It’s Time to Become an Anti-National

One of the goals of the Hindutva project is to make “India” synonymous with “Hindu”. So a true Indian is a Hindu whereas one who is not a Hindu or doesn’t acknowledge the Hinduness of India is an anti-national. Over the recent years, this Hindutva project seems to be gaining some perceptible ground.

A while back Subramanian Swamy wanted Indians to either acknowledge their Hindu antecedents or give up their voting privileges. This feat of bigotry cost Swamy his Harvard position. but his views won him millions of fans in India. By any standard, he is a very popular politician in India and that is not because of the various lawsuits he filed, but mainly because of his new found Hindutva piety.

Then there is the intolerance of any contrary views when it comes to issues like Kashmir. So people like Arundhati Roy and Prashant Bhushan became seditionists and anti-nationals. The question here isn’t whether they are justified in their views or not, but whether they have the right to express those views in the first place. But the increasing jingoistic cacophony doesn’t make any allowance for such questions. It only has patience for one mindless chant – “India First”; where what counts as “First” is an euphemism for putting Hinduness before the constitutional idea of India.

In the recent weeks there was the rhetoric surrounding academic research on Hinduism. Apparently, not joining the Hindutva orchestra in demonizing the likes of Doniger is grounds for suspecting that one is anti-national.

And this week, some Kashmiri students were booked for sedition because they supported Pakistan in a India vs Pakistan cricket match. It may well be that the students are enamoured of the Islamic state of Pakistan and so support it, but that is no grounds for sedition.

So where does that leave freethinkers like me?

I liked Doniger’s “The Hindus” in that I got to hear Hindu voices that lie outside the framework of Vedic Hinduism. I think people like Arundhati Roy have the right to express their views without the threats of sedition charges. I have no love for the Islamic path that Pakistan has taken, but someone supporting a cricket team should never be treated as a thought crime that would eventually lead to they becoming traitors.

Given those views of mine, the “India First” brigade may well decree that I am an anti-national. In that case I gladly accept that label. I would not have settled for anything less, as for me people and their rights come first.

Riffing of an old Hindutva slogan, Garv se kaho hum anti-national hain (Translation: Proclaim with pride that we are anti-nationals).

Keeping Rainbows Undimmed

-Taking back the night…and our own bedtime stories-

Cover of "On Hinduism"This article, making an earnest and anguished plea to recall alternatives in the popular imagination was posted on Nirmukta after the publishers’ recall of the Indian edition of The Hindus : An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger. It now seems that it is not just alternative narratives that are under threat, but even quotes of ‘standard’ narratives that are being silenced. At the time of writing, On Hinduism by the same author faces recall and pulping. One of the ‘offensive sections’ in the book, as cited by the petitioners (from the report in the Outlook weekly here ) is this:  Lakshmana… says, ‘ I don’t like this. The king is perverse, old and debauched by pleasure. What would he not say under pressure, mad with passion as he is? The king referred to in that piece of dialogue is Dasharatha, father of the deified Rama and his brother Lakshmana, the apotheosized paragon of fraternal conduct. The petitioners who apparently treat such deification and apotheosis as undeniable truth, are perhaps shocked at an attribution of such filial irreverence towards Dasharatha, the revered patriarch and head of the archetypal Hindu-Undivided-Family on part of Lakshmana, the foremost of the Ram Bhakts (devotees of of Rama). Trouble is, the Sanskrit version of the Ramayana most commonly accepted as the original one, namely the version attributed to the poet-saint Valmiki of uncertain historicity, puts those very words in the mouth of Lakshmana:

Valmiki Ramayana Ayodhya Kanda Sarga 21 Verse 3

C. Rajagopalachari, Indian independence activist, scholar of Indian classics and patron-saint of sorts for the Indian ‘centre-Right’, had no compunctions quoting other verses similarly unflattering to the patriarch, from the same chapter in his well-loved English retelling of the Ramayana, which can be read hereEven your enemies, O Raama, when they look at you begin to love you, but this dotard of a father sends you to the forest. It turns out that Lakshmana doesn’t stop seem to have been in a mood to stop with verbal barbs. Verse 12 of that very chapter goes “If our father with an evil mind behaves like our enemy with instigation by Kaikeyi. I shall keep him imprisoned with out personal attachment or if necessary, kill him.” This is not Doniger’s Lakshmana speaking, but Valmiki’s Lakshmana, if only those who claim to treat that retelling of the epic as their ‘scripture’ had been paying attention. Both Rajagopalachari and K M Munshi,  founder of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan whichpublished the former’s Ramayana were in their time considered Hindu stalwarts and respected spokespersons of Hinduism. Those who self-identify as Hindus today, at least those among them who would like to consider themselves literate and liberal, must be gravely concerned about the precipitous fall in the quality of their spokespersons from those endowed with classical scholarship to bumptious demagogues and cultural protection-racketeers who make a mockery of India’s much-vaunted intellectual traditions.

So much for why liberal Hindus, whom I am told constitute a silent majority, must be concerned about the fate of The Hindus and On Hinduism. Why should humanists be concerned about the straitjacketing and suffocation of mythical narratives and retellings? Here’s a snippet from a conversation that might help understand what’s at stake here for anyone who values equity and diversity. In this section of a Tamil videomade by members of Orinam, a Chennai-based organization for LGBT advocacy, a participant speaks of how an writings by Devdutt Pattanaik on homosexuality in Indian epics were a useful conversation-starter while coming-out to a straight friend interested in Indian lore. In a report of the Bangalore Pride Walk of 2013 published in the Nirmukta blog, one of the placards is quoted as asking “Our epics do not discriminate, why do we?” Well, it turns out that while the epics by themselves don’t lend themselves to a single discriminatory slogan and may on occasion even supply a humanist slogan, the Doniger-haters’ reading (actually ‘unreading’ and attempted unwriting) of the epics does indeed discriminate. Like the scriptural literalism afflicting the Religious Right in the US (conveniently selectively), what afflicts such ‘defenders-of-the-faith’ in India maybe called an epic litero-clasm, an infliction of iconoclasm on any  literature, however classical, that does not align with the palingenetic myth they are peddling and seeking a monopoly for. Their motto may well be “No listening. No story-telling.“, a more menacing variant of the grudging “Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell.“, and they seek jurisdiction and the last word over every town’s night-life and any bed-time story that departs from their revisionist ‘history’.

Be it Batra vs Penguin Book India Pvt Ltd or Koushal vs Naz, such unimaginative and inhuman readings of either Law or lore, represent different fronts in the same larger struggle. The ‘defenders of the faith’ are ostensibly wielding legal and constitutional means, but relying on the unspoken, implicit and very palpable threat of orchestrated civil unrest. The threat is not vaguely implicit but has been manifested unmistakably in the past, be it a ransacking of an archive when a hagiography was revisited scholastically, or the vandalizing of art galleries when mythical motifs were reimagined. With such an intimidatory history and with colonial-era legal provisions by their side, such custodians of ‘normalcy’ are attempting, and alarmingly appearing to succeed, in an attempt at usurpation of cultural space and disinheriting anyone whom they consider not ‘normal’, of the slightest socio-cultural capital. This cultural disenfranchisement calls for a resolute resistance to enforced dourness and colourlessness with undimmed rainbows, and can begin with something as simple as Iranian youngsters celebrating a ‘pagan’ Nowruz in the face of the Ayatollahs’ strictures.

Sangh may not make a debut in Kerala, but…

Video: Audience at ViBGYOR protest vandalism by RSS workers

400 and more. All shouting in unison “RSS GO BACK! GO BACK! GO BACK! GO BACK!”.

So proud to be a Malayali, right now (I can’t believe I missed out on this video for so long). The video shows the reason why the Sangh will never crack into the state, any time soon. The following is a quote from a friend.

“I do not believe in banning the RSS. It has a place. It has a place in the shadows, the last benches, the corners which the broom has missed, the gutter left neglected over the years. It is a badge of shame we didn’t clear out with the other bric a brac from the dusty attic of our past, a rabid cur we skirt past on the road, a lunatic’s abuse heard from afar and immediately forgotten. Such is the place of the RSS. And I believe it should continue to occupy its place as a constant reminder of the darkness that can envelope us if there are no lights kept burning, those of tolerance, pluralism, free speech and ever widening knowledge. No, I certainly do not believe in bans. But they should know their place and know it well. 400 people in the audience during the screening shouted “RSS go back” and back they went. Because, those 400 voices represent the true voice of this great nation.”

~ Gautam Benegal

“RSS workers stop screening of ‘Ocean of Tears’ at film festival”

But there is still much to be concerned about. The police did not arrest the vandals even though they assaulted some of the audience members. Almost a week later, we hear about police brutality against some of the ViBGYOR activists, a female filmmaker AND their female lawyer and her children, for staging “Vagina Monologues”. So while we revel at the unanimous rejection of the fascists by the audience, we should not forget that Kerala is not exactly the vacation spot for progressives and liberals. If anything it’s getting worse.

These incidents seem unusual in Kerala, a state known more for its liberal values, high literacy rates and excellent social indices. Historian J Devika believes that the attacks are a fallout of the success of Sangh Parivar members in getting Wendy Doniger’s book on Hinduism pulped, and are a sign of the national assertion of what she calls “Moditva”.

“These are goons, and what we see is not a rise in their intellectual confidence, but in their brazen determination to inflict violence and terrorise others,” said Devika. “Interestingly, their supporters in the police have also found it easier to hit out now, and the most vulnerable sections they can target are precisely young people who identify with the non-mainstream left.”

According to Devika and Sasi, extremist elements – with the help of the police and the media – have been trying to whip up “Islamophobia” in Kerala. Said human rights activist BRP Bhaskar, “The Modi factor is giving them more encouragement.”

A Question for Free Market Proponents

I finally finished reading Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (I’d talked about it earlier in this post on rhino hunting auctions). Since reading it, I’ve been pondering a question, which I wish Sandel had posed to his opponents during this LSE debate.

During the debate, one of the examples (of the moral limits of markets) Sandel gives is blood – i.e., rather than (or in addition to) donating blood, should one be able to buy and sell/auction it? In his response, his opponent Julian Le Grand promptly says yes, there should be such a market. The question I wish Sandel had asked as a follow-up is the following:

Practicalities aside, and assuming fair background conditions, is there anything which you think should NOT be on the market? If YES, what is your argument for the same?

Let me clarify it a bit – I say “practicalities aside” so as to exclude reasons like “it would be impossible to regulate” and “it would get misused”. And I say “fair background conditions” to exclude reasons of inequality, since this is bound to be the most common reason given (markets can exploit the under-privileged). Instead I want to keep the focus on the fundamental nature of the good itself. (This is one of the main arguments in Sandel’s book – markets “corrode” certain goods and change attitudes and practices associated with those goods for worse.)

Here are two examples that I thought of for the question:

1) A market in child adoption. I.e. biological parents hold an auction where adoptive parents bid for the baby.

2) A market in tickets for capital punishment. States (where capital punishment is legal) sell/auction tickets to an execution, and pump the proceeds back into improving the prison system. The state also auctions a single ticket to be the executioner.

It would be interesting to hear the “YES” responses from free market proponents. (Note: I’m genuinely interested; this is not a “let’s troll those libertarians” post.)


Weeping for the Modern Caste-Hindu?

Jakob de Roover

Outlook recently published, on their website, Jakob de Roover’s reaction to “l’affaire Doniger”. In the article, de Roover cooks up a story to explain how the “deeply flawed” narrative of the caste system and the Hindu religion is responsible for the creation of Hindu fundamentalism.

What brings Hindu organizations to filing petitions that make them the butt of ridicule and contempt? Whence the frustration among so many Indians about the way their culture is depicted? Why is this battle not fought out in the free intellectual debate so typical of India in the past?

S. N. Balagangadhara

Nevermind the fact that the inspiration of this story is S. N. Balagangadhara, the Ghent University professor and beacon of caste-Hindu privilege blindness and arrogance (“how can we conclude from just 38 murders that caste discrimination exists in India?”), the story even in its isolation stands as a shining example of caste privilege apologia.

What comforts me is the prompt responses it received from Nivedita Menon (first published by Kafila and later by Outlook) and Prashant Keshavmurthy of McGill University.

The following is from Nivedita Menon’s article,

So let us imagine another growing child— not De Roover’s boy, but his sister. She hears (and retains) some other stories that the boy chooses to forget or ignores —the cruel slashing of Surpanakha’s nose for her merely expressing desire for a young handsome man, the even more cruel abandonment of pregnant Sita, the Lakshman Rekha that she is called upon to observe every single day of her twentieth century life—imagine her excitement when on growing up and entering the world of scholarship, she comes across Indian feminist scholarship that attacks both Western Orientalist critiques of Hinduism as well as nationalist responses that reconstruct a Golden Age before “Muslim invasions”—for instance, Uma Chakravarty’s critique of the ‘Altekerian Paradigm’. Or Iravati Karve’s Yuganta. Or Nabaneeta Deb Sen’s account of women’s Ramayanas in which Rama is a far cry from the ideal man. Village women sing “Ram, tomar buddhi hoilo nash’. Oh Ram, you have lost your mind. Molla, a Shudra woman in the 16th century wrote a perfect classical Ramayana, which the Brahmins did not allow to be read in the royal court. Chandrabati’s version that told the Ramayana from Sita’s point of view was criticized as a weak and incomplete text by the same arbiters of taste and morality.

Imagine this young woman trying to engage her sulky brother in dialogue as he rants about the denigration of Hinduism. Imagine the absolute lack of empathy from his side as he fulminates…

Imagine after this, the daughter of the Dalit woman who cleans the toilets of that young Hindu boy’s home. Imagine her excitement at learning, if she ever reached school, that one BR Ambedkar had torn apart the entire foundation of the religion so celebrated by the boy and his family. Or that Ranganayakamma had written a book called Ramayana The Poisonous Tree, saying we should reject it because it supports the powerful against the powerless. Or that EV Ramasami had deconstructed the story of the killing of Shambuka by Rama for daring to recite the Scriptures despite being a Shudra.

Imagine the fact that this girl would literally have been invisible to the sulky boy as the household spun silently around him on the labour of women and lower castes, as he prepared to go to America ‘for a few years.’

For De Roover and his ‘Hindu gentleman’, sexuality is not the problem, mention of caste discrimination is. By putting Christian distaste for both sexuality and caste in the same basket, De Roover is able to suggest that both critiques are tainted. But of course, some of us may want to take a more nuanced position, celebrating sexuality and attacking caste oppression, even if critique of the latter comes exclusively from ‘the West’, which of course, it does not.

And this one is by Prashant Keshavmurthy,

One doesn’t have to have read the theorist of post-colonial identity, Edward Said, to expect a modicum of reflexivity in the use of such categories of identity. Nor does one have to be familiar with the English poetry (that adapted an American Modernist minimalism by discovering its elective affinities with ancient Tamil poetry) and scholarship (bringing European Folklore Studies and semiotics to bear on pre-modern Tamil and Kannada literatures) of the founder of South Asian Studies in the University of Chicago, A.K. Ramanujan, to expect a minimum of intellectual sophistication in not simplistically equating ethnicity with scholarly identity. So much for shallowness and theoretical poverty.

In the end I’d like to say that, de Roover’s Hindu Boy is not a fictional character, but a real one. I see him in my family, in my father, my cousins, neighbours, roommates, friends, on the social network, everywhere. He definitely exists and he is someone to be wary of, since avoiding him is not an option in India right now.

On Comparing Tragedies and Responsibilities I

“Don’t worry, christianity harmed and killed just as much people and destroyed properties. Or maybe more?”

“That’s nothing. Christians can do twice as much in half the time. next time, call a marine.”

“Why don’t you mention what the Christians are doing?”

These are some of the comments that a post on The Paleolibrarian Page on FB, regarding the recent attack by the Islamist organisation Boko Haram in Bama, Nigeria, had attracted. These comments made me think about two things.

a. How justified are we in comparing tragedies?


b. Is the responsibility collective in cases of such deadly sectarian violence? How de we know?

In the case of (a) I would first like to assert that there are two kinds of comparisons: one that compares the gravity of each tragedy and the other with an intention to bring in some commonality in human suffering and make one tragedy a part of a collective human tragedy.

The first kind of comparison is more disconcerting to me as I find it to be an exercise in dehumanising of the victims of a tragedy. When one compares tragedies and crimes (especially crimes against humanity) it almost always is with an underlying intent to trivialise the suffering of the victims, and includes overtones of victim blaming and a self-defeating whataboutery and buck passing. This comparing of tragedies is very common in India and those of us taking a stand for secularism and justice, are more often than not faced with such horrendous questions as “What about 1984?” or “What about the Kashmiri Pandits?” or “What about the hungry children?” (this one was specifically asked to me by many different people, whenever I brought up Section 377 after the Supreme Court verdict). The comments on FB quoted above are very similar to such “what about” questions. The difference, is that a “what about” question is bigotry under the pretense of humanitarian concerns, while the quotes are assertions (possibly stemming from an urge for political correctness or misplaced priorities). Comparisons and pitting of tragedies and crimes against one another does nothing but justify violence, yet people resort to such hypocrisy. Why?

Mind that such comparisons do not come from the victims or even objective observers, but from people with specific political ideals to follow and cases to make. Those people who want a clean conscience even if they make an irrational argument. Take the hungry children question, for instance. It was first thrown at me by a pro-Modi and pro-BJP atheist. His contention was that there are more important things to worry about, than LGBT rights. And hence I should worry more about the poor and “hungry children”.

Nevermind the fact that he was dictating me on what to and what not to worry about, his entire argument ignored the possibility that there might be gay or genderqueer children that are poor and hungry as well. The reason I feel why he maintained his stand was possibly because of the then recent decision of his favourite party to remain homophobic.

Comparing tragedies involve a whole lot of omissions. Comparing criminalised sexuality with malnutrition takes a whole of lot of bigotry and privilege blindness, and a deliberate disconnect from reality, and it is the same for every other comparisons.

How Rapists Manipulate Their Victims

(Content note: contains numerous quotes from rapists, taken from Project Unbreakable.)

I’ve been following Project Unbreakable (tumblr, facebook) for almost two years now. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s an American initiative started in 2011 by then nineteen year old Grace Brown, which photographs sexual assault survivors holding posters with quotes from their attackers. There are over two thousand images to date. Every post is like a hammer blow. The posts that chill me the most are the ones where the pattern of manipulation becomes apparent – i.e., the way the attackers manipulate their victims. They do this before the assault, after the assault and even during the assault. Accounts like these corroborate the research which shows that rapists are not “accidental”, there is no “misunderstanding” (see these two links for more). They know what they are doing – they just want to get away with it, and they don’t want society to consider them rapists.

Over time I started bookmarking these posts, because seen together one can clearly see the pattern. So here they are, about fifty of them. I’ve copied out the quotes from the rapists (and some comments from the victims), and the quotes link directly to the photographs, or in some cases to the facebook post:

“Just the tip.” “It is your fault because you make me so hard.” “I’m sorry for what you think I did.” A year and a half later: “I’m sorry for any hurt I caused you.”

“No, stop, this will make it feel better.” (He is married now with a daughter.)

“You’re FINE. You’re FINE.”

“Shhh, just lay back. You can’t say ‘no’ now.”

“You scared me… I thought I did something wrong.” (You did.)

“I know you were uncomfortable.” (Then why did you keep going??)

“Shh.. sweetie… it’ll be over soon.” – My first attacker, while 4 others encircled the bed, waiting for their chance.

“Don’t regret it in the morning.”

“I’m just trying to show you how much I love you.”

“You never said anything.”

“Things like this just happen, and we should just forgive and move on and learn from it, I don’t know why you’re so unwilling to do that… you make me sound like a monster.” (2 days after)

“Stop playing hard to get.”

“If I do that again I want you to slap me as hard as you can, okay?”

“I would have been fine without anything happening but it did. Now somehow, it’s my fault for treating you the way you presented yourself?”

“If you really loved me, you’d do it, regardless.”

“I can’t help it/Don’t you know that I love you?/Why won’t you show me that you love me?/If you loved me, you’d let me.”

“I love you. I know it’s early, but I know I’ll marry you.” “I want to fuck you so bad.” “Oh god – I’m suck a fucking asshole – I won’t do it again.” “How does that feel against your pussy?” “I’m a monster.” “You’re so wet.” “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” “I just masturbated in your bed, I had to release – you just turn me on so much.” “BUT I LOVE YOU!!” “You should masturbate – you don’t know your body at all.” “I just want to please you because I love you so much.”

“If you don’t want me to, I won’t.” (He lied)

“Don’t exaggerate. It can’t hurt that much.”

“Is this okay?” (No.) “Do you like this?” (No.) “You’re lying.”

“Stop whining, you’re acting like I raped you.”

“Why are you crying? You know you want this.”

“Just relax, trust me.”

“It’s your own fault. If you didn’t want it, you should have said something.”

“You’re not going to, like, call the cops or anything right?”

“I did it because I love you.”

“It’s already happened now you might as well let me finish.”

“You said no too quietly, it was basically a yes.”

“You wanted it too.”

He heard me say “No!” but he said “You didn’t sound certain.”

“We’re cool, right?”

“You can’t stop me now.”

*laughs* “I’m just playing with you… stop moving away from me.”

“This is what you wanted.” “Stop moving, it will hurt less.” (Afterward) “Don’t you dare tell anyone I raped you.”

“I thought you were just teasing when you said no.” (I repeatedly said no and struggled.)

“‘NO’?! Come on… just relax and stop fighting! I know you want it.”

“It’s not rape because we are married.” “If you love me you’ll let me do it to you.”

“You still bitter about a simple misunderstanding?”

“You’re a champ.”

“I don’t want you to think that I took advantage of you.”

“Don’t you love me? Don’t you trust me?” / “I can’t believe you’re gonna be MAD about this.”

“It hurt even for me.”

“It’s OK. You’ll like it.”

“It was just a joke.”

“Relax… it’s all just part of a joke. Others do too. You have nothing to worry about.”

“It must have been the alcohol, I didn’t even realise what I was doing.”

“Just do it, you’ll like it.” / “It’s okay, it will feel good.”

“Please come back on the couch. It’s OK.”

“I love you…” “We’re married in god’s eyes now…” “Stop crying…” “It won’t hurt if you relax.” “You have no idea how good this feels.” “Just let me do it.”

“I’m sorry about last night… I hope we can still be friends.”

“You can’t do that. Don’t worry I’m almost done.” (after I asked him to stop)

“Was that good for you?”

“It’s okay.”

“Shh… it’s fine.”

“I don’t want people to think I’m a bad guy.”

“You said ‘yes’ already, you can’t change your mind.” / “Don’t you trust me?”

“Just try to forget.”

“Hold still, you’re safe.”

“Don’t worry, we can wait until you’re ready.” (and so I let my guard down)

“You know I would never do anything that would deliberately cause you distress or harm.”

“Shhh, it’s okay.”

“Just trust me?”

“Don’t cry, you’re going to make me feel bad.”

“Please, just once.”

“It’s a good kind of hurt.” / “I’ll stop eventually.” / “You never said no or stop.”

“I’m your boyfriend, it’s not a big deal.”

Related post: Rape Myths About How Victims “Should” Behave




Hunting a Rhino to Save Rhinos

BBC News reports today that a permit to hunt and kill an endangered Black Rhino in Namibia has been sold at a US auction for $350,000 (£212,000):

The auction was held amid tight security at a Dallas convention centre, where dozens of protesters had gathered. The winning bidder – who has not been named – will hunt an old, non-breeding male rhino. The organisers say such animals actually pose a threat to younger rhinos, which they sometimes charge and kill. All proceeds will be donated to the Namibian government and will be earmarked for conservation efforts, safari club officials said.

A black rhino seen head-on, standing in the grass at Ngorongoro, Tanzania.

A black rhino seen head-on, standing in the grass at Ngorongoro, Tanzania. (Photo by Demetrius John Kessy, CC BY 2.0 license. Links to source.)

[Read more…]

How Ayurveda Works (Not Really)

This piece appeared in The Hindu this morning – Understanding How Ayurveda Works. The Hindu does have a soft corner for “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), but normally it’s limited to the writings of B.M. Hegde in the “open page”, where anyone can write in. This is different – it appeared in the Science and Technology section.

The piece starts with a list of differences between what it calls “traditional medicine (TM)” and “modern medicine (MM)”. Including this: “TM looks at results, not how the treatment works while MM advances by understanding the mechanism of action, and cause and effect.” This is a convenient trope in CAM – convenient because it absolves CAM proponents from explaining how their drugs do what they’re claimed to do. The rest of the article describes a study done on 2 ayurvedic preparations which was published about two years ago in PLOS ONE – “In Vivo Effects Of Traditional Ayurvedic Formulations in Drosophila melanogaster Model Relate with Therapeutic Applications”.

The scientists did an experiment on the effects of these formulations on fruit flies – one formulation is based on amla (gooseberry), the other contains mercury sulphide. As if often the case with CAM substances, their supposed benefits are multitudinous – one “enhances life expectancy, body strength, intellect, fertility and gives freedom from illness”, and the other is used “in a wide variety of disorders including chronic and recurrent infections (pneumonia/bronchitis), fistula-in ano, rheumatological diseases especially those of auto-immune origin, sexual and general debility and benign and malignant neoplasms”. With an aim of analysing “effects of the whole Ayurvedic formulations rather than their “active” components”, the scientists tested the fruit flies for “effects on longevity, development, fecundity, stress-tolerance, and heterogeneous nuclear ribonucleoprotein (hnRNP) levels”.

The problem is plausibility – no plausible mechanism for these substances to have these effects is given, other than a routine mention of anti-oxidants. Science-based medicine looks at plausibility because the prior probability of a drug working makes a big difference to such studies. This article – The Plausibility Problem – explains pretty much everything you need to know on the subject, including things like true/false positives/negatives, what we mean by power and specificity of a study, prior probability and positive predictive value. (Also see this other article on science-based vs. evidence-based medicine.) This is essentially Bayesian reasoning. In a nutshell, a low prior probability matters:

Even for a well designed, powerful study, if the premise is highly unlikely, a positive result does not give us convincing evidence that the premise is true. For studies with weaker power, the results are even less persuasive. So why do extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence? Because for implausible claims, ordinary evidence is highly unreliable. A single positive study with a P value of .05 is ordinary evidence. For a very implausible hypothesis, a result of this sort is quite likely to be a false positive.

So without any hypothesis on how amla and mercury sulphide have these beneficial effects on “life-history”, this single study cannot be taken as proof that they have these effects. The vagueness of the supposed benefits is problematic too (and is a common trope in CAM with its descriptors like “holistic”, “boosts immunity”, “removes toxins”, “promotes well-being”). The more specific the claimed benefit, the easier it is to test it. (Compare the ayurvedic vagueness with the highly specific benefits and mechanisms of gooseberry listed here.)

Here’s a contrasting example also from “ancient” medicine – the anti-malarial drug Artemisinin. Artemisinin comes from the herb Artemisia annua, and its anti-malarial properties were first described by Tu Youyou and colleagues in the 1960s when Chinese scientists investigated more than 2,000 herbal recipes found in traditional Chinese medicine. So far so good – ayurveda proponents would be happy reading this. But read a bit more and the differences start to appear – the active compound was identified, the original extraction method didn’t work, only three treatments emerged while the rest were useless (I wonder if ayurveda proponents would do such a culling instead of making blanket assertions like “Ayurveda works”), even more powerful derivatives and combination treatments have been synthesized (i.e. they’re not “natural”), and crucially, the chemical mechanism of the drug is mostly known. This is a good example of Bayesian principles applied to medicine – the combination of a good prior probability and an overwhelming amount of data confirms that the drug works.

So what the scientists investigating ayurvedic substances should do is: (1) propose mechanisms i.e. HOW does the substance do what they claim it does and (2) do proper repeated trials to gather evidence that it does do what they say it does.


What to Say When Someone Dies?

My grandmother died today – she was 97 years old and had been on the decline for some time. She had also endured a very low quality of life for years (once saying, “How long is this going to go on?”), not being able to move or read or feed or bathe herself – so her death comes more as a relief than as a shock. At work today when I told a colleague about this, they said “May her soul rest in peace”.

Awkward silence followed.

I’m sure I’m not the only atheist who’s faced this problem, so I thought I’d pen down my thoughts on what to say – for believers talking to atheists, as well as atheists talking to believers.

First, do say something – don’t remain silent. Any awkwardness you feel is irrelevant. This is not about your feelings – it’s about the feelings of the person who’s lost a loved one. Even a heartfelt oh fuck – i.e. expressing shock – is better than saying nothing.

My mother died several years ago. That death was particularly raw and painful for me, as (a) she was my mother, and (b) she died of cancer and this involved suffering. I still have the emails my friends and relatives sent me back then. Here are some snippets from the emails I appreciated:

Sunil – Extremely saddened to hear about this. Both __ & I express our condolences and hope you and your dad are ok (or as ok one can get given the circumstance). Let me know when I should call you; I’m tempted to right now, but I won’t. (I had asked people not to call.)


Sunil you have been so much in our thoughts these last few weeks, knowing that the news you sent this morning would finally arrive, but that death, however long expected, still comes as a terrible and painful shock. We are so very sorry.


I am just not sure what should I write to you. I am just thinking aloud with you and just trying to feel your feeling. This is what our life is, ups and downs, birth and death. Though we tell each other “we have to face it”, but I can feel few things are so so very much hard to face. (This person also wrote “may her soul” etc., but there was enough substance in the email for it not to matter.)


Hi Sunil, really sorry to hear about your mom, didn’t know what to write all these days. I hope you, your dad and sister are ok.


Sunil, we are very sorry.  I don’t have any words of condolence, I can’t even imagine what you must be going through right now. You have ALL our support.


And here are 2 emails which I did NOT appreciate. Both these friends were Christians, and subsequently, I mentally “downgraded” our friendship:

Dear sunil, I know you claim to be not much of a believer in God but at this moment I don’t know what else to say – may the comfort and peace of God be with you and your family during this really difficult time. Take care.


I have no idea what to say except that I would like to share with you a piece that I read out at my Nana’s memorial service. Its a beautiful piece and somehow it does bring one immense solace. (The rest of the email comprised of the poem Death is Nothing at All, which offers solace by saying that there is an afterlife, and ends with the line: “How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!”.)


So basically I think the thing to do is, express empathy and acknowledge the person’s loss – that this is a horrible thing that’s happened to them. That’s pretty much it. What you should NOT do when giving condolences to an atheist is bring gods into it. Gods don’t exist, so you’re not helping us at all with that.

What about the reverse – what should an atheist say to a grieving believer? Once a colleague of mine lost their father, also to cancer. I sent them a message saying something like My condolences __, I lost my mom to cancer so I have some idea of what you’re going through. They messaged back saying Thanks Sunil, let us pray for his soul. I didn’t reply any further, which I think was all right – you don’t need to lie about your beliefs, but you don’t need to bring them up either. There is a time and place for arguments about the existence of gods, and this is not it. I heard another good example recently, from an atheist friend who was speaking to the mother of someone who had died. The mother explicitly asked if my friend was an atheist too and said that there was indeed a supernatural power. My friend didn’t react to that – “I listened quietly to whatever she said”. Again, I think this is the right approach.

If you have any tips on what to say and what not to say, feel free to leave them in the comments.