Friday, December 11, 2015

Investigating the unknown

Kuldip Dhiman

Review of Chris Carter's 'Science and Afterlife Experience', published in The Tribune's Spectrum magazine section on 6 December 2015

Will I come to an end when I die or will I continue to survive in some way?” This is a question that occurs to most of us at some point of time or the other. There is a very long tradition in almost all cultures which believes that we do continue to survive after physical death, and we
come back in a new body. Not just in the East, even in the West, the belief has a long history. Socrates, Plato, and early Christians do talk about an afterlife. Most aboriginal cultures all over the world also have their theories about life after death. The general contemporary scientific view, however, is that it is absurd to think that life continues after the body perishes.
Chris Carter’s book Science and The Afterlife Experience deals with such questions and shows that life does not end with bodily death, and that there are several phenomena that material science is just not equipped to answer. Over the past three decades, several books and papers challenging the present scientific paradigm have been written by serious investigators such as Ian Stevenson, Erlendur Haraldsson, Pim van Lommel, Larry Dossey, Tom Shroder, Antonia Mills, etc. With this book, Chris Carter fires yet another salvo at the well-guarded fortress of established science.  
Carter recounts scores of well-documented cases of reincarnation, near-death experience, extra-sensory perception (ESP), psychokinesis, apparitions, and after-death communication from all over the world. 
Let us take the case of Rakesh Gaur who was born on March 15, 1969. When he was five, he began to tell his parents that in his previous birth he belonged to a family of carpenters that lived in Chhippa, a city 225 kilometres from his present home in Kankroli. He gave details of his past life, home and relations. What he said was later found to be accurate. 
Initially, reincarnation cases were largely reported from India, but later researchers found such cases all over the world, even in countries where people do not even have the concept of reincarnation. For instance, there is a case of Victor Vincent, a fisherman from Alaska who shortly before his death in the 1940s predicted to his niece that he would be reborn as her son. Later a son was indeed born to her. He was christened Corliss Chotkin Jr. When Corliss was 13-month old, his mother was teaching him how to pronounce his name. To her shock, the boy said, ‘Don’t you know me? I’m Kahkody.’ Kahkody was the dead Victor Vincent’s tribal name. 
Then there is a bizarre case of a chess game played between a living chess grandmaster Viktor Korchnoi and a dead grandmaster Geza Maroczy. In another case from 1957, two sisters, Joanna and Jacqueline Pollock, were killed in a road accident in Hexham, England. When Pollock became pregnant again after the death of her two daughters, the doctors were sure that a single child would be born but two girls were born instead. One of them had birth marks corresponding to one of the dead twins. Their behaviour was also in some respect similar to the dead girls. Carter laments that in spite of mounting evidence, the cases are being dismissed by scientists without even bothering to investigate these.
The author says that several physicists accept that psi (psychic phenomena) exists, but their views are ignored by the mainstream. Leading physicists such as Henry Margenau, David Bohm, Brian Josephson and Olivier Costa de Beauregard have argued that paranormal phenomena are not incompatible with modern physics. One survey found that only three per cent natural scientists considered ESP as an impossibility compared with 34 per cent of psychologists. It is not the top physicists, but uninformed scientists, science writers, philosophers and psychologists who are still clinging to ideas that are a century old. Carter argues that scepticism is fine, but most of the so-called sceptics of psi are not true sceptics at all. They are deniers. 
Why does science deny? In science, even one exception to the accepted law has to be explained. If it cannot be explained, then either the law has to be modified or abandoned. When scientists are unable to explain cases of paranormal, they dismiss them as fraud. Nobody likes to see their work of a lifetime collapse.   
Carter’s book is important as it addresses uncomfortable questions: Can consciousness exist without a body and can the consciousness alter matter. The current established science would say ‘no’ to these questions. Common sense also says it is not possible. When we die, we just die. Secondly, how can the mind influence matter? If that were the case, we should be able to move things by thought alone. 
With the long list of documented cases, Carter says the answer is ‘Yes’. 

Monday, October 5, 2015

A weak will hinders change

Spectrum 27 September 2015, page 4

Kuldip Dhiman

When the Nobel Foundation asked Amartya Sen to give them any two objects that had been closely associated with his work, he gave them his old bicycle and a copy Aryabhatiya — a treatise on mathematics and astronomy by Aryabhata. 
The bicycle can be seen as a symbol of Sen’s practical concerns as it is economic
al and does not harm the environment. The treatise Aryabhatia represents abstract and logical thinking. Through sheer mathematical calculations, Aryabhata (476-550 AD) proposed that the earth was a sphere hanging in space, and it rotated on its own axis. In The Country of First Boys, Amartya Sen handles various issues — complementarity theory, social choice theory, economic and social justice, economic theories of famines, and welfare economics.
In a disparate society, there are the haves and the have-nots. Some children, whom Sen calls ‘first boys’, get a headstart, especially in education, because of their privileged background, while others lag behind. Sometimes, one may suffer from several inequalities at the same time if one is poor and is also from a backward class. However, there seems to be a lack of interest among the privileged on matters of inequality, and the media often caters to its patrons and advertisers. There is smugness in their minds regarding these serious issues.
Education can be one of the main tools in tackling our chronic problems. Sen postulates that having an educated and healthy population can be a major contributor in enhancing steady and sustainable economic growth. It is the ‘complementarity’ between education and health care, on one side, and economic growth , on the other that led to rapid development of countries such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, and China. India has failed to take a cue from these nations. 
Though the private sector has invaded the healthcare sector in a big way, it is highly expensive and exploitative.  Government-run hospitals, on the other hand, are inept and also lack the funds. However, these can be run properly as shown by Kerala.
Regarding famines, Sen points out that these were common during the British rule, but suddenly stopped after Independence. People normally think that drought and famine are the same thing. While droughts are caused by insufficient rain or depletion of water resources, a famine may or may not follow a drought. It can happen even if there is no drought. Mismanagement and improper distribution of food supplies can lead to a famine. It is worth noting, says Sen, that India has succeeded in preventing famines while other developing countries have not. The main reason is that in a democracy, surplus food from affluent states can be rushed to states that do not produce enough at a particular time. 
More importantly, free media also plays a significant role in this. Sen observes that democratic governments help the famine-struck regions not just to get votes. The number of people affected by famine is often less than 10 per cent. Even if famine victims voted against a ruling government, the government’s position would not be threatened. So why do democratic governments try to prevent famines? Sen says it is the tremendous impact of public opinion and the role of media that can mobilise masses to protest against the ills of those in positions of power. 
While applauding this achievement, Sen laments that the success of famine prevention has not yet been replicated in the case of wide-spread hunger and chronic undernourishment, education, and primary healthcare. 
In a successful society, justice is paramount for progress and wellbeing of people, but justice is understood variously by different ideologies. ‘In examining the demands of social justice in India, it is important to distinguish between an arrangement-focused view of justice on one hand, and realisation-focused understanding of justice, on the other.’ He elaborates that it is one thing to have institutions that formulate laws and regulations to assure people that justice is being done, but this much is not enough. We also have to make sure that justice is being realised. To point out the subtle difference between the two concepts, he mentions two Sanskrit words niti and nyaya. Niti connotes organisational propriety and behavioural correctness, while the term nyaya stands for a more comprehensive concept of realised justice. 
However, indirect means such as literature can also help shape public opinion to grapple with injustice. In the classical past, plays such as Bhasa’s Daridra-Charudatta and Shudraka’s Mrichchhakatika satirised the rich and powerful of their age. In our times, too, satires and political cartoons can give powerful voice to the underdog. 
Interspersed with essays on economics and politics are interesting essays on Rabindranath Tagore, revival of Nalanda University, and the role of various calendars on a culture. 
Coming back to socio-economic issues, it is the political will that would really matter in overcoming them, argues Sen. Things will not happen if you don’t want them to happen. The electorate should make sure that these happen.
The essays in this collection are erudite and analytical without being dry and dense. The language is facile and Sen presents his views with clarity, hence these will be of interest not only to economists, social thinkers, and academicians but also to the general reader.

Natural bounties of Hathiari

18 September 2015

Make it to Hathiari if nature and adventure is what you want

Kuldip Dhiman
Perched on the hills overlooking the Yamuna river, Hathiari is a place full of adventure.
Though it is situated in Uttarakhand, Hathiari is not as far away as you might think. The quiet village on the banks of the Yamuna and its surrounding places are full of scenic beauty, forests, mountains, and is thus ideal for adventure and trekking.
As it is just 150 km from Chandigarh, you could reach Hathiari by taking the Kala Amb-Paonta Sahib road or approach it from Yamuna Nagar. Once you reach Herbertpur on the road to Dehradun, take the left towards Vikas Nagar, which is about 6 km away. After that it is just 18 km more, but you are advised to ask for directions to reach Hathiari.

Although Hathiari is being mentioned here, you could stop anywhere around it. It would be advisable to stop at a village called Kata Patthar, which is just 1 km before Hathiari. It has a hotel which has decent accommodation and good food. There are no hotels in Hathiari, but there is a meditation ashram called Osho Pyramid. They are quite happy to have guests.
Hathiari is the place where the Pandavas are said to have concealed their weapons during the thirteenth year of their exile. The word ‘hathiar’ means ‘a weapon’, hence the village is called Hathiari. If you wish to be closer to nature, there are also private adventure tours that can arrange camps for you on the banks of the Yamuna.
If you wish to spend two or more days, you could explore the villages around. The place is full of mythological connections. You could go to the Balrama temple nearby. There are thousands of temples for Krishna, but rarely a temple for his brother, Balrama. It is said that although people in this region own several cows, they do not sell milk. Milk is meant to be given free of cost to those who need it, it is not to be sold.
Thirty-five kilometres from Hathiari is the Viratkhai, named after King Virata, who is mentioned in the Mahabharata. He is the one in whose kingdom the Pandavas spent one year incognito. Then there is a village called Lakhamandal. It is believed that Duryodhana built the wax palace here in an effort to kill the Pandavas. There is an ancient Shiva temple and several natural caves in which thousands of Shivalingas were discovered. You might wish to trek for two hours to reach the breathtaking Tiger Falls.
Another place worth going to is Chakrata, which is just forty kilometres from Hathiari. At 2,270 metres above sea level, it is a hill station where you could find many places to trek. It is also known as Jaunsar Bawark after Jaunsari tribes of Gharwal. An army cantonment was established here by the British in 1866.
Villages such as Hanol, Radina, Thaina, Indroli, Lakhwar and Mahasu Devta temple are places to visit. It is possible to go to Hathiari and come back to Chandigarh in a day, but if you wish to explore the other areas, then three to four days would be required.
Photographs by the writer

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Carnival we ought to grow out of

By Kuldip Dhiman

‘Your city is choking’ sadly does not seem a convincing enough argument for citizens to change car buying and use habits. The lead has to come from the planners; that, unfortunately, is not happening. At least a public debate has to start, simple doables put to test. You can’t let cars take over all the space there is. What kind of development is that?

HAVING lived in Bangalore and Chandigarh for considerable periods of time, I have seen the “garden cities” turn into “car cities”. Both are ready to choke.
Chandigarh had 7.4 lakh vehicles in 2010; 4.3 lakh have been added since. It sees 4,000 new vehicles every month.
Henrik Valeur, a Danish urbanist and researcher who   worked with an Indian Institute of Science team to create infrastructure for non-motor-ised transportation in Bangalore, also spent six months in Chandigarh in 2010. He studied how meeting places could be created in the periphery. Alongside, he came up with a project to make one sector vehicle-free and see its impact. Assisting him were Chandigarh College of Architecture students.
Sector 19 was chosen since it was one of the first to be developed, with a layout typical of the rest. Like other sectors, 19 has four entrance points, so Henrik’s team proposed parking lots at each of these — two above the ground and two below in such a way that the maximum walking distance to any particular house would not be more than 300 metres.
For the transportation of the disabled, deliveries, garbage, etc, the team proposed cycle and solar-powered rickshaws.
The blueprint had cycle lanes in the market street, connected to the four entrance points. 
The crossings would have traffic lights, which would also make it possible to control traffic at the roundabouts. At the crossings, there could be stops for a shuttle bus service.
Henrik’s idea was that by removing all cars, a lot of space would be freed. “Almost 25 per cent of the total surface area of the sector is used by cars, either for driving or parking. All of this asphalt, which contributes significantly to the overheating of the city, could be removed, and instead, eco-friendly pathways for pedestrians, cycles and rickshaws could be built. These would be narrower, though still providing sufficient space for emergency vehicles,” says Henrik. 
The space thus created could be used for communal activities such as playgrounds, and kitchen gardens. Or to accommodate people who work in the sector but live outside. 
“When the cars are not parked right in front of the houses but in a parking lot, much more shopping would take place locally. This would help to reinvigorate the decaying market street.”
The solutions are interesting, but would it be possible to implement these even in a restricted area within a sector? Especially in a region where people are so conscious of asserting their social status?
The Master Plan Committee did not seem very enthusiastic of the idea, says Henrik. “In fact, it was not until a year later, when the proposal was discussed during hearing of another case in the High Court, that the UT Administration was told to make one of the sectors car-free. But in the end, nothing happened.”
Henrik makes an interesting observation: “Ironically, while people in developing countries are aspiring to the kind of modern mobility that people in the developed countries have been enjoying for decades, the people in developed countries are now beginning to adopt modes of mobility that people in developing countries consider outdated and backward. Thus, a recent mobility invention in developed countries is the concept of shared mobility space, which, of course, has a long history in developing countries.”
He also states how any idea that aims to reduce the sales of cars faces immediate assault. “In 2013, six out of the world’s 10 largest companies in terms of revenue were in the petroleum industry, two were automakers and one a power company. They make sure no policy harms their interests.”
So, can nothing be done? To begin with, the mindsets can be changed. The use of plastic bags has come down, hasn’t it, lesser people smoke now.  
A better and faster bus service, cheaper non-pedal rickshaws, lesser use of cars, all are doables. A Metro will take  time, we have to act faster.
Rediscovering walking and cycling is basic for Henrik. He’s all for cycle hiring centres in every sector. Hire a cycle to go to office or the market, drop it at the nearest kiosk there, and hire one again on your way back. Replicate it all over Chandigarh. Any takers?

Just switch it off and go to sleep

It’s largely a problem of the young, but age is no bar to more and more people giving up sleep to spend time with electronic gadgets at night. It’s unhealthy, unproductive, silly

The trend is widespread, alarming and plain nonsensical, to put it mildly — fidgeting with electronic gadgets late into the night at the cost of sleep. What follows is a gradual progression to sleeplessness and in due course, depression. Watching a movie at 3 am and chatting with friends simultaneously, playing a videogame at 2, surfing television channels late into the night — what are people, young and old, doing with electronic gadgets at such ungodly hours?
There was a time, not very long ago, when having dinner by 8 or 9 and going to bed soon after was the normal habit. Now, dinner close to midnight or later, and then getting active online has turned the natural sleep pattern upside down.
“People have become preoccupied and obsessed with round-the-clock TV, Internet and phones. This excessive use has had a devastating effect on their sleep pattern,” says Prof Savita Malhotra,Professor of Psychiatry, PGI, Chandigarh. 
“Six to eight hours of sleep is an absolute must for the human body. The very young require a little more than eight hours, the older ones may sleep a little less. It is during deep sleep that the internal system of the body does reparation and recoupment work. During sleep, the mind also consolidates memory. It ingrains what is necessary into the memory system of the brain. Those who are used to being online very late at night tend to suffer from forgetfulness.”
Because people sleep late, they wake up late, and then feel drowsy, lethargic and listless. “Children often miss school, and even if they go, they are not attentive. Among adults, lack of concentration is the cause of all sorts of accidents, absenteeism, low productivity, familial discord. It also has a devastating effect on their health. They become irritable, forgetful, angry, and suffer from anxiety and stress. When you sleep less, your body releases stress hormones. As a result, instead of letting your body repair and recover, you are actually subjecting yourself to additional stress,” warns Prof Malhotra.
What is this need to stay connected 24 hours a day? Experts say it gives a false sense of importance. Most calls and messages are not of much value — just unimportant conversation, and idle gossip.
Prof Malhotra says, “It reminds me of the catchline of a telecom company, Karlo duniya mutthi mein. The feeling that you have access to anyone, anytime, anywhere is intoxicating, gratifying, and gives a sense of empowerment. Because of this, people have become so addicted to gadgets that they are neglecting normal activities that are necessary for good mental and physical health. Relationships are suffering.”
The head of PGI’s Department of Neurology Prof Vivek Lal feels late nights “are wreaking havoc on this generation, which is totally unmindful of its consequences”.
“Sitting in the OPD, it pains me to see more and more young children coming with all sorts of problems unheard of before — abnormal aggression, severe headache, depression, abnormal weight both positive and negative, anxiety, and epilepsy. An overwhelming majority of these kids are slaves of technology, sitting up late in the night chatting or surfing.”
When people are advised to sleep early, most argue that they may be sleeping late, but they also wake up late, so the number of hours slept is practically the same. Is this argument sound?
Not at all, stresses Prof Malhotra. “The body has a natural biological clock, which is in sync with sunrise and sunset. This controls the internal hormonal system that is responsible for reparation and recuperation, and growth in the case of children. If this clock is disrupted, severe consequences follow. There is no substitute for a good night’s sleep.”
One of the main causes of sleeplessness is ‘cognitive stimulation’ before going to bed. When the brain is actively involved in something, its electrical activity increases and neurons begin to fire rapidly. This is fine during the day, but if neurons get very active before we go to bed, sleep is definitely going to elude us. When we play a videogame, for instance, before going to bed, or chat, or expect an email, the body becomes tense, and as a result, cortisol, a stress hormone produced by the adrenal gland, is released creating a condition that is detrimental to sleep.
Experts advise having a transition period, about half an hour of technology-free time before retiring for the day.
Prof Vivek Lal stresses that parents must switch off their gadgets and television sets by 10 pm. “In 50 per cent of cases, parents are directly or indirectly responsible for these technological indiscretions being carried out by their children. Children are immature, they have to be guided. Also, teachers have to be encouraged to drill into the head of students the importance of proper sleep hygiene.”
To sleep well, also set a regular time to go to bed. “You cannot sleep one day at 10, another at 2,” says Prof Malhotra. She sees a greater number of patients consulting her regarding insomnia. Many are getting tempted to taking pills. Because of this, the body is getting totally driven by chemicals.
“We know that this is happening in the IT sector and call centres. We advise sleep hygiene, that is, early to bed and early to rise. We do not recommend hypnotic sedatives and other drugs, because they are all habit forming. We also advise them to practise yoga and meditation.”
It’s a fairly simple choice in the end:  control the remote in your hand, or be controlled by it.