Thursday, 27 October 2011

What is so special about Diwali festival?

A dazzling display of light and colours; loud noises, new clothes and exquisite delicacies just cheer up the festive mood. When millions of oil lamps, candles and colourful electric lights blink and firecrackers light up the sky for many nights in a row you know that Indians are celebrating Diwali. 

In 2009, US President Barack Obama also attended Diwali in the White House.

Every sixth person on the planet celebrates Diwali somehow and it is an official holiday in 10 countries outside India.

  • In Malayasia Diwali is celebrated as Hari Deepawali
  • In Singapore, it is Deepawali
  • In the USA, Diwali has been given official holiday status by the congress in 2007 and San Antonio in Texas was the first US city in 2009, to sponsor a fireworks display
  • In the UK, it is a grand excuse for anyone loving fireworks, light and partying
  • In Australia and New Zealand, Diwali is a festival of light as also all things Indian

So what is Diwali?

As a five-day event, Diwali or deepavali or Kali Puja or festival of lights is one of the most important festivals of India and not only for Indians but also for many people in other countries as well.

Significance of Diwali for different religious traditions

As with all things Indian, Diwali has multiple layers of meanings and different significance for different religions.

  • For the Jains, Diwali is the day when their 24th and last tīrthaṅkara (prophet) attained Nirvana around 527 BC.
  • For the Sikhs, Diwali celebrates Bandi Chhorh Diwas or day of freedom, when their sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind Ji was released from imprisonment by the Muslim emperor Jahangir in 1619.
  • Buddhists also celebrate Diwali as the day the great Buddhist Emperor Ashoka converted to Buddhism around 265 BC.
  • Hindus celebrate Diwali for many reasons. 

The significance of Diwali can be interpreted through three themes in Hinduism:
  • The victory of light over darkness/evil theme - Narakasura, a big baddie, goes on a rampage. He conquers almost everything on Earth (literally meaning a large chunk of the Indian sub-continent) as also the heavens. In one version eventually a woman, Krishna’s wife Satyabhama kills this personification of evil and the rule of evil gives place to the rule of light.
  • The return of the rightful ruler theme - Rama one of the central figures of the Indian epic Ramayana returns home after 14 years of Vanbas or banishment. He is welcomed by diyas (ghee/oil lamps) lit in rows of 20. The Pandavas of the other Indian epic, the Mahabharata also return after 12 years of exile and 1 year of agyatavas on this day.
  • Correct aspiration over formal practice in religion theme – Krishna (who represents the highest level in Hinduism and an incarnation of Vishnu) discovers farmers about to offer their annual offering to Indra, who is a sort of prime minister of heaven (also deity of thunder and rain). Krishna questions the farmers' fuss about this ritualistic offering and expectations of being able to influence natural phenomena. He teaches them that being farmers, their efforts should be better directed at farming. So they neglect Indra’s offering. This annoys Indra and being a touchy god, he promptly floods the villages. Krishna (as he emanates from a higher plane of being then Indra) lifts the gigantic Mount Govardhan and holds it to shield the people and their cattle from rain. Finally Indra gets the message and stops persecuting the villages. This story elucidates the foundation of the Karma philosophy so very central to Indian thought.

What is The Esoteric Significance of Diwali?

All things spiritual and religious have two aspects, the exoteric and the esoteric. The exoteric is all about details and form of rituals, sacrifice, observance of rules and who does what and who shouldn’t do what. Almost all of the quarrels, fights and wars concerning religions stem from this aspect.

The esoteric aspect is an entirely different affair. It refers to things beyond representation. This is done through allegories, myths and symbolism. Often the esoteric employs mundane and very familiar everyday symbols to hint at hidden truths. So, what is the esoteric significance of Diwali?

Why should we celebrate after four thousand years a certain king coming back from exile and being welcomed? Does it really teach us something if a divine being is said to have being going around teaching deeper truths about life? Yes and no. It depends, on the eyes of the beholder.

Narakasura is the Asura or demon son of the earth goddess Bhudevi or Bhumi and Vishnu (from the highest levels of the Indian pantheon). So, he is pretty much indestructible, unavoidable and quasi eternal. The Narakasura story tries to tell us of a recurring condition of life. "Baddies" or bad events happen every now and then. There cannot be life totally without them. So we should learn to accept them as recurring challenges with equanimity and nothing more. This teaches the idea of equanimity. Equanimity or upekkhā (in Buddhism) is not indifference.

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In Hinduism it is an active principle of functioning with full attention to phenomena without attachment to negative factors. The path to equanimity is very difficult in real life as we have to fight our "demons" inside us. This struggle on the way to equanimity is the real Jihad (and not killing people who don't agree with us).

The desperate people going to seek help from Krishna shows that we need to achieve humility and ask for help. Then if these attitude factors are in place, we always get help, though from unexpected sources and in unexpected manner. We should also be perceptive enough to recognize this help as it may be different from what we expected.

Now Krishna is omnipotent. So he could just as well undo or delete the demon. But he doesn't and goes to fight a bloody battle. Why does he then bring his wife Satyabhama into the deadly battle with the demon Narakasura? It is not very usual that big strong men going to battle take their wives to be beside them in battle. In one version, at some point in the struggle Krishna pretends that he is mortally hurt and his wife Satyabhama promptly takes the opportunity to kill the demon.

How should we interpret this? We can go utterly wrong if we choose to interpret these events historically or literally. Does this contain a hidden feminist agenda or should we understand that even women could be strong when standing in a chariot next to a god? Hardly.

What about a symbolic interpretation? Should we interpret this so that Krishna symbolises our intellect and Satyabhama the emotions? Only by combining intellect and emotions and using them together skilfully can we defeat demons (i.e., solve recurring problems). In order to succeed we need intent, motivation and then skilful application of right effort in the desired direction. Then and then only success is achieved.

So, by switching our perspective away from the literal and historical interpretation to a symbolic approach we learn deep truths about how we can live our lives better no matter where we live and in whatever age. Reading this ancient story on an iPhone, iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab in 2012 would still bring you gems of life lessons only if you have got the right mindset to grasp them.

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Happy Diwali!

Monday, 3 October 2011

Are Business Books Worth Reading?

There are 1.9 million business books currently on sale on sites like Amazon and thousands are published each year. If you try to choose a few books that really give you value, there are countless Internet articles that give you their 100 Most Influential Business Books lists. How can you know if reading business books in general brings any value before you could decide which particular book is worth reading? Think carefully:
  • Is it really worth reading business books?
  • Do business books make you smart or skilful?
  • Do they bring business success?

Different Kinds of Business Books

A bookshop classifies business books according to their topics or themes they address. But looking at business books another way gives us another classification.
  • Ego-trip books – CEOs or other important people inflate their egos with ”inside” stories of How I did it? or How great am I for having achieved so much success etc.
  • Cure everything formulas – Consultants and other smart Alecs promote their ideas, products or services for solving every problem known to business. They also claim to solve unknown problems.
  • Settling Score Tirades – Have-beens, would-have-beens, never-have-beens with unquenched desire for power, recognition and success write these ”business” books to vent their hurt feelings and hurt their ”enemies” with revealing titles like Never before revealed secrets of America’s greatest tycoon or This is how Corporations Really Cheat etc. 
  • Get Rich Instantly – This is a huge zillion-dollar business. Most of the writers use a lot of effort to convince readers how they have decided to share these never before revealed secrets with the readers out of pure agape or selfless love. Some of them have similar authors joining forces to promote and recommend each other. This guarantees great benefits to them in the form of increased sales.

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Who Reads Business Books?

To read business books, you need to be intelligent and literate, patient with a reading habit and have lots of time. Wouldn’t such a person be better off doing what s/he knows best rather than reading other people’s ideas, suggestions and experience? Why don't the writers have ultra successful businesses?

Are all business books meant for the smart and business savvy folks? No. There are, of course books for dummiesIn spite of the name, books in these series are usually professionally written with serious matter served in an easy style. Being a real dummy doesn’t help at all in this respect. Besides, who defines what is a dummy. Aren’t we all dummies every now and then!

Some lists of The Most Influential Business Books of All Times have books like
  • The Capital by Karl Marx
  • Balanced Scorecard by Robert Kaplan
  • The Art of War by Sun Tzu
  • The Nature of Managerial Work by Henry Minzberg
  • The General Theory of Employment by John Maynard Keynes
  • The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge
These are wonderful, extremely serious books with great ideas, which are not the easiest stuff to understand. One may know the individual words, read coherently entire sentences but still fail to get the real meaning. Take Karl Marx for example. A significant portion of the entire humanity living under communism, a never ending army of theoreticians spending their entire academic careers on public funding have failed to grasp his message entirely, in trying reach an agreement on main issues with others not to mention applying what Marx probably meant.

Is it only men in dark suits who read business books? Women also read business books as much as men. The reading list of smart women at the top of their fields can be very educative. Here's a typical women's list of favourite business books:

  • Principle Centred Leadership by Stephen R. Covey
  • The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell
  • Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell
  • Reowrk by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier
  • Leading from the Front: No Excuse Leadership Tactics for Women
  • The Four Hoour Work Week by Tim Ferriss
  • A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink
  • The E Myth by Michael Gerber
  • Your Million Dollar Dream by Tamara Monosoff
  • Creating Money by Sanaya Roman  Diana Packer
  • The 10 Laws of Enduring Success by Maria Bartiromo

Do people who should read these business books ever read them? Yes, many do in spite of the fact that getting new ideas means unlearning old ideas. Many busy people are quite capable of achieving such mind shifts. This is precisely what Stephen Covey says in his best seller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It is the seventh habit: Sharpen the Saw.

How Should We Judge Which Business Books to Read?

Most of the people who buy and read all the business, self-improvement and get-rich-instantly books hardly ever get the results they wish. So, does reading books help? This is what Faber in Ray Bradbury’s book Fahrenheit 451 has to tell us about the importance of books. 3 things we can get from books:
  1. Quality of information
  2. Leisure time to digest what you read
  3. The right to carry out actions based on what you have learnt
If any organisation or society lacks any of these three, that society is on a downward spiral. How then to judge the authors who write business books? We can get some help from Faber again: The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.

Socrates, who probably never wrote anything, asks in Platos’ Pheadrus the question 
Then what is the nature of good writing and bad?” 
and answers it by 
It’s not speaking or writing well that’s shameful; what’s really shameful is to engage in either of them shamefully or badly”.
One test of a good writer is:
  • The writer has something to say
  • The writer knows really what s/he is saying
  • What is written actually speaks to you, touches you or moves you
  • You have changed after reading

The best tool for evaluating a writer is given by Ernest Hemingway. 
The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof shit detector”.
Think - does the author of the book you are about to buy have it? Looking at it from a writer’s point of view, Sholem Asch, the Polish born American writer also said it pertly: 
Writing is a lot easier if you have something to say”.
Some Examples of Great Business Books

Some business books have been extremely influential. They have become iconic classics. One way to get about finding the value of a business book is to ask from people who you consider to be successful in business.

To help you out, here is a nano list of great business books:
  • The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
  • The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid by C.K.Prahlad
  • Reengineering the Corporation – A Manifesto for Business Revolution by Michael Hammer, James Champy
  • The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen
  • The Effective Executive or any book by Peter Drucker
  • My Years with General Motors by Alfred P. Sloan

Why are you Going to DO After Reading a Business Book?

After reading a book about cooking or gardening you try to cook or improve your garden. So, what action does a business book prompt you to? Are you going to:
  • Try out the new idea
  • Discuss with business colleagues
  • Begin implementing an idea because the writer so forcefully argued for it
  • Decide that it is a great idea but nah it won't work for me 

For really busy people who have no time to read but need to get the gist of a book even if to say that they have read it, here's help. A business book summary service.

Enjoy your business book!