Book Review: The Upanishads

The Upanishads

The Upanishads by Eknath Easwaran
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Upanishads are one of the oldest Vedic scriptures of Hinduism / Sanatana dharma. The Upanishads are also known as Vedanta as they are taught in the end while imparting Vedic knowledge. Originally these are written in Sanskrit and are very difficult to grasp or understand as it requires high proficiency of Sanskrit. This book comes with simple translation of the shlokas in English which is easy to comprehend and understand.

The book covers 10 + 1 principle Upanishads rekindled by Shankara and also has briefs on 4 of the more recent Upanishads. The format is as follows: Each Upanishad is introduced in some detail by the author highlighting some of the key aspects and shlokas of the Upanishad as well as some elaboration on it. In the second part, the shlokas are presented, translated in English. This give the reader an opportunity to think and interpret the shlokas from their own perspective. Some Upanishads are short and succinct whereas others are comparatively longer and more descriptive. Some are conversational (Katha, Prashana) while others seem more poetic (Chandogya, Shvetashvatara, Aitareya).

Content wise, it is a treasure! The Upanishads are very crisp with respect to the message they want to convey to the reader. The word Upanishad means “to sit down near a teacher”. Thus, mostly its content is in the form of a dialog between a seeker and a Guru. The seeker / student asks some of the pressing questions which are answered in detail by the Guru. This type of dialog format makes it interesting and easy to grasp the message. Also the questions asked are some of the questions we might sometimes think of, for example, What happens to a person when he dies?, What is our true Self?, How can the Self be realized?, Can one be immortal?, What is the cause of the universe?, What is the true power of our body? etc. Thus, the Upanishads are the perfect scriptures for the curious, the learners, the explorers and the seekers!

Each Upanishad has a key message to convey. Collectively the Upanishads’ main idea is the importance of Self-Realisation and how it can be achieved. This core message is conveyed across all the conversations in the Upanishads. Also I like the way in which it’s so scientific and logical and inspires the seeker to try out the techniques in order to obtain the expected results. It gives the autonomy to the seeker to choose their path and also foretells that they will get the results accordingly. It is not a scripture which says “thou should do this!”

Some of the shlokas are truly polished gems:

“You are what your deep, driving desire is.
As your desire is, so is your will.
As your will is, so is your deed.
As your deed is, so is your destiny.”
[ Brihadaranyaka IV.4.5 ]

“What is here is also there; what is there,
Also here. Who sees multiplicity
But not the one indivisible Self
Must wander on and on from death to death.”
[ Katha II.2.10 ]

“As a tethered bird flies this way and that,
and comes to rest at last on its own perch,
so the mind, tired of wandering about…
settles down in the Self”
[ Chandogya VI.8.2 ]

“Knowledge is two-fold, higher and lower.
The study of the Vedas, linguistics,
rituals, astronomy, and all the arts,
Can be called lower knowledge.
The higher is that which leads to Self-realization.”
[ Mundaka I.1.4 ]

“Meditation, control of the senses
And passions, and selfless service of all
Are the body, the scriptures are the limbs,
And truth is the heart of this wisdom.”
[ Kena IV.4.8 ]

This book is definitely to be read multiple times. It will give new meaning and insight, every time it is read. It has also inspired me to read some of the advanced commentaries on the Upanishads to understand it in more depth. More importantly, it shows how useless our actions and efforts are in achieving happiness and joy using the sense organs to interact with the external world, when true, everlasting peace and joy lies within our own Self!

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Book Review – Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology

Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic PsychologyVehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology by Valentino Braitenberg

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have never read a book similar to this one! It’s amazing and will make you think and wonder at each step.

The book consists of following two parts:

In the first part the author shows how to build autonomous bots using plausible electrical / mechanical design. These bots resemble to small robotic vehicles. The initial designs are simple and give the basic idea to the reader. And every new vehicle builds on a previous one and adds more features and complexity. The most curious feature of these vehicles is that although they are purely mechanical, their resultant behaviour is similar to human emotions like love, fear, aggression etc. At one point the author even argues that these vehicles can ‘get’ new ideas or even follow a sequence of thought but sometimes it is not very convincing.

Many parts of the book throw light on current day artificial intelligence and machine learning concepts like Turing machine, prediction, classification, concepts similar to gradient descent, correlation vs causation etc.

One of the main lesson of this book is “the law of uphill analysis and downhill invention” which is highlighted multiple times. It means that it is comparatively easy to design a system having some desired characteristics (downhill invention), on the other hand given a system as a black box it is very difficult to come up with its exact design details (uphill analysis). This becomes evident in numerous vehicle designs in the book.

In the second part of the book, the author links back to research in biology which is aligned to the concepts discussed in the first part of the book. This part might be tricky to understand specially for people with non-bio background. Even I just skimmed through this part.

Overall, it’s a very intriguing read! However, it is a bit difficult to understand and might require multiple reads through some sections to get it.

This book also makes me wonder that if these simple designs can lead to such complex behaviour in these vehicles then our brain and associated system is way more complex than than and it is hard to even imagine the kind of resultant complex behaviour it leads to in humans (which it actually does)! Also based on uphill analysis, given a specific human behaviour, it is hard to find how exactly it pans out in the backend system of our body.

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Book Review: Recursion

RecursionRecursion by Blake Crouch

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Pick this book only if you have the time to read it till the end. It cannot be put down in between!

I liked the book Dark Matter and thus Recursion by the same author has been on my to-read list for some time. One day I randomly picked it up and just could not keep it down.

The book starts with two parallel stories of Barry and Helena and it seems that there is no connection between the two. However, gradually as the story builds up, the reader starts guessing that they might meet at some point in the timeline (and they do). The key idea of this book is that one can travel back in time by going back to a specific past memory using special equipment. There are an intricate set of rules based on which it all works out, as well as some mind-boggling(literally) consequences.

As the title itself reveals, there are multiple recursions in the story where the key characters live multiple iterations of their life. This book reminds me a bit of the movie Inception in that sense. Overall, they full timeline gets a bit crazy and complex but that’s the fun of this book! And the book is so perfectly written that the story blazes through at some points and is much more elaborate and descriptive in others. This creates a strange effect for the reader!

Also in my opinion, the ending is not at all shocking or unexpected as one would like it to be. The possible ending is hinted in the book before it actually happens and then it happens in the exact same way. I would have been great if the ending had an element of surprise rather that being one which the reader expected.

There might be some inconsistencies in the story related to some specific events but overall the book is an amazing read and a true mind-bender indeed!

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Book Review: Math with Bad Drawings

Math with Bad DrawingsMath with Bad Drawings by Ben Orlin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you like maths, then you will love this book and if you don’t like maths, then probably you will start liking maths because of this book. I have been reading Ben’s blog posts (which also have similar stick-figure drawings) since a few years and I finally decided to read this book. One is lucky to have teachers like him who can inspire not just about the subject but about learning in general!

The book covers a variety of aspects of maths as well as “real-world” scenarios where maths is required. There are sections on maths and mathematicians (it’s my favourite section), geometry (with many cool use-cases!), probability, statistics and more.

The writing style is simple and easy to understand, not like the usual math books! Also, it’s filled with wit and humour. Mostly people cry about maths but I guess this is one of those rare books which makes people laugh! And then there are these hand-drawn illustrations of stick-figures (they are so expressive!) which make the topic fun and also drill down the key points!

A couple of my favourite quotes for this book are: “To do good work, you’ve first got to engage with nitty-gritty details. Then, to do great work, you’ve got to move beyond them.” and “Creativity is what happens when a mind encounters an obstacle. It’s the human process of finding a way through, over, around, or beneath. No obstacle, no creativity.”

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Book Review: Humankind – A Hopeful History

Humankind: A Hopeful HistoryHumankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is like a ray of hope in the current times of global pandemic, inter-community disruptions, natural disasters and more. All of us need to be reminded in the intrinsic goodness of the humankind, even though sometimes it might be hard to see. The core idea of this book is that humans in general are kind and trustworthy. And the author builds on this idea throughout the book across diverse aspects like education, business, government and more.

The book has many interesting and well researched case studies like the real life version of the fictional story from Lord of the Flies. What might have happened on the Easter Island than the usually believed story of war, mass destruction and cannibalism. There is also an in-depth analysis on some of the expected questionable events / experiments like the Stanford Prison experiment, Milgram’s shock machine experiment and Catherine Susan Genovese’s murder in NYC. In all these cases, an alternate picture based on detailed research is presented which completely changes the point of view.

The models of our day-to-day systems will be very different and enriching when they are built from a trustful point of view rather that the existing models which are usually distrustful by default. There are interesting examples where the application of these principles has brought remarkable change. Management, of example in a top down manner with strict way of doing things can be counter productive. There is an interesting example of Blok’s model of management where small teams are given full autonomy which has been very successful and created a win-win situation for the company as well as the employees. As the author say, “Because nothing is more powerful than people who do something because they want to do it.”

Further, education is looked at from the opposite of current day industrial / factory model. Importance of play, where the children are left free to experiment and explore is highlighted. Agora model of education which give a lot of autonomy to kids to design their own learning paths is presented which builds much more well-rounded individuals. “You can’t teach creativity,’ writes psychologist Peter Gray, ‘all you can do is let it blossom.”

Next example shows how cities and governments might look like when then are run autonomously using participatory models of governance. There is also an interesting discussion of the Elinor Ostrom’s model of the commons countering Hardin’s tragedy of the commons. Finally, the author gives examples where even in the most complex scenarios like handling prisoners, controlling police or even wars, it is possible to bring a positive change with models based on trust and compassion.

Being kind in not easy. As it is mentioned towards the end of the book, “To believe people are hardwired to be kind isn’t sentimental or naive. On the contrary, it’s courageous and realistic to believe in peace and forgiveness.” Also this strategy won’t be successful in 100% scenarios, however as the author says, “ accept and account for the fact that you’ll occasionally be cheated. That’s a small price to pay for the luxury of a lifetime of trusting other people.”

This book is powerful and can change the way we perceive the world. It breaks a lot of myths and also discusses many counterintuitive findings like compassion rather than empathy is better when interacting with others. It also presents numerous examples where a culture of trust, autonomy, goodness and compassion can build much better systems. This book restores hope in humankind and shows a way where we can be the change we want to see in the world, by being kind!

Book Review: Educated

EducatedEducated by Tara Westover

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A memoir which shows the power of resilience, hardwork and hope!

The book has been brilliantly written. The life of the author is very different from most of our lives, so much so that sometimes it almost seems like fiction. And then we realize that it’s true and the author has actually lived through these experiences.

In the first part the usual lifestyle of the author and her family with a variety of incidents is laid out to give an idea to the readers of a survivalist lifestyle. In the second part she describes the challenges of starting formal education as a 17 year old and the violence which she faced at home. The third part shows the importance of home and family sometimes even when they might not be supportive and acknowledge the reality.

It shows how valuable a family which accepts and supports you is. Despite all the challenges (sometimes each day seemed like a challenge) the author not just conquers the adversity, but rather she aces it. She and a couple of her brothers did their Ph.D. from some of the best graduate schools in the world. She acknowledges her life and its challenges in the formative years and decides to look ahead and move forward when her family breaks ties with her.

It also shows the importance of education and learning. It is nice to see how the author’s world view about a lot of things which she believed, transforms when she studies and learns in depth about it. As the author at one point mentions, “An education is not so much about making a living as making a person.” This book also shows that it is never too late to be the person you want to be even if one has faced the worst circumstances in life. A spirit of hope, trust in oneself and ability to work hard can make a difference at any point in life!