Saturday, April 25, 2020

A day with the Irishmen - An Irish Saga

First things first. Whenever I refer to Ireland in this post, it's always Northern Ireland. I carried a UK visa - it allows you to visit Northern Ireland but to visit the rest of Ireland, i.e. the Republic of Ireland you need an extra visa. Even if you carry a valid resident's permit, that wouldn't suffice. We had a lot of drama at the airport with regards to this - we'll keep that story for some other day. Although we stayed in Ireland for 4 days, I'll restrict this post on our one-day tour to Carnlough, Cushendun, Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, Giant’s Causeway, The Dark Hedges, Dunluce Castle, etc. Some of these locations were used extensively for the filming of the famous TV series Game of Thrones.

Carrick-a-Rede Bridge
Carlough Bay
It came as a genuine surprise for me when I came to know how deeply influenced was the Game of Thrones series by Irish history and mythology (some say even Welsh mythology too). In one of his recent interviews, the creator of "A song of ice and fire" George R.R Martin admitted that there is a considerable influence of Irish mythology on Game of Thrones and the fictional continent of Westeros is in fact based on an inverted map of Britain and Ireland.

Cushenden Caves
Dark Hedges
Our guide for the day was a thorough Irishman, but English only in name (His second name was English, I forgot his first). He turned out to be a consummate professional, at the end of the day all I was left with was a genuine admiration for the man for his humor, wit, knowledge, candidness, and most importantly how he respected and kept time. He gently warned (kept warning throughout) all the tourists to be mindful of time quoting famous song of the popular band U2 (an Irish band) "with or without you", meaning the coach would leave on the designated time no matter what. I've mostly tried to capture all the things he narrated (of course I cross-verified them, most of them true and some were myths)

Pre-Christian Ireland

St. Patrick is considered to be the patron saint of Ireland (on an unrelated note it is St. David for Wales). He is credited to have converted Ireland from paganism to Christianity. There were invasions in the first Millenium both from the Vikings and Anglo-Normans (from our conversations later in Wales, Norman invasion seemed like a big deal). Celtic imagery in the form of Celtic crosses among others is strong not only in Ireland but also in Scotland.

Some striking resemblances from Irish mythology/History and GoT

Children of the forest: Children of the forest were the original residents of Westeros, and they worshipped forest, naturalistic spirits - in short, a primitive form of animism - this has very strong parallels with Celtic mythology. Celts were perhaps the first group to inhibit Britain and were animists are they did worship trees, also believed the world around them as part of the divine.

Red Wedding: GoT fans would definitely remember the episode of "Red Wedding" in which a lot of important characters like Robb and Catelyn Starks etc. are killed in a stealthy manner over dinner. Even during the dark ages, it was a well-known rule that a host and guest were not allowed to harm each other even if they were enemies. This rule was flouted and has two precedents in history: Black dinner and the Massacre of Glencoe.

A few other interesting tidbits:

We saw a lot of sheep grazing the meadows and were colored differently. Our guide jokingly said they were colored whether they belonged to unionists or nationalists. Or, maybe he was serious, I couldn't say.

He also narrated the story of Sean O' Neil and how he won one of the contests (by severing his arm and throwing towards the finishing line). Since I don't remember the details and also couldn't find any back-up material, I've not expanded the story here.

Also, our guide narrated the story of "Diarmuid and GrĂ¡inne" famous in Irish Folklore.

Some Famous Clans

He made too many references to the clan McDonald who originally came from Scotland and was a violent tribe and acquired their wealth and power primarily through violent means. They were perhaps the largest clans from Scotland.
The current state of Dunluce Castle
One more powerful clan back in the day was the Clan McDonnell — One of their remaining vestiges today is the Dunluce castle. We saw it from a close distance — It's in a very dilapidated state (It is used to depict the Seat of House Greyjoys in GoT).

The rivalry between Anglican and Catholic Church

Spanish armada was an attempt to invade England by Spanish King Phillip II in the later part of the 16th Century. It consisted of over 100 ships and were met with solid defense from the English. The armada was eventually defeated. They attempted to return home through the Atlantic, but due to violent storms, they were forced toward the west coast of Ireland. There were multiple wreckages in the event and many people perished but there were about 9 survived. Learning of the events, Queen Elizabeth I ordered to kill them all. Needless to say, all of them were Catholics.

One more strong example for the case is Henry VIII and his daughter Mary I, also known by the sobriquet "Bloody Mary".

In Conclusion

Ireland is a beautiful country full of spectacular sights, a pleasant climate with a dash of rugged Atlantic beaches enshrouded with mystery. This combination surely beckons the romanticists and adventurists alike.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Founding fathers - A tale of two nations

I always loathed this. It was a kind of revulsion I would find myself in - whenever someone would use the phrase “founding fathers” in the context of India & Indian independence from the British in 1947. To call someone as the father of the nation especially for a country like India smacks of arrogance and ignorance at the same time. Come to think of it, it seems like the term is a straight lift from the USA. 

In the context of the USA, the term "founding fathers" makes a lot of sense but whereas India's, it comes across as downright nonsensical. Let me lay out the reasons for the same. First and foremost, India's recorded history, even by the account of hostile communist historians is over three to five thousand years old. Although India was declared a republic in 1950, India as a country existed for millennia and was recognized and respected by all the world powers starting from Greeks to Romans to medieval Europeans. India had trade relations with all erstwhile powers of their times - Greece, Rome, Persia, Arab world etc. 

Most historians recognize that there are seven founding fathers of the USA : George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, James Monroe and Benjamin Franklin. Each one is an intellectual giant and visionary in his own right. As far as Indian case is considered, we ascribe the "father of the nation" status to 'Mahatma' Gandhi. The only common factor between Indian and American independence is that, the erstwhile colonial masters of both the countries was the same : The British. But the similarity ends there. The course both the countries took post-independence was entirely different from one another. 

For the sake of argument, I'll pick up one of the founding fathers and his well known work : John Adams & his definitive work "The Political Writings of John Adams". Watch this video on John Adams' view on finer arts.
I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.
Now, pick Gandhi and his autobiography "the story of my experiments with truth". Although I reckon, Gandhi is very honest about his personal life and he had too many virtues that he preached and embodied, some of his ideas on economy, modernization, pacifism were totally impractical if not downright ridiculous. But he had such a sway over the masses, he was deified and questioning him or his views was tantamount to sacrilege. 
Individuals and nations who would practiced non-violence must be prepared to sacrifice (nations to the last man) their all except honour.
If you compare the philosophy of John Adams with say that of a Gandhi or a Nehru, contrast couldn't be starker. On one side you'd see clarity of thought, clear articulation and vision for future but whereas on the other side all you see is mindless pacifism, emotional claptrap and obstinate linear thinking. No wonder America was destined for early freedom and greatness but whereas India was languishing in eternal tragedies - one after another. 

It's not that India lacked vision, or the sense of pragmatism or 'realpolitik'. In my assessment, if India had imbibed political philosophy and realpolitik of Kautilya as described in his seminal work Arthashastra. Although this work is at least close to 3000 years old, it has a clear and definitive views on statecraft, nation-state, finance, military strategy and strategic affairs, to name a few. It is very much contemporary. This is just one of the few prominent examples. There are quite a few alike. 

But alas, India and Indians choose to rally behind a few people who supposedly 'got us freedom' and followed their philosophy as Gospel Truth. We forgot the past and to paraphrase Santayana, those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes. Indian growth trajectory would have been quite different if we had better "founding fathers" with real vision and pragmatism.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Meditation on mortality & death

Most of us live through life as if we are immortals — like we have all the time in the world, with innumerable chances. But we are all mortals destined to depart one fine day. This simple truth escapes us.

Meditation on death is in fact, one of the oldest types of meditation in Buddhism — which goes by the name Maranasati Meditation. The Buddha said — “of all the footprints, that of the elephant is supreme. Similarly, of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme.” Bardo Thodol or more popularly known in the west as Tibetan Book of the Dead is one of the popular works in this regard. Vajrayana branch of Buddhism has laid particular emphasis on this.

In more recent times, I think Steve Jobs said it the best in his characteristic messianic tone. In his most famous Stanford commencement address, he sums it up thus — 
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
Being constantly mindful of our mortal nature is a good thing for us — It sharpens our perception of things around us, weigh-in the priorities in life, we'll have fresh perspectives and helps us to live our lives more sensibly and meaningfully. We live wantonly and carelessly when we think we'll be here forever. We'll be more careful and gentle when we know we have come here with an expiry date and when we are acutely aware of the fact that our time is limited.