Frisson de Shambhala 


Over the course of our journey through time, we have come to believe in many legends. The most thrilling ones, are those surrounding lost Utopian civilizations and cities. Their influence can be felt in the social commentary of authors like Thomas More. Some of them even led to conquest and colonization (think Spanish Conquistadors). To mention a few examples; the submerged city of Atlantis, personifying Plato’s ideal republic; the mystic island of Avalon, where Excalibur was forged for King Arthur; the hidden city of El Dorado, full of gold and precious treasure and the ancient Thule, an Aryan island located far north and bathed in perpetual daylight.

My favorite one however, is that of Shambhala, a mythical Tibetan kingdom, said to be located either in the Himalayas or in the Altai mountains. Kalachakra Tantra, a Buddhist text, prophesies that Shambhala will be ruled by Maitreya, a future Buddha or enlightened being. Interestingly, there is a similar belief in Hinduism. Vishnu Purana mentions that, when all is lost the great god Kalki shall emerge from Shambhala to vanquish evil and restore order to the world.

Shambhalan folklore probably predates both religions. The story goes like this. King Manjusrikirthi of Shambhala expelled sun worshipers from his kingdom for not embracing Buddhism as their religion. When he realized his folly, they were invited back. Some of them chose to go back, but some wise men and women went on to establish the magical realm of Shambhala, another kingdom, hidden from all. Legends say that it can only be found by the pure of heart. The people of Shambhala, know no suffering. They enjoy constant youth and long lives. The law is just. The land is rich in its abundance and the air is pure. Men have no need for privacy as they have nothing to hide. Their spiritual wells are deep and their understanding of the universe perfect. Their science is so advanced that to lesser beings it seems magical. On the whole, it is the domain of happily ever afters.

Thrill of exploration and spiritual promise of Shambhala have fueled many expeditions to discover its location, including more sinister ones engineered by Heinrich Himmler and Rudolf Hess. The Nazis sought to retrieve the wisdom of Shambhala and its closely related underground neighbor, Agartha (said to be inhabited by demons) and use it for their usual world destroying purposes. No surprises there. As far as we know, none of these explorations yielded any concrete results. Authors like Victoria Le Page, argue that Shambhala exists on another plane of reality, while those like Edwin Bernbaum, explore its symbolic meaning. James Hilton, describes a Shambhala inspired fictional place called Shangri-La in his novel, Lost Horizon. Even Fullmetal Alchemist, the best anime ever (If you disagree, we can argue all day), has a story arc devoted to Shambhala.

Our collective history is a saga of war, carnage and inexplicable cruelty. In such a world it makes sense to believe in a promised land full of wise men and women who have overcome materialism.Even if these lost cities have no basis in fact, they are appealing and they fuel our imagination. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne, is a spectacular piece of fiction and illustrates my point splendidly. I remember losing myself in tales of adventure and discovery as a child. Palpitations, goosebumps and shivers down your spine. What could possibly be better than that?


Of Culture in Vice


Murder, rape and various forms of thievery fall squarely under the category of evil and few have ever disagreed with that. However, when it comes to our ordinary lives vice is a grey area and its definition is subject to prevailing socioeconomic conditions.

It is a mistake to think we are guided by an inborn sense of morality. Most of our behavior is conditioned by the cultural norms of the day.We have traditionally characterized so many things as wicked and immoral. In some cultures it is being sensual or openly expressing sexuality. In some it is smoking weed or going to a bar. Getting caught watching pornography is universally frowned upon (emphasis on getting caught). I’m sure most religious works have exhaustive lists of various acts that would up your sin tally and I’m sure there were reasons behind those inclusions, some still relevant and some not. Homosexuality was until recently thought to be a grave sin. We can no longer justify that line of thought. It is now rightly considered to be an innate part of someone’s identity.

We are human, we overcome instinct and strive toward perfection. While on that journey, it is important to acknowledge that we are flawed and to be without vice is not a natural state. There is a saying where I’m from, “Any thing in excess is a vice”. Having acquired quite a few on my way to adulthood and then having rid myself of some, I must say that I agree with that. Let me give a mild example. As a child I loved Coca Cola, by the time I got to college it was a full blown addiction. I was chugging a liter per day. I decided to call it a vice and quit once it started taking a toll on my health and am better off for it. However, for most people coke is just a free addition to  combo meals.

I think foresight is key to defining and overcoming vice. In college, uncontrolled alcohol consumption might seem fun, but if it turns into alcoholism it will seriously affect your personal and professional life. Behavioral patterns that impair functionality and quality of life need to be identified, analyzed and modified by an individual through self examination, constructive criticism and fierce discipline. This requires much reflection and familiarity with your own strengths and weaknesses.Defining and overcoming vice is a personal quest, to be tailored to your needs.If we as a society manage to raise individuals capable of honest introspection, deep compassion and considerate action; heaven and hell would be rendered irrelevant.

via Daily Prompt: Vice


Priorities & Trade Offs


I had the good fortune of learning from  wonderful teachers and professors. They were all experts in their chosen fields and their dedication is inspiring. The very thought of emulating them is to me, tempting and terrifying at the same time. I’m assaulted by self doubt. Is it possible to devote myself to my profession above all else? Is absolute devotion necessary to advance the field? Is it worth it? When I asked my nanotechnology professor he said ‘Yes’. Not even a single moment of hesitation. Then again, he is divorced.

Having given some thought to it in the past, I have come to believe that for most ordinary people like myself, raising a family and gaining expertise in a field of study are two separate, full time jobs. Hence it is important to list out our priorities before hand. If profession comes out on top, then perhaps its a good idea to hold off on family for awhile. At least, till we can find a partner who has complementing priorities. It is also important to honestly reevaluate these priorities when in doubt.

I personally agree with my professor. However, at the end of the  day, we should choose what makes us happiest even if there is a trade off involved. We need not be super heroes juggling a million things at once.  Judgement from well meaning family members, friends and colleagues be damned.