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What is “Life”

article_imgEveryone feels like that can tell you what “life” is. It is pretty obvious. Well, unless you get near the edges of the definition.

My son just started High School here in the USA and is taking his first biology course. One of their first assignments was to decide if a virus is alive. My poor boy had to put up with his ‘ole man lecturing him on the arbitrary nature of the word “life”. He felt that “life” was an idea that needed to be discovered, but quickly saw that “life” is not a concrete thing, but an abstract word created by people that masquerades as a concrete thing.

He soon realized that to decided whether a virus was a form of life, he needed an arbitrary man-made definition of “life”. Next, he saw that the definitions everyone put forth were fuzzy and loaded with assumptions.

Like the words “religion” and “patriot”, people generally feel they know exactly how to use the word “life” and intuitively know what it means until they are up against things on the edge or people who don’t agree with their use of the word.



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“The Wedding”: a Polish movie

WeddingCouchsurfing in the UK this summer, we spent time in Wales with some fun Poles.  Wesele (“The Wedding”), 2004 by director Wojtek Smarzowski, was one of their recommendations for Polish films I should watch (see wiki).

I did not enjoy the movie and would not recommend it. They told me it was about a stereotypical Polish wedding — so that part was educational. But that wedding and the side stories were about a culture of Vodka, bribery, meaningless tradition and sexually-erotic wedding games.  All cultural elements that I detest.  The movie made me want to never visit Poland. I rarely write negative reviews, but thought it would be a good exercise.

I’ve added it in my “other” category in my index of film reviews, because I can’t imagine watching another Polish film very soon, unless someone can recommend a Polish film that matches my tastes.


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Hindu Texts that Support “Queers”

Devdutt PattanaikReading the writings from other religions can help both atheists and theists get a wider perspective on religious issues. But not just reading other religious texts, but reading and listening to those believers talk about their faiths. Hinduism, for instance, was part of the cause of my downfall from Christianity.

Image if the Bible had stories like these:

  • a hero who was also a cross dresser
  • a woman who is raised as a man, and married off to another woman, but then changes into a man to satisfy her husband
  • a god who is depicted as the “third gender” both male and female

Well, these stories are scattered throughout Hindu religious literature and Devdutt Pattanaik puts many of them together in one book and retells them in an easy to understand style with fun illustrations. His dedication page states:
 “To all those here, there, and in between”.

I’ve read Pattanaik’s retelling of the Mahabharata and love his writing. Unfortunately, this new book (“Shikhandi: and other tales they don’t tell you”) is not available in the USA yet. But I thought readers may find it interesting to hear how this liberal Hindu is using his Hinduism to fight suppressive narrow views of sexuality in his country.

Below are some of Devutt’s interesting answers to a Bangalor Mirror interview about his new book, with my comments below.

As you have mentioned, people chose to retell stories of mythology by omitting queer references. Was it difficult to find such stories?

Many of these stories are quite familiar to people. I have just retold them such that one pays attention to the underlying comfort with queer elements. You don’t find such queer elements in other major religions, certainly not in Christianity, Islam or Judaism. A God who is comfortable cross-dressing and indulges in it to express his deep love for his devotees — that is only in Hinduism.

The Judeo-Christian scriptures certainly does not have as much queer elements, but there are some. Consider the relationships between King David and Jonathan; Ruth and Naomi; Daniel and Ashpenaz. (see

Have you been worried about the reactions to your book?

We indulge intolerance too much. I am perfectly fine if someone wants to oppose my book and ban it because it bothers his or her notion of how Indian narrative history should be. Banning the book does not destroy the idea. Vedic wisdom has never relied on books for its survival, anyway. The stories gave me great joy and wisdom and I feel everyone should have access to this joy and wisdom.

Well, I wait to see what happens to Devdutt now that he has spoken up in support of the queer section of society.

People think of Hinduism as weird — and it is (see my post “Your God is Wierd!” ). But maybe that is good — or at least Devdutt is telling us that it is good:

We want simplicity, certainty and convenience in life, neat boxes and fixed rules — Hinduism refuses to indulge this childish need. And the gods chuckle at human exasperation.

Sure, many Hindus are jingoistic, nationalistic, anti-gay, superstitious, anti-women and more. But just as liberal, progressive Christians try fight these things in their cultures, Devdutt is using good Hinduism to combat bad Hinduism. I wish him well.

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Hot-Road Water Ghosts

Dark_FigureSometimes, for fun, I share some of my ghost experiences with people.

Here are some I have shared on this blog:

After I share these stories, people will often incredulously ask me, “How can you have these experiences and not believe in ghosts?”

To which I sometimes reply:

During summers, I have driven down long, hot roads and have occasionally seen large puddles of water span the road ahead of me. But when I get to the puddle, they mysteriously disappear. Have you ever had an eerie, supernatural experience like this?

You see, I don’t believe these common hallucinations are actually supernatural at all, but I won’t deny that I have indeed had these unusual experiences.

Mind you, if someone could prove to me that I have really seen ghosts, I’d be fascinated and change my opinion. But the reason I don’t believe in the ghosts I have experienced, is because of my intense distrust of my (and your) human brain. 🙂

Question to readers: Have you had any weird experiences you don’t believe in?


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“Lived Religion”


Patients are notorious from not telling their doctors that they take herbs, do scent therapy, take homeopathy or have a chiropractor. Not to mention, that they usually hide the religious rituals they go through for healing: laying on of hand prayers, burning candles or praying to saints. Heck, your best friends may be doing things that would surprise you. People are private about their unorthodox practices.

People are generally more comfortable with inconsistent beliefs and practices than their medical or religious professionals would want them to be. “Lived Religion” is a term used to describe the actual “religion” held by real people.  Lived religion contains these heterodoxical practices and beliefs.

The Lived Religion of a given person may actually have very little orthodox belief within it. It may  be very dissimilar to the religion they confess.  It may instead emphasize community, rituals and holidays or just be a cultural identity.

Many Christians go to fortune tellers, carry luck charms, listen to horoscopes. Besides doing things outside their orthodox religion, they may also hold heretical views: believe in reincarnation, believe in universal salvation and much more.

So when we discuss the meaning of the word “religion”, we must remember that believers are not limited by the religion they may confess — their lived religion is bigger than orthodox beliefs.

Question to Reader: Share some unorthodoxy in your life — medical, religious or otherwise. Remember, if you are religion-free, you still have the potential for unorthodoxy within your “lived religion”.

Some data:

  • Superstition: Gallop 1996: 25% of Americans call themselves “superstitious: 27% knock on wood, 13% avoid black cats, 12% won’t walk under ladder, 11% afraid of breaking a mirror
  • Heterodoxy:  Gallop 2005: 25% believe astrology,  21% believe they can communicate mentally with a dead person 21% believe in witches. 57% buy lottery tickets.


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False generalizations about “religion”

Generalization_FailureReligions around the world nurture conflict and are used as tools for great suffering and nonsense. But religion can also be used in wonderful ways.  So to generalize about religions as “good” or “bad” is a mistake.  Further, it is a mistake to speak about spiritual and religious traditions as if there existed some coherent, unified, uncontested, unchanging or pristine version of that tradition. Sure, speaking of such an idealized form may be a useful heuristic tool but it is loaded with mistaken notions which become obvious after only the least bit of inspection or dialogue between people who disagree. This error is common with both religion prescriptionists and anti-religion atheists.

Why is this a mistake? Above in my diagram I tried to capture six main factors that make such generalizations sloppy at best.  Below are the explanations:

  1. Times: Historical Varieties of Religion: Religions change over time. So instead of overgeneralizing, we have to specify exactly what time period we are talking about.  But for the reasons given below, that is usually not enough.
  2. Places: Religion Changes by Locality : Catholic Christianity in South America, Italy and the USA vary widely. Even though they may identify a the same sect of Christianity, they have very important differences. Sure, someone may think they share some “essentially” common elements to allow generalizations — but those who hold these faiths may disagree with the lack of importances you put on their differences.
  3. “Beliefs”: Multivalent “Belief” & Many-Selves: The notion of “belief” is complex. Both the beliefist religionists and the hyper-rational atheists imagine a much more solid thing called belief. We all hold beliefs that contradict each other. We even hold incorrect beliefs, which we nonetheless, use in healthy ways when understood in the web-of-beliefs in which they complexly exist. See my posts on Many Selves and Beliefism.
  4. Sects: Wide Multitude of Religious Sub-Sects: From Snake-handling Fundamentalists in West Virginia to Mormons in Idaho to Episcopals in Massachusetts the flavors of Christianity vary widely.  Their beliefs, practices and exuberance vary a great deal.
  5. Lived Religions: Variety of Individuals: When a person talks about their “religion” what they are talking about often has little to do with the doctrines their religious professionals would want them to confess. Instead, they are discussing their “lived religion” which includes identity, social relations, tradition, good luck religion, imagined moral framework, holidays and rituals or comfort medicine. And when you ask the individual, they may not only be uniformed of the very religion they identify with, but even hold heretical views or practices (often unbeknownst to themselves). Heck most religious folks don’t even believe a lot of what they confess.
  6. Nebulous Meanings: Vague Definitions of “Religion”: Even among scholars, there is not agreement on definitions of “religion”.  It is used in multiple ways by speakers. And when people use it in a general way, they are imagining some very specific form and practice of religion which their generalization overshoots. See my post on Defining Religion.

You may feel you have sufficient objections to any one of the above bullets and thus feel justified in your essentializing, reifying and objectifing some spiritual or religious tradition in a general way, but you need to consider all the bullets and their interactions. Propagandists and prescriptionists are not interested in this complexity — usually because they feel it cripples their mission, but this blog is about complexity and clear thinking, not convenient rhetoric.


To begin, when speaking of any Christianity, use adjectives to specify which subset you are talking about. But even then, realize that you can not list enough adjectives to be careful enough. So, be careful in your generalizations and try to reflect on why you are generalizing, essentializing and reifying such an abstract notion.

Vehement, anti-religion atheists are committed to disparaging the word “religion” and so all the subtlety above is mere distraction from their mission. They will not give in an inch — nothing will stop their unscientific gross over-generalizations. Though the above information is common sense among most anthropologists and sociologist who would never generalize about religion. These atheists ironically care not for a scientific approach when it conflicts with their evangelical efforts.



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Usharbudh Arya: a teacher tribute

Dr. Usharbudh Arya, aka, Swami Veda Bharati

Many years ago, I did graduate work in Comparative Religion at the University of Minnesota. In one of my first courses, we were given the assignment to do some anthropology of religion — we were to investigate any local religious group which was foreign to our experiences.  I chose to explore a local Yoga group. Though I had visited India 3 years prior, I was a Christian then, and never explored Yoga — which my Christianity labeled as a diversion of the devil.  Thus this anthropological adventure had a naughty, exciting flavor to it!

I had seen the Yoga center when  riding my bicycle from my home to the University. It was in a beautiful old mansion with a large wooden sign declaring itself to be “The Yoga Center in Minneapolis” (see below). The center is apparently still active.

The center was run by Dr. Usharbudh Arya (1933- ) who I discovered was interestingly a former well-known Sanskrit professor in the exact South Asian department where I was doing my graduate work at that time. So I was immediately knew that whether I agreed with these folks or not, the director was a smart guy.

Swami Ram (1935-1996)

Swami Ram (1925-1996)

Apparently, Dr. Arya had given up his prosperous academic career just two years prior to propagate Yoga full-time.  The Center was a small organization back then but after a little web searching, it appears to have a presence also in India.  Dr. Arya, as in my Indian teachers, has altered his name (not that doing such is foreign to me, and is now known as Swami Veda Bharati (wiki article here).

Dr. Arya was a disciple of Swami Rama (1925 – 1996) who founded the Himalayan Institute in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. Only after leaving the organization did I learn of some of the controversies surrounding Swami Rama (see wiki).  I had met and trained with Swami Rama twice when he visited the center for short teachings — he certainly had a magnetic personality.

The Yoga Center, Mpls  -- ah, fond memories!

The Yoga Center, Minneapolis (ah, fond memories!)

My graduate project was meant to only to last three months (and indeed I completed my paper), but I continued studying Yoga at the center for eighteen months. I was diligent: reading every book they offered, taking every class I could and practicing both Hatha and meditative Yoga at my home. I was surprised by how much I learned and benefited.  I was actually in the teacher training program but dropped out after a conflict which I may write about later.

When I first began my investigation of this strange neighborhood anomaly, I thought the Center would be a very woo-woo place filled with air-headed folks but instead Dr. Arya was solid, students were normal and the teachings offered real skills at learning how to relax. Though I experienced altered states of consciousness during meditation several times, I never had “higher states of consciousness” and didn’t know what to think about that, but I did learn relaxation skills that came in very handy in helping with sleep issues, patience and more.

Yoga, for most Americans, is all about stretching, postures and fitness, but those are only one rung of Raja Yoga — an 8-runged-ladder approach to essentially a meditative practice (following the guidelines of Patanjali).  An important  relaxation skill I learned was Pranayama (breath control) where I practiced diaphragmatic breathing, evening out the breath, lengthening the breath, watching the breath and more.  Most forms of Buddhism, like Yoga, uses meditation techniques where pranayama is essential, but it was the Yoga Center that taught it better than all the Buddhist places I have visited since then.  BTW, some feel that Patanjali, the ancient compiler of the Yoga Sutras, may actually have borrowed from Buddhist practices.

Writing this post has been a fun trip back in time.  I don’t agree with much of Yoga, but the lessons I learned were invaluable.  Perhaps later I will write about those disagreements.  But this is a post is mainly of letter of gratitude to Yoga and Dr. Arya.


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