Eastern and Western Philosophy @ BYOB Party in Feb 2019 (Part 1)

This time we had the BYOB Party on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Image result for atlas shrugged amazonAnish kickstarted the discussion with Atlas Shrugged, a book that he found difficult initially and enjoyed more on a later read. Ayn Rand’s philosophy matches the tenor of this age- the same brush with economic depression, the same economic competition, and socialism. There were readers in the group who were through with their Ayn Rand phase and others who read Rand’s slimmer volume called Fountainhead at an impressionable enough age to question everything they knew based on the articulate expression of Rand’s philosophy. “It’s not a fast read,” Anish said. “I advice you to go back to it again and enjoy the read.”

If you would like to know more about Ayn Rand’s brand of objectivism, watch this video.

Krishna likes to read fantasy and philosophy. He spoke about Vadiraja’s Refutation Of Sankara’s Non-Dualism: Clearing The Way To Theism by L. Stafford Betty. Vadiraja was a sixteenth-century Hindu philosopher who challenged the Advaita and spoke in favor of Dualism. L. Stafford Betty chanced upon his work and went ahead with the translation of the philosopher’s polemic.  You can learn more about Stafford Betty’s ideas in this interview.

Image result for Vadiraja's Refutation Of Sankara's Non-Dualism: Clearing The Way To Theism amazonKrishna explained that there were various traditions of schools of thought in India. Unlike Dvaita or Dualism, Advaita or Non-Dualism subscribes to the idea that there is only one super-consciousness and everything else is non-reality. Vadiraja was one of the last of his ilk; philosophy in India went to sleep mode post the sixteenth century. Other philosophers like Madhvacharya and Nagarjuna were also discussed.

There is an idea that eastern philosophy is not considered important enough but Abhaya refuted this. It isn’t lack of interest in eastern philosophy but the accessibility of western philosophy that is the problem. So the comparison to writers like Bertrand Russell is inevitable. In a very light-hearted manner, Russell pierces through the foundation of western philosophy keeping in mind that he is addressing a modern audience. Unlike the patronizing proponents of ancient culture, Russell’s writing is accessible. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Surendranath Dasgupta are good places to start when it comes to Indian philosophy but somewhere down the line a lay reader may find it tedious or lacking in citations. Surprisingly, there is no good book on Indian philosophy in Hindi either. It doesn’t matter if great thoughts are lost in translation as long as we can preserve some of it, Jaya mused.

More books in Part 2.


Nuclear War and the Periodic Table @ BYOB Party in March 2018 (Part 2)

There was a bit of doom and gloom in the BYOB Party.

Image result for Has Man a Future?amazonArchit got the famous book Sapiens by Yuval Harari. We’ve talked about the book many times. It made sense that the book he bought with it was Has Man a Future? by Bertrand Russell, one of the world’s most eminent philosophers of the twentieth century. The book was written during the Cold War when the world was on the brink of nuclear war. What struck Archit as scary was that book is relevant even today.  Even today, disarmament hasn’t turned into a collective objective with guns entering classrooms and nuclear warheads raising their heads in political banter. The possibility of a nuclear war is not exaggerated.

Image result for sapiensamazonAlthough Sapiens means Wise, the term is at best ironic. In the book, Sapiens, Harari explains how man evolved and hasn’t become wiser. He seemed to have been better off in the pre-agricultural era when he was a hunter-gatherer.  This was the only time in recorded history that he was aware of the food that he ate and the true nature of his surroundings. An argument grew around this- can anyone know everything? Doesn’t the very reason for stratification and division of labor stem from the fact that knowledge is shared property? Since there is a discrepancy in the time required for evolution to occur and the lightning speed of the human brain, inequality is the norm. Human beings have always tipped the scale and so this whole idea of an equal society in pursuit of happiness is silly. Sapiens is an important book simply because of the arguments it encourages. Part 2 of the book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, is equally horrific in the way it lays bare mankind’s stupidity.

Amrutha talked about a six-part sci-fi story set in a dystopian world where only Korea remains, the rest having being destroyed by nuclear war,  and mentioned how human beings are reborn as their prehistoric ancestors. Can anyone tell me which book this is? All my google searching didn’t help.

Image result for the periodic table primo levi amazonRitu was spurred to get a copy of a book she read long ago when she was young and later again when she was older. The book called The Periodic Table by Primo Levi is a series of short stories which tells the author’s own story- his experience being an Italian Jewish chemist during the World War era, a particularly unfortunate time to be Jewish.  Each story in the book is named after a particular element, which very cleverly becomes heavier and heavier towards the end of the book.  The book begins with so much promise but towards the end, the author must face the concentration camp. Although the ending is sad, it feels like dusk, Ritu says, beautiful and filled with color but with the heaviness of the ending day.

Amrutha read this book too and wondered how teachers could make a subject like chemistry so boring. “You need to include one of these chapters in the school curriculum,” she said. That’s a nice thought.

Theory of Relativity, Awesomeness and Lipograms@ BYOB Party in May (Part 3)


We’ve mentioned the book Gadsby once as a part of our Weird Books infographic. Soumya who had come for the BYOB Party had laid her hands on the book and found the experience of reading the book entertaining. Not to be confused with The Great Gatsby, Gadsby book is a lipogram by Ernest Vincent Wright. The entire book has been written without the letter ‘e’. It’s a 50,000 word novel. Having a constraint such as this makes it difficult for the author to use the past tense. Other books too have been written with such constraints, but by far Gadsby is the most popular and the longest attempt we could locate at this meet. The plot is predictable enough- a man called John Gadsby tries to improve the state of affairs of his town and succeeds.

It was a hard book for Wright to write. In fact, it is said that he tied down the letter ‘e’ on his typewriter  while he typed for five and half months to achieve this massive feat. The book is now considered a prized possession in one’s private library.


making india awesomeSethu picked up a book by Chetan Bhagat called Making India Awesome. He found Bhagat’s opinions on many contemporary issues like poverty, unemployment, corruption, etc interesting. “Many times we expect the government to do things for us when we ourselves can contribute to our elevation,” he said. The book has several short chapters, each one focusing on one issue and solutions envisioned for each.

abc od relativityJaya talked about a book called ABC of Relativity by Bertrand Russell. Here’s an excerpt from her book review at Worth a Read:

“A Physics course in the very first year at IITK had taught me the formulae related to the special theory of relativity.  But my interest in philosophy has kindled in recent past and I felt that puzzling on metaphysical questions in the 21st century is insincere without some intuitive understanding of things like relativity and quantum physics. And it was to gain this understanding, beyond Mathematics, that I picked up ABC of Relativity. This book might very well be the best attempt to explain relativity as non-mathematically as possible. But here is the heart-breaking truth. There is no understanding relativity without mathematics. Things became unintelligible after a while unless I started seeing them mathematically. If the intent is to explain relativity to a non-mathematical mind, beyond a limited point, the book fails. But what must be said here is that perhaps no other book will succeed half as well. Also, Russell’s is a brilliant mind. So sometimes what he mentions casually in a few sentences, as if it is the most obvious thing in the world, needs a lot of concentration and deliberation to understand.”

Read the review here.

More books lined up in Part 4…

Short Book Review: The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell

The History of Western PhilosophySBR: Reading this book is a great way to get introduced to the gamut of philosophical thoughts and tradition in the west starting from ancient Greeks to the beginning of twentieth century. What really works is that the author doesn’t feel the need to treat philosophy or philosophers with reverence just for being ancient or famous. He takes us on a journey of understanding and is ruthless in the pursuit. If that means that even the powerful people and ideas of past do not make sense to a modern mind, then they just do not. There is no need to be defensive about it.
Russell is also generous with his opinions, analysis and critique of the philosophers. Because it is clear at most places from the text when he is just narrating the philosophical thought in question and when he is offering his own opinions, it works well. For a novice, modern reader of philosophy, it is important to see those opinions in order to make sense of the ancient and obscure stuff.
Although condensing centuries of philosophical though in one book, even at over eight hundred pages, means that the treatment cannot be exhaustive or most scholarly, this isn’t necessarily a “for dummies” book. Most of the material of the book comes from a series of lecture the author gave, and it seems to talk to the fellow philosophers more than the lay readers.
The chapters of Bergson and Dewey didn’t work for me. They were the contemporaries of the author, and he seemed to have set the detachment of the historical chronicler aside in those chapters. The contemporary rivalries or exchanges dominate there. I needed to go elsewhere to understand what these philosophers really said.
To read or not to read: If you want to start delving into western philosophy, you should pick up this book sometime sooner than later. It might help to have read something beforehand. Story of Philosophy by Will Durant, a very accessible and readable work, worked as a good starting point for me. I picked up Russell after reading that. If you are also just starting on the subject like me, this is the sequence you can follow too. Even then keep Wikipedia, Google search and Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy handy for the unfamiliar references that would invariably pop up. (It’s kind of funny that Russell is covered in Durant’s book. Historian becoming a subject of another history!)

Epic Memories and Philosophical Ruminations @BYOB Party in September (Part 1)

This time we chose a different venue for the BYOB Party. We co-hosted this quaint book party with Reading Hour and it took as an hour to get to the venue- a quiet house filled with the warmth of book loving souls Vaishali and Arun Khandekar.

indian-philosophy-volume-1-400x400-imad8zmdnhyxq4vuNilesh Trivedi has a penchant for challenging books in a previous BYOB Party. He found Indian Philosophy by S.Radhakrishnan quite riveting. Though the book is written in English for western readers, it is a starting point for a seeker of knowledge when it comes to such an inaccessible subject like philosophy. While Bertrand Russell and Will Durant have succeeded in making the  polarities of Western philosophies far more accessible, S. Radhakrishnan has veered away from the mystical and provided a serious analysis of Indian philosophy, of which there are several parts.

The German philosopher Schopenhauer’s dictum of never reading commentaries was a strong motivator for Nilesh to chose this book. Summaries may seem appalling to a fiction lover like Vaishali (how can you read a summary of a fiction?) but reading summaries is one way of tackling the mountainous number of non-fiction books out there.

As is the case with book parties, one reader is magically connected to the next by an invisible thread called taste. Arun Khandekar spoke at great length about his experiences reading the philosophical works of Swami Vivekanada and Ramakrishna Paramahmsa.

“It is strange how Vivekananda uttered such difficult truths in his time. He believed in the agency of the mind and finding things out on your own.”  Arun believes that this freedom of thought and expression seems to be a thing of the past.

The Great Indian Novel“In fact The Great Indian Novel  written by Shashi Tharoor and published in the 90’s interprets the Mahabharata in a way that can not be envisioned being done now.”

Arun told us how Tharoor eloquently clothed epic characters in contemporary light, reflecting the Indian public’s fascination with this story.  Abhaya confessed to his addiction of the Mahabharata series that he watched on YouTube several times over and Arun spoke of the pre-internet, pre-TV days when he relied heavily on Amar Chitra Katha to feed his Mahabharata compulsions.

“In hindsight, in post independence India, it was stories like Harishchandra that got more leeway and now we see a renewed interest in the epics,” Arun mused.

Even if you did not know the nitty-gritty of the epic, the rivalry between the righteous Pandavas and the tainted Kauravas have lodged themselves in the Indian psyche.

“There is a Shakuni in every household,” Veena Prasad, a writer, summed it up nicely.

DuryodhanaThe mythical theme continued in Veena’s description of her co-writer Raghunathan’s book called Duryodhana, a book she confessed to reading in one sitting. “It’s a book from the villain’s point of view. Only here, the villain questions the reader. He speaks from the other side and his monologues are a social commentary on hypocrisies and double standards that existed in Hastinapur.”

The defining line from the book Veena cites is when Duryodhana says, “I had evil thoughts, and so have they”. The story of the Mahabharata never runs dry, does it?

More coming up…in 2,3,4, and 5….

Turing, History and Philosophy @ the BYOB Party in June (Part 3)

Towards the end of the BYOB Party (read Part 1 and 2 if you haven’t already), things started getting very serious indeed, what with mathematics, history and philosophy on the cards.
An outline of philosophy

Nilesh Trivedi, an engineer specializing in web and mobile software, got An Outline of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, which he highly recommends for its topical approach. “Although there has been a lot of path breaking development in cognitive sciences, this book is a good starting point. It can get dry in parts, but Russell is the clearest thinker who put his thoughts on paper, and a courageous writer too.”

It must have been the idea of Russell, but suddenly the BYOB party was a buzz with a flurry of mathematics and its personification- Alan Turing. Incidentally, Turing was also a pioneer in the field of Theoretical Biology, Aditya Sengupta, the biologist, reminded us.

India- a history

Sameer Shisodia, Founder and CEO at Linger Leisure, was bowled over by the extremely fast paced history book called India – A History by John Keay. “It doesn’t feel like a history one bit,” he said. Abhaya incidentally picked up a Keay novel called To Cherish and Conserve: The Early Years of Archaeological Survey of India.  John Keay brought them to the conclusion that history was more like putting pieces of a puzzle together. “There’s a lot of guesswork when it comes to creating history. You could be off by a thousand years, but that’s the beauty of it,” said Sameer.

There’s no verity in the past- the maps are mostly untrue. Even Kings had no exact approach about where their empires ended. There was genereal consensus about how history lessons in school never sparked this kind of excitement. “Who cares what year King so and so was born?” asked Nilesh.


Maybe a book called Guns, Germs and Steel is what every history hater should read,  Abhaya said. Like Napolean’s Buttons that Sudharsan Narayanan talked about, this book too deals with how certain factors changed the course of events. “Environmental determinism takes away a lot of the blame of what happened in the name of colonialism, even then this book is charmingly written.”

The younger particiapants talked about other media– R. Sundararajan talked about a 26 episode documentary series called ‘The World at War’  based on the Second World War.


Srishti talked about a graphic novel called MAUS by Art Spiegelman. Only an illustrator can make sense out of the incomprehensible and Spiegelman does this by turning the Jews into Mice and the Nazis into cats. Conversation went around to what the ordinary German made of the entire scenario. “In all likelihood, war is not what people want; they just want a good harvest and a safe place for their babies,” Jaya said as she reflected on the war strewn atmosphere of G.R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. “The highlight of  MAUS for me was when an African American faced racism by the same Jew who suffered in the Holocaust,” Srishti said. Spiegelman says so much in this book, it is worth a read.

It was not just books in English that were part of the conversation. Abhaya talked about a Hindi book calledAapki Bunti by Mannu Bhandari, acclaimed writer and wife of the famous Hindi writer Rajendra Yadav. It’s about the kind of impact a divorce could have on a child. “There are so many menaingful books in Hindi but the question really is where do we find them?” Shalini asked.

A few book stores were mentioned, but strangely enough there are not too many venues to buy Indian Language books from. A lot has to do with the mentality of publishers and the complete absence of marketing. Support from publishers is rare and except for a few instances of authors who are enterprising enough to promote their books on media like Whatsapp, there seems to be no vision. The general consensus is that people  want to read books in all languages; however readers are also the problem.  Here’s an instance of reader apathy that was shared. A writer once put up a chapter of his book on his blog. He was congratulated by his readers but all of them wanted a free copy. That’s the plight of the author, and so the publishing industry suffers as does the writer.

On the whole, the BYOB Party was a thought provoking exercise and it’s something  that should be hosted in more and more places so that the love of books and cake and conversation overtakes everything else in the world!

Join us the next time…