It is not easy to write about the saints. All good things are rare and difficult; but because of the rarity and difficulty one ought not to turn away from seeking the good.
Those are the first lines of Ten Saints of India, a Bharatiya Vidya bhavan publication by T.M.P. Mahadevan, edited by KM Munshi and RR Diwakar. These opening lines somehow set the stage for me to read through the entire book, which isn't a very large book. It has very simple biographies of ten saints:
There isn't much in the book by way of understanding the deeper philosophies of these saints - but serves as a good introduction to the life of the saints and perhaps a good account of how they achieved sainthood. There's no pontification of religion or philosophy; just an objective view of how these saints' lives came into being. That perhaps is the hallmark of a good book that talks of the lives of great persons. By virtue of the original writer, 9 of the 10 saints are from south India, and are essentially of the Śhaiva or the Vaiṣṇava cults (some may take objection to the use of the word 'cult'; I am just using what's written in the book.) In between however, strewn along the reading path, are certain gems.
The saint's approach to reality is said to be more emotional, whereas that of a sage is regarded as more intellectual. [...] In India, the saints have been known for their sagely qualities and the sages for their saintly qualities.
I even discovered a new word: Thaumaturgy. The language of the book is very simple, however, and reads like a hot knife through butter. In the beginning of the chapter on Tirunāvukkaraśu, the author starts with:
Genuine conversion does not consist in a formal change from one religion to another, but in an inner transformation involving spiritual exaltation; in fact, it is that which effects a change over from unsaintly ways of life to saintliness.
To read about the life of these saints comes as a breath of fresh air, as we are surrounded by an overtly cynical and skeptical society that reflectively feeds on outrage. To peek into the life that is undisturbed by the things that consume our waking moment is almost wondrous. The book will not make you want to go right into Saṁnyāsa. It's not a guidebook to living your life; just short biographies of ten mortals who touched divinity. The corruption of ideas caused by excessive literalism,finds mention in the chapter for Mānikkavācakar:
Bridal mysticism has its unique value as well as its peculiar dangers. The devotee who is an expert in this type of mysticism considers himself or herself to be the bride of God. This is an attitude adopted not only by women-saints but also by men-saints. In fact, according to the philosophy behind this attitude, God is the only Male, and all the souls are His consorts. This is what the allegory of Kṛṣṇa and the gopīs implies. Nārada in his Bhakti-sūtra commends the bhakti of the milkmaids of Brindāvan as the highest type of devotion. In the Hindu scriptures the bliss of the divine communion is likened to conjugal happiness.
The danger the lurks in all such imagery is literalness in understanding it. In some of the Hindu sects, the interpretation became so literal that it led to mal-practices. But bridal mysticism in its pure form is as lofty as loftiness can be. It stands for an undivided loyalty and exclusive devotion to the Lord, and an intense longing for union with Him.
Further chapters expound the evolution of Advaita, how it came to be experienced by saints, to a small extent. As I have mentioned before, this is not the book that explores any ideas in great detail, but is a wonderful place to stoke curiosity, and seek other scripts to satisfy the curiosity.
On a separate note, I believe this book is out of print, so if you want to get your hands on it, you will have to reach out to your parents or grandparents - or BVB although I could not find this book in their catalogue either. I fortunately inherited this book, which unfortunately is in quite a bad shape.
But knowledge doesn't limit itself to a few places, does it?(less)
It's a good book. Let's start by saying only that much.
Especially the first two parts: "Voice and Heterodoxy" and "Culture and Communication". These t...moreIt's a good book. Let's start by saying only that much.
Especially the first two parts: "Voice and Heterodoxy" and "Culture and Communication". These two sections take a very unusual take on India's history - far away from the usual format of a history book - whether written by an Indian or an outsider. And it is because Dr. Amartya Sen chooses a very narrow scheme to explore the concept of India. The language is impeccable, precise and often complex - but never confusing. For me, a paragraph like the one below, required serious slowing down:
"The absence of a conceptual congruence between different types of deprivation does not preclude their empirical proximity along a big dividing line, which is a central feature of classical class analysis."
I do realise that out-of-context it is even more vague - but even within context it took me a while to understand this concluding sentence. Perhaps it is just me.
The book, essentially, is a collection of previously written essays, some of which have been modified for the book. What this means is that there is significant repetition of certain examples and concepts and that can usually get you a but irritated. But books that are collections of essays have to be read in a different way - fairly independent of each other.
Somewhere in Part 3, I found a complete lack of the theme of argumentativeness - and that caused some reading pain. I say this, only as fair warning - not to criticise Part 3 as such. The content itself lacks nowhere; it has been researched well - and presented without emotion or unfounded passion. In the social and cultural crises that India finds itself, it may well worth be a book for most Indians to read - especially the bigots leaning on tradition and past culture. There's an interesting lesson in history for them. To the others, it is a wonderful exposition on India itself - and very interesting manner of looking at the country. For those of you who are not Indians, again, it is a fresh perspective - different from the dogma that has circulated so hard, it has created a permanent persuasion of what this country is.
Somewhere in the middle of September 2009, was when I started reading this book. As I went through the early pages, I slipped into a comfortable and c...moreSomewhere in the middle of September 2009, was when I started reading this book. As I went through the early pages, I slipped into a comfortable and complacent state - I would finish reading Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River in a few of days; I'll cruise through it, I told myself.
It wasn't to be so.
The history of the river and of the 'empires' and the folklore and the community that laces this river challenged my curiosity as I, now, slowly made through the pages. The excitement that the author causes as she takes you, deftly through the caves and waterways and tunnels of 19th century history, folk-tales, social issues and right up to history that occurred a few thousands year ago - is a wonderful ride.
Your affinity for history will be of some importance as you read this book. First, because though it is on my history bookshelf, I would not classify this as a 'history' book as such. The other option is travel - but it does not sit snugly in that bookshelf, either.
To my mind, it is a biography - of a geographic feature. There is research there - loads of it - as becomes evident when you read through - yet the book is not blemished with distracting footnotes.
The writing is straightforward, simple and inviting; to participate in her adventure. And never a dull moment in that adventure (I must say warn, you have to have that streak of historic curiosity to some extent). The content very easily incorporates facts, whole stories, references, extreme emotions, and a sense of belonging. It has been a while, since I have enjoyed reading non-fiction history.
So after having started it in September 2009, I reached 2/3rd of the book by January of 2011. I cannot read books on history without context - I need maps, some background to an event, and an overview of the chronology. The book is now full of post-its and notes. For various reasons, I did not read the book after that. When I picked up the book again, earlier this month, I obviously could not recall the adventure earlier. Back to page 1. Thankfully my notes allowed me to cruise through, the pages I had read.
Pithy observation and insightful comments mark the book in equal measure. I loved the book!(less)
If you were a stickler for categorisation of books, you may put this under self-help or guides. The back of the book claims it belongs to ART/Creativi...moreIf you were a stickler for categorisation of books, you may put this under self-help or guides. The back of the book claims it belongs to ART/Creativity - but to my mind, this is misleading - to an extent.
Yes, the book has been written for "in-service artists" (painters and writers, the author says), though I found the matter in the book quite relevant. The problem there is not about whether one is creative (as the author describes towards the end of the book), but, probably about who is an artist?
Visual and performance arts have always been considered the domains where creativity abounds. To my mind it flows in every aspect of our life. And if there are sixteen principles to help define the authenticity of your creativity, I think they might be well useful for all of us.
I don't remember the last time, a "text book" was this interesting. I just finished reading Visual Culture and it more than made for interesting readi...moreI don't remember the last time, a "text book" was this interesting. I just finished reading Visual Culture and it more than made for interesting reading. It is a thickish book - and I'll admit - it seemed daunting when I picked it up.
There is however an ease to the presentation that Richard Howells achieves, which slips you in comfortably, into the intricacies and complexities of Visual Culture. You are better off reading this book with an Internet connection handy, since not all references are available in the text - for reasons explained in the book: to keep the cost of the textbook down for the benefit of the students.
The book is divided in two parts - the first deals with the theory of visual culture - almost like defining the elements of grammar that we would learn for language and the second part takes up various media that allows us to practice this grammar on them.
In the theory section, Howells covers iconology, form, art history, ideology, semiotics and hermeneutics as the tools of the trade. As soon as we use the word theory - it bring up all possible guards for most of us. However as Howells says:
Do not be afraid of the word 'theory'. Yes, it can sound dauntingly abstract at times, and in the hands of some writers can appear to have precious little to do with the actual, visual world around us. Good theory however, is an awesome thing. [...] But unless we actually use it, it borders on the metaphysical and might as well not be used at all.
Howells lives up to this premise all through the book. The tools in the first part are well-employed in the second part - media - where he covers fine art, photography, film, television and new media. There is ample historical reference to all media - and the understanding of the media from the point of visual culture is well-contextualised.
One of the most important aspects of the book, however, is that Howells goes through the motions of introducing us to the theories and their sub-theories; he convinces us about the potency of the theory, and as we are about to be convinced of it, he flips it - and asks us to look at the opposite side of it - with equal conviction. He forces us to consider a theory in its own right - and demands that we draw our own conclusion and the application of a theory to a media form.
If you are new to visual culture and are intrigued by it, this is definitely a good start. Remember to have an Internet-enabled device handy. The references are many and useful.(less)