Random Thoughts

Asafetida, Sandalwood, Scorpions, Sages and Absurdities

Indian culture has wonderful myths and stories. One of them compares an evil person to the asafetida plant and a good person to sandalwood. The analogy is based on the fact that even a gentle caress of the plant releases molecules of the pungent, strong and somewhat unpleasant odor of asafetida, while repeated and increasingly stronger abrasive force on a piece of sandalwood consistently releases the pleasing fragrance of sandalwood.

Another myth is about a sage praying on the riverbank when he notices a scorpion falling in the water from a leaf on a tree at the bank. The sage plucks the scorpion from the water with his hand and puts it back on land but is stung by the scorpion. The scorpion probably suffering from acute depression with suicidal tendencies, climbs the tree and onto the leaf and jumps off again. Once again the sage saves it and is stung again. The scene is repeated ad nauseam and a curious observer asks the sage why he keeps saving the scorpion even after repeated stings. The sage replies that it his Dharma to save life and the scorpion's Dharma to sting.

The second story is used by Francis Collins, the Director of the Human Genome project in his book 'The Language of God', though wrongly attributed to a non-Indian culture. Dr. Collins is a believer in God and uses the story and our moral sense and other equally spurious and vacuous arguments to prove the existence of God. A better reasoned and logical argument for the non-existence of God is available for readers in Richard Dawkins' book 'The God Delusion'. His lecture can be accessed at www.richarddawkins.net on the web.

The real reason for moral behavior may be like the spandrels of St. Marks Cathedral in Venice. These are unintended fortuitous remnants of the necessary column architecture to support the dome, as Stephen Jay Gould surmises. When humans lived in small groups on the African Savannah, most members were probably genetically related, and it made sense to co-operate and be helpful to members of your group. There was bound to be reiterated interaction and favors would be returned when you were in trouble. Strangers were often attacked brutally and xenophobia is still a part of our present day behavior. This favorable behavior is called kin altruism. Even today vampire bats from the same cave go out foraging for a blood meal. Sometimes one or more return without feeding. If unfed for two nights, the hungry bat may even die, so it begs for a blood meal from its cave-mates and usually one of them obliges by regurgitating some blood. The donor bat remembers the donee and when hungry after a failed forage asks for a return favor. This behavior is called reciprocal altruism.

These behaviors are genetically hardwired in many animals and that is why we help unrelated strangers. Another hardwired behavior is affection towards the young of many cute species and that is why we coo and fondle babies, puppies, kittens and even lion and tiger cubs. Yet one never sees that behavior extended to baby cobras, scorpions or cockroaches. The stories are meant to generate genuine compassion and not like that of the sage or the Bush administration either.

There is a game called 'Prisoners' Dilemma' that forms the primer of game theory in mathematics, economics and military strategy, in which for a single encounter the best option is to defect and save one's own skin, assuming a zero sum game. It is only with repeated interaction that trust develops and co-operation leads to a non-zero sum payoff. Interested readers can 'google' for the game.

In a similar fashion, turning the other cheek as Christ advised only leads to getting beaten up. As the history of America proves hardly any slave was freed by Christianity or non-violence. While Gandhi deserves praise, one must realize that the British left India only after milking it dry and it became a financial and manpower burden, rather than a benefit and not just because of non-violent protests. Saddam Hussein didn't leave Kuwait because of Islam and the French didn't quit Algeria for the sake of Christianity. The shame of India and Indians is that our people collaborated with our occupiers, whether as Raja Mansingh or ordinary sepoys. Think how many decades of non-violence it took to free India and how little time the Indian military took to free Goa.

That brings me to an ordinary situation that we all face, the world over. Many French and other restaurants add on a 15 to 20% service charge on the restaurant bill and all add a local or state tax. Those patrons who still leave an added tip are either foolish, ignorant, uncaring about money, overly pleased by the service or most likely intimidated by convention and unwilling to understand the bill. The tip is an appreciation for service and while 15% is accepted by convention, it has to be earned by the server. Furthermore, let us say that four of you go to a restaurant and are served by one person who waits on you. Your bill is 500 dollars and the meal took 90 minutes. If you calculate 15% on the total bill which includes the state tax which has nothing to do with service, you are being overly generous. Even if the bill without tax is 500 dollars, conventional calculation would mean leaving a tip of 75 to hundred dollars for a 90 minute job, making the waiter's hourly wage rate 50 to 66 dollars. It is amazing that we pay our babysitters or school teachers to whom we entrust our most precious children, anywhere from 7 to 20 dollars per hour. Does anyone notice the absurdity?


More by :  Gaurang Bhatt, MD

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