Music Review: “Madame X” (Madonna)

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It’s no classic, but Madonna’s finally making the music she wants to make.

In Madame X, her 14th studio album, Our Lady brings together latin, reggae and disco to create her most consistently enjoyable album since 2005’s Confessions on a Dancefloor.

It’s also a prosaic, preaching and patronizing effort (in songs like ‘Killers Who Are Partying’). Indeed, Madonna’s attempts to come off as a serious political artist would have drowned Madame X had she not affirmed her most perennial message: to come to the dancefloor and live our dreams.

With the help of Mirwais (who co-crafted 2000’s techno opus Music), Madame X features tracks like “Medellin,” “Crave” and “Future” which are Madonna classics largely because of Madonna. She also resurrects the soul of Joan of Arc (again!) on the epic “Dark Ballad,” the most bizarre and beautiful four minutes on Madame X.

Like her heroine, Madonna may be burned at the stake these days, but her spirit lives on in Madame X.

Rating: 84%.

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The Moral Universe

tokyo

In Buddhism, all things exist in a relationship.

In the human world, moreover, all things exist in a state of moral relationship.

We can talk about the social, economic, metaphysical and political aspects of Buddhism, But I think it makes more sense to talk about Buddhism as an ethical and moral philosophy and practice relating to all aspects of life, including the world of human affairs.

Our personal thoughts, actions, the well-being and society and the laws of nature, in this sense, are all one and the same thing:

Animals grow old and perish
Seasons come and go
Political empires pass away
Solar systems arise and collapse (S.T. Asma).

Since nothing exists in isolation, what is good for one is ultimately for the good of all. In cultivating the best qualities of our existence, we automatically benefit those around us and the society we live in.

Of course, we needn’t respect ourselves or the world around us. We can disregard or choose to ignore the fact that all things exist in a state of moral interrelationship. In doing so, we experience dukkha, that discord, dissatisfaction and dis-ease of life that Buddhism seeks to transform.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Social Aspects of Buddhism

The social aspects of Buddhism are basic to Buddhist philosophy and practice.

In Buddhism, all things are interrelated (not just people). In fact, according to Buddhism, nothing exists except in relation to all other things.[1] Because of this interrelationship, all things affect each other. As this arises, that becomes. As the sun rises, flowers open. As we act kindly, we benefit others. [2]

King Radical

Buddhism also stresses the importance of living in accordance with Dharma, the universal  law affecting all phenomena. [3] Dharma can be translated in many ways into English but here, I refer to it as a universal moral law.

The above Chinese character (which means ‘king’ in Chinese) is a good way to think of Dharma. The three horizontal strokes in the character represent heaven, earth and humanity. In classical Chinese thought, the “king” was thought to be the one who connected heaven, earth and humanity. Likewise, Dharma can be thought of as that which connects the universe, the world and humanity.

At the day to day level, Dharma manifests itself through one’s moral actions (karma), and, in particular, through one’s moral obligations toward others.[4] In fulfilling one’s obligations (based on non-violence, kindness etc.), one helps build a society based on love, compassion and fellowship.

In short, the ideal Buddhist society is one which nurtures each individual in progressing toward goodness and happiness, in other words, toward the end of suffering. [5]

NOTES

[1] Even monks, hermits and recluses can’t escape the basic laws of nature (i.e. hunger, aging, illness or death).

[2] Sigalovada Sutta (169), Digha Nikaya, XXXI.

[3] Buddhism accepted the idea of living an ethical life in the world (as opposed to the monastery) early on in its history through its acceptance of the Indian institution of the “householder” (P. gahattha, Skr. grhastha ), i.e. the person who lives in the world and raises a family.

[4] For instance, through pancasila or the first four of the five precepts . Elsewhere, Buddhism refers to one’s obligations to one’s family, friends, co-workers and others in society. See the Sigalovada Sutta, Digha Nikaya, XXXI.

[5] Sutta Nipata (Khuddaka Nikaya), 136; Majjhima Nikaya, 2.147. Although Buddhism did not abolish the caste system in India, it emphasized the moral equality of all individuals and their capacity for attaining enlightenment.

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Buddhism and Wealth

buddhist land transaction

“For the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, for the welfare of the world …”  (‘Bahujanahitāya bahujanasukhāya lokānukampāya’)
– Anguttara Nikaya 2. 146).

In ancient India, the good life was thought to consist of the pursuit of the “four ends of life” (Skr. purushartha). The four ends of life consisted of:

  1. “dharma” (virtue, morality and obligation);
  2. “artha” (wealth and material prosperity);
  3. “kama” (love and pleasure) and
  4. “moksha” (spiritual liberation).

Despite the orientalist perceptions of India as a land of ascetics and wandering holy men, most Indians seem to have preferred a worldly existence. Indeed, the institution of the householder (Skr. grhastha), and the associated institutions of marriage and family life,  were considered the ideal to live by.

The Buddha and the early monastic community (Skr. sangha) were forced to confront this basic social and cultural reality. In fact, they realized quickly that a community of lay followers was needed if the Sangha was to survive economically. If only tacitly then, the Buddha accepted the institution of the householder as a legitimate way of life for the Buddhist layperson.

The Buddha was accordingly forced to address questions of family life, wealth and worldly happiness or artha. In one discourse, he speaks of the following four types of worldly happiness: [1]

  1. the happiness of acquiring economic security and sufficient wealth through just proper means. (artha sukha);
  2. the happiness of spending that wealth liberally one oneself, one’s family, friends and on good deeds (bhoga-sukha);
  3. the happiness of saving so one is free of debts (anrna-sukha);
  4. the happiness of living a pure and faultless life (anavadhya-jiva).[2]

The following four factors would also help the householder attain that happiness:

  1. to work or to be skilled, efficient, earnest and energetic in whatever profession one is engaged, and to know it well (utthana-sampada);
  2. to preserve one’s income (arakhsa-sampada), viz. to save that which one has earned justly and through one’s personal efforts;
  3. to associate with good company (kalyana-mitraka);
  4. to live within one’s means (samajivika).[3]

The pursuit of arthain Buddhism, however, is always subject to the considerations of dharma. That is one’s activities in the world should conform to a moral standard including such values as tolerance, non-violence, and compassion for others.

For instance, wealth is not legitimately earned by:

  1. killing or harming others;
  2. taking from others what was not freely given;
  3. engaging some form of sexual misconduct;
  4. false or injurious speech;
  5. selling or dealing in intoxicating substances.

In Buddhism then, the pursuit of wealth or artha provides the material foundation necessary for pursuing the good life – pursuing one’s moral and spiritual development for the good of the world.

Notes

[1] Sigala Sutra (Digha Nikaya, 31); Angutara Nikaya (Columbo, 1929), 232-233, 786; Jataka, I, 260, 399; II, 400; III, 274, 320; V, 119, 378 (cited in What the Buddha Taught, the Walpola Rahula, [Gordon Fraser: London, 1959], 78, 82-83, 84-85).

While the Pali Canon was directed mostly towards monastic life, the Buddhist monastic community was quick to recognize the benefits of having a well-off lay community and admitted several prominent householders into its fold while endorsing the legitimacy of the life of the householder (Skr. grhastha).

[2] Angutara Nikaya (Columbo, 1929), 786 cited in Rahula, 81.

[3] Angutara Nikaya (Columbo, 1929), 232-233, cited in Rahula, 82.

 

 

 

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The Beginnings of Hindi-Urdu Literature (Part II: From Delhi to the Deccan)

Nizamuddin

Early Hindi-Urdu poetry emerged around the 14th century. During this time, Hindustan (Northern India) was ruled by the Delhi Sultanate. With Persian as the language of the court and classical poetry at the time, Hindi-Urdu developed as an oral art and as a popular poetry of Delhi.

Written in the Khari Boli (the dialect of Delhi), Hindi-Urdu poetry was rooted in the metaphors and imagery of Hindustan  – the rivers and meadows of the countryside, the rainy season, the water pots and bangles of girls about the village. It was recited as riddles and proverbs and sung as women’s folk songs at weddings and as qawallis at the shrines of Sufi saints like Nizamuddin Auliya (1238-1325):

By making me drink the wine of love-potion,
You’ve intoxicated me by just a glance;
My fair, delicate wrists with green bangles in them,
Have been held tightly by you with just a glance.
I give my life to you, Oh my cloth-dyer,
You’ve dyed me in yourself, by just a glance.
I give my whole life to you Oh, Nijam,
You’ve made me your bride, by just a glance.

Hindi-Urdu would not remain confined to Delhi. Beginning in the 14th century, it began expanding with the Delhi Sultanate to different parts of India. In 1297, the Delhi Sultanate annexed Gujarat bringing Hindi-Urdu speakers from Delhi into Western India. The invasion and sack of Delhi by Tamerlane (1336-1405) likewise saw an exodus of Hindi-Urdu speakers out of Delhi into Gujarat.

By the fifteenth century, Gujarat had a substantial community of Hindi-Urdu speakers. It was from the descendants of these migrants from Delhi that Hindi-Urdu produced its first historical poet, Sheikh Baha Ud-Din Bajan (1388-1506).

Born in Ahmedabad, Sheikh Bajan was a prominent Gujarati Sufi poet. He wrote and compiled Sufi poetry in his anthology, Khaza’in-e Rahmatullah (‘Treasures of Divine Mercy’). Written in Indic and Persian metres, Khaza’in appealed to the common man in the style of the Bhakti and Sufi poetry of the day:

There’s a frenzied one,
Openly so; another wanders
The desert, mad, unknown.
One, drunk with love,
Raves and yells,
And another falls
Unconscious.
A wandered, with long and
Matted hair, and black
And dark as night;
Another madman gets the
Shivers, shaves his head
And says only Your name.

Other prominent Sufi poets in Gujarat writing in Hindi-Urdu included Shaikh Mahmud Darya’i (1419-1534) and Shaik ‘Ali Muhammad Jiv Gamdhani (d. 1565). Their Hindi-Urdu eventually became known with “Gujari,” a Hindi-Urdu inflected with Gujarati words, phrases and idioms.


Hindi/Urdu Literature in South India (‘Deccani’)

daulatabad (hilltop-fortress)

The Daulatabad Fortress

Hindi-Urdu was becoming a cosmopolitan language, transplanting itself in and assimilating itself to the soil of lands far from Delhi. “Gujri” was one such example. Another, was “Deccani,” that Hindi-Urdu of the Deccan which maintained its Khari Boli roots while absorbing words and phrases from languages like Telugu and Marathi.

Like Gujri, Deccani came about through the expansion and conquests of the Delhi Sultanate. In 1327, the Sultan Muhammad Bin Tughluq (r. 1325-51) conquered the Deccan Peninusla and shifted the capital city from Delhi to Daulatabad (present day Maharashtra). In stream upon stream, Delhi’s royal families, armies, traders, administrators and religious preachers flowed into the Deccan.

Crucial to the development of Hindi-Urdu literature in the Deccan was its association with the court. In Delhi, Hindi-Urdu poetry had essentially been the poetry of Sufi shrines and the bazaar. In the Deccan, however, Deccani was patronized as a language of the court alongside Persian. In the process, it absorbed the Persian script, vocabulary and verse forms (like the ghazal and the masnavi).

Deccani began to flourish after the Delhi Sultanate’s withdrawal from the Deccan in 1347. The  Bahmani Sultanate (1347-1527) produced some of the first major works in Deccani. For instance, Kadam Rao Padam Rao was written by Fakhruddin Nizami during the reign of Ahmed Shah Wali Bahmani (1422-1436). Written as a masnavi, Kadam Rao Padam Rao is a Sufi-style magical romance on the journey of a king’s soul to salavation.

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One of the great poets of Deccani was Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah (r. 1580-1611), a sultan of the Golconda Sultanate.  Qutb Shah wrote ghazals on love, nature, music, and the common people. This marked a turn in Hindi-Urdu toward secular poetry in contrast to its largely spiritual and mystical tone hitherto. Quli Qutb Shah continued the tradition of adapting Persian poetry into Deccani, and is credited with writing the first deewan in Hindi-Urdu on the Persian model.

In fact, Quli Qutb Shah may be considered the first major poet in the classical Hindi-Urdu tradition. His more secular style of Hindi-Urdu poetry was adapted and polished by Wali Deccani (1667-1707), setting the standard for classical Hindi-Urdu poetry.

Further Reading:

Early Urdu Literary Culture and History (S.R. Faruqi): http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00fwp/srf/earlyurdu/srf_earlyurdu.html

Early Hindi-Urdu Poetry: http://www.angelfire.com/sd/urdumedia/lyrics.html
Quli Qutb Shah (Poems): https://rekhta.org/poets/quli-qutub-shah/ghazals

 

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India’s Supreme Court Ruling

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On September 6, 2018, the Supreme Court of India ruled that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was unconstitutional. The section – enacted in 1861 when India was still a British colony – effectively criminalized gay sex.

India’s LGBT communities erupted in euphoria. The Indian and international press joined in the jubilation with one BBC headline ringing, “India’s Supreme Court Legalizes Gay Sex … ”

The Supreme Court’s decision marks an important beginning for India’s LGBT and for the country. For India’s sexual minorities, it represents a victory in a long struggle against an inhumane and draconian law. For India, the ruling holds the promise of a new era where India starts to step out from the shadows of its colonial past.

I too was euphoric after reading the headlines only to confront a few sober realities.

First, the Supreme Court of India ruling has not legalized gay sex. It has declared that the law discriminated against LGBT sex is unconstitutional. The law is still in force and cannot be repealed or amended except by an act of Parliament.

Second, as long as it remains on the books, the section will continue to be invoked. Certainly, a better off and well-informed gay Indian will now challenge a policeman who tries to lay a charge. But those LGBT Indians who are poor, working class or villagers are less likely to contest the enforceability of the law.

Third, the ruling leaves untouched the more basic challenges facing India’s LGBT communities. In particular, the ruling does not recognize India’s LGBT communities as legal persons who can claim basic rights or freedoms as any other Indian. It has brought India’s LGBT persons out of the shadow of criminality, without making them persons under the law.

If anything, the Supreme Court ruling stands for the same principle that Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau made back in 1967 that “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” Tushar Mehta, the Assistant Solicitor-General for the Government of India, has otherwise made it clear that the Government of India will construe the ruling narrowly so as not to accord legal status to the LGBT citizens of India in terms of marriage, property rights, government benefits or inheritance.

India’s LGBT communities have just won their first battle against the state, but their war for recognition as equal citizens under the law has yet to begin.

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Buddhist Political Philosophy (Karma)

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Karma. It’s a word that brings up ideas of cosmic retribution coming to us from past lives. It’s a metaphysical, even scary sounding concept, but not one you’d use to make sense of world affairs.

Personally, I can’t imagine explaining world affairs without karma. Everything in the world arises as a result of a set of causes and conditions and from everything that happens or comes into being, new causes and conditions arise.

Karma is the principle of actions and consequences. From a Buddhist perspective, karma refers specifically to human intention and the action accompanying that intention.

The Buddhist theory of karma assumes that:

  1. Human beings have agency;
  2. Human beings act by exercising their will;
  3. The actions of human beings have consequences for them.

In Buddhism, human will is subject to many physical, mental, emotional and environmental influences. Political entities are even more complex. The nation-state, for example, is made up of territory, population, government and international recognition as such.

It’s government, however, that ultimately influences what the state is and what it does. What government doesn’t affect its own people through its laws and policies? What countries don’t affect others through their choices in foreign policy?

Everything that becomes, or changes must do so owing to some cause;
for nothing can come to be without a cause
(Plato).

Karma also explains how the actions of nation-states affect both themselves and the world. The events of 9-11 and the policies of the Bush Administration squashed civil rights at home and devastated Iraq and Afghanistan. The rise of Donald Trump resulted from many conditions, including a severe recession, widening economic disparities, and the American electoral system.

But karma isn’t just something that happens to nations; it’s something that nations create. Getting the causes “right” moreover, produces the right effects. Economic growth and development in China, for example, came through a well-planned economic policy and strategy.

The state can produce good karma, that is it can act morally and produce positive consequences, e.g. prosperity, peace and stability at home and elsewhere. In Buddhism, this comes through the state following its dharma, that is in fulfilling its moral purpose of relieving people of distress and enabling their well-being.

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