More Mohini Trickery

Here is another story about the female trickster goddess Mohini, an avatar of Vishnu.

At one time there was a war between the lesser gods (Devas) and the demons (Asuras). The Asuras were beating the Devas, so the gods went to Lord Brahma as asked him for help. Lord Brahma told the gods to churn the ocean, as butter is churned, and that the Devas would obtain the nectar Amrit – which would make them immortal and powerful. And able to defeat the Asuras.

But churning the ocean was such a big job that the Devas asked the Asuras to help them. Gods do odd things. “Help us make something that will help us defeat you.” Some sort of deception must have been involved, and the Asuras helped to churn the ocean. Or the Asuras figured that they were stronger than the Devas and they would just get the Amrit from the Devas, and then use its power themselves. After a while the churning was sufficient to create the Amrit. The Devas and Asuras began to fight for the Amrit. Now, it seems to me that both groups deserved some share of the results of all the churning, but that’s not what Vishnu wanted. He became Mohini and she used her beauty and charms to seduce both groups. Both the gods and the demons were enchanted by Mohini. She convinced both groups to allow her to distribute the Amrit. She had them form two lines: one of Devas and one of Asuras. She began handing out the Amrit, but only to the Devas. One of the Asuras, Rahu, was outraged and decided to disguise himself as a Deva, to get the Amrit for himself. He snuck between the sun god (Surya) and the moon goddess (Chandra). They noticed that Rahu was not a Deva, and told Mohini. She used a magic discus to decapitate Rahu, but he had already drank the Amrit, thus he was immortal. He became a disembodied head named Ketu, while his body stayed Rahu. Out of spite, Rahu and Ketu swallow the sun and moon, causing eclipses.

We see that Mohini is not so much a force for justice here, but more a force for making the world work the way she wants it to. And she was also partially tricked by Rahu. This is a common fate for tricksters, they seem to bring out the trickery in others.

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Thoughts on Education

From the Analects of Confucius:

“I do not instruct the uninterested; I do not help those who fail to try. If I mention one corner of a subject and the pupil does not deduce therefrom the other three, I drop him.”

As a teacher, this sounds like a luxury – only teaching those who want to be taught. As a math teacher, this goes beyond luxury into the realm of fantasy. None the less, what would be the consequences if US public schools did a complete about face and adopted some version of this attitude?

Confucian attitudes toward learning aren’t an integral part of American culture, since historically we haven’t viewed education as a pathway toward becoming a high level bureaucrat – as Confucius often does. On the other hand, if the public sector continues to grow as a portion of our economy, and as occupations like interior decorator or manicurist require certification – then the Confucian model seems like it offers an interesting path for Americans.

The more I think about this, the more I want to do the boring thing of quoting myself. Here goes.

Personal values have played a starring role in American education from its inception. The belief in a sinful personal nature drove the creation of the early mandatory school system in New England. The local, communal values of the various European settlers in the Middle Atlantic colonies resulted in a wide range of schools. I know that many parts of the Middle Atlantic colonies did not have English-speaking schools until the middle of the 19th century. And the Southern colonies tried to replicate the social structure of conservative England with their school system.

Every society uses education to create the adults it hopes for. That is the goal of education. In America, we have many intertwined threads that correspond to authoritative versus authoritarian versus indulgent parenting styles – and a few unfortunate instances of negligent parenting in education. Much of the New England model can be thought of as authoritarian. Much of the treatment of Native American and African American students in the 19th century and parts of the 20th can also be considered authoritarian, with the unfortunate twist that those cultures were not well-served by a European-style authoritarian education. Some of the Middle Atlantic styles, for example the Quaker schools, can be considered authoritative. And some of the non-standard schools (Montessori, for example) can be considered indulgent.

Because Americans have resisted a national school system, and have generally championed state and local control, these various strains have all had their days at different places and times. In poorer places, especially with large numbers of minorities, education has often been focused on a vocational track. The notion that the scarce local resources should be used to teach marketable skills that anyone can acquire can be very attractive in that circumstance, with more abstract academics considered an unnecessary luxury. In more middle class areas, schools are focused on getting students into college – where training for professional careers are more the norm. Living conditions, along with personal values, often lead community leaders to modify their educational system to address the goals and needs of locals.

I do not think we will ever see a victor in what one could think of as a contest between Horace Mann and Allan Bloom. People have remarked that America’s constantly evolving foreign policy can be seen as tension between Wilsonian idealism, Jacksonian preservation of honor and populist values, Hamiltonian protection of commerce, and Jeffersonian protection of democratic values. Much the same set of personal values are played out in American education: the Wilsonian-like desire to use education to create an ideal person and an ideal society, the Jacksonian-like desire to have education reify a common culture, the Hamiltonian-like desire to have education create commercially productive adults, and the Jeffersonian-like desire to have education create engaged citizens.

The full-on Confucian attitude in that quote is possible in a society where universal education is not a mandate. In our society, it’s simply not a viable choice. For us, one of the larger questions is “How do we get more young people who want to be students?” One of my colleagues mentioned that his teaching philosophy was embodied in the title of a book that he had purchased, but not read: Teaching As A Performing Art. One of my professors has commented that as math teachers, we need to recognize that only a few of our students will be intrinsically interested in our topic. So we need to do our best to make the class time interesting. He is also very much an advocate for teaching for students to achieve mastery, and not just for a “hey, math can be a fun time.” So, on the teaching side of the relationship, we have a responsibility to make as much of our topic as interesting as possible. In America, we have spent the last few decades emphasizing the responsibilities of teachers. That’s completely reasonable, since we are the adults in the situation.

On the other hand, the Confucian attitude emphasizes the responsibilities of the student – that a desire to learn and a willingness to work are also necessary. The consequences of a widespread adoption of that mindset would be a wonderful thing.

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I wrote this more than 4 years ago. My thinking now is that we could consider giving students a voucher for 13 years of education that they could redeem at any point. And we could have schools send home students who are simply unwilling or unable to behave in a way that’s appropriate for learning. When those students are more mature, they get to come to school. We may wish to modify the system so that 11 year old sixth graders are not in the same classroom as 18 year old sixth graders. But we could create a system where those older students, who are now ready to learn, would be given instruction. I believe that education is a something that should be available to all, but students who are not able to exercise that opportunity in a responsible way (or at least in a way that does not disrupt from the learning of others) should not be kept in a classroom. I really enjoy my situation now, where I am tutoring students on line. My students may not love math or physics, but they take seriously the effort to learn the subjects. I hated classroom management. I think that’s a pretty common situation for teachers. Get the immature students back into their homes (because we are told that schools aren’t warehouses) until the students and their families can take proper advantage of the opportunity that we as a society have decided to provide for all members.

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History Sticks Around

I used to co-host a call in radio show about computers on the local community radio station. I posted the audio (along with images of various fauna from my yard) on Vimeo. I see that it’s still there. Check it out, I think we had some good shows.

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World Baking Day Thred

May 17 is World Baking Day. What a happy day! In honor of this delightful occasion I created a Thred.

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Bless you, Bakers.

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Crud, Weird Again

As part of my research into trickster goddesses, I came across the concept of ideasthesia. As the name suggests, it is related to synesthesia. The term came from the observation by some psychologists and neurologists that many instances that were labeled “synesthesia” had a semantic component. In other words, the sensory input (a letter, a color, a number, etc) triggered a context-dependent semantic representation rather than a merely unrelated sensation. There was often an underlying meaning when a person with “synesthesia” perceived red as having the flavor of paprika, or the number “3” as always being maroon. The concept is associated with color-grapheme synesthesia – associating letters with colors. And some other forms of synesthesia.

So I’m reading the Wikipedia entry, and as an example of ideasthesia, the article has the “Bouba/Kiki Effect.”

Take a look and see which one seems like it ought to be called “Bouba” and which one “Kiki.”

Bouba/Kiki

I thought the flowery one on the right should be Kiki, and the pointy one Bouba. Apparently, that’s not what most American College Students and speakers of Tamil in India thought. Does this mean I have ideasthesia, or that I don’t have it? Or that I’m just odd? I don’t experience synesthesia, but playing “polysemy” is one of my favorite games. Seems like something a person with ideasthesia would enjoy (along with tequila-soaked walks in the rain, warm kittens, and Kate Hudson movies).

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Trickster Goddess Story

In Hindu mythology, there was an Asura (a demon) named Bhasmasura who wanted to be the most powerful Asura ever. He thought that immortality would make him the most powerful demon. He prayed and prayed to Shiva. He meditated deeply, prayerfully, and caught the attention of Shiva through his penances. Lord Shiva appeared before any true devotee. Shiva did not care that Bhasmasura was a demon, he only cared that he had prayed and meditated deeply for Shiva. Shiva was pleased with the worship and told Bhasmasura that he could ask for a boon. Bhasmasura asked to be made immortal. Shiva told him that he could not grant that boon, immortality is against the laws of nature. So Bhasmasura did his best to think of something that would make him the most powerful demon, and he cunningly asked for Lord Shiva to give him the power to turn to ash anything that Bhasmasura placed his hand on. Shiva granted this wish, not considering the consequences.

I like that when Bhasmasura could not get abundant life, he asked for abundant death. To some degree, he shows himself to be an inverter – a property of a trickster. Then he foolishly spills his thoughts too quickly. He tells Shiva that he will test out this new power on him, Lord Shiva. Shiva knows that he should not die at this point – I’m assuming that turning to ash would prevent re-birth or the taking of other avatars. Otherwise Bhasmasura could replay Shiva’s “but immortality goes against the laws of nature” back to him.

So Shiva starts running from Bhasmasura. He runs into a grove of trees, but knows that he cannot outrun the Asura forever, so Shiva prays to Vishnu for help. Immediately a beautiful woman appears in front of Bhasmasura. The Asura is smitten by the woman’s beauty and grace and asks her who she is. She replies that he is in her woods and therefore he should give his name first. He does, and then blurts out that he wants to marry her. She laughs and moves further into the woods. He pursues her and asks her name again, she tells him that her name is Mohini. He again asks if she will marry him. She replies that even though he is very handsome, she loves to dance and will only marry an excellent dancer. He is crestfallen since he has never danced. He shares this information with Mohini. She appears to take pity upon him and says that since he is so handsome, she will teach him to dance. He is awkward at first, but becomes better with her help. She has him perform more and more complex steps. With lust supplying his motivation, Bhasmasura keeps improving. Mohini asks him to mimic her movements. He is concentrating so hard upon following her movements that he does not pause to think when she strikes a pose where she places her hand upon her own head. He apes her gesture and turns himself to ash.

Lord Shiva comes out of hiding and thanks Mohini-Vishnu for saving him.

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I’ll Dip My Toe Into The Tide

I wonder how much of the “oh, those pathetic college students, wanting to be sheltered” is accurate, and how much of it might just be trickery – like the Samoans who pulled Margaret Mead’s leg about their culture. I’m sure some of it is real – students thinking that they shouldn’t have to hear upsetting things. The college students I recall were a hardier, more obnoxious bunch. Though, “college friends” is certainly an example of a self-selected sample.

At any rate, I’m warning any Columbia students who agree with the Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board to avoid any of my posts on trickster goddesses. Naughty things might be described. Or shown.

mohini-murti

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