‘Mantra sciences’ is just poor fantasy

I don’t know how the author of a piece in the Times of India managed to keep a straight face when introducing a school based on Vedic rituals that would “show the way” to curing diseases like cancer. Even the more honest scientific studies that are regularly accompanied by press releases proclaiming “the paper is a step in the right direction of curing cancer” tend to be unreliable thanks to institutional and systemic pressures to produce sensational research. But hey, something written many thousands of years ago might just have all the answers – at least according to Jaya Dava, the chairperson of the Rajasthan Sanskrit Academy. Excerpt:

Proposed in 2005, the Rajasthan government’s research institute to study the science of ancient Hindu texts, the first-of-its-kind in the country, is all set become operational soon. On Monday, the Research Institute of Mantra Sciences (RIMS) or the Rajasthan Mantra Pratishtan, under the Jagadguru Ramanandacharya Rajasthan Sanskrit University (JRRSU), called for applications from eligible candidates for various posts, including that of teachers. The then education minister, Ghanshyam Tiwari, had first proposed the institute in 2005. While presenting the concept, inspired by ‘Manusmriti’, the ancient Hindu book of law, Tiwari had quoted a verse from the text, ‘Sarvam vedaat prasiddhyati’ (Every solution lies in Vedas), in the state assembly.

So the RIMS is being set up to further the ideals enshrined in the Manusmriti, the document that supposedly also talks about the caste system and how anyone trapped in it has doomed all their descendants to never being able to escape from its dystopian rules. Second: apart from having been mooted by a state’s education minister, the Jagadguru Ramanandacharya Rajasthan Sanskrit University is a state institution utilising public taxes for its operation. Don’t the people get a say in what kind of magic-practising institutions their government is allowed to set up? Hogwarts was at least entertaining and nicely written.

I’m just anguished about the Hindutva brigade’s poor imagination when it comes to epic fantasy. For example, according to Dava, “reciting verses such as ‘Achutaya Namaha’, ‘Anantaya Namaha’ and ‘Govindaya Namaha’ have helped in treating cancer patients.” Helped in what way? If we had a quantifiable measure that other people could try to replicate, we’d be working towards having an internally consistent system of magic – but no.

Also, in a world without cancer, is anybody even thinking about the numerous emergent possibilities? For starters, by 2020, we’re going to have $150 billion left unspent because cancer drugs are going to be useless. And India’s B-grade film industries are going to have to come up with new ways to make forlorn ex-lovers spurt blood and die. And David Bowie and Alan Rickman would still be alive. And chanting hippies would be the new millionaire oncologists. The possibilities are endless. More, according to Rajendra Prasad Mishra, who headed RIMS for a decade from 2006,

“The answer as to how a simple line drawn by Lord Ram prevented the mighty king Ravana from crossing over lies in Vedic science. This ancient wisdom, if discovered, can safeguard India from our enemies by drawing lines across the borders. The chanting of mantras, with the right diction, pronunciation and by harnessing cosmic energy, can help in condensing vapours and bringing rain. This can solve the major problem of water scarcity.”

But conveniently, this wisdom is considered “lost” and has to be “found” at a great cost to a lot of people while the people doing the finding look like they’re doing something when they’re really, really not. Maybe its writers wrote it when they were 20, looked back at it when they were 40, figured it was a lot of tosh and chucked it into the Saraswati. I’ve no issues with magic myself, in fact I love fantasy fiction and constantly dream of disappearing into one, but I sure as hell don’t want to exist in a realm with infinite predictability shoved down everyone’s throats.

Notice also how people are completely okay with trusting someone else who says it’s a good idea to invest a lot of money in a scheme to make sense of which very few people are supposed to possess the intellectual resources, a risk they’re willing to take anyway because it might just them more powerful – while they actively stay away from cryptocurrencies like bitcoins because they suspect it might be a Ponzi scheme? Indeed, the powers that be must be vastly more resourceful in matters of the intellect than I to be able to resolve this cosmic cognitive dissonance.

Featured image credit: stuarthampton/pixabay.

Some notes and updates

Four years of the Higgs boson

Missed this didn’t I. On July 4, 2012, physicists at CERN announced that the Large Hadron Collider had found a Higgs-boson-like particle. Though the confirmation would only come in January 2013 (that it was the Higgs boson and not any other particle), July 4 is the celebrated date. I don’t exactly mark the occasion every year except to recap on whatever’s been happening in particle physics. And this year: everyone’s still looking for supersymmetry; there was widespread excitement about a possible new fundamental particle weighing about 750 GeV when data-taking began at the LHC in late May but strong rumours from within CERN have it that such a particle probably doesn’t exist (i.e. it’s vanishing in the new data-sets). Pity. The favoured way to anticipate what might come to be well before the final announcements are made in August is to keep an eye out for conference announcements in mid-July. If they’re made, it’s a strong giveaway that something’s been found.

Live-tweeting and timezones

I’ve a shitty internet connection at home in Delhi which means I couldn’t get to see the live-stream NASA put out of its control room or whatever as Juno executed its orbital insertion manoeuvre this morning. Fortunately, Twitter came to the rescue; NASA’s social media team had done such a great job of hyping up the insertion (deservingly so) that it seemed as if all the 480 accounts I followed were tweeting about it. I don’t believe I missed anything at all, except perhaps the sounds of applause. Twitter’s awesome that way, and I’ll say that even if it means I’m stating the obvious. One thing did strike me: all times (of the various events in the timeline) were published in UTC and EDT. This makes sense because converting from UTC to a local timezone is easy (IST = UTC + 5.30) while EDT corresponds to the US east cost. However, the thing about IST being UTC + 5.30 isn’t immediately apparent to everyone (at least not to me), and every so often I wish an account tweeting from India, such as a news agency’s, uses IST. I do it every time.

New music

I don’t know why I hadn’t found Yat-kha earlier considering I listen to Huun Huur Tu so much, and Yat-kha is almost always among the recommendations (all bands specialising in throat-singing). And while Huun Huur Tu likes to keep their music traditional and true to its original compositional style, Yat-kha takes it a step further, banding its sound up with rock, and this tastes much better to me. With a voice like Albert Kuvezin’s, keeping things traditional can be a little disappointing – you can hear why in the song above. It’s called Kaa-khem; the same song by Huun Huur Tu is called Mezhegei. Bass evokes megalomania in me, and it’s all the more sensual when its rendition is accomplished with human voice, rising and falling. Another example of what I’m talking about is called Yenisei punk. Finally, this is where I’d suggest you stop if you’re looking for throat-singing made to sound more belligerent: I stumbled upon War horse by Tengger Cavalry, classified as nomadic folk metal. It’s terrible.

Fall of Light, a part 2

In fantasy trilogies, the first part benefits from establishing the premise and the third, from the denouement. If the second part has to benefit from anything at all, then it is the story itself, not the intensity of the stakes within its narrative. At least, that’s my takeaway from Fall of Light, the second book of Steven Erikson’s Kharkanas trilogy. Its predecessor, Forge of Darkness, established the kingdom of Kurald Galain and the various forces that shape its peoples and policies. Because the trilogy has been described as being a prequel (note: not the prequel) to Erikson’s epic Malazan Book of the Fallen series, and because of what we know about Kurald Galain in the series, the last book of the trilogy has its work cut out for it. But in the meantime, Fall of Light was an unexpectedly monotonous affair – and that was awesome. As a friend of mine has been wont to describe the Malazan series: Erikson is a master of raising the stakes. He does that in all of his books (including the Korbal Broach short-stories) and he does it really well. However, Fall of Light rode with the stakes as they were laid down at the end of the first book, through a plot that maintained the tension at all times. It’s neither eager to shed its burden nor is it eager to take on new ones. If you’ve read the Malazan series, I’d say he’s written another Deadhouse Gates, but better.

Oh, and this completes one of my bigger goals for 2016.

A happy Lord of the Rings Day to you

Mae govannen! On this day, in the year 3019 of the Third Age, the hobbits Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee cast the One Ring, Ash Nazg, into the fires of Orodruin and destroyed it. Thus was ended the reign of Thû, one of the last lieutenants of the dark lord Morgoth Bauglir, and his dreadful ambition to rule all of Middle Earth. The War of the Ring would end 223 days later with the defeat and killing of Sauron in the Battle of Bywater.

Of all the worlds I’d like to escape to (when reality as it is becomes too much or makes for too little), there are three: Middle Earth, Lether and Azeroth. The tales in which they are situated all exhibit an affinity for ecological inclusivity, where human agency is evaluated in its total environment, including the natural elements and forces. The choices also make me realise I have a thing for paganistic fantasy.

(Spoilers? Not really.)

Middle Earth is the cultural third space that inhabits J.R.R. Tolkien’s conception of the World (Arda) as it should be, the continent on which The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy are set. Tolkien’s literature, beginning from The Silmarillion and ending with Return of the King, has  journeys and exoduses as prominent features. As the books move through time, so do its peoples move through space. The result is for their evolution to be shaped by as well as mirror the lands they occupy, for geology to be as much a driver of plot as their actions themselves.

Exemplary subplots: the persistence of Rivendell and the events from Frodo’s capture by Faramir to Gollum’s actions in Cirith Ungol.

This connection between living things and the land is also a common feature of Steven Erikson’s epic fantasy series Malazan Book of the Fallen. It is set on multiple fictional continents. One of them is Lether, which was trapped and preserved for thousands of years within a magical cage of ice created by Gothos. And when finally the ice cracked as the world warmed, Lether was recolonised by its native tribes. However, none of them realised that the form of magic that they practised was now considered ancient because the rest of the world had moved on; that while Letherii magic still clung to the oracular mode of Tiles, everyone else used the Deck of Dragons. This discrepancy is a major plot-driver in book #7 of the series, Reaper’s Gale. It serves to exemplify how, when foreigners conquer a native land, they can only hope to replace bodies – and that the land, the culture and the government will simply have new staffers, nothing more.

At the beginning of the book, I remember thinking that Gothos’s enforced stasis of Lether was quite the contrivance, drawn up by Erikson to prevent the repetition of a plot device that runs throughout the series. However, Reaper’s Gale quickly turns out to be one of the best books in the series (of ten) because of the detail that Erikson fills it up with. These aren’t details of irrelevant things but of an allegorical post-colonialism, where the coloniser was simply a great stillness of time.

Exemplary subplot: the battle at Bast Fulmar (The Valley of Drums).

A very good example of a proper contrivance occurs in the World of Warcraft mythos: the event known as the Cataclysm. WoW is set in the fictional realm of Azeroth, comprising Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms separate by the Great Sea. Like in the last two examples, geology plays an important role in the shaping of events. In fact, like in The Silmarillion, there is a great sundering of the world brought about by greed and betrayal. However, there is then a second sundering called the Cataclysm, where the black dragon Neltharion (a.k.a. Deathwing) breaks out of his prison deep within the land of Azeroth to lay waste to the world even as its features are rapidly reshaped by violent seismic forces. What makes this a contrivance is that, following Cataclysm, life goes on as it might’ve without it, except for things just looking different – clearly, it’s creators were simply looking for a change of scenery. Nonetheless, I do like Azeroth for the events that played out until then.

Exemplary subplots: War of the Ancients and the events from the Culling of Stratholme to the discovery of Frostmourne.

Every year on March 25, I’m prompted to look back on why I continue to admire Tolkien’s creations even though I’ve publicly acknowledged that they’re far surpassed by Erikson’s creations. An important reason is primacy: the LotR trilogy made for the first modern great epic fantasy, its guiding light so very bright that even those who came after struggled to match its success. Another reason is that, through the books, Tolkein managed to edify all of epic fantasy by bringing together the perfect minima of characters, devices and plots – and of course language – that could make for a lasting classic.

The neuroscience of how you enter your fantasy-realms

If you grew up reading Harry Potter (or Lord of the Rings, as the case may be), chances are you’d have liked to move to the world of Hogwarts (or Middle Earth), and spent time play-acting scenes in your head as if you were in them. This way of enjoying fiction isn’t uncommon. On the contrary, the potentially intimidating levels of detail that works of fantasy offer often lets us move in with the characters we enjoy reading about. As a result, these books have a not inconsiderable influence on our personal development. It isn’t for nothing that story-telling is a large part of most, if not all, cultures.

That being the case, it was only a matter of time before someone took a probe to our brains and tried to understand what really was going as we read a great book. Those someones are Annabel Nijhof and Roel Willems, both neuroscientists affiliated with the Radboud University in The Netherlands. They used functional magnetic resonance imaging, a technique that employs a scanner to identify the brain’s activity by measuring blood flow around it, “to investigate how individuals differently employ neural networks important for understanding others’ beliefs and intentions, and for sensori-motor simulation while listening to excerpts from literary novels”.

If you’re interested in their methods, their paper published in PLOS One on February 11 discusses them in detail. And as much as I’d like to lay them out here, I’m also in a hurry to move on to the findings.

Nijhof and Willems found that there were two major modes in which listeners’ brains reacted to the prompts, summed up as mentalizing and activating. A mentalizing listener focused on the “thoughts and beliefs” depicted in the prompt while an activating listener paid more attention to descriptions of actions and replaying them in his/her head. And while some listeners did both, the scientists found that the majority either predominantly mentalized or predominantly activated.

This study references another from 2012 that describes how the neural system associated with mentalizing kicks in when people are asked to understand motivations, and that associated with activating kicks in when they’re asked to understand actions. So an extrapolation of results between both studies yields a way for neuroscientists to better understand the neurocognitive mechanisms associated with assimilating stories, especially fiction.

At this point, a caveat from the paper is pertinent:

It should be noted that the correlation we observed between Mentalizing and Action networks, only holds for one of the Mentalizing regions, namely the anterior medial prefrontal cortex. It is tempting to conclude that this region plays a privileged role during fiction comprehension, in comparison to the other parts of the mentalizing network

… while of course this isn’t the case, so more investigation – as well as further review of extant literature – is necessary.

The age-range of participants in the Nijhof-Willems study was 18-27 years, with an average age of 22.2 years. Consequent prompt: a similar study but with children as subjects could be useful in determining how a younger brain assimilates stories, and checking if there exist any predilections toward mentalizing or activating – or both or altogether something else – which then change as the kids grow up. (I must add that such a study would be especially useful to me because I recently joined a start-up that produces supplementary science-learning content for 10-15-year-olds in India.)

So… are you a mentalizing reader or an activating reader?

Lord of the Rings Day

Today is Lord of the Rings Day. On this day, in the year 3019 of the Third Age, Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee reach the Sammath Naur and cast the One Ring into Orodruin, in whose fires the ring was first forged. Thus, the ring is destroyed and leads to the downfall of Sauron, the Dark Lord. However, this doesn’t mark the end of the War of the Ring (although it does in the movies) – that happens when Saruman is defeated in the Battle of Bywater by the hobbits on November 3 of the same year.

Why do I still remember the date? I don’t know. Tolkien’s books were good, three of the best, in fact, and much better than the trope to come after. There were a few notable exceptions, but nothing has came to being just as original until, I’d say, GRRM and Erikson. I was briefly excited by Robert Jordan but his more classical narrative combined with a droning style bored me. It was never the length because one of my enduring favourites is Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series, which has seen 10 books and one part of a trilogy already out (all kickass – you should check them out).

Nevertheless, reading Lord of the Rings in 2003 was an important part of my life. In the years since, I have taken away different morals from the book – which, thankfully, aren’t as mundane as Jordan’s nor as multi-hued as Erikson’s (or as gruesome as Martin’s or as juvenile as Feist’s). Beyond the immediate take-away that is good-versus-evil, there are tales of friendships, sacrifices, trust, humility and leadership. And what a great epic all of it made! As it happens, Lord of the Rings Day is actually Tolkien Reading Day. So if you haven’t already read the trilogy, or its adorable prequel The Hobbit (or Silmarillion, for that matter), grab a copy and start. It’s never too late.

In the Valley of Drums…

For lack of a more sensational beginning: Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen fantasy fiction series is the best piece of writing I have ever encountered. Erikson’s experience as a archaeologist and an anthropologist is brought to bear in every line of the 10-book epic, producing a tale that is vigorously gripping yet mercilessly sophisticated. But once you are those requisite 30 to 40 pages in, you will come to understand why such sophistication is important, rather can be, because you will suddenly be aware of how much other works of fantasy fiction have chosen to leave out. Many readers of the series have criticized him for making his narrative so complex, so “unreasonably” intricate, but I find it tremendously gratifying that when I read his work, I feel as if I am drawn closer to the helplessness that Erikson himself feels… a kinship founded on knowing how much can go left unsaid for every plot concluded.

Right now, I’m re-reading the Malazan series for, I think, the third time. During each iteration, there has been room for profound discovery. In the seventh book, Reaper’s Gale, consider the example of a valley described by Erikson where two armies are due to meet. One army, that of the Letherii, employs sorcerers of considerable power, while the other, the tribal Awl, are reliant solely on the edges of iron. The valley, called Bast Fulmar – “Valley of Drums” – was chosen by the Awl warleader for the clash because it has been sapped of its ability to support magic. And how did it lose its magic? Here is how the Awl warleader, the enigmatic Redmask, describes it.

When the world was young, these plains surrounding us were higher, closer to the sky. The earth was a thin hide, covering thick flesh that was nothing but frozen wood and leaves.The rotted corpse of ancient forests. Beneath summer sun, unseen rivers flowed through that forest, between every twig, every crushed-down branch. And with each summer, the sun’s heat was greater, the season longer, and the rivers flowed, draining the vast buried forest. And so the plans descended, settled as the dried out forest crumbled to dust, and with the rains more water would sink down, sweeping away that dust, southward, northward, eastward, westward, following valleys rising to join streams. All directions, ever flowing away.

The land left the sky. The land settled onto stone, the very bone of the world. In this manner, the land changed to echo the cursed sorceries of the Shamans of the Antlers, the ones who kneel among boulders.

Such a piquant evocation of the living world we occupy I have not read elsewhere. Redmask, then, goes on to describe what went wrong with the world, with a valley in particular, to leave it so ghastly and raw (in context).

Bast Fulmar, the Valley of Drums. The Letherii believe we hold it in great awe. They believe this valley was the site of an ancient war between the Awl and the K’Chain Che’Malle – although the Letherii know not the true name of our ancient enemy. Perhaps indeed there were skirmishes, such that memory survives, only to twist and bind anew in false shapes. Many of you hold to those new shapes, believing them true. An ancient battle. One we won. One we lost – there are elders who are bold with the latter secret, as if defeat was a knife hidden in their heart-hand.

Bast Fulmar. Valley of Drums. Here, then, is its secret truth. The Shamans of the Antlers drummed the hide of this valley before us. Until all life was stolen, all waters fled. They drank deep, until nothing was left. For at this time, the shamans were not alone, not for that fell ritual. No, others of their kind had joined them – on distant continents, hundreds, thousands of leagues away, each and all on that one night. To sever their life from the earth, to sever this earth from its own life.

Bast Fulmar. We rise now to make war. In the Valley of Drums, my warriors, Letherii sorcery will fail. Edur sorcery will fail. In Bast Fulmar, there is no water of magic from which to steal. All used up, all taken to quench the fire that is life. Our enemy is not aware. They will find the truth this day. Too late. Today, my warriors, shall be iron against iron. That and nothing more.

Bast Fulmar sings this day. It sings: there is no magic. There is no magic!

There is of course an obvious reality mirroring this scene, an allusion to how we are draining this world, severing it from its own life.

Ah, Bast Fulmar…

Crowd-sourcing a fantasy fiction tale

What if thousands of writers, economists, philosophers, scientists, teachers, industrialists and other many other people from other professions besides were able to pool their intellectual and creative resources to script one epic fantasy-fiction story?

Such an idea would probably form the crux of an average to poor book idea, but the story itself would be awesome, methinks.

Here’s an example. Every great writer, most notably Asimov, whose works of sci-fi/fantasy I’ve read has speculated upon the rapidly changing nature of different professions in their works.

The simplest example manifests in Asimov’s 1957 short story Profession. In the story, children are educated no longer within classrooms but almost instantaneously through a brain-computer interface, a process called taping.

Where are the teachers in this world? They, it seems, would come later, in the guise of professionals who compose and compile those information-heavy tapes. Seeing as Profession is set in the 66th century of human civilization, the taping scenario is entirely plausible. We could get there.

But this is one man’s way of constructing a possible future among infinite others. Upon closer scrutiny, many inconsistencies between Asimov’s world and ours could be chalked up. For one, the author could have presupposed events in our future which might never really happen.

However, such scrutiny would be meaningless because that is not the purpose of Asimov’s work. He writes to amaze, to draw parallels – not necessarily contiguous ones – between our world and a one in the future.

But what if Asimov had been an economist instead of a biochemist? Would he have written his stories any differently?

My (foolish) idea is to just draw up a very general template of a future world, to assign different parts of that template to experts from different professions, and then see how they think their professions would have changed. More than amaze, such a world might enlighten us… and I think it ought to be fascinating for just that reason.

The cloak of fantasy, the necessity of stories to engage all those professions and their intricate gives-and-takes and weave them into a empathetic narrative could then be the work of writers and other such creatively inclined people or, as I like to call them, ‘imagineers’.

This idea has persisted for a long time. It was stoked when I first encountered in my college days the MMORPG called World of Warcraft. In it, many players from across the world come together and play a game set in the fictitious realm called Azeroth, designed by Blizzard, Inc.

However, the game has already been drawn up to its fullest, so to speak. For example, there are objectives for players to attain by playing a certain character. If the character fails, he simply tries again. For the game to progress, the objectives must be attained. That’s what makes a game by definition, anyway.


My idea wouldn’t be a game because there are no objectives. My idea would be a game to define those objectives, and in a much more inclusive way. Imagine an alternate universe for all of us to share in. The story goes where our all-encompassing mind would take us.

The downside, of course, would be the loss of absolute flexibility, with so many clashing ideas and, more powerful, egos. But… play it.