On Characters With Character

Books of the Chinese Silk RoadThe last few weeks have been tough. I’ve been battling a recurrent infection, one that seems to crop up once a year. It’s pretty dreadful. By the time it is in full swing I am lethargic, full of malaise and generally feeling sorry for myself. I told myself, last time it occurred, that I would go to the doctor immediately once the symptoms appeared. Due to America’s horrible health-care system I had to wait two weeks to see a specialist, which was more than enough time for the symptoms to worsen. I walked into the doctor’s office with a significant gait in my left leg. He looked at me and shook his head. “Why didn’t you come earlier,” he asked.

“Had to wait for approval from my HMO. Took a week. You were booked the next week,” I said.

The doctor looked at me kindly and said, “next time call me and I’ll prescribe you something before you come in, okay?”

He’s certainly one of the best doctors I’ve ever interacted with. He has an exceptional bedside manner, listens to everything I tell him, queries me fully, often time spending upwards of thirty minutes with me. For a doctor that’s priceless.

The prescription is for a heavy anti-biotic. The kind where you spend 10 minutes in the sun and it leaves you feeling like you’ve crossed the Taklamakan without water.

As a side note, I’ve read on several occasions that ‘Taklamakan’ means ‘goes in, doesn’t come out,’ in an ancient Chinese, or possible Tokharian dialect. Having flown over the Taklamakan several times and circumambulated its edges, I have to say that I agree.

One May when my father and I were in Dun Huang, the last great oasis before the Taklamakan, I got to thinking about Xuanzang, a 7th century Buddhist monk who sneaked his way past the T’ang guards at the Jade Gate, into the Taklamakan. He then proceeded to cross it, disproving its meaning as a toponym, but no matter. He then crossed the Tien Shan, chilled at a Buddhist monastery in Samarkand–just a few years before the Arabs irrupted into Central Asia, and then did a backwards dogleg into Afghanistan and India where he spent a decade plus collecting Buddhist manuscripts to take back to China.
Dun Huang Dune
Buddhism was not new to China, but it’s safe to say its roots were nothing compared to those which dug deep after Xuanzang’s return to Chang’an, the capital of the T’ang empire. What course might Chinese Buddhism taken were it not for Xuanzang’s efforts at travel, discovery and exploration? And what course might my life have taken had I not been exposed to Chan Buddhism in China in 1999?

This diminutive monk spent his remaining days translating the Buddhist corpus is a spartan monastery cell, eschewing all glory and worldly goods and his good works echo down the centuries to my own time and my own debt of gratitude to him.

Now that’s a character with character. Central Asia is littered with them, from the monstrous Timur–aka Tamerlane, who left a trail of human skulls from Damascus to India–to the poignant Omar Khayyam.

I tend to think about people like Xuanzang and Polo and ibn Battutah when I am feeling sorry for myself. Sometimes it works: I feel better, realizing my pedestrian concerns, minor ailments and the general discontent I feel with my post-modern life do get the better of me.

But sometimes it fails: I want to be Polo, or Rabban Sauma, Wilfred Thesiger, people who lived a full life so far away from home. People who made the world their home, citizens of this great and tragic blue ball spinning off into eternity.

And then I get a text message and the world comes roaring right back at me.

Home To A Billion Heartbeats

Indian Mass TransitEdmond writes in from India:

Dear Sean Paul Kelley,

let me tell you, india is the only place with all its faults, the soul finds its freedom, its peace & joy.
being home to a billion beats , this country has huge resources & beyond. can they be typified under a single banner?

i agree when you say, this is a dirty place, electrical grid is surely a joke, there are many other concerns which india faces today.

but that doesn’t mean people out here aren’t interested . we are. to every enemy there is a friend. to all corrupt people, there are good people. its all round the corner, just a glance away.

i wudnt want to call you the spoilt kid of the west, but when you compare, why is there so many broken families? divorce rules the roost. depression takes its toll. at a young age , students are into bad company?

i bet, this is far far better in India. night life is the only thing in most mindset in westerners.
the govt here is lack lustre, more appropriate corrupted, but change wont happen in a day right?

we can always look at the bright side of things, if we want too. its all in the state of mind.

” Here are some amazing facts that will make you more proud to be an Indian. Read on …
India invented the Number System. Zero was invented by Aryabhatta. India never invaded any country in her last 10000 years of history.

Sanskrit is the mother of all the European languages. Sanskrit is the most suitable language for computer software, according to a report in Forbes magazine, July 1987.

The World’s first university was established in Takshila in 700BC. More than 10,500 students from all over the world studied more than 60 subjects there. The University of Nalanda built in the 4th century BC was one of the greatest achievements of ancient India in the field of education.

Ayurveda is the earliest school of medicine known to humans. Charaka, the father of medicine consolidated Ayurveda 2500 years ago. Today Ayurveda is fast regaining its rightful place in our
civilization.India was the richest country on earth until the British invaded in the early 17th Century. Christopher Columbus was attracted by India’s wealth.

Bhaskaracharya calculated the time taken by the earth to orbit the sun hundreds of years before the astronomer Smart. Time taken by earth to orbit the sun in the 5th century – 365.258756484 days. The art of navigation was born in the river Sindh 6000 years ago. The very word Navigation is derived from the Sanskrit word NAVGATIH. The word navy is also derived from Sanskrit ‘Nou’.


The value of “pi” was first calculated by Budhayana, and he explained the concept of what is known as the Pythagorean Theorem. He discovered this in the 6th century long before the European mathematicians. According to the Gemological Institute of America, up until 1896, India was the only source for diamonds to the world.

Algebra, trigonometry and calculus came from India. Quadratic equations were by Sridharacharya in the 11th century. The largest numbers the Greeks and the Romans used were 106 whereas Hindus used numbers as big as 10**53(10 to the power of 53) with specific names as early as 5000 BCE during the Vedic period. Even today, the largest used number is Tera 10**12(10 to the power of 12).

Usage of anesthesia was well known in ancient India medicine. Detailed knowledge of anatomy, embryology, digestion, metabolism, physiology, etiology, genetics and immunity is also found in many ancient Indian texts.

USA based IEEE has proved what has been a century old suspicion in the world scientific community, that the pioneer of wireless communication was Prof. Jagdeesh Bose and not Marconi.
Sushruta is the father of surgery. 2600 years ago he and health scientists of his time conducted complicated surgeries like cesareans, cataract

, artificial limbs, fractures, urinary stones and even plastic surgery

and brain surgery. Usage of anesthesia was well known in ancient India. Over 125 surgical equipment were used. Deep knowledge of anatomy, physiology, etiology, embryology, digestion, metabolism, genetics and immunity is also found in many texts.

The earliest reservoir and dam for irrigation was built in Saurashtra.

Chess (Shataranja or AshtaPada) was invented in India. When many cultures were only nomadic forest dwellers over 5000 years ago, Indians established Harappan culture in Sindh Valley, known as the Indus Valley Civilization.

The place value system, the decimal system was developed in India in 100 BC. Spiritual science, Yoga and most of the religions were found in India and the teachings spread all over the world by Indian Mystics and the Saints.

The World’s First Granite Temple is the Brihadeswara temple at Tanjavur in Tamil Nadu. The shikhara is made from a single ‘ 80-tonne ‘ piece of granite. Also, this magnificient temple was built in just five years, (between 1004 AD and 1009 AD) during the reign of Rajaraja Chola

India is…….the Largest democracy in the world, the 6th largest country in the world AND one of the most ancient and living civilizations (at least 10, 000 years old).
The game of snakes & ladders was created by the 13th century poet saint Gyandev. It was originally called ‘Mokshapat.’ The ladders in the game represented virtues and the snakes indicated vices. The game was played with cowrie shells and dices. Later through time, the game underwent several modifications but the meaning is the same i.e good deeds take us to heaven and evil to a cycle of re-births.”

there is so much, & so much more. but is it the blind side??
why are the people thereĀ  so racists? did the people there create human or God did? where do you compare culture? & traditions?

moreover, how can you help to make this country what it can be? people like mother Theresa came here, did their best, many more are doing it. this can only change with time. the west only robbed india & went back. if not for the independence movement, we would still be slaves.

i can go on and on, but intend to stop here. i would want to here from you.

Dear sean, this is just my opinion, no offences, i just disagreed on some issues but respect your right to say.

do you want to make a trip to this country again ? would be happy to meet you. await your reply
yours in friendship,
rgrds,
Edmond

First and foremost, thank you Edmond for writing in. I’ve received countless letters from Indian expats and residents. Most of them have been similar in temperament to yours in that they highlight the ancient glories of India as a way of pointing towards the future.

That may be so, but in a former life I was an asset manager and one key principle we learned was ‘past performance is no guarantee of future results.’

Just look at America! What began as an auspicious experiment in Enlightenment Political Theory, progressed , after our Civil War and Progressive Era to the Vanguard of the West is now sinking under the combined weight of greed and anti-intellectualism run amok. We, like you, cannot rest on our laurels. When we do, we betray our fundamental principles.

But, I should really, rather respond to your specific arguments, or historical anecdotes, such as they are:

a.) Sanskrit, while an amazing language and one that has facilitated a great many intellectual awakenings in the East and West, is not the Indo-European mother tongue. As you and I both know, the Aryans who invaded Hindustan around 2,000BCE brought with them a proto-Sanskrit closely related to Avestan and the Anatolian ancestral tongues.

b.) I was unaware of the university at Takshila, but this doesn’t surprise me. India has a very long and distinguished history of learning.

c.) Aryuveda: yes, indeed. India has given much to the world and the West ignores its gifts mostly due to ignorance and arrogance.

d.) Columbus and the wealth of the Indies: this is indisputable, if largely forgotten in the West as well. Columbus believed the earth was a globe–another idea I believe that has its genesis in a fusion of Greek and Indian knowledge–and sailed West in the (false) belief that he would reach India.

e.) Higher Math, Algebra and Zero: Zero, as a concept came from India and it was a concept the West resisted for centuries. The higher math examples you offer I can’t speak to, as I am no mathematician or historian of math, except I can say, with certainty, that algebra did not come from India. Algebra was a Perso-Arab development that came from the region between the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers in what is present-day Uzbekistan: Kwarazm.

But that’s really not what’s important. What’s key here is that India, as you document, has given the world many great things. This is not, nor was it ever, in dispute by me. My purpose, in arguing the way I did in “Reflections on India” was not to take away form what India had given the world, but to ask: how does India plan to follow up on its previous accomplishments. Also, I wrote it as a tonic to much of the hype here in the West about how India is the next ‘big thing.’ And all the nonsense about ‘how easy it is to do business in India.’

While what I wrote was addressed to my India friends in particular, it was meant as a wake-up call to Western businessmen and women about the difficulties they will face doing business in India. There is a lot of myth-making about India here in the West, especially by people like Tom Friedman. It needs to be countered. If India and the United States are going to have a global partnership of sorts, as looks increasingly likely, well, then we need to understand each other better, not just our strengths, but our weaknesses, as well.

Would you not agree?