Monday, September 11, 2023

The Tale of Two 9/11s: Honoring Loss, Inspiring Hope

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon impacted the psyche of America and the world in a way that very few other events have. The images of the two towers collapsing, the people fleeing in terror, and the devastation that was left in the wake of the attacks are burned into our collective memory. The 9/11 attacks were a shock and a wake-up call to the reality of Islamic terrorism in the Western world. Two decades later, these attacks continue to shape our world today. It's not that 9/11 was the first terrorist attack on America – it wasn't. But the scale and coordination of the attacks, as well as the brazenness of using commercial airliners as missiles, was on a level that no one had seen before. The destruction of the Twin Towers, in particular, was something that people couldn't wrap their heads around. For many, it felt like the world as they knew it had ended. 

In this short post, I would like to urge the world to remember a different 9/11, one that can help move the world away from the prejudice and hatred that fueled the 9/11 attacks. 9/11 is a historic day in world history not just because of the terrorist attacks but also because on this day in 1893, Swami Vivekananda gave his famous speech at the Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago. This was a truly momentous event because it marked the first time that a Hindu monk had addressed a Western audience. Vivekananda, though initially nervous, bowed to Maa Saraswati -- the Hindu goddess of learning, and began his speech with "Sisters and brothers of America!" a common salutation (at least in India), but the authenticity with which he spoke those words struck such a chord with the 7000 plus audience that they gave him a standing ovation that lasted for over two minutes. This was an incredible feat, considering that, at the time, most people in the West knew very little about Hinduism and India.

In his speech, Vivekananda spoke about the unity of all religions and the need for religious tolerance. He said, "I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth."

Vivekananda's words ring even more true today in a world that is still reeling with religious hatred and intolerance that are rooted in supremacist religious ideologies. The 9/11 attacks were a brutal reminder of the consequences of such hatred. But, as we remember the innocent lives that were lost on that fateful day, let us also remember the words of Swami Vivekananda and recommit ourselves to building a world that is based on the Sanatana Dharma principles of respecting the dignity of all life, seeing the divinity in all beings, and working for the welfare of all irrespective of religious affiliation. Let us strive to create a world where supremacist religious ideologies cannot take root and fester. Instead, let us encourage a world where respect for pluralistic traditions and promoting religious tolerance are the norm. Only then can we hope to achieve true peace in our world.

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that Swami Vivekananda's speech at the 1893 Parliament of World Religions was a watershed moment in bringing Hinduism and India onto the global stage. At a time when few in the West knew anything about Hinduism, Vivekananda powerfully conveyed the spirit of universality that lies at the heart of India's ancient wisdom tradition. Just as the 9/11 attacks shaped the world we live in today, Vivekananda's historic address on that same date over a century ago impacted world history as well. His eloquent advocacy of religious tolerance and human fraternity resonates now more than ever in a world still struggling with religious divisions and strife. 

Two decades after the horrific 9/11 attacks, we would do well to keep Vivekananda's message alive. Those words of wisdom can serve as a guiding light as we work to heal divides, end prejudice, and build a more just and inclusive world order. Vivekananda's speech reminds us that when we recognize our shared humanity, embrace pluralism, and accept all faiths as true, we open the door to mutual understanding and cooperation. The road ahead requires perseverance and courage. But if we hold fast to these ideals, we can yet realize the dream of peace and harmony between all nations and peoples. The light of Vivekananda's universalist vision still shines brightly, helping illuminate the path forward even on the darkest of days.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Beyond the Flag Waving: Making Independence Day Matter

Today we celebrate India's Independence Day. This marks the day we officially broke free from British rule, although the truth is that we are still mentally tethered to our colonizers in many ways. We sure have broken numerous mental shackles, but many more still exist. They have become so much a part of ourselves that we fail to even notice them. So this Independence Day, let's resolve to identify and break free from at least one more shackle. Let's challenge the conditioned thinking that limits our potential and holds us back from achieving greater heights. 

Change always starts at the individual level. Let's identify one mental or physical habit in our lives that is no longer helpful and may even be harmful. It could be an addiction, a prejudice, a limiting belief, or anything else that constrains us. For me personally, it is my tendency to judge myself harshly and dwell on past mistakes. This habit only breeds guilt and inhibits my growth, yet it has become entrenched in my psyche. This Independence Day, I will start practicing self-compassion and focus on learning from my mistakes rather than berating myself for them. What is the habit you want to break free from?

Let's commit to breaking free of that habit. Change takes time, effort, and community support. So let's build a community that will empower us to realize true freedom. We can find people with similar goals who will cheer us on, advise us when we falter, and inspire us by their example. Our forefathers also relied on building a strong community to gain freedom. They supported each other through tremendous sacrifice and cooperation to make liberty possible. 

Independence isn't about going it alone, but rather interdependence - empowering one another so we can all realize our respective potentials. We are social beings who thrive when connected to others with similar values and aspirations. So let's build communities, both online and offline, to help each other break free of our self-limiting patterns. Together we are strong.

Unless we change ourselves, Independence Day celebrations are just empty events that don't make any real difference in our lives except to massage our egos. True independence comes from freeing our minds, not just celebrating historic political events. So this Independence Day, let's walk the talk. Let's pick one shackle to break free from and take the first step today. Our future selves will thank us.

Happy Independence Day to all my fellow Indians! May this day inspire us to expand the boundaries of our minds and lives.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Your friends are like your car’s tires!

Recently a friend posed an interesting question: How do you identify your true friends from the numerous people you consider as friends? She went on to answer her question by saying that true friends are those who stand by you in your difficult times. She shared some examples of her own friends who had supported her in moments of tremendous stress and difficulty, sometimes sacrificing their own comfort and convenience to do so. She further said that the people with whom you have parties and share good times are not necessarily your true friends.

Most people would agree with my friend's observations without any hesitation. We do indeed need friends to support us in our bad times. I certainly value every one of those people who stood by me during the rough times of my life. These are the people I trust the most and I am extremely grateful for their integrity and the loyalty that they have shown me.

However, is it wise to completely discount the people who were there with us during the good times? There is a colloquial expression for a person who is there with you only during your good times. We call them 'fair-weather friends'. These are the people who are only present when things are going well, but disappear or are less available when challenges arise. The implication is that they are unreliable and do not deserve to be called our friends.

I agree that we should not rely on 'fair-weather friends' to provide us with necessary support and assistance during 'foul-weather' conditions. Doing so would be sheer naivety. However, does that mean that 'fair-weather friends' are useless? Not necessarily. While we may not turn to them for support during difficult times, they often provide us with useful companionship and levity in moments of joy and contentment. We may or may not decide to call them "our true friends," but they still do enrich our lives by providing us with many memorable positive experiences in life.

Friends are like our car tires. They both provide support and help us move forward through our life's journeys. And there are many types of tires as there are many types of friends. All of them have their own unique roles to play. For example, there are Summer tires - let's use them as a metaphor for fair-weather friends - which are primarily designed for high-performance vehicles and provide optimized dry and wet performance levels in a temperate environment. Rather than being useless, these tires serve the great purpose of giving us a wonderful ride and experience on warm and sunny days.

Then we have the Winter tires - the metaphor for our dependable foul-weather friends. We depend on these tires to smoothly traverse through the slippery and icy road conditions of the Winter. While the Winter tires work great in snowy and icy conditions, they are not ideal for the Summer months. When used in the Summer, they tend to wear out faster, reduce fuel efficiency, and make your car less responsive and grippy, especially at high speeds. In other words, these tires just don't provide the same joyous experience as the Summer tires do during the metaphorical 'sunny times' of our lives.

So, we do need both fair- and foul-weather friends in our lives. Some people - for example, those high on the extraversion personality dimension - make for excellent company during the good times, while others - for example, those high on the agreeableness and conscientiousness personality dimensions - make for highly dependable friends during bad times.

We may wish that all our friends were like all-season tires, that supposedly provide the best of both worlds - reliable performance in all weather conditions and great comfort. However, any tire expert will tell you that all-season tires are more of a compromise than an ideal solution for varying driving conditions. The same goes for our friends too. Our all-weather friends may stay with us through thick and thin, but what they offer may not be optimal in all situations. And that may not be because of their lack of loyalty or commitment. Instead, they may simply lack the unique capabilities and temperament that made somebody else a perfect fit for a certain life-situation.

In conclusion, true friendship goes beyond being there during our difficulties. We need both fair-weather and foul-weather friends. They both have important roles to play in our lives. Rather than looking down upon our fair-weather friends, let us appreciate them for magnifying the joyous experiences of our life. Needless to say, let us also thank our foul-weather friends for being a pillar of strength and support during our storms. Both of them enrich our lives in their own unique ways.

Photo credit: Clem Onojeghuo

Thursday, February 16, 2023



Always remember
You never compete against others.
You always compete against
Your own self-created limits.

You compete against
Your procrastination,
Your distractions,
Your hesitations.

You are your restrictor,
Your own greatest enemy,
But also your defender.
So defend!

Defend your dreams.
Defend your focus.
Defend your time.
Defend your energy.

Defend against your doubts,
Against your temptations,
Against your inertia,
Against your decline.

Defend your time,
Do not kill time.
Make your time alive,
That's when you shine.

Your competition is you.
Find the strength to break through.
Fight the good fight,
And defend the fire within you.

Photo credit: Henry Hustava at

Saturday, February 11, 2023

My Critique on Charles Bukowski's poem, "so you want to be a writer?"

Yesterday I shared Charles Bukowski's poem "so you want to be a writer?" on my Facebook timeline, and many of you liked it. I shared it because it is a beautiful poem. But I must also add that I do not agree with all the thoughts expressed in that poem. In this short essay, I provide my reflections on the poem. It is partly a critique and partly an appreciation of the poem. Hope you enjoy it!

Charles Bukowski is known for his dark, straightforward writing, and this poem is no exception. But let me start with the bright side of the poem. The poem wonderfully conveys some of my experiences as a writer as well. I am no big writer, but even a lesser mortal like me has experienced times when writing was an absolutely joyous experience. These were the times when I seemed to be in a zone; the words, sentences, paragraphs, and even entire monographs flowed without much effort. Bukowski describes this experience in the last few lines of his poem:
" have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it..."

These lines capture the sheer beauty of writing. When I have been in a similar state, writing has felt completely effortless. Time flies by without me noticing it. It is a truly wonderful experience; you almost feel like you have been "chosen" by Maa Saraswati Herself to communicate certain ideas to the world. It is simultaneously a humbling and rewarding experience, because you know your capacities as a writer are extremely limited compared to the effortlessness with which the ideas and words flowed out through you. But then such experiences are few and far between, not just for the relatively low-level writers like me, but for the greats as well. Most of the time, writing involves a tremendous amount of effort.

Most of the time
"it doesn't come bursting out of you."

Most of the time, you do
"...have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
searching for words..."

Most of the time, you do
"...have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again..."

Most of the time, writing is
"...hard work just (even) thinking about doing it..."

What do you do when you experience such challenges? Bukowski provocatively answers this question several times in his poem: "don't do it."

Bukowski says,
"...don't do it
if you're doing it for money or
don't do it.
if you're doing it because you want
women in your bed..."

It is difficult to disagree with Bukowski here. He is essentially emphasizing that it is more important to have intrinsic motivation for writing rather than extrinsic motivations such as money or fame. There is a humongous body of literature supporting the benefits of intrinsic motivation.  So, Bukowski is not wrong here.

But at the same time, I cannot agree with his idea of not doing it if you are having difficulty. Bukowski seems to have a rationale for why one should stop trying:
"don't be like so many writers,
don't be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don't be dull and boring and
pretentious, don't be consumed with self-
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
over your kind.
don't add to that."

In other words, Bukowski seems to be concerned about the quality of writing that is out there in the world, and he likely thinks it is because far too many people are writing who simply lack the aptitude to do it well. This is akin to many mediocre musicians trying to make it in the music industry, or many terrible actors trying their luck in films. You can call it elitist thinking (and that would not be incorrect) but Bukowski doesn't want more mediocrity in the world of writing.

You cannot argue for mediocrity in any field. But at the same time you cannot ignore the fact that in order to produce great work, a person must first put in tremendous amounts of effort to become a competent writer. And that involves long hours of practice and dedication. One of my professors in my Ph.D. program, who is among the top three most highly cited researchers in my field had told me that he did not consider himself a talented researcher or writer at all. Instead, he thought of himself as at best a man with average capabilities. But he had exceedingly high levels of grit that made him work hard for more than anyone else, and that's what gave him the edge in the end.

So, while I agree with Bukowski's sentiment that we should strive to write better and produce great works of art, I think we should never forget the effort it takes to become a skilled writer. Hard work, determination, and practice are necessary components of becoming a great writer. This means toiling away at it, and not giving up despite the difficulty of the task. During these times of frustration and difficulty, it is important to ignore Bukowski's advice of "don't do it." Instead, you still do it!

You have to sit there and write even when it is hard because that is the only way for you to develop the capacities that facilitate the experience of those rare moments of Maa Saraswati's grace where everything just flows effortlessly. You have to go through the grind to experience the euphoria. There is no other way!