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26 September 2006

The fast of Ramadan

Ramadan Mubarak! Image source: maryam_islam.typepad.comMUSLIMS HAVE begun to observe Ramadan, the ninth and the most venerated, blessed, and holy month on the Islamic calendar. It commemorates the revelation of the Qur'an to the Prophet Muhammad as “a guidance unto men, a declaration of direction, and a means of Salvation”.

“Thee do we worship,
and Thine aid we seek.
Show us the straight way.”
—from the Qur'an [1:5-6]
For thirty days, there is strict fasting, prayers, self-accountability, and charity from sunrise to sunset. Fasting during this month is often thought to figuratively burn away all sins. Furthermore, the Prophet Muhammad told his followers that the gates of Heaven would be open all the month and the gates of Hell would be closed.

Ramadan Mubarak to my Muslim friends and colleagues! May His blessings be a beacon for you for the next year.

24 September 2006

Rosh Hashanah

May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year! Image source: VirtualFlorist.comJEWS ARE now celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the first of ten days celebrating the year 5767, the number of years since Jews believe the world was created. Many will spend hours reading the Torah in synagogues, reciting Hebrew prayers, and meditating as a process of self-examination and repentance.

One of the prayers often recited is “Avinu malkeinu” (Our Father, Our King), originated on fast days as a plea for rain. Listen to Barbra Streisand's moving interpretation of the song, taken from her 1997 album Higher Ground.

To my Jewish friends and colleagues, l'shanah tovah tikatev v'taihatem! May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year!

The power of religious rhetoric

POPE BENEDICT XVI apologized four times this week for enraging Muslims worldwide. In a university speech, the Pope had used an uncharitable quotation from 14th-century Christian Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus. He said, “Show me just what (the Prophet) Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

This is not the first time that the leader of the Roman Catholic Church found himself in a row with followers of the world's faiths. In a 1997 interview, the erstwhile Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger described Buddhism as “auto-erotic spirituality” that would be the source of “the undoing of the Catholic church”—remarks still repeated by the Buddhists years after he said them. Last May, he referred to “signs of religious intolerance that have troubled some regions in India”—comments that discomfited Hindu leaders in the Indian government. Over a week later, while visiting Auschwitz, the pontiff claimed that “by destroying Israel, (the Nazi) ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith”—views taken by some Jews to mean that the real victims of the Holocaust were the Christians.

Such rhetoric—and the uneasy reactions that ensued from other religions and fed and ripped apart by powerful media—only highlights the piercing truthfulness of the message addressed by the Universal House of Justice (the governing council of the Bahá’í Faith) to the world’s religious leaders in April 2002. I quote below parts of the letter that touch on the ongoing issues (highlights mine).

In contrast to the processes of unification that are transforming the rest of humanity's social relationships, the suggestion that all of the world's great religions are equally valid in nature and origin is stubbornly resisted by entrenched patterns of sectarian thought. The progress of racial integration is a development that is not merely an expression of sentimentality or strategy but arises from the recognition that the earth's peoples constitute a single species whose many variations do not themselves confer any advantage or impose any handicap on individual members of the race.

“The greater part of organized religion stands paralyzed at the threshold of the future”Other segments of society embrace the implications of the oneness of humankind, not only as the inevitable next step in the advancement of civilization, but as the fulfillment of lesser identities of every kind that our race brings to this critical moment in our collective history. Yet, the greater part of organized religion stands paralyzed at the threshold of the future, gripped in those very dogmas and claims of privileged access to truth that have been responsible for creating some of the most bitter conflicts dividing the earth's inhabitants.

The consequences, in terms of human well-being, have been ruinous. It is surely unnecessary to cite in detail the horrors being visited upon hapless populations today by outbursts of fanaticism that shame the name of religion. Nor is the phenomenon a recent one. To take only one of many examples, Europe's sixteenth century wars of religion cost that continent the lives of some thirty percent of its entire population. One must wonder what has been the longer term harvest of the seeds planted in popular consciousness by the blind forces of sectarian dogmatism that inspired such conflicts.

Religion, as we are all aware, reaches to the roots of motivation. When it has been faithful to the spirit and example of the transcendent Figures who gave the world its great belief systems, it has awakened in whole populations capacities to love, to forgive, to create, to dare greatly, to overcome prejudice, to sacrifice for the common good and to discipline the impulses of animal instinct. Unquestionably, the seminal force in the civilizing of human nature has been the influence of the succession of these Manifestations of the Divine that extends back to the dawn of recorded history.

In the same message, the Universal House of Justice has offered us the following reassuring guidance:

The implications for today are summed up by Bahá'u'lláh in words written over a century ago and widely disseminated in the intervening decades:

There can be no doubt whatever that the peoples of the world, of whatever race or religion, derives their inspiration from one heavenly Source, and are the subjects of one God. The difference between the ordinances under which they abide should be attributed to the varying requirements and exigencies of the age in which they were revealed. All of them, except a few which are the outcome of human perversity, were ordained of God, and are a reflection of His Will and Purpose. Arise and, armed with the power of faith, shatter to pieces the gods of your vain imaginings, the sowers of dissension amongst you. Cleave unto that which draweth you together and uniteth you.

. . . It is to this historic challenge that we believe leaders of religion must respond if religious leadership is to have meaning in the global society emerging from the transformative experiences of the twentieth century. It is evident that growing numbers of people are coming to realize that the truth underlying all religions is in its essence one.

There is certainly wide differences among the world's major religious traditions with respect to social ordinances and forms of worship. Given the thousands of years during which successive revelations of the Divine have addressed the changing needs of a constantly evolving civilization, it could hardly be otherwise. . . What cannot be morally justified is the manipulation of cultural legacies that were intended to enrich spiritual experience, as a means to arouse prejudice and alienation. The primary task of the soul will always be to investigate reality, to live in accordance with the truths of which it becomes persuaded and to accord full respect to the efforts of others to do the same. . .

“Religion has awakened in whole populations capacities to love, to forgive, to create, to dare greatly, to overcome prejudice, to sacrifice for the common goodWe come finally to an issue that we approach with some diffidence as it touches most directly on conscience. Among the many temptations the world offers, the test that has, not surprisingly, preoccupied religious leaders is that of exercising power in matters of belief. . . The unheralded inner victories won in this respect by unnumbered clerics all down the ages have no doubt been one of the chief sources of organized religion's creative strength and must rank as one of its highest distinctions. To the same degree, surrender to the lure of worldly power and advantage, on the part of other religious leaders, has cultivated a fertile breeding ground for cynicism, corruption and despair among all who observe it. The implications for the ability of religious leadership to fulfil its social responsibility at this point in history need no elaboration.

Because it is concerned with the ennobling of character and the harmonizing of relationships, religion has served throughout history as the ultimate authority in giving meaning to life. . . (It) has simultaneously been the chief force binding diverse peoples together in ever larger and more complex societies . . . The great advantage of the present age is the perspective that makes it possible for the entire human race to see this civilizing process as a single phenomenon, the ever-recurring encounters of our world with the world of God.

Inspired by this perspective, the Bahá'í community has been a vigorous promoter of interfaith activities from the time of their inception. . . We owe it to our partners in this common effort, however, to state clearly our conviction that interfaith discourse . . . must now address honestly and without further evasion the implications of the over-arching truth that called the movement into being: that God is one and that, beyond all diversity of cultural expression and human interpretation, religion is likewise one.

With every day that passes, danger grows that the rising fires of religious prejudice will ignite a worldwide conflagration the consequences of which are unthinkable. Such a danger civil government, unaided, cannot overcome. Nor should we delude ourselves that appeals for mutual tolerance can alone hope to extinguish animosities that claim to possess Divine sanction. The crisis calls on religious leadership for a break with the past as decisive as those that opened the way for society to address equally corrosive prejudices of race, gender and nation. Whatever justification exists for exercising influence in matters of conscience lies in serving the well-being of humankind. At this greatest turning point in the history of civilization, the demands of such service could not be more clear. “The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable”, Bahá'u'lláh urges, “unless and until its unity is firmly established.”

23 September 2006

Bears and beers

Gu GuALCOHOL BLURS the vision as we all know. But who knew that beer could make a sleeping panda resemble a beer drinker's wife in his eyes?

Zhang Xinyan knew, and it got him to a panda-monic brawl and a hospital bed afterwards.

The unbearable story goes this way. Last Tuesday, the 35-year-old Chinese migrant got drunk, visited the Beijing Zoo, saw the sleeping 6-year-old panda bear named Gu Gu, entered his den, and decided to hug him. “I just wanted to touch it,” recalled Zhang. “I was so dizzy from the beer. I don't remember much.”

Well, we do remember what happened next. Startled (and possibly insulted for the rude awakening), Gu Gu bit Xinyan's leg. Angered (and possibly insulted for the rude welcome), Zhang bit Gu Gu's back and then delivered a kick for good measure. Gu Gu bit the leg that kicked, and a scuffle ensued for 15 minutes. Guess who won.

“Its skin was quite thick,” Zhang reflected later, lying on the hospital bed with blood-soaked bandages. I am sure this biting remark would have merited a retort from Gu Gu: “Yeah, and his face was thick enough to mistake me for a wife!”

22 September 2006

Coup in Thailand

THAILAND HAS such a long history of coup d'etats that this week's military revolt reminded me of an old joke.

A tour guide brought a female tourist to a kick-boxing arena in Bangkok. “This is Muay Thai, our national pastime, ” he began. “It involves kicking, punching, elbowing, kneeing, and head-butting the enemy to wear him down and knock him out.”

The lady gasped, “It is revolting!”

The tour guide responded, “That is our second national pastime.”

21 September 2006

FOCAL POINT : Curumin, “Achados e Perdidos”

BRAZILIAN MUSICIAN CURUMIN (Luciano Nakata Albuquerque) has released his debut album “Achados e Perdidos” (“Lost and Found”). The collection reflects Curumin's global roots: born to Spanish and Japanese parents, raised in Brazil, world music student at Gaviões da Fiel, and band leader of Zomba.

The track above is the infectious “Tudo Bem Malandro”, from the album that fuses ukelele-driven Brazilian beats with funk, hip-hop, reggae, and psychedelic electronica.

17 September 2006

FOCAL POINT : Hildegard von Bingen, “Caritas abundat”

She is the first female composer in documented music history WHEN ROMAN CATHOLICS commemorate today's feast of the Blessed Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), they remember a twelfth-century German abbess who received divine visions at the age of five. Growing up a Catholic, I savored the Ladybird picture book that told her life story as an extraordinary, powerful woman who ventured where few—let alone women—dared in her time. She wrote major works of theology and medicine, gave public speeches on natural history and healing, and counseled (and chastised) statesmen, royalty, and popes. For a woman to do all this in the twelfth century brings the cause of womanhood right bang on front row, center!

What is also striking about Hildegard von Bingen is that she remains the oldest known composer with a recorded biography—effectively making her the first female composer in documented music history. Her music is liturgical and devotional, wrapped around poetry that came to her in visions. Soaring over two octaves, the songs are difficult to sing today; imagine how they must have been performed during her time. Hildegard once described her works as a means of reliving the joy and beauty of the garden of Eden. I describe her work as Eve's supreme creative progeny.

Listen to “Caritas abundat” (Divine love abounds), a short piece with a beautiful vocal line spread among many notes, almost wordless, always soothing, performed here by The Shelter Music Boston Ensemble.

Pluto comes home

Pluto in my flat

Pluto in my flat with his toy and and his potential daybed

I HAVE a new cat, and his name is Pluto. He is a Persian kitten, the third in a litter born on 6 July 2006 in Pune, the second-largest city in the state of Maharashtra.

I took him home through seven hours of driving back to Mumbai, no thanks to the sudden downpour that clogged the streets. Through the havoc, he took turns sleeping on my lap and playing with my necklace. What a fantastic preview of things to come as he grows up. Or as we grow up together.

Those of you who knew about my cats in Israel (Tiger, Cleopatra, Java, and that moogie that almost killed me in the kitchen) will be delighted that Pluto not only shares their brown colors (he is a red tabby), he also likes to dance with someone looking like Behi Sobhani. (The breeder, a young Indian man who also breeds bonsais and terrariums, looks like Behi Sobhani. When he jumped up to fetch something from the kitchen, Pluto must have thought that the young man was about to dance, so he jumped up along with him.)

14 September 2006

FOCAL POINT : Christopher Logue, “Come to the Edge”

BRITISH POET Christopher Logue (born 1926) wrote the following verse for a 1968 festival honoring French avant-garde poet Guillaume Apollinaire. I am delighted at the poem's reference to the need for leaders to initiate the process of overcoming barriers that hinder creativity.

Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
And they came,
and he pushed,
and they flew.

Source: Christopher Logue, New Numbers (1969)

12 September 2006

Five years ago today

IN REMEMBERING 9/11, we take solace in the following guidance contained in the 10 February 1980 message of the Universal House of Justice to Iranian Bahá'ís throughout the world:

In such an afflicted time, when mankind is bewildered and the wisest of men are perplexed as to the remedy, the people of Bahá, who have confidence in His unfailing grace and divine guidance, are assured that each of these tormenting trials has a cause, a purpose, and a definite result, and all are essential instruments for the establishment of the immutable Will of God on earth. In other words, on the one hand humanity is struck by the scourge of His chastisement which will inevitably bring together the scattered and vanquished tribes of the earth; and on the other, the weak few whom He has nurtured under the protection of His loving guidance are, in this Formative Age and period of transition, continuing to build amidst these tumultuous waves an impregnable stronghold which will be the sole remaining refuge for those lost multitudes. Therefore, the dear friends of God who have such a broad and clear vision before them are not perturbed by such events, nor are they panic-stricken by such thundering sounds, nor will they face such convulsions with fear and trepidation, nor will they be deterred, even for a moment, from fulfilling their sacred responsibilities.

The depth of the message is as useful today as it was more than twenty-five years ago.

11 September 2006

Chasing the chaste me

MY TEAM and I set up the displays for a new store throughout last week, with each one of us responsible for specific areas in the store. One day, Mallika needed my advice in decorating the bedroom showcase, so she asked her young junior assistant Anusha to fetch me from the décors section where I was working.

In the most nonchalant manner, Anusha announced, "Paul, Mallika wants you in the bedroom."

I replied without batting an eyelash, "Tell her that marriage comes first."

The young lady walked away nonplussed as the rest of the team broke in laughter.

10 September 2006

Festival of Ganesh

The Ganesh of the Curry Road community in Mumbai. Image source: Arun Patil

The Ganesh of the Curry Road community in Mumbai
Image source: Arun Patil

THE PASSING WEEK was a spectacular break in the life of Mumbai. It is the annual Ganeshotsav, eleven days of joyous celebration and great devotion across India to honor the birthday of Lord Ganesh. Revered as the lord of good fortune and destroyer of obstacles, Ganesh is the most beloved and most frequently invoked god in Hinduism. His icon adorns doors facing the east to encourage smooth passage, and his mantra is recited to start any task or event. Ganesh has the widest following in Mumbai and the rest of Maharashtra.

The festival starts with Ganesh Chaturthi, when ornately dressed Ganeshas (Ganesh idols) are displayed in pandals (raised platforms) at home for family worship. However, the devotion to the cheerful elephant-headed god is so great that the worship—and adornment—spills from homes onto the streets. Huge, brightly festooned tents rise in the middle of roads, which shimmer with sparkling strings of light. Most of the idols contained in these tents tower over six meters!

On the third and last days of the festival, the Ganeshas are ritually immersed in the nearest body of water. Mumbai practically shuts down to allow processions of people on their way to the Arabian Sea to bid their idols farewell.

Mumbai practically shuts down to allow processions of people to bid their idols farewellThese processions are, to say the least, revelry. I was caught in one of these processions while visiting a supplier on the third-day visarjan (immersion) last week. I enjoyed the elaborate displays of Ganeshas in gigantic pandals, but what riveted me was the spectacular show of merrymaking. Firecrackers punctuated the air. Sharp yells accompanied the brass horns and drums that guided the processions. Then there were people dancing wildly in what a colleague of mine insisted was not Indian, but plain street dancing. On my way home much later that night, I saw a pandal with a man striking a pose by flexing his muscles while teenagers pranced around him to some Bollywood-sounding song. This sight sent my driver to endless fits of laughter. (He was still laughing as we reached home.)

What also interested me was the question of whether the idols immersed into the waters were non-biodegradable. My colleague mentioned that this is the one singular issue that has plagued Ganeshotsav, and that environmentalists have actively taken this to task. On the bright side, newspapers this week reported that some of the idols have in fact been made of more eco-friendly materials.

The morning after the last day, as I drove to work, I saw empty pandals and street hoardings being taken down. The smell of firecrackers still lingered faintly. The stanchions that barricaded the revelers from the traffic were gone. For the masses, who seemed to me to be the only frenzied celebrants of Ganeshatsov, the morning after is once again another ordinary day in the life of Mumbai.

On the way to visarjan at Juhu Beach in Mumbai
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