Lessons from The Bhagawad Gita: On Faith

Brahmacharini Vishakaji simplified the teachings from two related verses from Karma-yoga this week.  Both the verses urged us to reflect on how our faith and belief affect our behaviors and actions. When you believe something to be true, without needing proof, then you begin to understand the teachings from the Bhagawad Gita, said Brahmacharini Vishakaji.

My key learning from this week:

ye me matam idam nityam ,anutisthanti manavah
sraddhavanto ‘nasuyanto , mucyante te ‘pi karmabhih

1) When I believe that something is true, it becomes my faith. I don’t have to question the truths in the scriptures just because I am educated, or possess a scientific bent of mind. I have to remember that a mere understanding of the text is not enough to experience the truth.  I have to live by the teachings, walk the talk, to really gain from the lessons in the Gita.

2) Spiritual truth is like a fine cut diamond. Just like how a diamond has many facets and therefore looks different when looked at from different angles, religious faith reveals only one part of the whole truth when looked at from one facet alone. Followers of a religion invest their faith in one facet of the truth alone. This is the reason why we are not able to appreciate the truth from the perspective of another religion.

3) We evaluate and judge everything around us using cognitive reasoning. We always look for evidence and proof, use our gross intellect (Theekshana buddhi) and that is why faith eludes us.  Faith is a virtue of the subtle intellect ( Sookshma buddhi) .  l have to learn to tame and temper my intellect to allow the subtle intellect  grasp the essence of the teachings, without critical evaluation of the texts.

ye tv etad abhyasuyanto, nanutisthanti me matam
sarva-jnana-vimudhams tan, viddhi nastan acetasah

4) Unlike mathematical reasoning, where you have to have a hypothesis, arguments and conclusions, faith is a form of truth that does not need any evidence,  proof or argument. Brahmacharini Vishakaji could draw an analogy from one of William Wordsworth’s poems who said – ‘Sweet is the lore which Nature brings; our meddling intellect misshapes the beauteous forms of things:–   We murder to dissect.’

5) Swami Chinmayananda observed that only poetry can capture the truth , not science. He meant Tagore’s description of faith as a “bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark”.  The fact that birds sing at day break just before dawn is proof that they have the faith that the Sun will soon be out. They don’t use intellect or cognition like we humans do to judge if it is soon going to be day.

6) I understand the essence of Avidhya-Kama-Karma . When I am spiritually ignorant, my desires lead me to perform thoughtless actions. When I am spiritually awakened, it is possible to be free of desires and be at meditative peace.

7) I must be willing to do things for the others (Lokasangraha) and not merely for myself. When I work to make others happy or their lives easier, then I live by the teachings of the Gita.  Despite my intellectual understanding of the teachings of the Gita, if I cannot help but find faults in the teachings, it is impossible to live by the principles that the Gita extols.


Third Culture Kids

Third Culture Kids or TCK’s as they are called, refer to the children who who have spent a significant part of their developmental years outside the parents’ culture.I recently had an opportunity to attend a workshop that was targeted at parents of TCKs. My daughter is not yet one (we have lived outside of India only for a little over 2 years now) however I was keen to find out a little more about challenges such kids (especially teens) face in a society that is not their home.

Here are a few lessons I learnt at the workshop that was worthy of a share.

It is crucial for teens who move from their native countries to another culture, to understand that meeting teens from another culture is akin to meeting of tectonic plates! There will be cultural dissimilarities and a clash of who they are and who they need to become to belong.

It is also important for parents to recognize the fact that adjusting to a new culture is a process and it takes time. The effects of acculturation (cultural and psychological changes from being exposed to other cultures) will be seen in the way your teen eats, dresses and speaks!

I understood that the parent has an important role to play during the acculturation process, helping the teen assimilate, separate and integrate the new culture while preserving traditions from one’s own culture. By pointing out situations where similarities and differences between cultures can be compared and contrasted, adults can help teens understand and integrate new customs while preserving the old.

Then we had another speaker of repute, Dr. Lisa Pittman, a psychologist who works with children to study the impact of global mobility on children’s psyche. She shared some scary statistics of children who have emotional eating disorders because they don’t integrate well into the new society.

The third speaker was Rebecca Grappo, an educational consultant who shared her experience working with TCKs. The important message I got from her was that parents of TCKs have to comfort the child and validate her fears of adjusting to a new culture and not just be a cheer leader encouraging her to be a part of the new culture and promising that everything was going to be great.

The basic need for every human is to be recognized, to have a sense of belonging, connecting and identity. For TCKs, school is a place that fulfills not only the academic needs but also emotional and social needs. If these needs of the child are met in the new culture, the child then becomes resilient and fits into the society.

Schooling – What has changed?

A generation is a long time for subtle changes to become glaringly obvious; especially, in something as fundamental as education. Gone are the days of text books that were paper and print, notebooks that had all the questions and answers you needed to memorize to clear exams and move to the next grade. All of us understand and appreciate that we have moved to a digital World and Tech-101 is a subject that children study in middle school to get familiar with how to work online. Even how we talk to children at home has changed so much that parents need to be trained how to have learning conversations with their children. I was at one such talk at school last week. Here is what I learnt:

Knowledge, skill and understanding. Thankfully some things as basic as knowledge still seems to be what the teachers at school want to share with the children. But it does not come from text books alone. Knowledge is the easiest to quantify and assess. How the child uses the knowledge gained in a classroom setup, to develop a skill, is the challenge in today’s world. Physical skills like dribbling a ball at the basketball court is easy to quantify. But a skill like research is difficult to assess or quantify but can be important for life! Also, Language is a skill that can be pared off if not revisited regularly, especially over a school break. Children may remember the vocabulary learnt in a new language but to be able to use it and be bilingual, he needs to be at it consistently.

Learning and Consolidating When a child learns new concepts that has not been taught in the previous years, then it qualifies as learning. At times though, some concepts learnt in the previous grades, are revisited again in higher grades for a deeper understanding of the basic concepts learnt. That is what helps the child consolidate what he already knows. Learning is making new connections while consolidating is revisiting learnt concepts. Especially in Math a child needs to consolidate basic concepts, to go to the next level of skill and understanding. Before the child has consolidated his learning, if he is taught another new concept, he will never reach a deeper level of understanding of any of the concepts learnt and will only skim across the top. Being reflective The true test of what a child knows and understands is when he is able to make connections of the concepts learnt at school, to different contexts in the real world. To be able to do that it is important to encourage the child to be reflective. As parents, we are responsible to help the child reflect on what he learns at school every day.

Assessing, reporting and ability grouping In International schools, they conduct baseline assessments in every subject to assess the ability of the student to grasp concepts and stream them into bands – Who has already learnt the concept, who is approaching the learning and for who the concept is new. It is done very discreetly; otherwise it can be very damaging to the student’s confidence in the subject. If students who are very good at concepts were grouped together and asked to ‘fly away together to the next level’ then it will make the rest of the class feel unworthy of being in the same grade. Based on the results of such assessments, students are challenged to the level of ability they possess in that subject. They will still remain in the mixed group. This helps the child build confidence in the subject and he begins to perform better at his level, instead of being pitched against the best in the class. ( I wish this was possible to follow in the Indian school system)

Schools worldwide, have begun to regard report cards as a snapshot at a specific point of time. It does not give the true picture of the child’s ability in a subject. Ongoing learning is the way to assess progress. It is predicted that report cards will soon be phased out and will be replaced by online portfolios. It is anyway not advised to judge the student based on the grades achieved on the report card. It does serve a purpose though. It helps us find out what the barriers in learning are and why the child has not accessed the learning.

Team work Many projects at school are completed in teams. A team of four children extensively plan, research, organize and present their findings. Some children may contribute more to the project than the others. Team projects are not always about assessing how much the child knows about a subject and how much has been contributed by each child. It is to assess the child’s ability to work together in a team. Middle school is when apart from academic skills, trans-disciplinary skills and dispositions are also a part of the main focus. How to have a learning conversation with your child? As enthusiastic parents who want to be involved in our child’s school life, the first question we ask the child at the end of the day is ‘What did you learn at school today? If you get more than ‘nothing new ‘or ‘the usual’ (which is a typical answer you get from a middle school-er) consider yourself lucky! When they do give you details, do not be satisfied with descriptions of activities completed and experiments that were demonstrated. More than “What are you learning?”, what is important to ask is – Why are you learning this? Who cares? What is the point? What is the purpose of the learning? What motivates you to remember it? What do you find challenging or find easy? Such questions will encourage the child to question his learning and be reflective of what is learnt.

Wine and Chocolate indulgence -Part 2

The Wine and chocolate indulgence was conducted by a stylish dessert bar here in Singapore. The chef was a young lady, who had travelled to learn how chocolates were made around the world. Interestingly she shared with us three chocolate recipes that did not use the traditional milk-sugar- cocoa powder concept alone.

My learning from the chocolate indulgence took me on a steep curve.

Lesson 1 : The bitter chocolate base that is used in making chocolates differs based on the percentage of cocoa in it. They come from exotic places like Madagascar, The Rhone valley and Venezuela!

Valrhona Manjari  is extra bitter with 64% cocoa and is superior base chocolate to make high quality chocolates. These are cocoa beans from Madagascar. It has an Orangey flavour and highly acidic if eaten plain.

The plain Valrhona is a high-grade luxury chocolate from the Rhone valley of France. The cocoa percentage of the Valrhona differs.

The Araguani is a fine blend of cocoa beans from Venezuela .It has 72% cocoa and is very bitter.

Lesson 2:  The PATE A BOMBE is THE base used for many mousse, chocolates and cake recipes!

Ok, if you are new to the terms in baking and chocolate making like I was till last evening, Pate a bomb will sound like jargon. The term is used to describe egg yolks beaten with sugar syrup and then aerated. Just like the term Meringue is used to refer to whipped egg whites and sugar.

Lesson 3: Chocolates can be made in unusual flavours using your imagination!

 The chef demonstrated three different recipes of chocolates with unusual ingredients like vinegar and chillies!

We were also told that we could bring an exquisite twist to the taste when we replace it with orange peel, cognac, whisky, mango puree, citrus peel or any other berries.

Lesson 4:  When you don’t need air bubbles in your whisked mixture, it is always safer to use a spatula than an automated whisk or beater.

Also there is a technique in hand whisking with a spatula. Never start from the outer side of the pan and work inwards. Always work from the middle to the outer so that you don’t agitate the mixture. Agitating the mixture will cause the mixture to ‘split’ the chocolate. The split can be rectified using glucose or water to the mix but not without changing the consistency of the chocolate mixture.

Lesson 5:  No matter how much you have whisked the pate a bombe or meringue, ultimately what decides how well your chocolate will set depends on how you fold in the mixtures into each other.

This is a technique one has to master if you don’t want your chocolates to collapse in front of your eyes!

Lesson 6: You may have whisked up the best of ingredients to the perfect stage and folded it in and set it perfectly. The ultimate success of your chocolate is in the presentation.

I could never imagine using dill flowers to present something as exquisite as chocolate but the smell and taste blends so well with the chocolates served last evening!

Lesson 7: No matter how old your wine or how fresh, no matter if it is red or white, every wine can be paired with a chocolate ganache!

The Tintoralba went superbly well with the Vinegar chocolate and the Pedro Ximenez was delightful with the Chilli chocolate bricks.

If you are dying to try out the recipes, I can be persuaded to share them with you!

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Wine and Chocolate indulgence -Part 1

When the Volvo dealer, sent us an invite to be a part of a wine and chocolate indulgence evening a few weeks back, I signed up immediately. In May, when on my trip to Italy, I had promised myself a wine education and this opportunity presented itself! I was eager to find out what I was going to learn on this special evening and I was not disappointed. As I write this, I am more knowledgeable about wine and can whisk up three varieties of offbeat chocolates if it came to serious entertaining.


The evening started off with wine tasting. The first wine was Tintoralba(2007), which in Spanish means ‘Red Sunset’. It is a wine from Spain, apt choice too, after the FIFA world cup win.

The second bottle of wine was a Sherry, a fortified wine made from white grapes, called Pedro Xeminez (1980)(Pronounced – Pedh-ro Khi-menez). The wine comes from an area called Jerez ( Pronounced Kherez) in Spain. The Pedro Xeminez is grown on white chalky soil and is also called the Champagne of Spain ( The original French Champagne is also grown on white mud)

Lesson 1 : The colour of the wine depends on the weather conditions of the area where the grape is grown.

The Tintoralba, is made in the vineyards of the Spanish province of Almansa. The weather conditions of this area are hot which makes the wine dark in colour.

The Pedro Xeminez  is made from the grapes harvested in the province of Valdivia, Southern Spain. The Pedro is also grown in dry weather. The grapes are picked in September and dried in the sun for a week till the flavors concentrate.

Lesson 2 : Wines change colour with age. Red wines get lighter  and transparent as they age while a freshly bottled red wine will be opaque and dark when held up to a light source. White wine gets darker as it ages.

The bottle of Tintoralba that we were served was bottled in the year 2007 which made it quite dark.

Due to the aging of the wine, the Pedro Xeminez, was very dark, almost rusty amber, in colour. It was a 30 year old wine and the colour looked more like a young red wine than white.

Lesson 3 : The more viscous the wine the more it sticks to the sides of the wine glass. When you swirl the wine, you will see bands of liquid on the walls of the wine glass.

Both the Tintoralba and the Pedro Xeminez  turned out to be viscous wines.

Lesson 4: When you smell a glass of wine, the first breath should be a brief sharp breath. Ponder over the smells that hit your olfactory senses and then take another long breath with your nose just inside of the mouth of the wine glass. You will discern the most identifiable smells that could range from woodsy( because wine ages in Oak casks), fruity, flowery, spicy or earthy.

 The Tintoralba was chocolaty, oaky and maybe also smelt of burnt coffee.

The Pedro Xeminez  had a spicier smell. And definitely smelt more woodsy because of the aging. I could also distinctly smell caramelized banana, fig and other fruity smells.

Lesson 5: All wines leave a sediment at the bottom of the glass. Some are very obvious because as wine ages, they leave more sediment.

 The Tintoralba, (though only three years old ),left  brown dust in the bottom of the glass.

I did not finish the glass of Pedro so did not notice the sediment.

Lesson 6: When you taste a red wine first and then a white wine, make sure you rinse the glass or ask for another glass; when you taste the white first, you can use the same glass without rinsing.

More on the chocolates and how they paired with the wine in my next post!

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Acrylic on canvas – finally!

It seems I have made quite some progress since my first class in November 2009. My art teachers finally decided that I was ready to try out acrylic on canvas this week. I had a list of things from them to shop before my first attempt. I picked an easel, paints, brushes and another palette. They warned me that acrylic paints dry fast and that I had to watch out for unclosed paint tubes and bottles. My first acrylic subject was – no points for guessing – vegetables.

I chose an orange, a radish and a capsicum. The final version here shows an apple. To cut a long story short, it was replaced since I did not have the colour chrome yellow which was critical to capture the coloration of the orange. So Augustine replaced the guilty orange with an apple. It was hard work. First of all, this was the first time I was drawing anything using an easel! So to draw at the angle that it was precariously kept was a strain on my wrist. Victoria kept reminding me that I should avoid supporting my wrist against the board. At the end of the sketch I realized that I had made deep impressions on the canvas with my pencil. I was told that I had to use the paints as an opaque medium so as to camouflage the pencil lines.

The final piece looked like a dream. Even though a trained eye will find only flaws and no great artist will be fooled, for me it was nothing short of a masterpiece!

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Black board and Glassmarkers

This was an interesting class in art. I sketched the helmet using a glass marker on a black board. I have left the picture incomplete. The helmet was the object to be captured. The trick was not to draw the helmet but only highlight the wall, the floor and the portions around it so that the helmet will be outlined. The white coloration in the helmet are the highlights from the window. Interesting technique this.

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