My Discovery of Russia (Part I)

On June 11, 2018, I took the train from Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport to Moscow’s city centre. On the way, I noticed many old flats which looked like the council estates in England. The landscape was a giant construction zone with piles of sand, scrap metal and bulldozers. Russia seemed suspended in time, a picture drab and depressing.

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Economy of Russia

I looked at those rows of flats and wondered, who lived there? Did they experience problems like poverty, social alienation and alcoholism like the people in England’s council estates … ?

Russia’s poverty rate is concentrated more in the country’s towns and villages (which make up 27% of its population) and in regions like Caucasus. Homelessness, alcoholism and drug abuse are some of the social problems in Russian society.

In terms of wealth disparity, Russia scores a “medium” score of 0.38 on the Gini Index (which measures income income equality, i.e. a score of 1.0 constitutes perfect inequality). In this respect, Russia has its regional and urban/rural disparities, but its overall income inequality is no worse than the United States which scores a score of 0.39.

Moscow

I stayed in a hostel in Kitay Gorod, the historical financial and business district of old Moscow. Red Square was a 15 minute walk from our hostel, and at the heart of Red Square was that symbol of Russian historic power, the citadel known as the Kremlin.

The Kremlin has been the centre of Russian power for over eight centuries. It’s a symbol of both the Russian state and its resistance to foreign powers, whether Mongol, French or German.

Behind the walls of the Kremlin are the state palace and the senate. I visited the Kremlin on June 13, 2018, and I joked with the Chinese tourists that Putin was coming every time a motor cavalcade drove our way.

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The Kremlin is also home to the most important cathedrals of Orthodox Russia. The Cathedral of the Assumption was built by Ivan the Terrible (r. 1530-1584) as a symbol of the growing power of the Russian state. Russian Czars were coronated here from 1547 to 1896 and Moscow’s early princes and church patriarchs are buried here.

The Cathedral of the Archangel, also within the Kremlin, is the resting place of the early Russian Czars including Ivan the Terrible.

Religion in Russia

It’s interesting that Putin is portrayed in the West as playing on religion to stir up nationalism in Russia. It’s more accurate to say that Putin is stirring up Russian nationalism of which the Russian Orthodox Church is an integral part.

Except for the Soviet period during which the country was officially atheist, religion has always been part of Russian politics. The Russian Church ceremonially legitimized the rule of Russian Czars and consecrated Russian statehood.

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The Russian Church remains part of warp and woof of Russian life, society and culture. The Russian script, its early literature, its history, its art and music is the legacy of its church. The mystery and piety of the institution is alive in Moscow through the chanting and incense of its worship to the postcard shrines of its icons on the wayside.

… to be continued

 

 

 

 

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To Russia, With Love

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From ignorance lead me to Truth
From darkness lead me to light
From death lead me to immortality
(the Upanishads).

When I left Canada for Russia, I was told about how I would not be welcome there. Russia, I was warned was a racist, unsafe country.

Without those warnings about Russia, I would not have triumphed over my own fears and ignorance. I left Russia ten days later having experienced a warmth, respect and humanity which I will always treasure.

What makes Russians human? It’s in their music, laughter and chatter. It’s in how they run for shelter from the pelting rain. It’s in how the anguished cries of a Russian infant tugs on your heart strings. It’s in the celebration of the World Cup by Iranians, Russians and Australians in this country and in the courtesy shown by Russians holding doors open for you or giving way to you on the Metro.

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One stereotype I must resort to is the strength of the Russian people: they are a tough, direct and no-nonsense people. This should not be interpreted as obscuring their basic courtesy which they take great pride in. In fact, their directness enables them to emerge all the more human in being open, honest and straightforward.

There are many things I loved about visiting Russia.  I caught the fever and the spirit of the World Cup celebrations from around the world and met some great people from within Russia and from places like Brazil, England, Morocco and Morocco.

I loved exploring Russia’s culture, history and society along the canals of St. Petersburg and through its squares, cathedrals and palaces. The highlight for me would probably be Nevisky Prospect, St. Petersburg’s most famous street, immortalized by Gogol:

” There is nothing finer than Nevsky Avenue … in St. Petersburg it is everything … is there more gay, more brilliant, more resplendent than this beautiful street of our capital?”

Above all, I leave Russia remembering the importance of why we travel, to which I paraphrase the words of the Buddha:

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.
Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many.
Do not believe in anything simply because it is written in your books.
Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and experts.
Do not believe in stories handed down for many generations.
But when after observation and experience, you find that something is good and that it agrees with your heart, then accept it as the truth.”

I leave Russia with a more open mind and a richer heart.

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The End of Suffering: Buddhist Political Philosophy (Introduction)

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I’ve long been interested in the idea of a Buddhist political philosophy.

Buddhism has long been criticized for being unconcerned with political or social reality. Indeed, most books written on Buddhism in North America today deal with psychic subjects like meditation and mindfulness, while others (Buddha in the Boardroom and The Buddha on Wallstreet) align Buddhism with modern day capitalism.

These questions have failed to engage with the deeper questions of Buddhist philosophy. They have also failed to question the basic premises of our liberal-democratic capitalist system. Such questioning is even more pressing given the loss of public confidence in our institutions following years of war, conquest, financial crises, bank bailouts and demagogues.

Buddhist political philosophy offers a new way and timely of thinking about and imagining our political reality. I look forward to writing more about it here.

 

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Film Review: “Dreaming Murakumi”

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  “There’s no such thing as a perfect sentence just as there’s no such thing as perfect despair” (from ‘Dreaming Murakumi’)

Dreaming Murakami is a concise and compelling documentary on Danish translator, Metta Holm, and her efforts to translate the novels of Haruki Murakami. Director, Nitish Anjaan, has crafted a film on the power of words and the beauty of imperfection.

Growing up, Holm never felt at home until she discovered Japanese literature. In Dreaming Murakami, she chats casually with the locals of Tokyo in taxicabs, sushi restaurants and record shops as if they were lifelong friends. Home, she reminds us, is where we find it.

Dreaming Murakami also reminds us of the importance of language and literature. In one scene, a Japanese local tells Holm that thoughts and ideas only travel in the world of language and literature. The world’s governments may be moving toward the right, the man and Holm opine, but her translation has built bridges where there were none.

Film Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lmwfycOvMi4

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No Ordinary Sufi

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“If you want your life, die before your death” (Shah Hussain).

This is my summary of Fauzia Rafique’s presentation on the life and poetry of Shah Hussain. The presentation was part of the Dead Poets Reading Series which took place at the Vancouver Public Library (Central) on May 6, 2018.

Shah Hussain (1538-1599) was a Punjabi poet from Lahore. He wrote 163 poems in Punjabi and introduced the kafi genre into the language.[1] His collected works remain among the top selling books of all time in Punjabi.

When he was thirty-six years old, Shah Hussain had a dispute with his religious teacher over the interpretation of the following verse:

“duniya khel tamasha hai” (‘the world’s a play and spectacle’).”

For the teacher, the verse meant the renunciation of the fleeting material world. For Shah Hussain, it meant that life is to be enjoyed. With that, he laughed, donned himself in a red cotton robe and became a dancing mendicant in the streets of Lahore.

Shah Hussain was a “malamti” Sufi, one who took pride in the “malamat” or “shaming” he was subjected to. He stood against the the political and religious establishment in support the common people. He identified himself with the julaha (weaver), the chuhra (sweeper) and the faqir. He associated with rebels like Dulla Bhatti who stirred peasant rebellions against the Emperor Akbar. His poetry reflected the folk rhythms and idiom of everyday Punjabi.

Shah Hussain was a rebel in another way. Unlike the male poets of his day who used the feminine voice (rekhti) to express the “feminine” emotions of grief and anguish, Shah Hussain wrote in the feminine voice to acknowledge and express his own self as a gay man.

If Shah Hussain’s love was transcendent, it was in the earthly sense of overcoming distinctions of class, gender, creed and sexual orientation. He belonged to no sect or lineage other than humanity’s.

Kafi 131

Swaying in ecstasy play on in the inner yard, all is near to those meditating
Rivers flow in this yard, thousands of millions of boats
Some are seen drowning, others have reached the shore
This yard has nine doors, the tenth is locked shut
No one needs to know, from where my lover comes and goes
This yard has a pretty curve, a hollow in the curve
I spread my bed in the hollow to love my lover at night!
A wild elephant in this yard, is struggling with the chain
Says Hussain the Beggar of His Beloved, (the elephant) is teasing the awake

(Trans. Fauzia Rafique)

Jhume jhum khaid lai munjh vehRay, japdeyaN nooN hur naiRay
Vehray de vich nadiyaN vagan, baiRay lakh hazar
kaiti iss vich Dubdi vekhi, kaiti langhi paar
iss vehRay de nauN darvazay, dusswaiN qulf chuRhai
tiss darvazay de mehram nahiN, jit shauh aaway jai
vehRay de vich aala soohay, aalay de vich taaqi
taaqi de vich sej vichaawaN, apnay pia sung raati
iss vehRay vich makna haathi, sangal naal khahaiRay
kahe Hussain Faqir SaeeN da, jagdeyaN kooN chehRay

 

 

[1] A kafi is a lyric poem of four to ten lines.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Russia is a threat … or is it?

Putin Threat

Why does the United States perceive Russia as a threat?

Powerful countries like the United States have always viewed other powers (or rising powers) as threats. Athens felt threatened by the rise of Sparta. The United Kingdom and France historically viewed one another as threats, and both countries viewed a rising Germany as a threat on the road to World War I.

The threat of the “other” nation is also a matter of perception. Like individuals, nations find it difficult to perceive reality objectively. Their perceptions are instead processed through and conditioned by their own historical, nationalist and cultural beliefs and biases. The resulting distorted perception is taken as reality.

The United States’ perception of Russia is obscured by the shadow of the Cold War. The Soviet Union not only challenged the United States politically and militarily but was seen by the U.S. as ideologically threatening and unassimilable. Russia today is seen as openly defiant and dangerous. Whether it’s facing off against Washington over Syria, interfering in the U.S. election or refusing to democratize, Russia is large, powerful and plays by its own rules.

Is Russia a threat to the United States? This is largely a question of perception. Perhaps it’s only natural for the United States to view powerful countries like Russia (or rising powers like China) as threats to its own power. In Russia’s case, however, America’s perceptions are further clouded by memories, beliefs and assumptions arising from the Cold War. The result is a distorted view of Russia, the so-called threat.

– Thanks to Marco, a dear friend; and Bilal, a beloved nephew

 

 

 

 

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A Tale of Two Indias

Indus Valley

In a recent paper, scientists from the United States, Russia and India, have concluded that the Indus Valley Civilization was the result of a mixing of South Asians and Iranian peoples.

The study also concludes that the group previously known as “Aryan” were in fact pastoral communities from Central Asia which moved south from the steppe into the Indus Valley.

The study examined the DNA of 612 ancient individuals from across Central Asia, Iran and South Asia. This data was then compared with the DNA of 246 distinct groups in South Asia.

The study identified the Ancestral North Indian and the Ancestral South Indian as the result of the mixing and combination of three potential groups of peoples:

  1. The South Asian hunter-gatherers, the indigenous inhabitants of the subcontinent;
  2. The Iranian agriculturalists who migrated into the subcontinent, and;
  3. The Steppe pastoralists who were also migrants into the subcontinent.

The study provided the following outline based on this genetic data:

  1. The Indus Valley Civilization arises through the mixing of South Asians and Iranians;
  2. The “Aryan” civilization arises through the migration of Steppe pastoralists into the Indus Valley around the 2nd millennium BCE;
  3. Some of the Indus Valley moves further south where they mix with more South Asians, creating the Ancestral South Indian population;
  4. In the North, the Steppe pastoralists mix with the remaining Indus Valley population, creating the Ancestral North Indian population.
  5. Subsequent South Asians are a result of mixing between Ancestral North Indians and Ancestral South Indians.

The implication of this is that there was an “Aryan migration” into the subcontinent from the outside and not vice-versa. That suggestion will anger with the Hindu Rights with its inference that their ancestors and ancestral religion (including the Vedas) originated outside of the subcontinent.

This would undermines the Hindu Right’s claims that they are the original inhabitants of India vis-à-vis those following foreign religions. It also suggests that modern South Asians are a mix of what we previously called “Aryan” and “Dravidian,” with no such thing as a “pure race” or “nation” which is basic to Hindutva.

The Hindu Right is already rewriting history books in India. It is already censoring any views and ideas that would suggest India is the creation of anything but the primordial Hindu Nation. This paper will not affect the momentum of that project, but it does throw to the wind some of the theories on which Hindutva rests.

– Thanks to Satdeep, for inspiration across continents 

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