.

The irrigation system in ancient India was similarly disparaged with drastic consequences. Fred Pearce explains in his 2006 book, When the Rivers Run Dry (pages 301-02):

Until the early nineteenth century, much of India was irrigated from shallow mud-walled reservoirs in valley bottoms that captured the monsoon rains in summer. The Indians called them tanka, a word the English adopted into their own language as tanks.

Most of the tanks were quite small, covering a hectare at most, and irrigating perhaps twenty hectares. Farmers scooped the water from the tanks, diverted it down channels onto fields, or left it to sink into the soil and refill their wells. . . . Farmers guarded the slimy nutrient-rich mud in their tanks almost as much as the water. They dug it out to put onto their land, and turned silted-up former tanks into new farmland.

. . . The system thrived until the British took charge in India. . . . The British water engineers largely ignored the village tanks, apparently not realising that they were how India fed itself. . . . As the British and later the Indian government itself promoted more modern water gathering technologies, they gradually fell into disuse, but today, as the formal irrigation systems established on the Western model fail across the country, and as farmers are having to pump from ever greater depths to retrieve underground water, the old tanks are starting to be restored.

Before we get too smug about it, we need to realise that this kind of blindness is as prevalent as ever.

Sometimes it’s entirely wilful as with Holocaust denial, where the evidence is unquestionable and easily accessed. Sometimes it’s partly motivated by self-interest or an ostrich approach where keeping our head in the sand seems less of a problem than facing up to reality, but also the sheer complexity of an issue such a climate change can make denial seem rational in the face of such demanding data. I’ve dealt with the complexity issue elsewhere on this blog so won’t rehearse it all here.

My long-standing personal commitment to investigating issues for myself and checking out the evidence carefully has been further reinforced by the faith I have chosen to follow. Bahá’í Scripture is unequivocal on this issue. We must investigate for ourselves if truth and justice are to be well served (see link for a fuller exploration of this theme).

At the individual level justice is that faculty of the human soul that enables each person to distinguish truth from falsehood. In the sight of God, Bahá’u’lláh avers, Justice is ‘the best beloved of all things[1]’ since it permits each individual to see with his own eyes rather than the eyes of others, to know through his own knowledge rather than the knowledge of his neighbour or group.

(Prosperity of Humankind – Section II)

There is no get-out clause:

If, in the Day when all the peoples of the earth will be gathered together, any man should, whilst standing in the presence of God, be asked: ‘Wherefore hast thou disbelieved in My beauty and turned away from My Self?’ and if such a man should reply and say: ‘Inasmuch as all men have erred, and none hath been found willing to turn his face to the Truth, I, too, following their example, have grievously failed to recognize the Beauty of the Eternal,’ such a plea will, assuredly, be rejected.

(Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh – LXXV)

I won’t labour the point any further. In the next post I’ll move onto to considering further implications.

Footnote:

[1] Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh, Arabic No: 2.

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'Modern Times' (for source of image see link)

‘Modern Times’ (for source of image see link)

In the last post we looked at Paul Mason’s discussion of surplus value and some of its implications. What seems to me particularly important for present purposes is the way he teases out so clearly how this process is destined eventually, whenever eventually might be, to running out of road. There will be not enough labour involved in production to create enough surplus value to sustain the capitalist model.

Karlberg, whom I also quoted at length in the last post, is largely focusing on value-based and moral arguments and the evidence that supports them. While I find them compelling not everyone will, not least the average profit-centred believer in the market.

The special interest to me of what Mason says lies in the fact that it is, if true, a pragmatic argument. It suggests that it is in the interests even of those, whose drive for increasing profit is their primary motivation, to recognise that what they are seeking to do is not only ultimately unsustainable because of the eventual exhaustion of natural resources, which seems a long way off;  unacceptable because of the costs in terms of pollution and climate change; and morally indefensible because of the debilitating hardships of the workforce. It is also unsustainable in its own materialistic terms. That capitalists appear to be in denial about the nature of their own reality does not diminish the power of this idea if it is true. Even if only partly true because it is only one aspect of a far more complex reality, the idea deserves a wider hearing than it seems to get at present and needs to be mnore carefully considered.

One of the reasons it remains so hard to prove is adduced by Mason himself in a different context in his book (page 271):

Given that we are decades into the info-tech era, it is startling that… there are no models that capture economic complexity in the way computers are used to simulate weather, population, epidemics, or traffic flows.

This is partly what makes debates about what major steps will most benefit the economy so flawed: there is no way exactly to predict what will happen in economic terms as a result of any specific option, so the power of the arguments lies then not in facts but in gut reactions, a very dangerous scenario. As a result, such debates, in any society with gross inequalities such as ours, can and frequently do reduce down to the pain and anger of the marginalised and disadvantaged being focused, by those seeking to influence them, on any convenient scapegoat as the cause of problems whose origin is far more complex.

We are often also blinded by our competitive materialism to the existence of other options and other arguments. Where do we go from here?

Black Friday (for source of image see link)

Black Friday (for source of image see link)

Consumption:

From the point of view of us as individuals, given that the business world is largely blind to the problem, what can be done?

We don’t have to look far for a key component of the problem, which is to some degree within our control: consumption. An interesting article on the Bahá’í Teachings website looks at this from within the context of climate change.

That vast range of potential sea level rises, which our children and our grandchildren will inherit from us, will depend on our consumption of fossil fuels, food and material goods. If we continue to consume those things in the same way we have in the past, we will flood the planet’s shores. If we mitigate and reduce our consumption, by converting to renewable energy sources, eating less wasteful and more moderate plant-based diets and finding ways to control our runaway, materialistic habits as consumers, we still have a chance of averting the drowning of the world’s great cities.

Perhaps Abdu’l-Baha had these future conditions in mind when he said “The sea of materialism is at flood tide and all the nations of the world are immersed in it.

It is important to realise also that there are other admittedly embryonic models for how society could begin to organise itself beyond the purely individual level. A recent symposium on Strengthening Local Economies for a Just Global Order, was held on 23 February this year at Devi Ahilya University in Indore, India. Its speakers articulated where we might begin to focus our attention:

“When village economies develop, why must they be limited to either capitalist or socialist models? We are seeking to forge new patterns and new models.”

The University’s Dean of Social Sciences, Dr. Kanhaiya Ahuja, emphasized the need for economic models that would reinforce the values of community life, such as compassion, contentment, cooperation, justice, and a sense of duty towards the common good. “Unfortunately,” he mentioned, “at present economic growth is being driven by consumerism and competition that are destroying these values.”

Speakers also discussed the need for balanced and just economic growth, viewing development within a broader vision of the spiritual and material prosperity of humanity.

“Economic models today give humanity a very limited range of options in explaining human behavior,” Dr. Fazli said. “One is to explain it in terms of greed, self-interest, and profit motive. The other is to say that the only way to organize society is to have absolute equality.

To understand our power as consumers we could start with Ehrenfeld, to whose thinking I turn now. In Flourishing, a book which records his thoughts in an interview with Andrew J. Hoffman (page 151) he states:

Consumers can exert a great deal of influence over corporations, just like voters can exert a great deal of influence over the political structure. So as consumers start turning away from products that have been purchased to feed some addiction and can’t satisfy them, and seek goods to help them authentically care for themselves and others in the world, then they become able to push back very hard on corporations.

For source of image see link

For source of image see link

Flourishing:

There are many encouraging signs that the prevailing wind might be changing direction.

For example, Ehrenfeld analyses in detail exactly where our mindless absorption with consumption has brought us and summarises it at one point as follows (pages 82-83):

Executives of the firms that are pushing sustainability… are unaware or purposely ignoring that the global economy is already consuming more than the Earth can provide. No matter what happens in the United States and Europe, the burden will increase as the rapidly growing economies of China, India, and elsewhere strive to attain the same levels that we “enjoy.”

But do we “enjoy” our consumer lifestyle? Data on drug abuse, crime, social alienation, and disintegrating communities might suggest otherwise. And yet, we continue to seek satisfaction in having and consuming more stuff.

As more of us consume more as more countries get wealthier, time may be running out.

Even our remedies unfortunately are flawed. Ehrenfeld believes that our current understanding of sustainability, and its promise of a sustainable future, is a delusion (page 11):

Hybrid cars, LED light bulbs, wind farms and green buildings, these are all just the trappings that convince us that we are doing something when in fact we are fooling ourselves, and making things worse….Reducing unsustainability, although critical, will not create sustainability.”

He suggests a more viable idea: ‘sustainability-as-flourishing.’ He describes four key elements (pages 27-28):

First, flourishing is the realisation of a sense of completeness, independent of our immediate material context. Flourishing is not some permanent state but must be continually generated. . . . . Flourishing is the result of acting out of caring for oneself, other human beings, the rest of the ‘real material’ world, and also for the out-of-the-world that is, the spiritual or transcendental world. . . . Second it is about possibility. Possibility is not a thing. . . . it means bringing forth from nothingness something we desire to become present. . . . . Third, the definition includes far more than human benefit. Flourishing pertains to all natural systems that include both humans and other life. Finally, adding forever to this definition lends it the timelessness that is found in virtually all conversations about sustainability. In fact, sustainability makes little sense except as a lasting condition. It is that important.

He feels we have forgotten what it is to be human and, blinded by materialism, we reduce everything about growth to economics (page 41):

If religion boils down to a group’s ‘ultimate concern,’ then growthism is our religion and the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is our god. But this religion exacerbates the destructive and violent intrusion of human culture into both nature and our own conception of who we are.

It’s not, he assures us, about stopping consumption; it’s about how we consume. Our pervasive consumer culture is a choice that we’ve made: “This behaviour is so embedded that it appears to be human nature… But it is a cultural phenomenon”.

Sustainability-as-flourishing, he says, requires the re-conceptualization of our lives around two perspective-shaking ideas. We need to shift our dominant mind-sets from Having to Being and from Needing to Caring (pages 99-100):

Having is not a fundamental characteristic of our species. We are not creatures with insatiable wants and desires, even though that self-view has been reinforced by our present consumptive patterns. . . . . . Being is the most primal characteristic that distinguishes humans from all other species. Being is the basic way we exist in the world and is enacted whenever we exhibit authentic care. . . . .

Need is based on a deeply embedded insecurity that is fed by our modern culture telling us that we are incomplete or inadequate unless we acquire whatever thing will fill that artificial hole… Caring reflects a consciousness of our interconnectedness with the world (the web of life) and the historic recognition that well-being depends upon acting to keep these relationships in a healthy state. . . . . .

Institutions built on this premise will be very different from those of today. . . . . When we rediscover we are, we will live out our lives taking care of a world composed of our own selves, other humans, and everything else.

Ehrenfeld (page 104) also sees spirituality as going beyond the material and explains: ‘This domain is especially important to sustainability, as it heightens one’s sense for the interconnectedness of Being’ and goes on to say that ‘At the centre of this notion of interconnection is that of love . . . . Love is not a something, but a way of acting and accepts the Being of all others as legitimate.’ This reminds me of Scott Peck’s dictum in The Road Less Travelled that, ‘Love is not a feeling: love is work:’ those may not be his exact words, but how I have remembered what I thought he meant.

Almost Ehrenfeld’s final words on this aspect of the matter are (page 105): ‘Sustainability-as-flourishing without love is not possible.’

His thinking though does not stop there as we shall see in the next and final post in this sequence.

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Memas

After recently posting Unfinished Business in response to Sue Vincent’s book addiction post, and finally managing to finish Reading in the Park after only five decades, it struck me that it might be useful to post the family related poems, not in chronological order of composition, which is how they have appeared so far, but in a sequence that better reflects their chronological sequence in autobiographical time. I started last Monday with the first one after Unfinished Business, as that was posted so recently. The rest are following at the rate of a poem a day.

Memas

In Panchgani
in the cold front room
of the small cottage
which she didn’t own
she lay still
under the white sheet
beneath the crimson and green
of the freshly cut
half-opened rose
with her headscarf tight
against the breeze
from the open window
still in the pale flowered brown dress
she always wore for travelling

there were many guests that night
her granddaughter served tea in her stead
for everyone who came and went
throughout the cold black hours
and everyone sat down for a time
and talked, told stories,
laughed, wept,
about the days in Yazd
(no one knew how long ago
exactly) when her son at five
after his father died travelled
to India with his uncle on a donkey
when she was so hungry
she fell in search of flour
down the cellar
of the house she served in
and when the sharp-eyed
mistress returned
the flour she’d hidden in her scarf
was running down her face with sweat
and the bruises of her fall
were nothing to the bruises
of her beating for the flour

and in the morning
there was the washing of the body
which the women did
the arguments about
how many layers of cloth
should wrap her round
what should be written
on the ring she’d wear
whether the body should be
carried in a blanket
through the streets
so that the coffin could leave
from her son’s house not
from her daughter’s house
which had no proper bathroom
in which to wash a corpse
though it was where she had most loved
to clean and wash and cook
until the last
because nobody tried to stop her

in the end
the body was lifted
from where she left it
into the coffin
(I never knew till then
how heavy and cold a small old
dead woman could be)
then the coffin was lifted
into the jeep which drove us
to the big house where we prayed and ate

when the sun was directly overhead
and the dust on the road was slow
to settle and all the children
from the school she’d served
had gathered we drove off
at walking crawling pace to the gulestan
where a large crowd from almost everywhere
waited to see this long life end
in a small grave
under a small tree in bloom

and candles were lit
and joss sticks
and blossoms strewn
all round the grave
and her five year old
great grandson from Hereford
who had known her
only for ten days cried

first when they nailed the lid on
don’t let them for she can’t get out

and cried again
when they lowered her
down into the steep red soil
for fear she could not climb the sides

and cried again
when they heaved the grey slabs on top
please stop them for the weight
will be too much
and sobbed out loud
when the men threw
buckets of wet concrete
into the grave for smoothing down
to stop the monsoon
resurrecting her

for then he knew
she’d never wake again down there
to play with or serve us

Pete Hulme Text © 1991

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glass of green teaAt the end of last Monday’s post I stated that a sense of common humanity was one of the most important lessons I have brought back with me from my recent demanding but rewarding trip to Indian and China. What binds us together at a deep level is of far more importance than what tends to split us off from one another. We are indeed ‘leaves of one tree’ even though it has been all too easy in the past to pretend that we are not.

As a result I find as yet vague intentions taking shape within me. I want to be able to communicate more fully with my aging memas, who only speaks Persian and Hindi. I also want to understand the culture of China better, what Habermas might have termed the life-world [1]of China, that intricate and subjective web of implicit values and relationships that predates Communism, or even the Republic, and has not been completely obliterated by their modernity. Last week’s Guardian article on the fruitful legacy of Raymond Williams’ thought amplifies exactly what this might mean:

Williams’s tool for elucidating these unexpected inter-relationships [between country and town] is the so-called “structure of feeling” of any given period – described by his cultural studies ally, Stuart Hall, as “the way meanings and values were lived in real lives, in actual communities”. How did people conceptualise their present state, what was the material and intellectual underpinning behind it, and how did it structure their feelings? Or as Williams himself explained: “The most difficult thing to get hold of, in studying any past period is this felt sense of the quality of life at any particular place and time; a sense of the ways in which the particular activities combined into a way of thinking and living.”

Not all of that web will be light I realise. The history of marginalised and foot-bound women is only the most obvious example of the historical dark side of a deeply stratified and bureaucratic society. However, much of China’s implicit life-world on the positive side relates not to the overlay of competition that is so current, but to the importance of the family and the community as co-creators of a more harmonious reality in many ways.

Michael Wood deals with this theme as an historian in his BBC2 series The Story of China. It was screened while I was away and I’m just beginning to catch up on what I recorded. The first programme opens with a family connecting with their ancestor of a thousand years ago. They had to find the gravestone, lost during the cultural revolution, and reinstate it. At the personal level this parallels the scholars of Confucius who found the pieces his gravestone, also destroyed during the heyday of communism, and put them back together again. Rituals to celebrate ancestors on the one hand and Confucianism on the other went unobserved for decades, but can now be seen again reverently played out at these two locations that could so easily have been lost forever.

The second programme explores how the spirit of Buddhism was brought to China and how it blended into and helped shape the culture. Already the complex mix of influences that are still alive in China is becoming apparent as this series unfolds. I am very much looking forward to the next episode.

Watching the rest of this fascinating series will be easy. Will I have the determination to follow through with the idea of learning conversational Persian and deepening my understanding of China much further? I hope so. My relationship with two key people in my life – memas and my daughter-in-law – will be greatly enriched if I do.

Wild GrassWild Grass

I’ve started my exploration of China with a book I bought in 2005 that has remained untouched on my shelves ever since. It’s Wild Grass by Ian Johnson. It tells the stories of three brave and forward-looking people who, each in their different way (page 9), ‘represents key problems facing China: the crises in its villages, cities and its soul.’

What surprised me as I started reading this book was that the sentence that triggered the strongest response early on was about tea. He is travelling on a train through the Loess Plateau. In conversation with a man in the otherwise empty open-plan sleeper compartment they are drinking tea together. He writes (page 15): ‘We blew on our tea leaves, hurrying their descent to the bottom of the cup.’

Memories of my recent trip flooded back. I couldn’t count the number of times we ended up drinking green tea from a glass. The leaves float on the top of the water for ages only dropping to the bottom as they soak. If you drink at that point, they get in your mouth and you have to discreetly spit them out. I found that poking at them can help them sink but it’s not guaranteed. I wish I’d read this book before I went to China.

But the glasses of tea are just one node in a web of many other memories.

We sat at least twice a day at table.

One table was round, and, during the big family meals of Chinese New Year, it was expanded by bringing a large disc of plywood from the back room. This was adapted to fit more or less securely on top of the table. There were one or two moments when a heavy elbow triggered a wobble that spilt the tea, but most of the time it worked well and we all fitted comfortably round the adapted table.

Another table in a different house brought back other memories. It was rectangular with a split in the middle. A handle plugged into a socket so that turning it opened the split and an expansion of the table top could be slotted it. No wobbles with that one to spill any tea, but my mind flooded with pictures of a larger table we had at home when I was a child. The similar handle and a similar extra piece of table allowed us to seat far more people when other family members visited at Christmas and New Year.

The Round Table

In China, the way the meals then worked was to have a couple of people on kitchen duty. For at least an hour most times they stayed there, producing dish after dish while everyone else tucked in. There were usually at least a dozen dishes served. No rice during such big gatherings.

We were touched to see how our for them eccentric vegetarian diet was catered for so carefully. On at least three occasions a salad, lovingly researched on the internet, was served specially for us. Apparently this was the first time anyone there had ever seen a salad served as part of a meal in this way.

At the same time as tea was served, the cooks of the day appeared from the kitchen. Some of us made way and they sat at the table to eat.

The culinary rewards and challenges of India were different. I have always loved Indian food and eating vegetarian is easy over there. As long as I avoid the tap water, with its dense population of unpleasant bacteria and other organisms, I’m fine. This can be difficult when eating out, as salad may have been washed in it and yoghurt and even fruit juices been diluted by it.

Where my wife’s mum lives has challenges in terms of cooking rather than eating. Aluminium pans with no handles that don’t balance well on a basic gas hob would raise the blood pressure of every health and safety expert for miles around in the UK. The pile of oven gloves nearby was no guarantee you could safely grab a pot of boiling dhall before it spilled everywhere.

The most alarming practice, which none the less had delicious results, was reheating yesterday’s chapatis on the naked gas flame. At least the long tongues kept vulnerable fingers out of harm’s way. Regrettably, my enjoyment of the outcome somehow prevented me from protesting vigorously enough against the method.  Reheating chapatisIn China, once the meal was finished it was time for cards – they played a complex variation of rummy, which I never quite worked out. Memories again. As a child I remember how, once the dishes were cleared away, the cards came out and we played Newmarket. It was a gambling game but we played for dried peas, which had been equally distributed to all the players at the start of the game. We were as noisy then at Christmas as these family members were at their New Year. Laughter rang out constantly as fortunes fluctuated within the game. My wife, our son, his wife and I had our deck of Uno cards and were given a table of our own to play at. The four of us probably made as much noise as the ten at the other table.

Uno

It was like going back in time for me – the custom of more than sixty years ago brought back to life. And it is striking how sharing such a simple game seems to bring you closer.

As I progress through Wild Grass I know the dark side of China, not just the hope that lives in the hearts of its ordinary people, will come to the fore. Even so, I don’t think the strong links, that began to form with this family during our stay in Dafeng this Chinese New Year, will be damaged by that. I might be saddened to understand more fully how hard life is for them in many ways, but that will bring me closer to them for sure.

The VagrantsSo, I’m closing my laptop now and going back to the book, the first of many unread volumes about China on my shelves.

I might even summon up the courage to read The Vagrants by Yiyun Li. I still have the bookmark at page 10 where I stopped in my first attempt in 2009. The book, based on a true story, is about a couple in 1979 whose daughter is executed. Because my parents, all through my early childhood and even beyond, were grieving for the loss of my sister before I was born, I found the painful theme of parental grief too hard to cope with. I hope I can tackle it now. Let’s see how it goes.

My copy of Colloquial Persian has arrived. Will I ever get past the alphabet in the Introduction?

Footnote:

1. Kraus is quoted in Wikipedia as stating: ‘Life conditions mean a person’s material and immaterial circumstances of life. Lifeworld means a person’s subjective construction of reality, which he or she forms under the condition of his or her life circumstances.’

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Shanghai skyline

Shanghai Night Skyline

I’m back home at my desk at last. Feeling slightly spaced out still. This is hardly surprising given the jetting across time zones I’ve been doing recently. UK to India. India to China. China to India. India to UK. All within a month. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so tired as I do now even days later – or do I mean daze?

It has been worth it. We’ve spent quality time with my wife’s mother in India, and with our son and his wife in China. That was all very rewarding.

What about the countries in themselves?

The Dark Side

Well, they provide a fascinating contrast in spite of certain similarities.

The core distinction I’d summarise by saying India is free but chaotic, while China is oppressed but organised. They’re both impatient cultures currently and both are struggling with corruption, though India probably more so. Also in both countries a rising tide of competitive materialism is threatening to drown other ancient and more holistic traditions.

A stark and distasteful example of the unhealthily excessive influence of money in China is the practice of scalping. Michael Sandel discusses this in his thought-provoking book What Money Can’t Buy (pages 24-25). This practice rides on the back of increasingly scarce hospital appointments for many rural patients whose hospitals have closed. They are forced now to attend at city hospitals in high demand.

They queue up overnight, sometimes for days, to get an appointment ticket to see the doctor.

. . . . . But it isn’t easy to get one. Rather than camp out for days and nights in the queue, some patients, desperate for an appointment, buy tickets from scalpers. [Scalpers] hire people to line up for appointment tickets and then resell the tickets for hundreds of dollars – more than a typical peasant makes in months.

In India there are even worse examples (see link):

For at least five years, thousands of young men and women had paid bribes worth millions of pounds in total to a network of fixers and political operatives to rig the official examinations run by the Madhya Pradesh Vyavsayik Pariksha Mandal – known as Vyapam – a state body that conducted standardised tests for thousands of highly coveted government jobs and admissions to state-run medical colleges. When the scandal first came to light in 2013, it threatened to paralyse the entire machinery of the state administration: thousands of jobs appeared to have been obtained by fraudulent means, medical schools were tainted by the spectre of corrupt admissions, and dozens of officials were implicated in helping

The investigation into the scam lead to many deaths:

. . . . . as the investigation widened, people started dying. Some had perished before the taskforce had a chance to interrogate them – such as Anuj Uieke, a medical student accused of working as a middleman connecting exam aspirants and Vyapam officials. He died along with two friends also accused of involvement in the scam when a truck ploughed into their car in 2010. Others apparently took their own lives, like Dr Ramendra Singh Bhadouriya, who was accused of cheating his way to a medical college seat in 2008 and then helping others do the same. He was found hanging from the ceiling fan in his home in January 2015. (Five days later, his mother took her own life by drinking acid.) Another suspect, Narendra Tomar – a seemingly healthy 29-year-old veterinary doctor at a government hospital, who had been arrested for his role as a middleman in the scam – had a sudden heart attack in jail this June and died in hospital the next day.

Not that scalping is the worst of what China is alleged to be doing according to an Amnesty international report (see Guardian link):

Chinese security agents continue to employ a medieval array of torture methods against government opponents, activists, lawyers and petitioners, including spiked rods, iron torture chairs and electric batons, a report claims.

The Amnesty International report, called No End in Sight: Torture and Forced Confessions in China, is based on interviews with nearly 40 Chinese human rights lawyers and contains chilling details of alleged beatings and torture sessions endured by those taken into police custody.

Also Wild Grass by Ian Johnson contains disturbing though more routine abuses, for example (page 39):

[One] district had a population of 65,000, although 25,000 had found conditions so difficult that they’d left to find work in the city. Taxes for a family of five amounted to an astonishing $310 a year, virtually wiping out every family’s cash income. Despite that, the village governments that collect the taxes were under such pressure to keep channelling money to higher-ups that each village in the township owed on average a staggering $500,000 in back taxes.

I am always conscious at the back of my mind of such disturbing news stories when I am planning to visit either of these countries.

What is the experience of the visitor though – me in this case?

My Personal Experience 

Inevitably direct experience over a short period of time does not lead to a confrontation with the dark side of either culture. So here goes for my attempt to capture the impact of each culture during my one month’s shared exposure to both.

A junction in MumbaiMy recent poem on the traffic and the crowds in Mumbai captures perhaps the most striking impact of that city’s environment. You end up deafened and dazed by the din even before you risk the dangers of crossing to the other side of the street. The relative silence and order of the Shanghai traffic was a welcome relief, though the rapid weaving across all lanes on the motorways outside was a heart stopper.

A constant tickle in the throat signalled high levels of pollution in both cities. A taxi driver told us there are a million taxis in Mumbai alone. Admittedly, given that the cramped boundaries of the city hold the same population as Australia, only about one in every twenty people is a taxi driver, if that figure is correct. In China, at the same time as the growing economy has lifted millions out of poverty, it is killing roughly a million people each year with pollution-related diseases.

High Rise Shanghai

High Rise Shanghai-style

Landing in Shanghai once more reminded me of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s description as his ship approached New York harbour in 1912: on seeing the Wall Street skyscrapers ‘He had laughed and said, “Those are the minarets of the West.”’ (Diary of Juliet Thompson – page 233). Even since 2013, when we were last there, the number and height of these temples of materialism have increased massively. Not just towering office blocks and shopping malls now display their competitive geometry on almost every corner of every street, like gigantic peacocks of capitalism determined to impress: there’s more than a shade of Ballard’s High Rise here as well, I feel.

India has not yet joined this wasteful race. Yes, there are some skyscrapers but nowhere near so many. It is possible to move along at street level and not feel constantly dwarfed. Yes, the pavements are dirtier and far more uneven, and you need to watch where you tread all the time, and the roads are pockmarked with all-too-frequent potholes, but that felt somehow less intimidating, even though it probably indicated that significant amounts of money were going astray into someone’s pocket without reaching their intended target.

A bridge in Dafeng

A bridge in Dafeng

There was one way in which, on this trip at least, China had a distinct advantage over India in terms of the impression it made on us. We didn’t stay in Shanghai. And we didn’t move to another big city as we had done in the past. We drove to Dafeng. By UK standards, with a population of 750,000 it would qualify as large. By Chinese standards it’s a small town. Not only that but we drove out of Dafeng into the surrounding area to visit a family who had farmed there for three generations at least. And that was very dfferent from what we had ever experienced before.

The town of Dafeng was at one level a kind of miniaturised Shanghai, though with its own charm thrown in, being smaller in scale and boasting narrower bridges. The smog when it happened on one day we were there was just as thick though. But it was surrounded by countryside. Acres upon acres of flat farmland criss-crossed with canals and ditches, with no tower blocks, only single storey farm houses and barns. There was calm and quiet with sunsets and cloud-scapes of unassuming beauty.

Sunset in Dafeng

Sunset in Dafeng

In India, because our priority was to spend as much time as possible with my wife’s mother, now in her nineties, we were stuck in Mumbai, which had not been the case in the past when, even if starting there, we had escaped to the hills around Poona into villages such as Panchgani where the international Bahá’í school is located. On this trip, however, we were locked into the cacophonous pollution of the megacity.

Wood burning stove

A Sense of Common Humanity

What was interesting though was the way that even this contrasting experience reinforced a sense of common humanity. In Dafeng we visited a family where the grandmother and her two sons, who lived close by, were sharing the work of the farm. Signs of the scale of this, sacks of corn piled halfway to the ceiling, almost hid one whole wall of the dining room.

Inside her home we had a heart-warming surprise. My wife looked at the simple wood-burning stove on which the grandmother had cooked our food that evening and exclaimed, ‘That’s exactly the same kind of stove that my grandmother had in Yazd where my mum grew up!’

Suddenly, her mother living now in Mumbai and reared in Yazd, and this household in Dafeng, instead of being distant not just in miles but in kind, were intrinsically related at a basic level through a shared simplicity in their backgrounds. They had a common heritage hidden behind the differences. This somehow symbolised for me the often so invisible but fundamental bond of common humanity that binds us all together in spite of our insistence upon our differences.

This reinforced a sense I had experienced a couple of days earlier, as we sat eating round a different table in a different more modern house, and I was listening to the ebbs and flows of conversation in Chinese, a language I do not know at all. You would think I would have felt a stranger in a strange land, and in one way of course I did. But at another level I tuned into a powerful sense of our common humanity, how behind all the differences of language and cultural trappings, we were every one of us essentially the same. I could identify the teasing, the affection, and even the tensions, that the dance of their conversation expressed, even though I had no idea what they were saying specifically.

At the back of my mind the words at the core of Shylock’s speech in The Merchant of Venice (Act III, Scene 1, ll 40-45 – RSC Edition) murmured themselves quietly:

I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die?

This was one of the most important lessons I have brought back with me from this demanding but rewarding trip. What binds us together at this deep level is of far more importance than what tends to split us off from one another. We are indeed ‘leaves of one tree’ even though it has been all too easy in the past to pretend that we are not.

After the meal

After the meal – my coat and scarf indicates how cold it was even indoors

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Shahnaz Memorial

While we were in India, at the end of January we attended a Memorial Meeting for a lifelong devoted follower of our faith. The meeting, at the Bahá’í centre in Mumbai, consisted of prayers, readings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, and stories of how Shahnaz Furudi’s life had touched the hearts of those whose paths crossed with hers. At the request of the family the following address was also given. It seems worth sharing it on this blog to give some sense of the vision that inspired her life.  

This is a time of sorrow for all who love Shahnaz and our hearts go out to her family. At the same time it is important to remember and celebrate her life. To help us do this, it seems only right that I try to explain the vision that inspired her life.

As you all know, Shahnaz was a Bahá’í, a follower of Bahá’u’lláh.

What might that have meant to her?

The light that shone on the path she trod to guide her steps showed her that there is only one God, no matter how many names we use. The same Great Being has inspired all the great religions of the world.

We do not seem to understand this easily. It’s as if, when the sun rises in autumn, because it rose in a different place in spring, I say it cannot be the same sun. But it is the same sun, and when at different times and in different places God has sent His Messenger amongst us it is the same God who speaks to us through them.

Why then do the messages we hear seem so different? This is partly because different times need different social rules. But even more importantly, at different times and in different cultures we understand reality in different ways and in different words.

Messengers of God, wherever They may live, are like a one-eyed person in a country of the blind.

Let’s suppose They are trying to explain the colour red.

In the land of where people enjoy their food and cooking is important, They say red is like chilli. In the land of gardens filled with lovely flowers They say it’s like the perfume of the rose. And if They were in a frozen land of icy wastes where fires burn the whole year round They would say red is like fire.

It is the best They can do because someone blind from birth will never really know what colour is.

If this were so what purpose would be served if the cooks fought with the icelanders and the gardeners fought with the cooks because each was convinced the other was wrong, when in reality they are all talking about the same thing but do not realise it?

Red, like all colour, to those blind from birth is as hidden from them as spiritual reality is from us. We can only understand it indirectly. The words each religion uses to describe the spiritual realm may differ, because they have to match the understanding of that place and time, but what they are seeking to describe is the same spiritual reality.

It follows then that this guiding light also revealed to dear Shahnaz that all the great religions of the world have at their heart the same spiritual truths. They all tell us in one way or another that this material world is not all there is. It is not even the most important aspect of reality, in spite of all its vivid but deceptive richness. The realm of the spirit is the deepest reality and the greatest truth. We are fatally mistaken if we believe otherwise. We will be sleep walking. We will be in a dream.

Bahá’u’lláh writes: ‘If ye be seekers after this life and its vanities you should have sought them while you were still enclosed in your mother’s womb for at that time ye were continually approaching them, could ye but perceive it. You have, on the other hand, ever since you were born and attained maturity, been all the while receding from the world and drawing closer to dust. Why then exhibit such greed for amassing the treasures of the earth when your days are numbered and your chance is well-nigh lost? Will ye not then, O heedless ones, shake off your slumber?’

And her guiding light also showed her that, just as there only one God and the core of all the great religions is the same, humanity is also one. We are all brothers and sisters of the same divine parent, leaves of the same tree, flowers of the same garden.

As Bahá’u’lláh explains: ‘Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.’ We are all linked together spiritually so that this world, this whole planet, is in reality one country. This means that we are all required to take responsibility for the welfare of all humanity.

It follows then, as Bahá’u’lláh instructs us, that we must not lay ‘on any soul a load that [we] would not lay on [ourselves]’ and we must not desire for anyone the things that we would not desire for ourselves.

Even more than all this, Shahnaz’s steps were guided by the understanding that we cannot solve any of the problems the world is facing now if we do not deeply understand our spiritual connection with every other soul on earth, regardless of race, religion, gender or nationality.

To express this understanding in action requires more than being kind to our neighbours or performing individual acts of charity, important as these are. We also need the coordinated action of large numbers of people across the world from every different background.

We can only rise to the challenges now confronting us worldwide by working together, and this requires us to find a way of remembering at all times everywhere that we are one, and of remembering always wherever we are that we must be united in our efforts, regardless of our apparent differences, all of us joining hands in our service to all humanity. We will never create peace and prosperity without this kind of unity in diversity that transcends all differences and makes collective action possible across the whole world. The Bahá’í World Centre spelt it out in 2001 in no uncertain terms:

Humanity’s crying need will not be met by a struggle among competing ambitions or by protest against one or another of the countless wrongs afflicting a desperate age. It calls, rather, for a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. Commitment to this revolutionizing principle will increasingly empower individual believers and  . . . . institutions alike in awakening others to the Day of God and to the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

Only in that way, everyone joining hands together across all cultures, can we build a better world and create a secure future for our children even though this will be the work of centuries. I believe that this is what Shahnaz’s life can show us. This is what her life can inspire us to keep on working to achieve even if it takes us many generations.

And we should not think that she has done all that she can to help us. Bahá’u’lláh writes: ‘When it leaveth the body, however, [the soul] will evince such ascendancy, and reveal such influence as no force on earth can equal. Every pure, every refined and sanctified soul will be endowed with tremendous power, and shall rejoice with exceeding gladness.’ Bahá’ís believe that those who have passed on are still standing by to assist us. In that sense dear Shahnaz is at our side empowering us to follow in that same path of service which distinguished her in life.

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 Liberian children with Chinese flags welcome a visit to Monrovia by China’s president, Hu Jintao. Photograph: Christopher Herwig/Reuters/Corbis

Liberian children with Chinese flags welcome a visit to Monrovia by China’s president, Hu Jintao. Photograph: Christopher Herwig/Reuters/Corbis

There is evidence all around us of the fragility of our situation globally. It seems appropriate, at this point in the sequence of posts on Century of Light, to share this link to last Saturday’s Guardian article by  and .  Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

Emerging markets, once the world’s great economic hope, could see the good times end as Beijing falters. We look at which countries are most vulnerable to the 21st century’s next financial crisis.

Tumbling share prices. A sell-off in commodity markets. Capital flight from some of the world’s riskier countries. Hints of a looming currency war. Financial markets ended last week in panic mode as fears emerged that the world was about to enter the next phase of the crisis that began eight years ago in August 2007.

Back then, the problems began in the developed world – in American and European banks – and spread to the rest of the world. The bigger emerging markets – China and India most notably – recovered quickly and acted as the locomotive for global growth while the west was struggling.

There was talk of how the future would be dominated by the five Brics countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – and by 11 more emerging market economies, including Turkey, Indonesia, Mexico and Nigeria.

That has happened. Emerging market countries are dominating the news – but for all the wrong reasons. And because, after years of rapid growth, they now account for a bigger slice of the global economy, a crisis would have more serious ramifications than in the past.

Emerging markets have a habit of causing trouble. For a quarter of a century after the Latin American debt crisis erupted in Mexico in 1982, the story was of a storm moving from the periphery of the global economy towards its core, the advanced nations that make up the G7. Mexico ran into fresh problems in 1994, there was an Asian debt crisis in 1997, and a Russian default in 1998 before the dotcom bubble burst in 2001. That proved to be a dress rehearsal for the near meltdown of the global financial system in 2007-08.

Now the focus is back squarely on emerging markets. The problem is a relatively simple one. In the post-Great Recession world, the tendency has been for all countries to try to export their way out of trouble. But this model works only if the exports can find a home, as they did when China was growing at double-digit rates.

But in the past 18 months, the Chinese economy has slowed, causing problems for two distinct groups of emerging-market economies – the east Asian countries that sell components and finished goods to their big neighbour, and countries that supply China with the fuel and raw materials to keep its industrial machine going.

China’s slowdown has led to a slump in the price of oil and industrial metals. In theory, this should have no net effect on the global economy because lower incomes for commodity-producing countries should be offset by the boost to countries that import commodities.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Consumers in Europe, Japan and North America have not used the windfall from cheaper energy to go on a spending spree. Meanwhile, emerging market economies are hurting badly. With the western economies one new recession away from deflation, China is making its exports cheaper by devaluing its currency just as oil producers are flooding the world with crude in a bid to balance their budgets.

In the past three decades, there has been a crisis every seven years on average. Financial markets are well aware that recovery from the last downturn remains unfinished. The nervousness is easy to understand.

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