Philosophy, Psychology, Science, Skepticism

On Consciousness

Why am I doing this?

(You can skip to the next section if you want to bypass my opinionated rant in defense of the scientific method)

Now this word “consciousness” has been used so many times by so many Tom, Dicks and Harrys around the world, that anyone who watches a 20-minute Sadhguru or Deepak Chopra (Deepu) video online will think that they are now experts on the supposedly “mystical” field of spooky “consciousness” that even “science” (whatever their understanding of it is) knows so little about and thus the scriptures (and their books) will now come to the rescue by uncovering the mysteries of human consciousness through – wait for it – speculations!

Well, speculation is a major part of the scientific process as well, no doubt, but to assume that speculation single-handedly will solve the consciousness problem (without even a single drop of empiricism/critical thinking/experimentation/scientific consensus/data processing), is wholesome ignorance. And what do you mean by “even science cannot understand it properly”? Is science a dude who is confused about something? No man, science is just a tool. When you utter such ill-informed turd-speech it sounds like you’re saying “even hammer cannot nail properly, it bashed my finger instead”. The problem is not in the hammer – but your clumsiness. Likewise, the problem is not in science because there are some gaps in Human knowledge – but instead in inherent and oftentimes unavoidable human biases and assumptions which form the major part of the limitations of what we call the scientific process/method. We need to be clear on this basic fact. Science is just a tool – but the best we have till now to uncover facts about reality. Also it’s not bad that scientific facts keep updating, it’s good to update something, and it’s bad – always – to not update information.

From the above few paragraphs you must have figured out that I’m not a big fan of Jaggi Basudev nor the notorious Deepu. They are highly intelligent, charismatic, benign-looking, charming brown guys who talk about supposedly “eastern” and “mystical stuff” that no one understands. Well congratulations – even they don’t fully understand what they are talking about. If someone does understand what they are talking about then there’s no need to talk in circles and riddles and poetry and what not. You also don’t have to add jargon such as “quantum” or “engineering” to your claims to make you sound credible. There’s only one way to actually become credible – by being intellectually honest and to not talk about something you haven’t understood. And why not be straight-forward while explaining concepts?

For example, if the question is “how heavy is this watermelon?” then the answer should be “it’s X kgs/Lbs” and definitely not “Look, if we assume that this potato is a certain weight and we are to reflect on it’s quantum superfluence, then we can say that it is X as well as Y Kgs/Lbs.” Well, you technically have the right to say that but good luck trying to make sense to any reasonable human being. You do have the right to be ignorant and stupid, but why be ignorant and stupid when you have options to not be? What I’m talking about is this idea called the “First Principles” or in other words “Foundational Reasoning”. What this fancy philosophical word implies is that basics can be explained in simple terms to understand the premise about a certain knowledge. Because if our initial premise is wrong then any argument derived from such a start is not worth examining. So it’s vital in philosophy to get our premise right – and that is where I do not agree with men like these – their very foundations are shaky. They usually argue from an erroneous premise, that nothing esoteric they say ever makes sense unless it’s something about practical life advice or general human wisdom (which even an uneducated old lady in a village might tell you from experience). This is why people like Jaggi and Deepu are never straightforward and have no choice but to talk in riddles and are also compelled to use unnecessary jargon. Should you listen to these people? Entirely your choice. But should these people be trusted when they challenge a scientific principle? Perhaps not, because clarity and precision is vital to the scientific method.

Having a beard, the title of a ‘guru’ or even a medical degree doesn’t automatically make us experts on every “sciency” subject out there. In that sense, even I am not an expert on consciousness. For actual science, you need to go speak to a proper Neuroscientist or read (and properly understand) their elaborate scientific work. What I am trying to do through this article is to reiterate some ground-level facts that are well-established in the field of Neuroscience when it comes to the ever-so-sexy topic of “consciousness”. I’ll be using simple English and simple language because that’s all we need to discuss the basics of any established scientific concept. And below, I’m going to talk about the basics starting from these most talked-about topics when it comes to consciousness: limitations of science, consciousness, perception, identity, death and afterlife. Because I believe that everyone should understand something for what it is and not what they want it to be. But again this article will still not be accurate scientific information (this is not how science works, this is just communication of scientific information to the public). For actual science you would have to train yourself to be able to read and interpret complex scientific information and concepts through scientific papers published in peer-reviewed journals. Doing science is hard, talking shit about science is easy – you just have to use the psychological defense called denial to justify your psychological errors in reasoning known as biases.

Limitations of science

(This is where the real thing begins)

Science cannot figure out everything. This is something that everybody knows, but do they really understand what they think they know? Let me establish something first – there is no western nor eastern science. There is just science. We either have outdated science or updated science. Most of the time updated science with latest information is what scientists or practitioners of evidence-based medicine/tech look for and what progresses the field of science and technology. With no updates, that knowledge is likely to get stagnant and redundant. For example, Ayurveda used to be an actual science during the times of the Maurya Empire in India, but then no one ever updated the practice as time went by (they still believe there are three humors that cause diseases, even in a post-germ theory era), so this makes Ayurveda an outdated science. Other examples of outdated science – bloodletting, leech therapy, astrology, alchemy etc (which were once thought to be scientific until newer evidence came about).

What is science? It’s merely a tool like a hammer as I’ve mentioned above. It’s a tool used by Homo sapiens for observation and documentation of their surroundings. Science, as erroneously assumed, is not even a body of knowledge. Bodies of knowledge can be based on scientific data following people’s observations. People’s observation of scientific data can and have been wrong. This error could arise due to lack of appropriate technology at a particular time or just errors borne out of human clumsiness or mal-intent. When the appropriate technology is available, or when new techniques to reduce errors are developed, new data can be better interpreted to build upon the old body of knowledge. This is how science is self-correctional and thus a continuous process. Unless you’re of some alien species who have discovered another tool better than science, you’re compelled to face the limitations of science. Like it or not, science is till now the best way of acquiring information on anything, and it’s supposed to keep updating. That’s how it improves. What matters for our discussion is scientific evidence in the present. If you think you’ve found something better than the scientific method to uncover the truth about the universe, then you should show us how that works – you’d be doing everyone and humanity a huge favor. But note the word – “show”, don’t just tell.

Consciousness

To be very honest, we (humans) don’t know how to describe it in one word and to quantify it objectively, but we do know for a fact that what we call consciousness definitely arises from our brain. Unlike Rene Descartes’ dualism, which used to be widely accepted until about 70 years ago, we now understand that without the brain there will be no conscious experience in animals (including humans) – because the high level of powerful correlation is very obvious. And every time we conduct experiments to see if conscious experience exists outside of the brain, we will fail, because the brain seems to be the limit. Now before you pat yourselves on your shoulders for “defeating science”, we do know quite a lot about consciousness though. People hold the assumption that scientists try to solve the problems of consciousness through just high-school physics, chemistry and biology concepts (although the basics do require them) and are unaware that a monstrously vast field called neuroscience exists as well and it uses the same simple scientific principles used in high-school science classes. And why not? It works.

Consciousness we know is not at all a single entity. We understand that it is borne out of a process inside the brain. For us to be consciously aware, we need to have all those processes working together. We could also say that consciousness itself is a process, but that would be incomplete and sometimes misleading. To understand it simply, I have to use the analogy of vision. If you ask me what vision is, I’ll give you a similar answer: we don’t know how to describe it in one sentence, but we do know that it’s something borne out of a process involving our eyes and our brain. Light (photons) will strike the retina (which comprises of nerve cells) and evoke electrical signals inside the nerves that lead into various regions of the brain. The processing neurons (nerve cells) inside the brain (mostly in the backside of the brain known as occipital cortex) will process the information received through the retina and interpret it as vision. So honestly, in crude terms, what we know as vision is just an illusion. It’s our brain interpreting certain wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum as “something significant” which we call vision. In reality there are just photons and wavelengths reflecting off surfaces, but we see them as colorful information – an illusion, albeit a practically important one because it helps us navigate our way through physical space.

Likewise, for consciousness to arise, it involves a complex interplay of neural and environmental processes (External stimuli, reticular activation area, cerebral cortex, sensory nerve tracts relaying information, complex group of nerve cells in various regions of the brain, nerve cell metabolism and molecular interactions, neurotransmitters, synapses etc). These concepts are sadly too broad to be discussed in detail here, so perhaps another day and another article. Awareness of the self (including sentience), and awareness of our surroundings are some facets of the broader concept of consciousness. We feel that we are aware and sentient, but we cannot quantify it as in we cannot tell exactly how much aware or sentient we are. We can, however, observe and determine the basic fact – whether we are conscious or not. All we need to do is to kill the brain completely (like in brain death) and we will notice that the person is now not aware nor conscious. But mere observation can be misleading, so let’s use technology to aid our observations and give us more accurate data. We could map brain waves (Electroencephalography or EEG) for this purpose. We can see patterned brain waves during awareness as well as during sleep. Contrary to popular belief, sleep is not a state of unconsciousness, but instead that of low awareness. We can still see specific brain activities in our brains while we are sleeping. But when blood supply to our brain is completely stopped (massive stroke) and our brain completely dies (even if our heart and lungs may still be working through mechanical assistance) then we notice that brain waves (except for expected artifacts) are now absent. If you’re not satisfied by EEG then you can also use another technology called a functional MRI (fMRI) to document the same. fMRI is a technique that detects blood flow to the brain and correlates that to brain activity. We could also use a PET scan – which shows metabolic activities inside the brain cells, which can then be correlated to basic brain activity. Whatever methods we use, we’ll always see with a great degree of confidence that when the brain is dead, activities inside it disappear and with them our consciousness and awareness as well. We’ve made this correlation in so many people by now that they sufficiently tell us that for conscious awareness to appear in humans, the brain needs to be functional. If conscious awareness were to exist outside the human brain as dualism or theological schools of thought proposed, then we should at least see some people in a sample of thousands, if not millions, maintaining at least some awareness when the brain is completely and irreversibly dead.

This much is enough to establish the fact that consciousness cannot exist outside the human brain. If you think it does, then you’ll have to objectively show a completely brain dead person being at least minimally aware. All we need to establish this fact is foundational reasoning/first principles coupled with available evidence. We know with great certainty that the brain is the source of conscious awareness. This effectively makes the dualist argument void.

Perception

How do we perceive something? The simplest description of perception could be that it signifies the interpretation of physical information by a certain processing unit, after that information is received by a receiving unit – and in the process becoming aware of that physical information in the processing unit’s own unique way.

I’ll go back to the vision analogy again; when the brain receives the wavelength/photon (light) information via the retina and optical nerves, it tries to tag those bits of information by assigning the illusion of color vision. What are colors anyway? They are merely the brain’s own interpretation of wavelength perception – colors do not exist in the physical world outside a certain nervous system, they are just a way of the brain for it to sort raw electrical data into something orderly. So colors are like the brain’s way of labeling information, sorting things to make it easier for it to detect different wavelengths of light and to change their host’s behavior accordingly. Similarly, our brains interpret different frequencies of molecular vibrations as “sound”. Vibrations occur in the physical world, not sound. Sound is merely perception, a way for the brain to sort the vibrational frequencies into orderly information for the same purpose as for light information.

Likewise conscious perception can be said to be an umbrella phenomenon comprising of thousands of different channels of similar perceptions throughout our body. To understand perception in the simplest way, we definitely have to forget the famous idea of the “five senses”. Simply because there are way more than 5 and even within those famous 5 major organs, there are different sensory receptors that relay a diverse range of sensory information to different areas of the brain. Namely, apart from the famous 5, we have a kind of position sense in our joints called proprioception, we have sensors in muscle tendons and also inside the muscles, we have sensors inside other organs as well, and we have a vast assortment of receptors in the skin for specifically different kinds of sensations (so just saying skin senses touch is a severe understatement). When the entire nervous system works to relay all these different information through billions of nerve tracts and clusters to the brain – it has a task of organizing all those sensations in an orderly way so that it can interpret them accordingly to change its host’s behavior. For example, if we lose our sense of pain in our feet (as in chronic untreated diabetics) then we may unconsciously injure them while moving or by wearing tight shoes – only for them to be gradually infected as we may not be aware enough to take care of the wound. Of course if we lose one sense, there are always others to fill in the gap (like blind people still being able to move about by feeling or hearing), but a relay of many different sensations to the brain and their interpretation at all times (even during sleep) is crucial for us to be consciously aware of our surrounding and ourselves.

Now remember the vision and sound analogy I mentioned above, our brain perceives light as the illusion of ‘vision’ and molecular vibrations as the illusions of ‘sound’ and it similarly does the same for other sensations as well. To talk simply, our perception of the physical environment is broadly just a collection of different illusions that feel like one. By now you may be comparing the brain to a simple model of a computer. There are inputs, there is a central processing unit, and then there is an output. Well, this is not exactly true. What is similar could be the concept that this illusion of perception that we are talking about could be likened to the software in the computer which is projecting onto the monitor through a graphical user interface. When a computer receives any external information, it is converted by some transducers or receivers into binary information (1’s and 0’s), which is then processed by the processor unit and then relayed towards an output source again as slightly modified binary information, which the output device (monitor) translates into pixel form so that the human observers can understand them. Now if we cut the channels from the processor to the monitor on a computer, the human observer cannot make sense of the information (even if it is being processed by the processing unit). This is where I think we can point out how the brain differs from the computer. The brain acts both like the processing unit as well as the human observer! Think about a computer chip that is self-aware – and we have something that is closer to what the brain is. In short, the brain is like a sentient computer chip.

Well, to be honest again, the brain as a whole cannot be always likened to a single processing unit. I did that above to give you the big picture. To be fair, we should say that the brain is a collection of 86 billion-plus processing units. Sometimes it takes just one nerve cell to act as a processing unit, sometimes it takes a group of them – but the established fact is that the brain has multiple processing areas, as well as observing areas. We don’t understand the full process at a detailed molecular and cellular level, but we are getting closer and closer every year because of innovation in newer technologies. To be fair to the brain, it deserves to be misunderstood and hard to study, because out of the 20,000 genes in our body, 14,000 of them are expressed in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) – 70% of our genes are involved in the development of the brain and spinal cord and it’s not surprising to me as to why these are the most complex organs in the entire biosphere. So how can anyone versed in neuroscience believe that the mind is not inside the brain?

And since our brain interprets its own perceptions in various different ways (the details to which are still being studied), we know for a basic fact that conscious awareness is an illusion borne out of a process that occurs nowhere else but inside the brain. How do we know this? How does Rene Descartes’ concept of dualism (mind and body being separate) not hold today? Because this basic fact can be demonstrated, repeatedly, in any organized setting, by anyone who understands what the scientific process actually is. This is why I keep repeating the simple rhetoric – you are what your brain makes you and your brain is nothing but the generator of your ‘self’.

Identity

“You are what your brain makes you and your brain is nothing but the generator of your ‘self’”.

Identity is something that is very dear to us all. Each of us have either an assigned identity or a conditioned identity. Our identities could be assigned to us by someone else outside of our own choice (like our names or tribe membership such as nationality at birth), or instead by ourselves later on as we develop our own choices (changing from your birth name or caste or nationality to another). Conditioned identity is something you assume for yourself because it’s always been there since you were born (eg. like a rigid sense of identity associated with religion or nationality). I’m not implying they’re good or bad, they’re just the way things are. For this article however, we are not going to talk about identity assigned by others. But what determines these other identities in life? What makes us who we are? What does identity comprise up of?

Most people must be aware of the nature versus nurture debate. To understand what identity is and how it comes about in the broadest sense, we have to replace the “versus” with “and”. It is nature and nurture, because the two broad factors are not mutually exclusive. By nature, we mean everything that has little to no human control and is purely due to our biological structure and physical environment – such as our genetic composition, the way our nervous system develops inside our mother’s uterus, the diseases or injuries we contract at or right after birth or later in life, our IQs. By nurture, we mean something which has a direct influence of the human society – the society or community we were born into, the kind of parents or guardians we had as children, the kind of friends we hung out with, the kind of relationships we have or had in life and so on. As we grow older, our senses accumulate various information from the environment that are processed by our brains – while the nervous system is still in development. Now our brains may process those information differently for everyone because everyone’s brains are similar yet simultaneously very different. And these complex and intricate interplays between nature and nurture and the constant processing of information by the brains and their resultant correction, regression or improvement of our memories and behaviors will eventually give us a sense of identity at some point in time. This is because our brains stop developing as rapidly after 26 to 30 years of age compared to childhood and we are more likely to adopt a rigid sense of identity after this rough cutoff.

A simpler way to think about this is by imagining a clone of yourself. Let’s say that you cloned yourself and now this clone-baby is born from a borrowed human womb. You try to provide that baby with the exact conditions of your childhood and observe him grow up until it reaches your age when you cloned it. The question is, will the clone of yourself become you? Theoretically, if you exactly mimic each and every condition of your childhood down to the femtoseconds and can control your clone’s biology to be exactly like yours at all times, then perhaps the answer would be a yes. But in practice and in reality, it is always a no. Because in reality there are so many things you can never control and no two events always play in the same expected manner or sequence. Because of the sometimes random and sometimes orderly nature of the universe, nature always errs; and since people are part of nature, they err while nurturing their babies – even if they are their exact clones. Another simple and realistic way to understand this is by looking at identical twins. Identical twins are always a clone of each other – but during the course of their lives, they develop their own tastes and their own sense of identities, personalities and choices. So there you go – nature and nurture with a touch of randomness and sometimes order are responsible for our unique sense of identities and personalities (second law of thermodynamics, i.e. entropy). But the brain is still the limiting factor, you can’t have none of that without a functional brain and nervous system. So even your identities and your unique yet familiar personalities aren’t outside the brain.

Death and afterlife

What happens when you die? That depends on how you define death. Now philosophically, death occurs when you cease to exist in this world that you and the people in it know. Scientifically, in the crudest and most general of ways, death is defined as the point in time when your organic body ceases to function, including the brain, and especially the brain. This is one reason why brain-death (a condition when only the brain is dead but your body is still alive) is so important socially as well as legally. It is the source of your awareness as well as your identity. When this organ ceases to function irreversibly, you cease to exist.

Now people may argue that the “idea” of this person whose brain just died will still linger on despite the brain being dead. This is true to a certain extent though. This person is objectively non-functional and will now never perceive (because the brain doesn’t heal itself once it’s dead). But it seems to the untrained and unaware people as if the subjective part of the dead person still lives – which many people call this person’s ‘soul’, and that is understandable. This “idea” of the person’s identity, which people think transcends his physical body, is possible because of the other brains which are perceiving and have memories of his behavioral characteristics stored in them. So in their brains, their perceptions and assumptions about this now physically dead person still exists. And this very much explains as to why the concept of the “soul” or the mind transcending the physical form, is so ubiquitous across different human cultures separated by time and space. The soul of a person might actually be information about them stored inside other people’s brains. And no two people will have exactly the same ideas about a specific person at any time. For example, my perception of Jaggi Basudev will definitely differ from those who are closer to him (that still doesn’t give validity to his false claims though).

Because people believed that the mind of a person transcended their bodies, the concept of afterlife probably arose. Because when you don’t have cutting edge science and technology to back you up, it was the prevalent commonsense – people must exist outside their bodies. We know today that the concept of afterlife holds no ground in serious scientific academic studies of any kind. We can try to understand the psychology behind why people believe in afterlife (be it reincarnation or the concept of heaven and hell), but it is utter ignorance to even propose the idea that the afterlife (as described in theology and scriptures) is real. Because it’s an untestable claim and needs a significant amount of denial or dismissal of facts to believe in. An untestable claim because it’s based on only speculation and erroneous premises that cannot be demonstrated at all. When we know for certain that the brain is the seat of our awareness, identities and personalities, it doesn’t make sense in the 21st century as to why we have to assume that these facets will live on outside of the dead man’s brain (except if we take into consideration the memories in other brains). We can try to understand people’s ideas of ghosts, spirits and the soul as their old efforts in trying to understand the nature of reality, owing to the limitations in technology during their time. But in the 21st century, assuming a supernatural explanation to confirm one’s belief in the afterlife is nothing more than turning a blind eye to evidence. Maybe it gives them comfort, or maybe that’s their coping mechanism after losing a loved one – but it’s sad to point out that they are absolutely incorrect. It’s as simple as that. We don’t need a middle-ground for this. It’s very well established. You live on after death only as information stored in other people’s brains – but do all those information sum up to become exactly you? Perhaps not.

Wrapping it up

So there’s absolutely no doubt that the brain as a whole is the seat of our conscious awareness, our personalities, our memories, our choices, our actions, our preferences, and our sentience. Is a bacteria sentient? Perhaps not. Are we sentient? Yes we are, and our brains are evidently responsible for that.

Some of us find It really hard to digest the fact that our existence is mostly material. That doesn’t mean that the subjective (immaterial) world does not exist at all – it does. Imagination, metaphysics, fiction, thought-experiments, ideas, aesthetics are real information. I’m just saying that they have a material basis and do not exist independent from the brain. We need the brain to experience and share our subjective sensations with other people who also have similar brains that are capable of interpreting our language. We communicate subjective information through the use of languages in different forms. This is a prime fact that separates us from the lower primates and mammals, we use language as a means to communicate information generated in our individual brains. Even a dog is sentient and self-aware, but their range of interaction with their species and other animals is limited when compared to that of our species. This is because our brains have evolved into a much more complex form that can generate language and also interpret them – allowing us to document our observations and thoughts (even abstract ones) and to communicate them successfully to other members of our species. This is how we can successfully communicate complex information across ages and boundaries to create societies and then civilizations. The language generating brain is what makes us human, allowing us to objectively as well as subjectively assess and interpret data about ourselves and our surroundings.

It might be hard for most people to accept the material nature of our self-awareness because they do not have another species or life form to compare themselves to. The only language-speaking sentient life-forms we know till now are Homo sapiens. So until we find an alien species that are similar to us or instead we build artificial intelligence that trick us into believing that they are self-aware and conscious, some of us may not accept the brain theory of consciousness at all. In short, until we can successfully replicate self-awareness and sentience in machines, we may not fully understand the philosophical question posed by Thomas Nagel – “what is it like to be a bat?” Now this is an interesting and constructive topic we all can discuss about as it is an open question. But how will we even rationally approach it, if we do not understand to accept the basic premise that the brain is the seat of all subjective experience?

Even if we can think about distant stars and visualize far away nebulas and then can come back straight into reality to think about other people, ourselves and our daily chores, we have to understand that the whole phenomenon was being processed inside some of the nerve cells within our brains. The only things science doesn’t understand is where and how exactly these phenomena arise in the brain, but there’s no doubt that it’s somewhere within the brain. This fact may seem unbelievable, counter-intuitive and reductive, but that’s the way it is – we have to accept facts for what they are and not how comfortable we want them to be. And unless we can demonstrate (just talk is not enough) the fact that the mind is independent of the brain, our argument will hold no credibility and is not worth consideration at any time whatsoever.

Religion, Skepticism

Karma

Personally, I really want Karma to be true. I really wish that the concept of karma and re-incarnation were of actual reality. I’d be the first one to rejoice if it were to be so. Because there are some people who actually deserve some real karmic punishment and also I’d be really happy to see them reborn as a snail or a dung beetle over and over again to be eaten alive by a predator, perpetually throughout many cycles. For the things these people have done, you really want them to be punished. Vengeful feelings aside, I’d also want the best for all the loved ones we all have lost. I’d really want my dog to be a re-incarnated form of a close relative or a grandparent I was close to when they were alive.

But reality is not human-centric for Karma to be real. It isn’t even life-centric for re-incarnation to be real, let alone Karma. How do we know in the first place that there is such a comfortable concept to lay claim so confidently? It’s written in a certain scripture, and has been re-iterated by well known wise sages or gurus in some corner of India. Not a very compelling argument. No one has ever demonstrated to validate the concept. So how do we know it’s real unless we are lying to ourselves or others who trust us?

So we just have to bet on the odds for the people who do us wrong to suffer, and have to force us to feel fulfilled if anything bad happens to them. And we call this guilty pleasure, Karma, along with an add-on concept of re-incarnation. A “Tit-for-Tat” mentality, justified by an elaborate metaphysical backstory. All in all, to consciously or subconsciously trick ourselves into believing some sort of escapist alternate reality, away from the harsh, indifferent, uncaring, nihilistic, esoteric and complex truth of the reality we actually exist in. Why can’t we be intellectually honest enough to face the reality we exist in rather than to try and escape from it? Honest in a sense to not confabulate concepts about reality when you don’t understand or know about it, but to admit ignorance and pursue reason and evidence instead?

Personal Opinion, Skepticism

Marketing! Marketing! Marketing!

Yoga and Ayurveda may have their own appeal to some people individually, but let me tell you that most of this trend is nothing but super-hyped marketing!

Its indeed a common realization that marketing never justifies reality. So why do we let ourselves be fooled by sadhu-cum-guru businessmen who capitalize on this post-modern idea?

It’s actually the same as believing, based on advertisement, that ‘Dove’ brand soaps do not cause change in litmus paper. Now how many of you have actually tested their soap with a litmus paper? Because if you do, you’ll find out that it will faintly turn blue (basic) unlike the no change claimed on TV. I did this simple experiment for myself years ago when I was studying chemistry back in high school. My curiosity was, how can a ‘soap’ which is base by definition, not turn a litmus paper blue? I’ve recalled this particular observation because I’ve come to realize that marketers can have us believe even on the farcical claim that a ‘soap’ is not ‘basic’. Soaps are ALWAYS goddamn basic! The litmus is ALWAYS blue for ANY soap! Soaps are SALTS of fatty ‘ACIDS’ and are thus bases like other SALTS of other ACIDS!

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A similar case, however much complex and occult, is presented in the postmodern, ideological and state-sponsored marketing of Ayurveda and Yoga. For example, if you ‘understand’ basic chemistry, Dove can’t fool you into believing that their soaps are neutral substances. In a much similar way, if you ‘understand’ the most basic human biology and physiology (functions of our body) and the origins and types of Yoga or Ayurveda, these marketers cannot fool you into believing in their bandwagon of super-hyped extraordinary claims simply intended for their capital gain!

One common explanation for this overt promotion of the two art could be our eastern or oriental inferiority complex. The meaningless thought that we sometimes used to have a grand culture which was supposedly more advanced than any, and now the ‘west’ has undermined our heritage and disciplines. Thus we blame every simple failings of our mentality on the obscurely defined criteria of ‘west’. We are simply trying to alter history towards false glory. So selling anything simply because it’s ‘ancient’ and ‘ours’ is literally and farcically dishonest (known as a genetic fallacy), especially when our claims can actually affect people’s health choices.

Fine! If you ‘personally’ (I repeat, ‘personally’) like these stretching exercises and ‘ancient’ (but medically insignificant) remedies for your own unreliable anecdotal ‘reasons’, go on and use them or practice them at your own risk. But at least for the love of the very term ‘reason’ , don’t irresponsibly call them ‘Scientific’ because that is one thing which they are NOT!

 

Personal Opinion, Philosophy, Rationalism, Skepticism

Questioning and Rethinking Democracy

“The world will not be right until kings (rulers) become philosophers, and philosophers become kings (rulers)”
                                                                                                                 – Plato

If you think Democracy is a Greek invention then you are deeply mistaken. In any human civilization or society, some form of order or force has some inevitable form of resistance. Freedom for Tyranny, Tyranny for anarchy, Communism for Capitalism, Secularism for Theocracy and Authoritarianism for Democracy. But these are merely just terms to describe the various different modes of struggle any human society can go through over time. I consider it to be a simple yet complex process of evolution of the collective psyche.

Be it 3000 BCE or 3000 CE, these struggles may differ in terminology but their essence will remain the same. So no; the concept of democracy has been here since the very beginning of the human species. If we look back into our history, we can find examples of non-Greco-Roman democracy across different cultures and tribes. So it’s origin isn’t limited to antiquity and Athens, even though the modern concept of this structure of governance is heavily inspired by the Greco-Roman model.

Now the point of this particular blog of mine is not to discuss the types or origins of democracy, but rather to question the concept of that form which most of us are familiar with today.

What comes to your mind the moment you come across the word democracy? Maybe people’s rule or public governance? Well, I’d say it’s valid to some extent at least on an ontological basis. But I’d like to put forth an inquiry as to whether it really means so in it’s true sense. When we think people’s rule, how can we distinguish Hegemony from Democracy? Or one may also question as to whether Democracy itself is in reality Hegemony? If Democracy becomes Hegemony, the voice of the minorities are suppressed so can it be considered another form of Authoritarianism where the oppressor is the majority. If this is so, how can we improve to establish a democracy where everyone’s voices are heard?

These aren’t just questions that have sprouted in my mind randomly but are actual questions that have been asked and raised as an issue throughout various revolutions and movements across the globe. They were asked during the Suffrage, the civil Rights movement, anti-apartheid movement, ‘Leave India’ campaign, the Arab spring, Kranti and two Jana-andolans in my home country of Nepal and even more so, these couple of years following the Rise of Narendra Modi, Brexit, Columbian Referendum, and the election of Donald Trump.

Now one would like to apply the heuristically-driven slippery slope logic here and say that the whole world is leaning more so towards the right and may be nearing destruction, but anyone who has carefully studied world affairs and history would rather say that the entire human civilization is based on an eternal argument towards utopia. Sometimes the yin-side will be heard and sometimes the yan-side will be heard and throughout the ages after numerous such cycles of arguments systems will be more and more polished and refined in order to strive towards utopia, much like a parabolic graph than a linear one, never perfect!

Talking about the dilemma of democracy, there have mostly been two main arguments. Whether to allow every faction and individual the right to vote and elect a government, or whether only some factions should be allowed to vote to elect a government? Now my argument will be trying to justify the latter postulate, and I will not be basing these factions on race, ethnicity or gender but rather on their reasoning abilities.

I’d like to consider the fact that most of the time any democracy has made a supposedly bad-decision, it’s mostly owed to the ignorance in part of the population. Some of you may argue that it might also be out of prejudice, which is true, but I’d like to mark prejudice as a form of ignorance in itself for reasons beyond the scope of this blog. And then going along the Socratic method of questioning, one may ask where does ignorance stem from? Some say it mostly stems from the uneducated or the less well-educated or the illiterate factions of the populace but I’d like to upgrade on that answer and say that it comes from the faction of the populace which cannot reason critically and think creatively. This fact could be universal.

Simply put, ignorance stems from those people, regardless of literacy, who cannot think for themselves and think clearly or rationally and would rather appeal to emotional and prejudiced slurs from sly politicians or leaders. So you might have figured out my main reasoning. Only allow those people to vote who have the ability to think critically and creatively without only the influence of heuristics.

But instead of just declaring my opinion, I’d also like to provide solutions to this philosophical standstill. People may ask how can any system assure and determine who can and not reason critically? Can that method be fail-proof? What if such an implementation instead of creating a just and reasonable system, lead to another bureaucracy or an elitist government that oversees the problems of the grass-roots?

To that I’d say my solution isn’t without its own flaws like any solution to any problem would have. We just have to argue taking into effect the benefit to harm ratio of this particular solution with relation to the society of interest. For instance, in highly literate societies like Sweden and New-Zealand, where per-capita GDP and the quality of Education is among the best in the world, this system may be fail proof and would ensure a baseline of well-educated critical thinkers in cohorts with suffrage. Same reasoning may apply for the US if implemented. Whereas if the same solution if blindly applied to nations such as India and South Africa with significant number of poorly educated and poverty stricken populace, it may not immediately work, though we can never say for sure for the long run.

So these are the simple solutions I propose and by this I do not claim to be an expert on political science or philosophy. I think the whole model of democracy should be changed by

  • First inspiring and teaching people how to think rationally and creatively, i.e to create a critical-thought-centric education system. (i.e Board exams and world education indexes should focus and reward more on analytical and thought processes.)
  • Instead of just assessing a nation’s ‘literacy rate’, judge a nation’s reasoning ability by assessing its ‘Critical Thinking Index’.
  • Make it mandatory for every educated person to go through an aptitude test for their Reasoning abilities for quantification purposes.
  • Finally, changing/amending the constitutions of Democracies to only allow individuals above an acceptable age with Critical Thinking/Reasoning ability above a certain acceptable threshold.

Simple four-step solutions for the betterment of democracies world-wide. This ensures a base-line of well-informed and responsible voters who would tend to think before casting their votes and would forever help improve the quality and integrity of the voters as well as the candidates for leadership. This would help prevent to much extent anyone from swaying the voters away from a reasonable rhetoric towards emotionally motivated and prejudice-driven ones.

In short, this system if it had been brought into effect, might have prevented a Brexit, a rejection of the FARC peace deal, the rise of the Modi-RSS system, or even a President Donald Trump.

Now it may be argued again that this will adversely affect the general liberty of the people. It may be scrutinized (a process which I encourage) saying that the illiterate will lose their right as humans; to which it can be argued against, saying that good education is a fundamental human right, and to choose not to be educated would become an unprofitable choice and automatically a deterrent towards not opting for education and hence ignorance. Absolute liberty may not always be beneficial and decisions are better made with a consequential mindset.

This is all I have to say for now. Feel free to disagree and please do put forth your counter-arguments.


P.S For those who say I trust Critical Thinking too much, like I trust the Scientific method (the two system of thought being mutually inclusive); I answer: They’re still the best two system we’ve got in order to understand reality, and until another better one comes up, its Critical Thinking and Science all the way for now! Cheers!

Watch the video below to learn about Socrates’ argument against Democracy…..

Charlatans, God Men, Nepal, Pseudoscience, Rationalism, Science, Skepticism

Nine days without oxygen or nine days without honesty?

Lately there has been quite a buzz around the the Nepali internet community regarding some Sidhha Baba Krishna das, who, along with his disciples and followers, has been claiming to have survived underground in a sealed compartment without food or oxygen for 9 days!

Now it surely is quite an astonishing achievement, defying human physiological limits, if what he’s claiming to have done is actually true.

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Krishna Das commencing his 9 day long oxygen less slumber. Image: Annapurna post

At first, when I read the news on some online portal, I thought about leaving it as it is without debunking it, owing to the negative reputation among the public regarding online portals. It’s always a tedious work to debunk something that sounds so obviously farcical. But when I noticed big shot national daily newspapers such as the Annapurna post and National television such as NTV News cover Krishna Das’s story, the conscious part of me noticed that something was not right and thus I was motivated to write a debunk-blog on this.

Without wasting more time, let us examine his claims straight away, systematically.

The Claims made

  1. Krishna Das claims supposedly on 25th Chaitra 2072 (7th April 2016) that he can survive without oxygen and food for 9 whole days.
  2. He and his disciples and followers stage a demonstration on the above mentioned date where he was to supposedly sleep inside a polythene-sealed supposedly air-tight wooden compartment for 9 days.
  3. Annapurna post goes on to report that the air-tight compartment was placed underground under observation of doctors and press (unclear about how many of them were present and whether or not they are affiliated to Krishna Das and his motives).
  4. The sealed compartment was to be buried under 1 foot of soil and sand on top of which holy grass (Jamara) is to be grown, probably just to show that the lid to his compartment was not tampered with.
  5. He claims he would be able to do so by the help of a certain unnamed yoga aasan and meditation, which allows him to stop his heart beat for 9 days!
  6. He projected to wake up on 3rd of Baisakh 2073 (15th April 2016) at exactly 9:35am whence he shall be unearthed from his transient burial.
  7. As promised he does wake up and is uncovered from the compartment at the said date and time.
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Krishna Das supposedly woke up from his claimed suspended animation. Image: Annapurna post

If we were to only look at his side of the story, and also as reported through various Nepali media outlets, then whoa! This seems to be nothing but a miracle! Chamatkar! But, as with every other Godman and charlatan, there always remain some loose ends and loop holes while they make some extraordinary claim out of the blue to garner public attention and media coverage. Because we should realize that 1) most televangelists, godmen and religious leaders seek mass media for publicity and 2) we live in a superstitious country where national daily newspapers have serious daily segments on astrology and Vaastu Shastra. So it is nothing new for even reputed news portals to come up with credulous stories on some mystical babas or gurus performing some random magical stuff.

What troubles me, and urges me most to write this blog is especially a statement made in the NTV 8:00pm news report today, at a time when a great many people nation-wide are hooked to their TV screens for this segment. The news reader said “Baba claims that his success has demonstrated that Scientific medicine still has not been able to prove anything of this sort and needs more investigation in this sector.

It’s a matter of concern in itself to see major media houses giving room to trivial news in place of the more important ones. It’s also very sad to see them portray some random charlatan as something worth considering, instead of trying to skeptically examine their activities as unbiased press is supposed to do. So I write….

Examining the claims in the same order

  1. [Krishna Das claims supposedly on 25th Chaitra 2072 (7th April 2016) that he can survive without oxygen and food for 9 whole days.] Krishna Das has surely claimed to be able to live for 9 days without oxygen and food, but he is not the first. There have been many claimants such as this one, some who have even claimed to have done so for 15 days let alone just 9! This still doesn’t validate his claim however, as it suggests more than ever of a likelihood of some slick trick up their sleeves. Another one is that of this guy, who claims to have been living for 70 years without food and water. One thing constant in such cases is that these Babas carry out their demonstrations only in the presence of their devotees or disciples and most of the time refuse to participate in controlled experiments to be carried out by neutral third parties, when invited.
  2. [He and his disciples and followers staged a demonstration on the mentioned date where he was to supposedly sleep inside a polythene-sealed supposedly air-tight wooden compartment for 9 days.] His samadhi takes place at his place of choice amidst his followers. It has been said that the whole thing was carried out in the presence of a few unnamed reporters and doctors. It’s not like in a country such as this that doctors and reporters cannot be bought. It’s also wrong to assume that a few doctors and press reporters could not even have been hoodwinked or deceived right there. Unless and until we are to be shown the details as to how the plastic was applied and how the compartment was designed, the whole demonstration loses its credibility.
  3. [The air-tight compartment was placed underground under observation of doctors and press] This is simply not enough. As I have said before, doctors and reporters are people as well and can be easily deceived owing to the overwhelming presence of devotees and disciples. A better way to observe would be to place cameras both on the inside as well as the outside, that are able to provide us with continuous non-interrupted recordings. What makes me doubt is the compartment being made out of wood and placed just a foot under porous soil and sand, which may not seal air completely. The method by which the plastic seal was applied is not very clear as well.
  4. [The sealed compartment was to be buried under 1 foot of soil and sand on top of which holy grass (Jamara) is to be grown, probably just to show that the lid to his compartment is not tampered with.] Nice try, but Jamara and sand are not enough in my opinion. One could easily cover pores with them and they too are not able to make the setup completely air-tight.
  5. [He claims he would be able to do so by the help of a certain unnamed yoga aasan and meditation, which allows him to stop his heart beat for 9 days!] A lot of sadhus and babas have claimed to have been able to do so, simply with the help of yoga and meditation. The most popular claim is them being able to stop their heartbeat completely. The same claim is made by Krishna Das as well. When invited to a fair, unbiased and controlled experiment, most of them refuse or do not attend for one or other reasons. In an experiment, when some claimants were observed under ECG while they meditated, their heart did not stop at all.
    • The average human body cannot survive without oxygen for 3 to 6 minutes.
    • The longest time breath held voluntarily recorded, is 24 min 3.45 secs and was achieved by Aleix Segura (Spain), in Barcelona, on 28 February 2016. This was done under a controlled setup by Guinness world records.
    • Yoga and meditation experts have been shown hold their breaths for longer than the average person who doesn’t do Yoga, but that is still not enough to hold it for a whopping 9 days as we are talking only in terms of minutes.
    • So it is impossible to be able to live even for more than a day with absolutely no oxygen, so 9 days is too extraordinary a claim!
  6. [He projected to wake up on 3rd of Baisakh 2073 (15th April 2016) at exactly 9:35am whence he shall be unearthed from his transient burial.] Well, this is not hard to understand. To be able to predict for exactly how long one can go without oxygen is very unlikely and dubious.
  7. [As promised he does wake up and is uncovered from the compartment at the said date and time.] But certainly if the entire setup is staged, then there would be no trouble in doing so. Anyone can do that. Not surprising.

Let’s come to the science part

Obviously a random blogger such as myself debunking Krishna Das’s claims logically is not enough to disprove him. But that still doesn’t give his demonstration any validity again. What is necessary is a controlled experiment to examine his claims. Because just as Carl Sagan has put it ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’. The more profound a claim is, more rigorous should an experiment be in order to try and test the claim. If it passes after such unbiased observed scrutiny then the claim could be considered valid. If valid, such findings would possibly aid the human race with further research in order to be able to hold breath long enough for deep sea diving or maybe even outer-space explorations. If not, then it becomes just another claim without evidence in the market.

So I have designed an experiment for this purpose, which will be able to test Krishna Das’s claims accurately, that also will be immune to any foul play or trickery.

  • Hypothesis:
    • Survival without oxygen (0% Oxygen i.e zero partial pressure of Oxygen)
    • Duration of claimed survival: 9 days (216 hours)
    • Claims this can be done by meditating in a Yogic aasan, which temporarily stops heart beat, while being deprived of Oxygen for 9 days.
  • Set-up and materials required
    • A completely air-tight (or vacuum) chamber that fits an adult human, made up of
      • Preferably hard plastic with air-lock system
      • that is preferably transparent and has a vacuum outlet to remove all air from within the chamber and vacuum it.
      • if transparency is not desired, then a go-pro or any camera system fit on all corners of the chamber inside as well as outside, that records video on continuous shot for 9 straight days

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        Air-tight see-through hard plastic container large enough for an adult human to fit in, with air-lock and preferably a vacuum outlet connected should be used
    • a team of significant professionals (certified medical doctors, journalists and technicians) not known to have been affiliated to Krishna Das in any way whatsoever.
    • an ECG (or vitals) monitor placed within the transparent chamber or that which can transmit signals wireless from within the air-locked chamber.
    • A pulse oxi-meter that displays oxygen saturation in the subject, to check if the subject is well and alive just in case his ECG becomes flat as he has claimed his heart will stop in his yogic aasan.
    • A system to monitor oxygen levels within the chamber
    • Camera angles outside the box should be adjusted such as the entire surface of the box from all sides, top as well as bottom, should be visible.
    • A method for immediate termination of experiment should the subject be under serious health hazard.
    • No one apart from the experimenters should be allowed within 10-20 metres of proximity of the setup.
    • The entire experiment is to be televised on a continuous shot with the help of multiple cameras simultaneously able to do so for 9 days continuously.
  • Procedure
    • Setup is prepared accordingly.
    • Cameras roll in a continuous shot able to last for 216 hours straight.
    • Subject (Krishna Das) is allowed as much time needed to carry out the preliminaries (Puja, Yogic practices etc) required for him to prepare himself before commencing.
    • Subject not be allowed to take into the chamber with him any equipment or instrument that helps or aids breathing, his clothing and garments and body surfaces are to be thoroughly checked by the examiners.
    • When everything is ready, subject enters the air-tight chamber with ECG and Pulse oximeter monitors in-situ.
    • Cameras inside the chamber (if any required) is initiated into recording.
    • Air-lock is applied, chamber is vacuumed, subject’s vitals checked and oxygen level inside the chamber checked.
    • No one is allowed within 10-20 metres of the setup.
    • Unless the subject’s condition worsens to critical level or if the subject voluntarily signals for termination, the experiment will not be terminated until the 216th hour is over.
  • Safety considerations
    • Pulse oximeter in-situ.
    • First-aid setup with stretcher.
    • Well-equipped ambulance on the ready.
    • Cardiopulmonary resuscitation setup with the provision of cardiac defibrillator and trained personell.
    • Quick de-vacuumizing setup.
    • Oxygen mask, oxygen cylinder, ventilator setup (machine/bag-mask).
    • Abort:
      • if Oxygen saturation (SPO2) is less than 80% with flat or almost flat ECG.
      • if SPO2 is less than 70% without flat ECG.
      • if SPO2 is less than 60% with or without flat ECG.
      • if subject signals for abortion.

Conclusion

Anyone thorough with high school science can understand this experiment and anyone equipped with the necessary budget and time can carry this out flawlessly. It’s a simple experiment anyone can design and perform.

If Krishna Das agrees to take part in this experiment or a similar controlled one, then maybe his claims are worth considerations and worth the time and effort of all the professionals involved. If he refuses, just like other previous babas and sandhus, then he goes straight into the archive of charlatans, frauds and con-artists. Period.

Reference

  1. Annapurna post [Nepali] – Commencement of Krishna Das’s venture
  2. Annapurna post [Nepali] – Krishna Das wakes up from his samadhi
  3. Can yogis stop their heart? [English] 
  4. Experiments in India on “Voluntary” Control of the Heart and Pulse
  5. Bihar ‘godman’ out of sealed pit after 15 days without water; doctors say it’s impossible
  6. Longest time breath held voluntarily
  7. Man claims to have had no food or drink for 70 years

 

Rationalism, Skepticism

The Dragon In My Garage

by Carl Sagan

Dragon

“A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage”

Suppose (I’m following a group therapy approach by the psychologist Richard Franklin) I seriously make such an assertion to you.  Surely you’d want to check it out, see for yourself.  There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity!

“Show me,” you say.  I lead you to my garage.  You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle — but no dragon.

“Where’s the dragon?” you ask.

“Oh, she’s right here,” I reply, waving vaguely.  “I neglected to mention that she’s an invisible dragon.”

You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon’s footprints.

“Good idea,” I say, “but this dragon floats in the air.”

Then you’ll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.

“Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless.”

You’ll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.

“Good idea, but she’s an incorporeal dragon and the paint won’t stick.”  And so on.  I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won’t work.

Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all?  If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists?  Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true.  Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder.  What I’m asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so.  The only thing you’ve really learned from my insistence that there’s a dragon in my garage is that something funny is going on inside my head.  You’d wonder, if no physical tests apply, what convinced me.  The possibility that it was a dream or a hallucination would certainly enter your mind.  But then, why am I taking it so seriously?  Maybe I need help.  At the least, maybe I’ve seriously underestimated human fallibility.  Imagine that, despite none of the tests being successful, you wish to be scrupulously open-minded.  So you don’t outright reject the notion that there’s a fire-breathing dragon in my garage.  You merely put it on hold.  Present evidence is strongly against it, but if a new body of data emerge you’re prepared to examine it and see if it convinces you.  Surely it’s unfair of me to be offended at not being believed; or to criticize you for being stodgy and unimaginative — merely because you rendered the Scottish verdict of “not proved.”

Imagine that things had gone otherwise.  The dragon is invisible, all right, but footprints are being made in the flour as you watch.  Your infrared detector reads off-scale.  The spray paint reveals a jagged crest bobbing in the air before you.  No matter how skeptical you might have been about the existence of dragons — to say nothing about invisible ones — you must now acknowledge that there’s something here, and that in a preliminary way it’s consistent with an invisible, fire-breathing dragon.

Now another scenario: Suppose it’s not just me.  Suppose that several people of your acquaintance, including people who you’re pretty sure don’t know each other, all tell you that they have dragons in their garages — but in every case the evidence is maddeningly elusive.  All of us admit we’re disturbed at being gripped by so odd a conviction so ill-supported by the physical evidence.  None of us is a lunatic.  We speculate about what it would mean if invisible dragons were really hiding out in garages all over the world, with us humans just catching on.  I’d rather it not be true, I tell you.  But maybe all those ancient European and Chinese myths about dragons weren’t myths at all.

Gratifyingly, some dragon-size footprints in the flour are now reported.  But they’re never made when a skeptic is looking.  An alternative explanation presents itself.  On close examination it seems clear that the footprints could have been faked.  Another dragon enthusiast shows up with a burnt finger and attributes it to a rare physical manifestation of the dragon’s fiery breath.  But again, other possibilities exist.  We understand that there are other ways to burn fingers besides the breath of invisible dragons.  Such “evidence” — no matter how important the dragon advocates consider it — is far from compelling.

Once again, the only sensible approach is tentatively to reject the dragon hypothesis, to be open to future physical data, and to wonder what the cause might be that so many apparently sane and sober people share the same strange delusion.

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Carl Sagan
नेपाली भाषा (Nepali Language), Skepticism

तर्क

तर्क

मनुष्य जाती एक प्रकारको झुट मिजासको प्राणी हो। आश्चर्य लाग्ला मेरो कुरा सुन्दा तर म यतार्थ बुझाउने प्रयास गर्दै छु।

झुटो, किनकी उस्ले जे पनि कल्पना गर्न सक्दछ, जे पनि बेल्न सक्दछ र नदेखेको अदृश्य कुरालाई पनि आफुले देखेझैं दाबी गर्न सक्दछ, विना कुनै प्रमाण नै किन नहोस्। सामाजिक प्राणी भएको कारण आफ्ना वरपरकालाई रिजाउन वा सताउन उ घरीघरी झुटको साथ लिने गर्दछ।

पैसा कमाउन होस्, धुन लागेको पीठो बिकाउन होस्, आशवासन दिन होस् वा भड्काउन हेस्; उ झुटो बोल्ने गर्दछ। कहिले गंगामा दुबुल्की लाएर ‘भग्वान देखें’ भनी भक्तजन बटुली हिँड्दछ, कहिले हिमालमा तपस्या गरेर आएँ भन्दछ, संसारमै नभएको जडिबुटीले क्यान्सर ठिक पारें पनि भन्दछ, सैकडौँ वर्ष पुरानो ग्रन्थहरूलाई जीवनको आधार बनाउनु पनि भन्दछ वा काल्पनिक वस्तु वा अवस्थाको श्रीजना गरी त्रास र भ्रम फैलाउने पनि गर्दछ।

तर उस्को झुट बोल्नुमा सधैं उसैको मात्र गलती पनी हुदैन। फेरी आश्चर्य लाग्ला कुरा सुन्दा, तर उस्को दिमागले नै उस्लाई झुटो बोल्न र झुटो देख्न बाध्य बनाएको हुन्छ। प्राणीहरूको प्रकृतीक श्रीजना क्रममा निकै पछि उत्पन्न भएको मानव जातीको दिमाग, चमत्कारी र जटिल त छदैं छ, तर आफैमा भ्रमित पनि हुने गर्दछ किनकी यो वैज्ञानिक रूपमा अझै पूर्ण वा सिद्ध भइसकेको छैन! मानिसको दिमागले त्यसकारण गलती धेरै गर्दछ। तर यती छिटो पनि नआत्तिऔं हामी! आशा नभएको होइन! दिमागले गलती गर्छ, झुट र भ्रम श्रीजना गर्छ, तर यस्को एक खुबी पनि छ, जुन अरू प्राणीमा हुदैन: तर्कशक्ती!

oa_cosmic_brain

जबकी माया, रिस, डर जस्ता भावनाहरू भने जन्मजात मानिसको दिमागभित्र जडित हुन्छ; तर्कशक्तीको भने नित्य अभ्यास, पाठ र अनुभव पछि मात्र उपयोग गर्न सकिन्छ।

यसै तर्कशक्तीको राम्ररी उपयोग गरे मात्र मानिसले बल्ल कसैले झुट बोलेको हो-हैन, ठम्याउन सक्दछ! कतिपय खण्डमा, तर्कशक्तीको प्रयोगले, आफ्नै दिमागले नै आफैसँग झूट बोली भ्रम श्रीजना गरेको हो-होइन भनेर पनि ठम्याउन मद्दत गर्दछ।

तर्कको बाटो लाग्ने हो भने न त कुनै देवताको त्रासमा बस्न पर्दछ, न त कुनै अन्धविश्वासको आधारमा बाँच्न पर्दछ र न त कसैको (न दमनकारी समाज, न कुनै समुहको) अधिनमा बाँधिन पर्दछ। तर्कको बाटोले हामीलाई अड्कल-अनुमान द्वारा निर्मीत शिष्ट र प्रगतीशील नैतिकता र वैज्ञानिक पद्धतीको आधारमा, कसैलाई शारिरीक वा मानसिक नोकसान नपुर्याउने ढंगले आफ्ने जीवन जीउन सिकाउँछ।

त्यशैले सुखद, सम्पन्न र प्रगतीशील समाज निर्माणको निम्ती आजैदेखी तर्कशील र विवेकशील बन्ने प्रयास र अभ्यास गरौं!

critical-thinking

Atheism, Nepal, Nepali, Philosophy, Rationalism, Secular Humanism, Skepticism

Will I ever go back into the dark?

Today afternoon, a deep discussion took place between me and some of my buddies (who happen to be believers) on my atheism and the concept of god. They asked me arrays upon arrays of questions, all of which I was not able to answer in such a short span of time. But through this blog I’ll be trying to answer their questions. At the same time, as I also consider this a good opportunity to make people aware, I’ll also try to make an effort to break down the common misconceptions, misunderstandings, stigma and stereotype associated with and behind Atheism. So readers please be patient with my rather lengthy response….

My friends confidently assumed about me and other atheists like me that when we reach old age, we’d turn back to being theists or spiritualists. It’s not the first time anyone has said this to me; my own father has, repeatedly! However, instead of getting angry, I’d rather welcome this argument.

I call it the ‘Laxmi Prasad’ Fallacy. I named it after Laxmi Prasad Devkota, the celebrated Nepali novelist and poet, because he is probably the most famous example of an atheist reverting back into a theist in any Nepali society. It is a fallacy, i.e a logical error, to assume all atheists will eventually revert back to being theists or spiritualists just because some other atheists, like the celebrated poet, did. Notions such as this are never a valid reason for someone to assume that I’ll choose a similar direction later in my life as well.

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Laxmi Prasad Devkota
It is also very important to realize before arguing that the term ‘atheist’ (नास्तिक) simply denotes a person who ‘lacks belief’ in something. Atheism isn’t a structured or organized system or a cult, its just a mere stance on something. Not at all a belief!

This stance, however, is usually derived in two ways: either emotionally or rationally. The emotional atheists (those who’ve become atheists as a result of an emotional turmoil such as anger for example) are more likely to revert back to being believers, the rational ones (who became atheists after logically and empirically examining the concept of a creator or a higher power) are less likely. Emotion-atheists are likely to do so as their atheism bear little rational ground and is subject to change anytime they face another difficult emotional setback, similar to Laxmi Prasad Devkota, who faced poverty and bankruptcy towards his later years and lived a somewhat miserable life, unlike anyone expects of a legendary poet. I consider myself a rationalist and it was my adoption and practice of rationality that helped me to become an atheist.

Atheists as a whole mostly agree on the topic that god is highly unlikely to exist, otherwise Atheists are the most diverse group of people holding, even among the community, a variety of differing opinions and even adopting different approaches to life and often with different moral principles. An atheist can be both conservative or liberal. An atheist can be either a communist or a capitalist or a socialist. An atheist may not believe in god, but may be liable to believe in other unverified claims such as UFO sightings as well as profound conspiracy theories or any other pseudoscience such as Homeopathy or Reiki or even unscientific notions such as vaccinations causing autism.

For me to explain it from my perspective, take this as an example: a lot of devout Hindus, like my friends here, do not believe in Thor or Zeus or Jesus Christ, some non-endemic deities from dead as well as thriving cultures. So technically they are atheists too when it comes to believing in deities other than those belonging to their parent religion or culture. People such as I just go ’33 koti’ gods further when it comes to not believing.

Now I could face another argument from new-age spiritualists, saying that its just different ways people assign names to the same energy or being which people usually interpret as being god. But again they could be questioned as to what makes them so sure that a certain energy exists and that it is exactly what many people think they believe in? How can we be sure without evidence or any logical argument? Why could’t it instead be any other unfalsifiable claim in its place?

unicorn
Talking about the concept of a creator, there are different interpretations, but all of them agree about one thing: the creator is somehow magical, we cannot see it, or feel it unless we truly believe in it. Now isn’t that ‘wishful thinking’ backed by an improvable claim? Isn’t it thinking just for the sake of someone wanting something to be true when in reality it is very unlikely? I could go on to propose that human lives are eternally controlled by a golden flying horse ‘in mysterious ways’ and no one could prove nor disprove me as my claim is unfalsifiable and thus cannot be tested by science. If I am supported by a thousand more people over this very claim, then I may as well have founded a new religion.

Now people may argue that they may choose to believe in their beliefs for comfort and not care about factual errors. But that is simply their choice. The act of choosing does not necessarily deem some claim as logically sound or make it likely to be true. I’m not saying that you are wrong when you choose to believe in something, because I cannot wrong any unfalsifiable claim, but I can soundly say that such beliefs turning out to be true is very very unlikely and evidence suggests so too, if somehow tested.

Another argument that I faced was that it is better to follow something that has been going on from ages ago by so many people, instead of dissenting to them and causing a disturbance. This kind of an argument is known as an appeal to the mass/tradition fallacy (argumentum ad populum). Because it is again inconsistent with logic to say that the majority or established traditions are always correct. They may be wrong, and they have been in many occasions, to name a few: on the issue of Slavery in the US and Sati-pratha in Nepal and India. We are always free to challenge popular claims with reason and skepticism.

I’d like to add that when people learn to think for themselves, staying within the bounds of reason and empiricism, they do not need to even believe in a higher power to be happy and morally sound as we very well know that happiness and morality do not necessarily stem only from religion. It is possible for humans to be decent even without needing a god or karma to fear.

Most of us rational atheists accept life the way it is and we realize that since we can never know whether afterlife is real or false, we have one known life to accomplish all that we want to and to live it to the fullest because you never know when life (your’s or your loved one’s) will end. This realization allows most us to be happy without the need for any imaginary comfort because we expect life to be uncertain and accept it. We believe that a lasting happiness in life comes only after accepting the harsh nature of life itself and to adapt our emotions around it. We accept reality.

Rationality isn’t bad, it’s indeed refreshing and liberating. We all use our rational minds while buying a used car, a mobile phone or while purchasing real estate. Rational atheists also apply the same thinking pattern while pondering about our existence and the concept of a higher power or a creator. We tend to regard something with doubt before believing in it. And just as one would never buy a used car of their liking just by believing everything that the car dealer says, without looking for evidence of damage or without logically mapping the dealer’s claims; we rationalists do not buy the concept of a creator or a higher power without objective proof of its existence or functioning. We also tend to apply the same thinking pattern on superstitions, dogma, magical claims and so on….

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The Flying Spaghetti and meatball monster. One parody unfalsifiable claim used satirically by many atheists in order to mock religious claims.

But the sad thing is, to become a rational person, one needs practice and this is the hard part. Unlike faith, which can arise innately even out of intuition or false perception, Rationality is a learned phenomenon which depends on logic and evidence. Rationality is counter-intuitive. To answer another question my friends asked me, as to why I’m not always able to convince people around me effectively; this is why. It is not always possible for me to ‘convert’ or convince others such as my sister or my parents, because rationality is hard to grasp instantly and not everyone is interested in taking part in discussions. Not everyone I talk to will start to read books on rationality and practice critical thinking straight away even if they like what I am talking about. But we never know the possibility, in the long run, of my constant advocacy for rationality and science being able to change some young minds successfully.

So the question remains. Will I ever go back into the dark? The answer is no. I think I’ll stay a rationalist (or in other words a secular humanist) for the rest of my life as one can only start to open their mind once.

Caste, Nepal, Pseudoscience, Secular Humanism, Skepticism

Gotra: Science or Myth?

Let us start by introducing myself shall we?

I consider myself a secular humanist, but if we were to go by the rules of Hinduism, a culture-religion complex into which I was born, I am supposedly a Brahman guy from a Hindu Brahman family in a predominantly Hindu populated country known as Nepal. Going further in this ancient and socially-acceptable form of racial and ethnic prejudice, I am supposed to be of an ‘Aryan descent’.

My blood line in terms of paternal heritage as put forth by the archaic logic, is supposedly ‘unaltered’ from the time of a Hindu sage by the name of ‘Atri’ (One of the original 8 baby booming Brahman sages probably dating back to around 800 to 600 BCE) from whom it is believed that an even purer bloodline who call themselves ‘Atreya’ (meaning “from Atri”) were descended. That is where my ‘Gotra’ comes from. Involuntarily asserted and appointed to me giving me the cultural license to become a part of that ‘clan’, the Atreya Gotra. Summing up, I am first known as a ‘male’ child, then as the son of a Hindu man, then as part of an upper caste of Upadhyaya Brahmans belonging to the Atreya Gotra and then only I am to be known just as a person who I am as defined by my achievements and interests.

Such is the reality of our predominantly Hindu societal values. This feudal taxonomy is very well prevalent in many parts of Nepal and India. A child out here is ruthlessly labeled and tagged and indoctrinated by various denominations of this culturally justified ‘tribalism’ even before the child is aware of him/herself.

 

Richard Dawkins on childhood indoctrination by religion. I think we ought to expand it to include cultural indoctrination as well.

I can say that it’s a relief now that I have chosen to live my life in a rational, consequential, empirical and humanistic way and I do not have to be bound by senseless cultural norms and taboo whatsoever. Well some might say that I must be, but I am brave enough now to say ‘nope’. It took me almost 4 months to thoroughly investigate into this matter of Gotras and I have come to learn quite a lot about the whole mystery.The sole intent of this blog, however, is to systematically breakdown and debunk the myth and misunderstandings behind the Gotra (sub-caste) and especially the pseudo-scientific notions of marrying within the same Gotra being equivalent to incest and resulting in the birth of deformed and mentally unstable children from it.

 

Or rather the ‘pseudoscience’ of Kula gotra.

So what is Gotra after all?

The Gotra pratha is an ancient Hindu practice, still given continuity and stout validity by many modern day conservative Hindus especially by those who claim to belong to any of the 3 main upper castes such as Brahmans, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas. Ongoing casteism is pretty-well evident today. We can judge just by going through the myriad of matrimonial websites in the subcontinent which prioritize Caste and Gotra even above moral values and education). I will deal with Casteism later in my other blog posts but I will be focusing only on Gotras for now.

The Gotra of people actually refer to their obscure and indistinct lineages tracing back to any one of these original (but with dubious existence) eight Hindu sages: Angirasa, Atri(Atreya), Gautam, Kashyapa, Bhrighu, Vasistha, Kutsa, Bharadwaja. It is believed out here in India and Nepal that marrying within the same Gotra will result in the birth of deformed and mentally unsound children and consequently such an act is deemed impure or inappropriate. Thus the taboo.

A cartoon mocking the Khap panchayat

All existent Gotras that are present today have been thought to have originated from these eight sages. The total number of established Gotras at present range from an estimate of 49 to 52 depending on the region of inquiry. Though Gotras in North India and Nepal actually refer to the dominant view of paternal lineage, there are some matriarchal Kannada communities in southern India who follow Gotras that refer to a person’s maternal lineage. So by this we can come to realize that the concept of Gotra is not an established standard across different cultures.Societal taboo regarding marriage within the same Gotra remains very strong to this day and exists even within affluent and educated Hindu and Sikh societies in the sub-continent (surprisingly even those who have had some background in biology and genetics, such as medical doctors and nurses, have been known to condone the Gotra pratha and many of its proponent use such arguments from authority (many top doctors and scientists follow the Gotra, why not you? You think you are better than them?) and from masses (If Gotra was not scientific, why are most people still practicing it? How can a few people be right and many of us wrong?) to justify their claims. With rigorous scrutiny, we can come to realize their fallacies effectively as it is not necessary for the people in authority (i.e Doctors and Scientists who conform to Gotra) and the majority to be accurate most of the time. I’m saying we need to accept the fact that there is always a possibility that they can be wrong.

Honor Killings in the name of Gotra…..

The common belief here, I’ll mention once again, is that if two people belonging to the same Gotra were to marry each other then they surely would give birth to an inbred child (owing to the broader definition of Incest by the system) subject to mental or physical anomalies. In doing so, same-Gotra couples and their children are deemed ‘polluted’ and ostracized or ridiculed by most of their societies with greater degree of mandate in rural areas compared to urban ones. Some communities such as the Khap Panchayat and the Jat from northern India have also been known to have committed multiple ‘Honor-Homicides‘ of same-gotra couples. There are true and horrific stories of even fathers and brothers ruthlessly slaughtering their own for the sake of honor.

Following an Honor-killing trial in 2010, the Indian High court scrapped a proposal of Khap Panchayat (who wanted Gotra-pravara to be made mandatory), denied an appeal of innocence to the accused murderers and found them guilty of ‘homicide in the name of unfounded honour’ by firmly declaring that there have been “no Hindu scripture till date that bans marriage between same gotras and justifies honor killings”. Even though it was a favorable action against the fanatics, I still find it odd that an evidence-requiring government body such as the Indian high court even considered to take scriptures as the means to justify the Khap panchayat.

A newspaper clipping on Honor killing in Haryana

Death sentence was announced to the culprits (I myself do not approve of any kind of capital punishment but now that would be wholly off-topic if I discuss it here) as a way to deter the hostility towards same-gotra couples and also to declare the prejudice behind Gotras as being immoral and unethical. Despite the then efforts of the Indian jurisdiction (and activists and organizations who worked to abolish superstitious customs across India), proponents of the Gotra pratha continue to voice and lobby their heinous motives and opinions (including numerous Indian politicians and God-men). The concerning thing is that there are plenty of recent reports which suggest that such people are gathering momentum following the right-wing BJP and Modi’s historical cruise to the Indian Government. The major problem lies in one of their agenda: To justify Gotra by claiming it to be a legitimate science!

Is Gotra really scientific?

Gotra pratha is thought to have originated somewhere around the 1st millenial BCE, i.e post-Atharvavedic period approximately 600 BCE. The concept of “Gotra Pravara” is relatively new even in relation to the newest of the four vedas, the Atharvaveda. So naturally, none of the four Vedas seem to have ever endorsed prohibiting, denouncing or condemning marriage between people of the same Gotra nor do they even describe the Gotra pratha in anyway. This ensures that the concept is most likely post-vedic.
The book ‘Indian sociology through Ghurye’, by S. Devas Pillai mentions that the 8 sages of the Gotras, were not those of the Rigveda and thus Gotra was a relatively recent invention by them and their kins. This was most probably to prevent inbreeding and narrowing of the gene pool within their Brahmin caste considering their strict endogamous beliefs. This might be in order to forbid marriage outside of their caste, just to maintain the purity of their blood-lines in accordance with their primitive yet genuine attempt to understand human inheritance with the limited set of knowledge they used to have back then.
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Summary of what a Gotra is. It may be losing value in urban areas, but at least in the upper caste community, it still is prevalent to a significant extent.
Their logic looks quite sound from a lay perspective (if the caste system were to be justified in any rational way). Indeed, it’s completely natural of any big ancient civilization for wanting to prevent incapacitating and unwanted traits (such as diseases, disabilities and deformities) spreading. But that still does not give us any basis to take their observations for reality owing to the paucity of empirical observations back then, at least not in the urban part of the 21st century when well-resourced scholarly or scientific articles on inheritence, genetics and anthropology are just a mouse click away! Along with many other contemporary civilizations of that time such as the Hellenic, Babylonian and Persian civilizations (which shared a common linguistic and cultural roots originating from the Yamna/Bactria Magna cultural settlements east of the Ural mountains, central Asia, according to the “Kurgan hypothesis“), the Ancient Indian civilization also strictly prohibited incest and consanguineous marriages. Gotra pratha was just their primitive and unsuccessful attempt at trying to prevent what we now know as recessive phenotype resulting from recessive genes.

Proponents of gotra pratha constantly bring up the argument “Gotra pratha is very scientific because the ancients knew about the recessive gene and knew about genetics so developed the gotra pratha as an effective means to prevent recessive genes from entering any progeny” while defending their case. But they constantly fail to provide evidence to back their claims and moreso even fail to demonstrate the claimed science in scriptures such as the Vedas or upanishads. Throwing out assumptions upon assumptions, shutting themselves to contradictory information, being subject to heavy confirmation biases (looking up for only those information that they ‘want’ to be found and rejecting any contradictory side despite of the latter’s validity and credibility) and presenting with no solid evidence! This is how any conveyor of a pseudo-scientific principle would defend themselves; wholly being devoid of the critical aspect in their thinking and also while arguing or making their case.

But the ancient did realize the harmful effects of consanguinity didn’t they?

The most logical explanation of the ancients’ awareness about the negative effects of incestuous mating goes down to their generation-long practice of animal husbandry and breeding (sadly not Vedic mantras or bramhagyan). The ancient Indians were very much experienced about the fact (after countless observations) that mating two offspring from the same parents would result in the greater chance of birth of deformed, mentally unsound and physically weaker progeny than compared to the progeny resultant after non-consanguineous mating.
mendel
Not until after the life ofvGregor Johann Mendel were we able to completely understand inheritence.
They realized that more the consanguineous offspring were inbred, more weaklings would be born and if they were to raise healthier batches of livestock then they were not supposed to mate two siblings or progeny related up to at least the third degree (something like saying ‘third cousin’). The same principles, they must have observed in some rare cases of human consanguinity, and must have applied a similar logic towards incestuous relations in humans, which appears quite a sound practice. Possibly, the Gotras were formulated for fulfilling a similar motive of maintaining their understanding of a healthy trait-pool for long. But we need to grasp the fact that this was even before antiquity, when our understandings of genetics and genomics were far from being nascent, were primitive and insufficient owing to the paucity of organized observation methodology and technology at that time.

Not until Gregor Johan Mendel were we to understand the science behind inheritence and it was not before James Watson and Francis Crick that we were to understand the principles of molecular genetics. So there are plenty of reasons for us to not to conform to this feudal and non-progressive Hindu tradition.

If it was founded to prevent the spread of recessive traits via incest, which is good, why can’t we justify the Gotra then for precaution?  Why take chances by rejecting Gotra completely?

Genetically speaking, there is negligible health impact of marriage between two people if beyond one degree of separation (i.e between two 2nd cousins) but passage of recessive alleles is likely nonetheless. Another concept in genetics we need to be familiar about is that even congress between two siblings does not necessarily always result in the birth of abnormal recessive offspring. We are in terms of chances here and in that sense the chances of recessive alleles passing on are high but still not absolute. Increase the degree of separation up by one (i.e 3rd cousins), the chance is drastically reduced. Increase it by a further one degree (i.e 4th cousins), the chance of recessive genes being transfered into the progeny will be reduced further. (Here’s a pdf providing more information on this and a comprehensive explanation by a Stanford geneticist on the subject matter).
So broad is the definition of consanguinity in Gotra and so diluted and diverse has the gene pool of even the people belonging to the one particular Gotra has become that the effects of consanguinity becomes as good as negligible! Talk about thousands of years of intermingling of races and castes and ethnicity! Talk about hundreds of degrees or generations of separation of cousins! Isn’t it obvious?
Furthermore, according to geneticists, as mentioned in Wikipedia (having the reliability of the references checked):

“The percentage of consanguinity between any two individuals decreases fourfold as the most recent common ancestor recedes one generation. Consanguinity, as commonly defined, does not depend on the amount of shared DNA within two people’s genome. It rather counts the number of meioses separating two individuals. Because of the effects of pedigree collapse, this does not directly translate into the amount of shared genetic substance.

It is common to distinguish first-degree cousins, second-degree cousins, and often also third-degree cousins. Since comparatively few people can trace their full family tree for more than four generations, the identity of fourth-degree cousins often cannot be established. Also, at a genetic level, half-fourth cousins typically do not exhibit greater genetic similarity with one another than with any other individual from the same population.”

Despite of the scientific information presented above, many people (with the exception of few cultures) would not want to knowingly marry their cousins. That now is a whole new discussion topic as the perception and definition of incest varies across different cultures. Musims, Jews and many ethnicity in Nepal (i.e Gurungs) and India are known for allowing marriage within their family (cousins). My concern with consanguinity in this blog was just to explain the passage of recessive alleles/genes in reality.
Evidence from animal breeding and studies on human inheritance of traits however still point out that the closer the marriage is to 1st degree relatives, the more likely it is for the recessive genes to pass on to your children and thus the increased likelihood of genetic or chromosomal defects. So consanguinity while remaining a matter of choice might still do you more harm and on that scientists do to some extent agree with Gotra proponents.
“It is has been known that the risk for birth defects in the offspring of first cousin matings has been ‘increased’ by 5-8% compared to the increase of only 2-3% in non-consanguineous marriages” as one research paper says (see here). Consanguinity of any degree is known to be rather deleterious when compared to non-consanguinity. So yes, it is wiser to stay away from your cousins, though distant, as much as possible, when it comes to marriage. What scientists do not agree upon is the definition and extent of consanguinity put forth by the Gotra pratha as well as the archaic scriptural mandate it tries to enforce on people. The latter of which is against the very principles of human rights.
Mendelian Inheritence

But the claim that the Gotra pratha is able to prevent consanguinity effectively is very questionable. Thanks to the multiple logical fallacies within the system (see below), and the support of numerous anthropological, genomic, genetic and historical datas; we can safely conclude today that the Gotra system bears no validity whatsoever and is not justified by anything other than superstition, ignorance and ethnic prejudice.

Can we debunk Gotra-pratha effectively?

Yes we can!
There are indeed plenty of resources available online for us to be able to do so. Some of the most convincing reasoning and logical examinations have been presented and explained below (click on respective hyperlinks for more information).

Case 1: The gotra of a male child is supposed to remain permanent whereas that of a female child is temporary. After the girl’s marriage, following certain complicated ceremonies, her Gotra is permanently changed into that of her husband and were she to become a widow and to be married again (supposing the now banned ritual of ‘Sati‘ did not come into effect back then, or say this marriage took place in a less harsher yet gotra-following society), she could not marry someone belonging to her husband’s gotra but could yet marry another man bearing the gotra of her Father. Logic has been clearly destroyed here!

Case 2: There have been many historical accounts of masses upon masses of Kshatriyas (a caste respectable but considered lower than Bramans who are considered the highest amongst all caste) converting into Brahmans through rituals of fire sacrifices known as ‘yagya‘ or ‘yagna’, which allowed them to acquire any one of the original 8 gotras depending on their star signs and were required by norm to give continuity to this system from then on. The gene pool has already widened here after the assimilation of numerous Kshatriyas and thus the validity of the ‘pure’ genetic continuum of gotras has been as good as void. Gotra severely contradicts the Mendelian and non-Mendelian laws of inheritance.

Case 3: There have been plenty of stories, historical accounts or accounts from puranas where impotent kings or noblemen had their wives impregnated, having their consent, by other noble sages or a priest. (e.g. Sarandayani from Mahabharata, Mayadanti the wife of Sudasha Kalmashpadh (Ram’s anscetor), King Pandu allowed his wife to be impregnated by supposed Devatas, The Pandavas (five sons of Pandu) had one wife as Draupadi and many more other such tales). The genetic distinction of the ‘purity’ of the lineage of the Gotras was already obscured during the dark ages within 10 to 20 generations or so (evident from multiple paternal lineage contributing to any one Gotra) and it is common sense to say that the Genetic authenticity claimed by all of the 49 or 52 Gotras as of today and their ignorant proponents are meaningless and non-existent. The concept of Gotra is clearly not logical, let alone scientific. The concept collapses on its own logic!

Observational Evidence: There have been many linguistic, anthropological, Genomic and Gene-mapping researches into the origins and migrations of the various ethnic groups of the sub-continent. If the purity of lineage as claimed by the Gotra-proponents were to be true, all individuals belonging to a particular gotra would have to display a certain set of genomic characteristics unique to that group when compared to other groups. But a study (click for abstract) conducted by geneticists at Harvard, which is a near-concluding research into the genetic origins of people living in India, suggested that none of the caste or sub-caste had any genomic characters unique to the group and showed that there were considerable degrees of intermingling between indigenous Dravidian races and Migrating races from central Asia and Bactria Magna cultural groups (supposed ‘Aryans’), such that every individual belonging to any caste system as of today has Genomic characteristics from both the two major racial groups.

Migration routes of animal rearing nomadic populations (wrongly called Aryans) from the BMAC cultural complex in central Asia

In short, the sub-continent hosts a population which is indeed a ‘buffer’ or a ‘mixture’ between the ancient major races and none of us here are ‘pure’ Aryans or Dravidians. It clearly suggests that there is no biological distinction between the multiple castes and sub-castes and not at all regarding the Gotras because both system appear to have originated rather later in history, even in relation to the very sacred Vedas and their origins. Neither Gotra nor Caste bear any genetic relevance whatsoever at present. (Click here for a simpler explanation of the study.)

What can we conclude then?

  • We can conclude confidently that one need never consider Gotra or caste while choosing partners.
  • It should be noted that unless two people are cousins related by blood, they need not have to worry about marrying each other.
  • If there are concerns about inherited or genetic diseases running within families, or of Rh blood group differences in between, then a couple should opt for genetic counselling and screening if feasible.
  • The chances of same-Gotra couples giving birth to a child with chromosomal and genetic defect is no different from the chances of different-gotra couples giving birth to a child with genetic defect, as suggested by evidence.
  • There are many complicated factors that come into effect while considering birth defects and anomalies, but Gotra is just not one of them!
In this digital age of communication, where information is so readily available, one should always research thoroughly before coming to any conclusion. To adopt an unbiased view about any matter of interest, it is of utmost importance that one should give equal weight to both sides of the argument and only justify the position that is rational, ethical, logical and of course, supported strongly by evidence! There are countless hoaxes and scam articles all over the web, and not all indexed research papers are appropriately peer-reviewed, so it is vital that we should learn to identify credible and authentic sources for unbiased information. Because no matter what any ignorant culture says in any part of the world, science and rationalism are always there with the slogan “Eppur Si Muove!”
So enjoy your lives with the ones that you love and always keep in mind that love is unconditional and Gotras and Caste are justified by nothing but discriminatory, racial and ethnic prejudice. No human reserves the right to obstruct another human’s right and happiness, not maybe even your parents! And any individual, good or bad, has the right to live. Period!
Live long and prosper!
Protester Protesting against the Honor killings in Haryana

Other Material:-

The following notes are suggestions for further reading from blogger SUIRAQUA as it is in his/her blog that tries to debunk the Gotra-pratha.

(1) For a recent scientific study of the genome of Indians that effectively dispels the traditional notions of caste and subcaste, look at this scientific article (Nature, 2009 September 24; 461(7263):489-94), and its corresponding Commentary in Nature by Aravinda Chakravarti, of Center for Complex Disease Genomics, McKusick–Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

(2) Study of the allelic and haplotypic structure at a specific dopamine receptor gene (DRD2) locus among five North Indian “upper-caste” populations has indicated a major genetic contribution from Eurasia to North Indian upper castes, apart from the common genetic unity of Indian populations (Am J Phys Anthropol, 2010 Apr; 141(4):651-7), further evidence that the alleged ‘purity’ of the gotra is a myth and cultural construct.

(3) A review by PP Majumdar of the Human Genetics Unit of the Indian Statistical Institute concludes that “… south Asia has also been a major contributor to the gene pool of southeast Asia. With the availability of new genotyping technologies, diversity studies encompassing a large number of populations, both tribal and caste, need to be undertaken at the genome-wide level to validate the inferences of previous studies, and to understand patterns of micro-evolution of populations of this region.” (Curr Biol. 2010 Feb 23; 20(4):R184-7) Genomic studies indicate that Southern and Northern India had differential inputs of genes from central and west Asia, as well as Africa – likely leading to differential impacts on the genetic structures of castes of different ranks. This admixture makes it almost impossible “to tag a population or a set of populations as being descendants of the earliest settlers of south Asia, especially because none of the more ancient lineages can be definitively associated with any specific group of populations, such as populations belonging to a linguistic group.”

Reference materials and links: