The Art of Living – Stanford Humanities

“In The Art of Living, a first-year Introduction to the Humanities course, three humanities professors examine great works of philosophy and literature to explore what it might take to lead a well-lived life.” — Stanford Humanities

1. Introduction to The Art of Living
2. Visions of Love
3. It is Not Hard at All to Challenge Socrates
4. A Life of Reason? Socrates vs. Alcibiades
5. Your Worm is the Only Emperor for Diet
6. Hamlet: Knight of Resignation
7. For Hecuba! What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba that he should weep for her?…The play’s the thing.
8. Roundtable Discussion: Shakespeare
9. Abraham is the Knight of Faith: Faith versus Love, Morals, and Reason Itself
10. Was it So Easy a Matter Not to be Mistaken?
11. Abraham is the Knight of Faith: On Roles of Reason and Faith
12. What One Should Learn from Artists
13. Recurrence and Redemption or Why Science is Just as Necessary as Art
14. Morality Strikes Back
15. The Narrative Construction of the Self
16. The Flight of Self
17. It’s not about you living longer. It’s about how you live and why.

Frances Pritchett: How to Read Ghalib

Frances Pritchett is Professor of Modern Indic Languages in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University. She teaches courses on Indian civilization, Urdu literature and Islam in South Asia. Pritchett’s publications include Nets of Awareness: Urdu Poetry and Its Critics, The Romance Tradition in Urdu: The Dastan of Amir Hamzah, Urdu Meter: A Practical Handbook, and Urdu Literature: A Bibliography of English Language Sources.

See Pritchett’s incomparable work on Ghalib: A Desertful of Roses: the Urdu Ghazals of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib


Section from a Quran Manuscript, 18th century Morocco or Tunisia. Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper. | via | Click image for larger view.
Section from a Quran Manuscript, 18th century Morocco or Tunisia. Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper. | via | Click image for larger view.

“it is as difficult to present a fixed image of a character as of societies and passions. For a character alters no less than they do, and if one tries to take a snapshot of what is relatively immutable in it, one finds it presenting a succession of different aspects … to the disconcerted lens” (Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time: The Captive, 373).

Goethe’s Conversations with Eckermann

Goethe’s Conversations with Eckermann counted for Nietzsche as “the best German book there is” [dem besten deutschen Buche, das es gibt]. He rated Eckermann’s record of these conversations higher than Goethe’s Faust, on which Kaufmann wittily commented that fortunately, we don’t have to choose between the two – we can read both.

‘Art’ by Yasmina Reza

Set in Paris, the story revolves around three friends—Serge, Marc and Yvan—who find their previously solid 15-year friendship on shaky ground when Serge buys an expensive painting. The canvas is white, with a few white lines.

Serge is proud of his 200,000 franc acquisition fully expecting the approval of his friends.

Marc scornfully describes it as “a piece of white shit,” but is it the painting that offends him, or the uncharacteristic independence-of-thought that the purchase reveals in Serge?

For the insecure Yvan, burdened by the problems of his impending doom (wedding) and his dissatisfaction at his job as a stationery salesman, their friendship is his sanctuary…but his attempts at peace-making backfire. Eager to please he laughs about the painting with Marc but tells Serge he likes it. Pulled into the disagreement, his vacillations fuel the blazing row.

Lines are drawn and they square off over the canvas, using it as an excuse to relentlessly batter one another over various failures. As their arguments become less theoretical and more personal, they border on destroying their friendship. – Wikipedia

Dream is a second life. – Nerval

It has been over a decade since I personally realized how great a role dreams play not only as representations of our waking life but also strongly influence it. My dreams are mostly vivid and some like this early morning’s are so honestly wishful, coherent and powerful that I owe my mood to them, at least for the rest of the day.

Among Freud and others, Gérard de Nerval, the French poet, essayist and surreal chronicler has given dreams the attention they deserve. Walter Kaufmann suspected that we spend so much of our creative energy in dreams that we wake up dull the next day. I neither feel like disputing this thought-provoking idea (which makes me wonder if less REM sleep could mean more creative connections during the day) nor boring you with my wonderful dream which may have a life of its own and made my day, but may not mean anything to others who would have commensurate dreams of their own, and I don’t discount nightmares either, but I want to share a few words by Nerval, whose magnificent novella Sylvie directly influenced Marcel Proust‘s In Search of Lost Time.

Nerval begins his Aurélia,

“Dream is a second life. I have never been able to cross through those gates of ivory or horn which separate us from the invisible world without a sense of dread.”

and writes a little further on (I found this passage fascinatingly unusual),

Gérard de Nerval (1808 – 1855) was the nom-de-plume of the French poet, essayist and translator Gérard Labrunie.
“Meanwhile night was gradually falling and the sights, sounds and sensations of the place were becoming blurred to my slumbering mind. I thought I was sinking into an abyss which cut through the globe. I felt myself being buoyed along by a current of molten metal; a thousand similar streams whose hues varied with their chemical compositions were criss-crossing the earth like the vessels or veins that wind through the lobes of the brain. From the pulse and flux of their circulation, I gathered these streams were made up of living beings in a molecular state, which only the speed at which I was traveling made it impossible to distinguish. A whitish light was filtering into these channels, and at last I saw a new horizon open up like a huge dome dotted with islands washed by luminous waves. I found myself on a coast lit by a light not of the sun and saw an old man who was cultivating the soil. I recognized him as the same man who had spoken to me through the voice of the bird, and whether it was his words or my inner intuition of them, it became evident to me that our ancestors assumed the shape of certain animals in order to visit us on earth and take part in the various phases of our existence as silent observers.”

Translated by Richard Sieburth for Penguin Classics

How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne

Montaigne's ceiling | Lessing Photo Archive
One of the remarkable things about Montaigne’s Essays and his biography by Sarah Bakewell is that your Montaigne could be just as present and real as mine. In How to Live, the man comes to life so paradoxically and so well, as a comforting, endearing, spontaneous human being, that I can’t help calling this Pyrrhonian skeptic a close friend. As the subtitle of the seventh chapter goes, “All I know is that I know nothing, and I’m not even sure about that.”

I first read Montaigne’s On Conversation twelve years ago – it was a charming discovery. A friend brought me a volume of his complete essays on a breezy winter morning in early 2000, and from there, in the flush of banter, youth and cheer, I began my systematic study of this most unsystematic writer. I have often noticed with some gratification – as if I know him best, as per the impression he makes on countless readers – that he can even perplex poets. T. S. Eliot suspected:

Of all authors Montaigne is one of the least destructible. You could as well dissipate a fog by flinging hand-grenades into it. For Montaigne is a fog, a gas, a fluid, insidious element. He does not reason, he insinuates, charms, and influences, or if he reasons, you must be prepared for his having some other design upon you than to convince you by his argument.

Emerson was characteristically more trustful:

He parades it: he makes the most of it: nobody can think or say worse of him than he does. He pretends to most of the vices; and, if there be any virtue in him, he says, it got in by stealth. There is no man, in his opinion, who has not deserved hanging five or six times; and he pretends no exception in his own behalf. “Five or six as ridiculous stories,” too, he says, “can be told of me, as of any man living.” But, with all this really superfluous frankness, the opinion of an invincible probity grows into every reader’s mind.

“That such a man wrote has truly augmented the joy of living on this Earth”. — Nietzsche

“Montaigne, affecting ease and comfort, contributed more to saving his country than his zealous contemporaries. Some of his work was directly political, but his greatest contribution was simply to stay out of it and write the Essays. This, in the eyes of many, makes him a hero”. — Sarah Bakewell

Que sais-je?

Listen to Sarah Bakewell as she discusses ‘How To Live” in the Blackwell Online podcast [33:45]:

philosophy bites interview with Sarah_Bakewell on Michel de Montaigne [16:42]:

Watch this brief introduction:

Read Sarah Bakewell’s series of Guardian articles about Montaigne.

Montaigne’s Complete Essays have been translated by Donald Murdoch Frame and M. A. Screech.

The Journal of Henry David Thoreau

“Thus each wind is self-registering.”

Henry David Thoreau is justly famous for his book Walden, which tells the story of the two years he spent living by the pond, in the Concord woods. But he also wrote a journal, which he started at age 20 in 1837, and kept up until 1861, shortly before he died. This diary of Thoreau’s daily thoughts and experiences has been published by New York Review Books Classics.

Edwin Frank, the editor of the series, speaks with ThoughtCast at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“Not long since, a strolling Indian went to sell baskets at the house of a well-known lawyer in my neighborhood. “Do you wish to buy any baskets?” he asked. “No, we do not want any,” was the reply. “What!” exclaimed the Indian as he went out the gate, “do you mean to starve us?” Having seen his industrious white neighbors so well off — that the lawyer had only to weave arguments, and, by some magic, wealth and standing followed — he had said to himself: I will go into business; I will weave baskets; it is a thing which I can do. Thinking that when he had made the baskets he would have done his part, and then it would be the white man’s to buy them. He had not discovered that it was necessary for him to make it worth the other’s while to buy them, or at least make him think that it was so, or to make something else which it would be worth his while to buy. I too had woven a kind of basket of a delicate texture, but I had not made it worth any one’s while to buy them. Yet not the less, in my case, did I think it worth my while to weave them, and instead of studying how to make it worth men’s while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them. The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the others?” – Walden

Tea and the Little Madeleine

Carnations and Clematis in a Crystal Vase, Musée d'Orsay, 1883 - Edouard Manet

I feel there is much to be said for the Celtic belief that the souls of those whom we have lost are held captive in some inferior being, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate object, and thus effectively lost to us until the day (which to many never comes) when we happen to pass by the tree or to obtain possession of the object which forms their prison. Then they start and tremble, they call us by our name, and as soon as we have recognized them the spell is broken. Delivered by us, they have overcome death and return to share our life.

And so it is with our own past. It is a labor in vain to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) of which we have no inkling. And it depends on chance whether or not we come upon this object before we ourselves must die.

Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, except what lay in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes, called “petite madeleines,” which look as though they had been molded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shiver ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had the effect, which love has, of filling me with a precious essence, or rather this essence was not in me, it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savors, could not, indeed, be of the same nature. Where did it come from? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?

I drink a second mouthful, in which I find nothing more than in the first, then a third, which gives me rather less than the second. It is time to stop; the potion is losing its virtue. It is plain that the truth I am seeking lies not in the cup but in myself. The drink has called it into being, but does not know it, and can only repeat indefinitely, with a progressive diminution of strength, the same message which I cannot interpret, though I hope at least to be able to call it forth again, and to find it there presently, intact and at my disposal, for my final enlightenment. I put down the cup and examine my own mind. It alone can discover the truth. But how? What an abyss of uncertainty, whenever the mind feels overtaken by itself; when it, the seeker, is at the same time the dark region through which it must go seeking and where all its equipment will avail it nothing. Seek? More than that: create. It is face to face with something that does not yet exist, which it alone can make actual, which it alone can bring into the light of day.

And I begin again to ask myself what it could have been, this unremembered state which brought with it no logical proof, but the indisputable evidence, of its felicity, its reality, and in whose presence other states of consciousness melted and vanished. I want to try to make it reappear. I retrace my thoughts to the moment at which I drank the first spoonful of tea. I rediscover the same state, illuminated by no fresh light. I ask my mind to make one further effort, to bring back once more the fleeting sensation. And so that nothing may interrupt it in its course I shut out every obstacle, every extraneous idea, I stop my ears and screen my attention from the sounds from the next room. And then, feeling that my mind is tiring itself without having any success to report, I compel it for a change to enjoy the distraction which I have just denied it, to think of other things, to rest and refresh itself before making a final effort. And then for the second time I clear an empty space in front of it; I place in position before my mind’s eye the still recent taste of that first mouthful, and I feel something start within me, something that leaves its resting place and attempts to rise, something that has been anchored at a great depth; I do not know yet what it is, but I can feel it mounting slowly; I can measure the resistance, I can hear the echo of great spaces traversed.

Undoubtedly what is thus palpitating in the depths of my being must be the image, the visual memory which, being linked to that taste, is trying to follow it into my conscious mind. But its struggles are too far off, too confused and chaotic; scarcely can I perceive the neutral glow into which the elusive whirling medley of stirred-up colours is fused, and I cannot distinguish its form, cannot invite it, as the one possible interpreter, to translate for me the evidence of its contemporary, its inseparable paramour, the taste, cannot ask it to inform me what special circumstance is in question, from what period in my past life.

Will it ultimately reach the clear surface of my consciousness, this memory, this old dead moment which the magnetism of an identical moment has travelled so far to importune, to disturb, to raise up out of the very depths of my being? I cannot tell. Now I feel nothing; it has stopped, has perhaps sunk back into its darkness, from which who can say whether it will ever rise again? Ten times over I must essay the task, must lean down over the abyss. And each time the cowardice that deters us from every difficult task, every important enterprise, has urged me to leave the thing alone, to drink my tea and to think merely of the worries of today and my hopes for tomorrow, which can be brooded over painlessly.

And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it; perhaps because I had so often seen such things in the meantime, without tasting them, on the trays in the pastry cooks’ windows, that their image had dissociated itself from those of Combray days to take its place among others more recent; perhaps because, of those memories so long abandoned and put out of mind, nothing now survived, everything was scattered; the shapes of things, including that of the little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds, were either obliterated or had been so long dormant as to have lost the power of expansion which would have allowed them to resume their place in my consciousness. But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.

And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated segment which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I used to be sent before lunch, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. And as in the game wherein the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little pieces of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch and twist and take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, solid and recognisable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden, and in M. Swann’s park, and the waterlilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.

Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Volume I; 2003 Modern Library Paperback Edition – p59-64.

How Proust Can Change Your Life

Portrait of Marcel Proust 1892. Proust’s portrait hung in his Boulevard Haussmann apartment, with its cork covered walls, until 1919

To make reading into a discipline is to give too large a role to what is only an incitement. Reading is on the threshold of spiritual life- it can introduce us to it; it does not constitute it.

It’s from adolescents who last long enough that life makes its old men.

- In Search of Lost Time

Garm Hava

Balraj Sahni

Garm Hava was made in 1973 by M S Sathyu. The script by Kaifi Azmi and Shama Zaidi was based on an unpublished short story by Ismat Chugtai.

When scorching winds blow, those that are not uprooted, wither away. Salim Mirza discovers this the hard way when he refuses to go to the newly formed Pakistan even as his family and friends leave. Slowly, and devastatingly, his life is reduced to shambles as he suffers familial, social and economic alienation in a country that has been his own for generations. Will he survive? What is the way out for those like him across the world stuck between longings to stay rooted to their heritage and the winds of change scattering them around? Balraj Sahni gave his best performance in his last film as the angst ridden, but stoical and proud man who faces insurmountable odds in the quest for a dignified life as a Muslim in a post-partition India.

Click here to watch the film on YouTube.

Gita Siddharth

Why Live Without Writing

Unpopular answers to poetry questions.


Photo: Renate Brandt
Questions are remarks
—Wallace Stevens

“… So, why write?

“In the first place, I would say, you write to escape your dread of the sheer present. You fill page after page, as Nietzsche once put it, with angry yearning, not to cozy up to your nearest, but out of love of those farthest away from you, and because the contemporary and the day-to-day will be all the more precious to you when you return to them in a wide arc over unknown terrain. Hence many people’s habit of getting drunk in company: at close quarters only a maximum of inner distance can create moments of ease and relaxation. Hence the silent conversations everyone has with themselves, or locking yourself up in the bathroom to read undisturbed, or the distancing look in the mirror as soon as you know you’re unobserved. Hence too the recurring need of lovers to go to the cinema and stare together at the magic screen, which for a precious hour and a half will make them forget their bodies. In writing, it is one’s innermost being that tries to assert itself, paradoxically, by self-exposure. But publicity, as will soon become apparent, is nothing but a particularly tough protective shield.

“And the second reason is a dilemma that concerns each individual psyche. You write, I believe, because you can’t quite shake the suspicion that as a mere contemporary and biological cell mate, hopelessly trammeled up in your own limited lifespan, you would always remain incomplete, half a man, so to speak. Someone must have put you onto the idea that only your most individual expression gives you the least chance of one day being seen in any way other than in your mortal sheath—say, as a kind of ghost. Ever since that tormenting voice (whoever it may be) first challenged you in the name of metaphysics, you’ve been trying by all the laws of glass-blowing, aka poetry, to fix a little window in your own diminishing time, in the hope that tomorrow, or whenever, you may be seen through that little peephole. If you happen to succeed in making your sweetheart, or one or two of your friends, or yourself in your peculiarity visible—the way Vermeer, say, showed his pregnant letter-reader—then it will have been worth the effort. Writing, the voice whispers to you, is the least circumstantial method of breaking out of the given and the immediate. Its only requirement is a mastery of the alphabet, which, thanks to universal education, may generally be relied on, at least hereabouts. You don’t have to be able to draw or set down notes like Bach, and yet, once you’ve passed your spelling exam, you’ve mastered the only method by which consciousness can be recorded.

“From which it follows, thirdly and lastly: you write because the brain is an endless wilderness, whose roughest terrain can only be traveled with a pencil. As soon as we are in the innermost dreamy connections, all other art forms are dependent on verbal synthesis. The dream, as you discover when you write, is the fully authentic self. You will never have amounted to more. The world will not appear any more variegated. Which means the notion of what really exists can, with writing, be comfortably extended by a dimension or two.

“Let me conclude this flight with an anecdote. I suspect it may be one of those grisly parables by means of which Oriental wisdom likes to offer instruction, often to the dismay of the Westerner. In it, all the issues we have treated thus far are settled, so to speak, by a stroke of the pen. The setting and atmosphere are familiar from Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, where the grisliness also has a strangely mild quality about it. In his diaries, Hugo von Hofmannsthal brings up the story of a German officer in China who, following the Boxer Rebellion, participated in a penal expedition:

The officer sees a line of men sentenced to death, standing in a field. With his sword the executioner goes from man to man. There is no need for his assistants to tie or even to hold down any of them; as soon as it’s the next man’s turn, he stands there with feet apart, his hands gripping his knees, his neck stretched out, offering it to the blade. One of the last in line, still some way from coming due, is completely immersed in a book. The officer rides up to him and asks: “What’s that you’re reading?” The man looks up, asks back: “Why are you bothering me?” The officer asks: “How can you read now?” The man says: “I know that every line I read is something gained.” The officer rides to the general who has ordered the execution, and begs him for the man’s life for so long that he gets him off, rides back with the written acquittal, shows it to the officer in charge, and is allowed to go and take the man out of line. Tells him: “You’ve been acquitted, you’re free to go.” The man shuts his book, looks the officer in the eye, and says: “You have done a good thing. Your soul will have profited greatly from this hour”—and he nods to him, and sets off across the field.


Read complete article at The Poetry Foundation

Griffin Poetry Prize 2006 | Two Poems

Book: Ashes for Breakfast: Selected Poems
Translator: Michael Hofmann
Poet: Durs Grünbein
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A Cast Iron Bell & Birds In Bodhi Trees

Cast Iron Bell, Golra Railway Station
Cast Iron Bell, Golra Railway Station

Bird Sounds

I went to the Golra Railway Station with a friend to try and get a few good photographs. We had parked the car next to the platform. There were no signboards for parking and no security personnel. After about fifteen minutes of mostly useless photography, a plainclothes policeman reluctantly came up saying their sahib was calling us because we had driven our car right onto the platform. There was a stern-faced man on the other side of the track. That was also the end of the photo shoot. I packed my camera and went up to him. He spoke angrily about the BIG violation and threateningly told us to come along to the police chowki so that we may know how bad things were. Unlike me, he was definitely in a very bad mood. We went. It was a Kafkaesque experience to be suddenly transported away from the sounds of the birds in the bodhi trees and the bell I childishly knelled to know how it sounded (very rich and loud, by the way). I think he noticed the vulnerability in my playing at life. Anyway, I overcame my aesthetic abandon and in the middle of a sentence about the security problems of the country, distastefully mentioned a connection in the police department. Things changed. He noted my name and address, and let us go after having made us get a ticket for the museum that was closed already. It was getting dark but he offered to show us a few more goodies worth shooting. The crucial lighting was gone, and his special interest in my photography notwithstanding, I said we would come back again. He said we should park the car next to the police post next time so that it remains safe, etc. I said, I love you too.

Golra Railway Station
Golra Railway Station

I’m not implying that all policemen are exploitative. If nothing else, that would go against my personal hope of making meaningful distinctions. I just think that some of them have a greater presence than others in the lives of unsuspecting civilians. As Anu Malik unforgettably said in a television interview in the 90’s, “You can love me, you can hate me, but you can never ignore me.” The reference is quite out of place, aside from its sure amusement, because Anu Malik is a creatively involved citizen of the world.

Coming back to the bell, it was made by the O.S. Bell Co., Hillsboro, Ohio, USA. The company closed down in the 50’s.

Siddhārath Gautam Buddh

Afghan museum, Kaboul 1963 - Hadda - Head of Buddha, stucco (1st-2nd Century A.D.) Photo: UNESCO
Afghan museum, Kaboul, 1963 - Hadda - Head of Buddha, stucco (1st-2nd Century A.D.) Photo: UNESCO - Status: stolen

Ghani Khan wrote with some satisfaction in his otherwise inconsequential book, The Pathans, that Pathans used to be Buddhists before embracing Islam. The monastery of Takht-e Bhai which I have yet to see for myself (captured by the World Heritage team in panography), the Buddhas of Bamiyan and other relics found in Afghanistan and Swat valley corroborate this notion. Ghani Khan also portrayed Buddha and the paintings can be seen today on the walls of his home in Utmanzai, along with an ancient stone relief depicting phases of Buddha’s life.

Last night, I saw the disturbing video posted on facebook showing the torture of Taliban suspects in Swat by the Pakistan Army. The militant Taliban are a vicious lot, and one can still see why the army’s reaction has disappointed many people. One can also imagine the situation where soldiers, policemen and civilians are slaughtered, and the sort of sentiments evoked by such vulnerability and the ensuing callousness while dealing with individuals who could possibly be those ‘enemies of the state’.

There is a general disposition in humans for being more aggressive in a group. Freud believed that the total intelligence of any group (mob, he meant) is lower than the intelligence of its least intelligent member. I have always found this amusing and compared it to a concept in physics: resistors in parallel!

It is also true that there is a sort of intellectual satisfaction derived from such discussions which distances us from the cracks in our universe, i.e. whatever fails to make affirmative sense in a human context.

Western philosophers from Schopenhauer to Irving Singer – who mentions Buddhism in his most recent book, Philosophy of Love – have meaningfully varied in their views, which is a great virtue of their tradition, but most of them have admired Buddha for the haunting insight that there is a lot of suffering in the world – so much, and most often, so meaningless, that it calls for compassion.

Nasadiya from Rig Veda

Nasadiya (Creation Hymn) 10.129

Translation and commentary by Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty

This short hymn, though linguistically simple (with the exception of one or two troublesome nouns), is conceptually extremely provocative and has, indeed, provoked hundreds of complex commentaries among Indian theologians and Western scholars. In many ways, it is meant to puzzle and challenge, to raise unanswerable questions, to pile up para­doxes.

1. There was neither non-existence nor existence then; there was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond. What stirred? (1) Where? In whose protection? Was there water, bottomlessly deep?

2. There was neither death nor immortality then. There was no distinguishing sign (2) of night nor of day. That one breathed, windless, by its own impulse. Other than that there was nothing beyond.

3 Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning; with no distinguishing sign (2), all this was water. The life force that was covered with emptiness, that one arose through the power of heat. (3)

4 Desire came upon that one in the beginning; that was the first seed of mind. Poets (4) seeking in their heart with wis­dom found the bond of existence in non-existence.

5 Their cord (5) was extended across. Was there below? Was there above? There were seed-placers; there were powers. (6) There was impulse beneath; there was giving­ forth above.

6 Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe. (7) Who then knows whence it has arisen?

7 Whence this creation has arisen – perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not – the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows – or perhaps he does not know.



1. The verb is often used to describe the motion of breath. The verse implies that the action precedes the actor.

2. That is, the difference between night and day, light or dark­ness, or possibly sun and moon.

3. Tapas designates heat: in particular the heat generated by ritual activity and by physical mortification of the body.

4. Kavi designates a poet or saint.

5. Possibly a reference to the ‘bond’ mentioned in verse 4, or a kind of measuring cord by which the poets delimit – and hence create – the elements.

6. Through chiasmus, the verse contrasts male seed-placers, giving-forth, above, with female powers, impulse, below.

7. That is, the gods cannot be the source of creation since they came after it.

An Address – by a Selfless Volunteer

Ibn-e Insha



Ibn-e-Insha 1927 – 1978

Ibn-e-Insha is a 20th century Urdu language writer of great merit – his real name was Sher Muhammad Khan. He was the contemporary of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, but his poetry is apolitical. His travelogues are rife with interesting encounters and witty descriptions of peoples and places. Pitras Bukhari and Shafiq-ur-Rehman were his peers in satire but he has always been unmatched in the density of humor per square page, and it was here that he forgave no one including himself.

He was a civil servant but his passion lay in writing. He died of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 1978.

His well-known works include:

Urdu Ki Aakhri Kitab; Khumar-e-Gandum (humor/satire)

Ibn-e-Batoota Kai Taqub Mein; Chaltai Ho To Cheen Ko Chalo; Awara Gard Ki Diary; Duniya Gol Hai; Nagri Nagri Phira Musafir (travelogues)

Iss Basti kai ik Koochay Mein; Chand Nagar; Dil-e-Wehshi (poetry collections)

Khat Insha-jii Kai (letters)

The following piece, translated in its entirety, is taken from the book, “Khumar-e-Gandum”, published posthumously in September 1980 under the supervision of his brother, Sardar Mehmood.

I chose to translate this piece because I felt that at least here, I would be able to transport some humor across the language barrier.

This piece is inspired by the meaningless notices, announcements and addresses by any typical lickspittle of any establishment, and turned to gold by Insh-ji’s cheerful magic.

Taimur Khan
Winter 2004

An Address – by a Selfless Volunteer

From Ibn-e-Insha’s Khumar-e-Gandum

‘Your honor! The organization of Pakistan’s selfless volunteers, “Selfless Volunteers of Pakistan” (registered) greets you with the bottom of her heart. Your Honor! The demand of our day is that all patriotic Pakistanis should unite to strengthen the arms of the government. Therefore, the organization in question is also prepared to strengthen the arms of the current government most sincerely – just as beforehand, she strengthened the arms of President Ayub, the arms of President Yahya, in fact, the arms of all previous governments.

‘Your Honor! In addition to strengthening the arms of the government, another peculiarity of our organization is the readiness to leap into the arena. Therefore, even today, we are ready to leap into the arena on the slightest signal from our beloved President, provided that the arena is layered, from here to there, with cotton-stuffed cushions, mattresses and carpets. Without these, leaping into the arena can be hazardous. Someone might get hurt, which, in the light of the country’s current situation, would be inappropriate.

‘Your Honor! The organization in question, i.e. “Selfless Volunteers of Pakistan” (registered) has opened its doors to everyone; because there is nothing inside – once there was, but it was embraced with open arms and carried away by the volunteers. Now, just the door’s signboard is left, which, the present organization is willing to dedicate to the nation. It is made of solid shisham wood. Launderers can use it for rapping dirty clothes; those who are not launderers can bang their heads on it; it can also be used for washing corpses – in fact, corpses can bathe themselves over it on the basis of self-help.

‘Your Honor! All workers of our organization are selfless in the extreme. If someone considers rewarding them for their efforts, they readily come to blows. This, your humble servant, Mian Faqir Muhammad, secretary general of the organization in question is a most self-effacing man. He does not seek any favor from you, except the favor of rank; and has no greed, except the greed for money. Past establishments tried their utmost, but could not buy him. First they offered ministry, but he kicked it away. Then he was offered ambassadorship but he kicked that away as well. This humble servant has kicked away riches, status, fame, and countless other things which he cannot presently recall. Alas, now his leg is no longer capable of kicking anything else. Out of habit, your humble servant once imparted such a kick to a dog – who did not understand metaphors and could not appreciate the spirit of sacrifice. He bit me in response – an act befitting mankind.

‘Your Honor! As your humble servant has explained, your humble servant seeks no personal gain from you or the government, although if he is allotted the large shop in the corner of the city’s Main Market, still under construction, your humble servant’s spirit of selfless service to the nation could flourish by the day, because beside the chairmanship of the organization in question – using which for personal gains he considers adulterating – your humble servant also runs a small personal business by the name of “Faqir Stone Works”. Our beloved president has ordained the other day that we should all work hard – work hard, even “with a stone bound to the belly”. Hence, your humble servant’s firm has started supplying stones on discounted rates. These stones are cut from the hill of Manghu Pir, and therefore, aside from being hard, they are also rife with mercy and blessing. There are other utilities for them as well, aside from being bound to bellies. Beloveds use it as their threshold stone and make lovers rub their foreheads and noses over it. Aside from rubbing foreheads and noses, it can also be used to grind various spices. Our stones are also efficacious for suicide. Anyone jumping into the river with this stone bound to his body never resurfaces, while the callous society is left grating. We possess countless certificates from suicides verifying that they got the job done with a single stone, setting themselves free from the ‘prison of life and confinement of sorrow’ [Ghalib]. Now send a few stones on our behalf to so and so. We bear the expense of transporting them from our shop to the riverside, and do not charge the customer.’

‘Your honor, I forget which poet said it, and said it well, “Death is better than such a victual as mars man’s flight” [Iqbal]. Indeed, the root of all evil is food, i.e. grain, etc. At this point in time, our nation does not need victuals so much as stones. Take this little example. One of our forebears, whose name I am forgetting, was driven out of paradise because of a grain of wheat – no one has been driven out because of stones till date. The above-mentioned poet considers stones more valuable than victuals for a reason. The beautiful stones from our shop are used for building tombs of the dying, not tombs of the living. Whoever once acquired from us his gravestone became our admirer forever. Your honor! To you as well, we are presenting an undated gravestone. You will need it when the time comes. If you would kindly accept…’