Teaching and researching religions, languages, literatures, films, and ecology of India: http://philosophy.unt.edu/people/faculty/pankaj-jain

Dr. Pankaj Jain

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Dr. Pankaj Jain is the author of Dharma and Ecology of Hindu Communities: Sustenance and Sustainability (May 2011), which won the 2012 DANAM Book Award and the 2011 Uberoi Foundation Book Award. His 2nd book is Science and Socio-Religious Revolution in India: Moving the Mountains (Routledge 2017).

He is co-founder of American Academy of Indic Studies (www.AAIndicStudies.org) and is the editor of the Encyclopedia of Hinduism (Springer).

He is Associate Professor in the department of Philosophy & Religion. He has published articles in journals such as Religious Studies Review, Worldviews, Religion Compass, Journal of Vaishnava Studies, Union Seminary Quarterly Review, and the Journal of Visual Anthropology. He also contributes to the Huffington Post, Washington Post’s forum On Faith, and Patheos.
His research has been supported by the Fulbright fellowship and by the Wenner Gren grant. His teaching interests include Religion and Ecology, Indian films, and Religions and Cultures of South Asia and South Asian Diaspora in North America. Before joining UNT, he taught at North Carolina State University, Rutgers, Kean, and New Jersey City University. Interested in connecting ancient practices with contemporary issues, he is exploring the connections between religious traditions and sustainability in Hindu and Jain communities in India and the Indian diaspora. He serves as a research affiliate with Harvard University’s Pluralism Project, as scholar-in-residence with GreenFaith, as a board member of the Society for Hindu Christian Studies, and as a board member of the Executive Advisory Council of Hindu American Seva Charities, an NGO working with the White House Office for the faith-based initiatives. He has presented his research at Columbia University, University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, University of South Florida, Florida International University, University of Toledo, Texas Christian University, High Point University, Lancaster University (UK), Andhra University (India), Univ of Rajasthan (India), and several conferences, high schools, radio and TV stations, temples, churches, Yoga centers, and other community centers.
He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa and an M.A. from Columbia University (both in Religious Studies). In his “previous life” he had also earned a B.S. in Computer Science from India and had worked as a software engineer in India and in New Jersey. Dr. Jain is an active member of several academic and community organizations, is fluent in several Indian languages, and has published poems in Hindi. He was born in Rajasthan and had also lived in Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Hyderabad, and Karnatak (in India) and in New Jersey, Iowa, North Carolina, and Texas (in the USA). Some of his papers and articles are at:http://unt.academia.edu/PankajJain/Papers and videos are at http://www.youtube.com/pj2017. The Facebook page for his book is at:https://www.facebook.com/DharmaAndEcology

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Expanding Our Musical Horizons

Who doesn’t like melody? Whose heart doesn’t beat for Kishore Kumar’s yodeling? Whose ears don’t reverberate with Lata Mangeshkar’s eternal songs? Who doesn’t want to dance with Asha Bhosle’s scintillating numbers? Music is already in every heartbeat and yet in the humdrum and cacophony of hundreds of singers and thousands of albums among us, we still tend to miss the true music in its more intense and sublime melody. We seem to be content with the tip of the iceberg which floats on top of the water but that is only one tenth of the real content. Our fleeting lives just get spent listening to few repeated singers over and over again, be it Kishore Da of sixties or Udit Narayan of nineties or Sonu Nigam of 21st century. We never transcend the popular songs such as, Mere sapno ki rani (Aradhna), Papa kehte hain bada (QSQT), Mehdi laga ke rakhna (DDLJ), and of course, the recent hits from Veer Zaara, Lagaan, Chalte Chalte, Kal Ho Na Ho…..the list is endless. But, you get the point. We have virtually surrounded ourselves with popular film music and that seems to work for us. To some more ambitious folks, this boundary also encompasses few popular ghazals of Jagjit Singh, Pankaj Udhas and in rare cases some Bhajans of Anup Jalota.

To be sure, there is no need to advocate any boundary between popular and classical music. This dichotomy unnecessarily creates boundaries between melodies. Instead, all that is needed is to explore, experiment and expand our boundaries of melodies. If we have been listening mainly to Kishore Kumar, let us now try to immerse ourselves into Mohammad Rafi and see how this new musical wave refreshes us all over again. If we are already listening to Rafi Sahab, let’s get an album in which he has sung songs which are closer to a classical raga. Again, not to be frightened or overwhelmed with the word “classical”, but the idea is to expose ourselves to little different and melodious mood of music. There are actually several albums available in music stores and of course on internet websites which have collection of classical songs of several singers. As I am typing this, I have just now started playing Begum Akhtar’s album with her songs based on some classical ragas. This is the first time in my life that I am listening to her. I may not appreciate it for the first time, but as is often the case, true melody always “grows in” us. Even the Rahman music is often characterized in this fashion. We rarely appreciate Rahman music in our first attempt, but give it some time and something catches our attention and we fall in love with it. Who can forget, O Paalanhaare from Lagaan or some of his other songs? Simple reason that it “grows in” us is that his music has a background basis of some classical raga, either Hindustani or Karnatak style.

Similar is the case with several other songs which are based on classical ragas. We get overwhelmed with music which is shot at us from TV or Radio commercials but if we proactively discover true melody we will be surprised by what we have been missing all these years. A simple definition or criterion to judge true melody is that which is evergreen unlike a passing phase.

Let me refresh your memory with some such true gems of Manna Dey now. When was the last time you listened to poochho naa kaise maine rain bitaayee (Meri Surat Teri Aankhen), I assure you that this song can never become stale in your ears, again the simple reason is that it is based on Raga Ahir Bhairav. Similar is the case with another Manna Dey gem Laaga chunari main daag chhupaaoo kaise (Dil hi toh hai), this song is based on Raga Bhairavi. Both Bhairavi and Ahir Bhairav are morning ragas so as you listen to these two numbers, imagine yourself watching sun rise and you will be amazed by the power of these ragas, they actually take you to the time of dawn! While, we are on the topic of morning ragas, let me throw in another masterpiece from Lata Mangeshkar. This is a song from the film Amar Prem, Raina biti jaye shyam na aaye and is based on another pre-dawn raga called Raga Lalit. Once again, be prepared to be fascinated by the power of music and melody. And who can forget Mohe bhul gaye sanvariya in Lataji’s voice from the film Baiju Bawara. Again, reason for its eternal appeal is that it is based on Raga Bhairav. Another gem from this film in Rafi Sahab’s voice based on Raga Bhairavi is Tu gangaki mauj main jamna ka dhaara. These are just a few gems based on morning ragas.

Now, let’s see some masterpieces from afternoon raga. Khiltey Hain Gul Yaha (Sharmilee)and Panthi hoon main us path kaa (Door ka rahi) both based on Raga Bhimpalasi, sung by Kishore Kumar. And now the evening ragas. Again, while you listen to these songs, imagine watching a sunset somewhere on a small hill. How about Umraav Jaan’s ghazal sung by Ashaji in ankhonki mastike mastane hazaron hai, based on Raga Bhupali. Even if you have never heard of Mehdi Hassan’s ghazals, try these two of his most popular ones, both based on evening ragas. Ranjish hee sahi (Raga Yaman) and Duniya kisike pyaar main (Raga Bhupali). I am convinced that if you develop the taste for Mehdi Sahab’s ghazals, you may never fall back to any other singer who is not classically trained. It would be a quantum leap from a narrow well into a vast and deep ocean of music in which you will be beckoned by such great titans as Bhimsen Joshi, Pt Jasraj and so on. Obviously, this takes little investment of time and patience. But, from my own experience, I guarantee you that it is worth the effort and the returns are priceless and lifelong. It is indeed a nashaa, with traces of meditative spiritual mood.

Now, let’s move little more forward in our time of the day towards night. Two of the more popular ragas of this time of the day are Raga Malkauns and Raga Darbari. To start with, fall in love all over again with Rafi Sahab’s eternal voice in Man tarpat hari darshanko aaj (Baiju Bawara) based on Raga Malkauns. How about these Raga Darbari numbers Hangama hai kyon barpa, a Ghulam Ali ghazal and O Duniyake rakhwale (Baiju Bawara) by Rafi Sahab. Even Mukesh has sung a Raga Darbari song, Dil jalta hai to jalne de (Pahli Nazar). And who can forget mere naina saavan bhaado (Mehbooba) by Kishore Da and Lataji which was based on Raga Shivranjani, another night raga. Again, try imagining yourself in nightly mood to enjoy these songs better. As is the case with serious and true melodies, most of the songs based on ragas either have matching lyrics with the words of that time of the day or a mood matching with that of raga. Morning ragas are usually identified with intense mood of separation and of meditation. Evening ragas evoke lighter mood of love and romance. Night ragas evoke the moods of passion and heroic courage. You can find hundreds of songs and the classical ragas that they are based on at http://www.asavari.org/songs.html. Listening and appreciating music armed with the information of raga would relish both your heart and your mind.

I recently had heated debate with few friends whose argument was that a criterion for good music is simply what appeals to masses. According to them, “classical” singers do not have enough popularity or prestige. Also that, only that music is great which survives the test of “market value”. One can respond to such criticism by just stating few examples from above masterpieces. Granted that some great artists end up in a life of paucity but how can that be a judge of true music? Gangotri, the origin of Ganga, can never be compared with small streams in every village or town. A true explorer will reach the Gangotri sooner or later even though every stream is also a reflection of the same river. Idea is just to expand, explore, experiment and finally to experience yourself to different genres of music and to appreciate the entire iceberg instead of just being content with its tip afloat.

Some say, “don’t sell yourself short”; I think we can apply this to our topic. Let’s not settle for mediocre music, let’s try to explore and expand our musical horizons. And the good news is many different kinds of music are now available on several good websites. www.Raaga.com and www.MusicIndiaOnline.com are two excellent sources. I would even go one step further and say that the way T-Series liberated old film songs from the clutches of HMV with hundreds of cover version pirated tapes; internet is doing the same to rare genres of music. If not for online albums, I would have never experienced the heavenly voice of Mehdi Hassan. Now, I know why he can be called as the “Everest”, the highest point of ghazal singing. So, unlike pirated tapes, we have original music now available to us, all that is needed is little effort from our side and then we will be ready for….

Sangeet Hai Shakti Ishwar Ki, Har Swar Main Base Hain Raam

Raagi Jo Sunaye Raagini, Rogi Ko Mile Aaraam.


1. Alaap, a set of 20 CDs exploring Indian Classical Music produced by Sri Aurobindo Society http://www.sriaurobindosociety.org.in/saspub/sasaudvis.htm#audiocds

2. http://www.AIMArts.org

3. http://www.MusicIndiaOnline.com

4. http://www.Raaga.com

5. http://www.Asavari.org

6. http://www.MusicalNirvana.com

Monday, July 7, 2008

Did Modern Values Enrich Cultural values?

We are living in a modern society today. At least, we prefer to believe that we are! We shun anything non-modern or so called orthodox. We would like to stay in touch with the contemporary rather than the traditional, be it home furniture or our way of thinking or our way of dressing or the way we perceive spirituality. If we are modern, we practice Yoga or meditation or at least claim to do so but reject any traditional custom or ritual, which does not fit in with our accepted definition of modernity.

In this essay, let us explore what exactly is modernity and how does it affect our way of thinking. Does modernity achieve what it sets out to do? And how do Indian culture and traditions fit into this. Where do Indian traditions stop and modern values begin? The main argument presented here is that the so-called modern values were already imbibed in our culture.

What is Modernity?

Modernity can be defined as connecting to the new and the contemporary, rejecting the old. According to The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: the word modern was first recorded in 1585 in the sense `of present or recent times'. In Latin, modernus is derived from modo, meaning `just now'. The English word modern was not originally concerned with anything that could later be considered old-fashioned. Obviously, modernity often is used to reject old-fashioned ideas and traditions. In the cultural and social contexts, modernity is also interlinked with the values of equality, freedom, feminism and democracy. It is generally assumed that the modernity in 19th and 20th century unleashed the power of scientific and industrial progress, which led to social equality, freedom of downtrodden sections of the society, freedom to women. Democracy is also thought to be a modern concept of governance as against rulers and kings of ancient times. Modernity is also thought of as increasing the role of rationality in the public sphere and reducing the role of religion. Let us take these modern values one by one and explore them more.

Modern Values

Social Equality: One of the popular assumptions is that modernity provided equal status to downtrodden sections of the masses. Before the advent of modernity, people in the weaker sections of the society were controlled and oppressed by the landlords and the religious leaders. With modernity, all the sections of the society have equal rights. However, according to Professor Arvind Sharma, equality before law did exist in ancient India, especially in the sphere of criminal law. The Pali texts clearly allude to it, and the Nibandhas – legal digests of the twelfth century onwards – specifically eliminate unequal punishments. King Ashoka also tried to enforce it. The Nepala-Mahatmya (13.46) of the Skanhapurana also seems to recommend such egalitarianism. Moreover, even today in the 21st century, global spiritual movement Swadhyaya rooted in Indian cultural values has devised many innovative experiments and projects to ensure social equality in thousands of Indian villages. One of the novel Swadhyaya concepts is Amrutalayam, meaning house of immortality. This is similar to a village temple but its priests come from different castes of the village and every evening the entire village gathers here as a social/economical/spiritual family. Just a small example to show how social equality can be achieved by cultural values.

Democracy: Another popular assumption is that modernity gave rise to democracy, ending centuries of autocracy, and therefore governments for the masses, of the masses and by the masses were installed in many parts of the world. This gave tremendous power to the masses in choosing their own rulers and removing the ones they didn't like in the elections. But, contrary to this assumption, India in ancient times did have its own form of democracy and republics. The inscriptions on the walls of the Sundaravarada temple in Uttiramerur near Kanchipuram show how democracy was practiced 1000 years ago. History Professor Steve Muhlberger at Nipissing University has painstakingly shown several evidences of republic forms of government in ancient India. And, according to Hinduism Professor Arvind Sharma at McGill University, republicanism was as prominent a form of government as monarchy in the sixth century B.C. in India.

It is true that the Magadha empire rose at the expense of such republics, but when Alexander invaded India in the fourth century B.C., he had to fight against as many republics as kingdoms on his way to Punjab. Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra republics are attested to by Panini, the famous grammarian assigned to the fourth century B.C., if not earlier, and Alexander had to defeat both a Brahmana and a Shudra republic in the course of his conquest. Republicanism, in the form of the operation of guild-laws, common law, regional practices, etc. survived throughout, countenanced by the kings. The Rajatarangini, a historical narrative of Kashmir, informs us of cases in which the king's decisions were blocked and even reversed by the king's council. Rudradaman (c.150 C.E.) had to spend money from his privy purse to carry out repairs at Lake Sudarshana in Saurashtra because his council would not let him use public funds for the purpose. In addition, it is also often believed that modernity ended centuries of theocracy. But, at least within the Indian culture, theocracy was shunned millennia ago when Brahmans and Kshatriyas were assigned separate roles as religious and political leaders. We don't have a single incidence from Indian political history where a religious leader was made the king or vice versa.

Feminism: In the modern society, women are seen more liberated with their earning capacities and their role as career women rather than housewives or homemakers. It is believed that majority of Indian women committed sati in ancient times and widow-remarriage was not allowed. How far is this true? Most of the literature on the subject creates the impression of a general ban on widow-remarriage in Hinduism. According to the 1901 census, however, only 10 percent of the Hindu communities observed it. Professor Veena Oldenburg powerfully challenges even the usual portrayal of women being killed for dowry, which is linked with Indian culture. The British resolve to rationalize and modernize the revenue was particularly hard on women. From being co-partners in pre-colonial landholding arrangement, they found themselves denied all access to economic resources, turning them into dependents. In the event, they faced marital problems, and they were left with no legal entitlements whatsoever.

It is true that Indian society always has been a patriarchic society with males being the head of the family, but so is the case with all the other cultures -- eastern or western. But, it is the Indian culture that has the concept of Devi, goddess, which treats females also as divinely as the male gods, or Devas. Devi exists in various forms and powers. Laxmi is worshipped as the power of wealth. Shakti or Durga is worshipped as the power to be invoked in war. Saraswati is worshipped as the power of knowledge. Even the power of illusion is given a female identity in the form of Maya. Also, it is only South Asian countries that have no problem accepting women as the head of their states in the form of presidents or prime ministers. There are other dozens of social and religious female leaders in India.

Women who were given the sole responsibility to run a home are now being over-loaded to earn money also. In the modern world of judging everything by financial and materialistic rewards, are we reducing our mothers and wives also into moneymaking machines? And is that the only criteria for their freedom?

Science/Technology and Rationality: Modernity has negated the role of philosophical thinking and glorified reason-based thinking. Modernity also launched the era of science and technology with thousands of new inventions and discoveries about the outer world and the human body. This popular notion is already challenged by the scholarly work of Joseph Needham, which highlights the ancient Chinese contribution in science and technology. Similarly, many Arabic/Islamic scientific inventions are now accepted. Within India, we know that many scientific notions in the fields of Astronomy, Medicine, Mathematics, Metallurgy, Maritime and Linguistics were known to Indians thousands of years ago. There is a huge set of evidence about traditional knowledge systems as late as 18th century just before the advent of the British.

It is true that modern science has added tremendous inventions for human society but to claim that tradition or culture was non-scientific will again be misleading.

Environment protection: It is a popular notion that modernity also led to the awareness about environment protection and animal rights. However, it is also true that modernity has reduced the natural resources due to exploitation by human beings. Whereas Indian culture has the reverential concepts to worship natural powers and animals, modernity, while ridiculing such notions, claims to champion the cause of ecology. It is sad that the cultural values to regard the rivers as mothers, land as mother, cow as mother and trees as divine are ridiculed or rejected today in the name of modernity. Didn't these notions already combine eco-friendliness with popular culture?

Freedom: Modernity also is seen to be liberating dozens of nations from centuries of colonial rule. However, it can be argued that we have certainly achieved political freedom from colonial powers but how free are we intellectually and culturally from those powers? Did modernity free us or has it bounded us in new ways?


In this essay, we have seen that the so-called modern values were already present in ancient Indian culture. It is just that, in the medieval period of the last few centuries, they were corrupted under colonial pressures. With the advent of modernity, the same ancient cultural values are being presented to the human society in new western forms. We just need to apply our cultural contexts to them. Modernity devoid of cultural values will always be incomplete progress.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Saawariya and the great amalgam of traditions...

A great tradition is like a mighty river, different streams come to join it and in the process the tradition enriches without losing its soul. Like other ancient traditions, Indic traditions also have continued to evolve from its origins in Indus Valley, to Vedic Era, to Jain/Buddhist influence, to Islamic encounters, to modern times. In the process, it has put on new garbs and forms without losing its core values. Indian music can tell a similar story from its ancient classical ragas to medieval influences to modern medley that is sometimes seen in the Indian films and other "Indipop" music. This continuation of underlying themes in Indian music and culture with a continuous evolution of new external forms is what seems to me as one of the visible signs of a successful film and a successful music director in the Indian film industry. The Indian film music directors have continued to experiment with new instruments and rhythms since the times of C. Ramachandra, S D Barman, and O. P. Nayyar and yet some of their melodies have stood the test of times because of an essential quality that captured the Indian imagination. In the late 80s, 90s, and present times, we have had Laxmikant Pyarelal, R D Barman and now A R Rahman who have followed suit in terms of combining Western music with a healthy mix of Indian classical ragas in their songs. It is this innovative experimentation genre, that I would like to situate the films of Sanjay Leela Bhansali, especially his last two films Black and now Saawariya. Here are two films brimming with Shakespearean pathos and tragic turns. They also have other Western influences such as no songs (in Black) and Venetian city space (in the art direction of Saawariya) and yet they succeed in preserving some of the Indianness. Although Bhansali's other "masala" films such as Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Devdaas had elaborate sets, songs, and huge star cast, Black and Saawariya turn even the established stars into experimental roles of physically challenged such as in Black. In Saawariya, Bhansali goes one step further by picking fresh faces for his lead hero and heroine.

The success of Saawariya lies in its international appeal. The titles in the beginning of the film declare that it is based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1848 novella (short story) White Nights. And yet, after watching the film, I felt the film was also inspired by Raj Kapoor's films. While Raj Kapoor's Anari had the mother-like figure of Ms. Disuja who is the only sympathizer of the protagonist facing all kinds of hardship, Saawariya has "Lilipop" acted by Zohra Sehgal with great elan! Several of the scenes in the film proudly display the "RK" banner in the background and even the hero works as a lead-singer in an "RK" bar! The influence of Devdaas and Muqaddar ka Sikander is apparent when the heart-broken lover seeks shelter at a dancer's residence, although he is rejected there also. The entire role of Ranbir Kapoor is heavily inspired by his own grandfather's similar roles in which the character downplays the sad and harsh realities of life by having a jubilant attitude with a simmering pathos underneath. Ranbir Kapoor is definitely one of the finest actors to have recently emerged in Hindi films. In a moment, he can show us different kinds of rasas of sadness, happiness, comedy, and others, sprinkled with a light dose of dance and song sequence! The other hallmarks of the film is its art direction. Here again, the entire film is shot as a dream sequence with dark and bright colors and huge images in the backdrop. The song picturizations are good, especially the Id Qawwali one. However, the music needed more appeal although Monty Sharma seemed to have worked hard for his debut film. The heroine Sonam Kapoor also pales in comparison with Ranbir's spirited performance. Rani Mukherjee excels in her diegetic role as a narrator and a constant companion of Ranbir throughout the film. She seems to have matured as an actress with Black and now Saawariya.

The DVD cover of this film says, "Hurrah for Bollywood" and I agree! This film is in the emerging series of Hindi films constantly knocking at the international stage starting with Lagaan. The "Bollywood" has finally arrived with a host of recent films with a global appeal. It is to this interesting mix of Western and Indian elements in this typical Bollywood film that one can look forward to in the coming years!

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