Baba Ramdev is a popular Hindu leader. He is widely respected and celebrated for his teachings on yoga shastra. He is a tireless teacher to millions of people. He has rendered incomparable service to his followers in India, and — with the power of the internet — around the world. No one can take away the significance of his achievements in bringing understanding and empowerment to his followers in their private and social lives. No one except Baba Ramdev himself, that is. I think that the greatest enemy that Baba Ramdev faces is himself, as sometimes happens with people with extraordinary talent. They are victims of their own successes, and the knife sticking out of their backs is often one that they themselves hand to their attackers.
Extraordinary wisdom, supernormal intelligence, extreme dedication to social causes, dazzling beauty — these attributes are orthogonal and are rarely present in equal measures in any individual. Nature is not profligate and generally rations out its blessings in teaspoon-fulls even in those rare instances when it is generous in one attribute or the other. Statistical improbability argues against someone being extremely wise, extremely intelligent, and extremely informed. If any of those qualities is present in its extreme measure in one out of a million people, then the probability of all of those three being present in a particular individual is one in 10^^18 (or quintillion). Which is to say that the probability is zero for all practical purposes. In light of the fact that only around 100 billion humans have ever existed on earth (and over 90 percent all humans who have ever existed have died), you can bet that no one has ever been extremely wise, intelligent and informed. Anyone claiming to be such is clearly not very wise, nor intelligent and certainly not well informed.
You might wonder what this has to do with Baba Ramdev and why I bring up those numbers. Fact is that I like to do arithmetic. It is something easy to do, and perhaps the only thing I can do that is not generally done by too many people. Doing arithmetic probably does not help you make friends and influence people who are naturally innumerate but helps you avoid believing in all sorts of foolishness. As my grandma used to say, do your sums carefully and you will not appear to be an utter idiot in and out of the classroom. But I digress.
The point that I am laboring to make is that you could do worse than learn pranayama and surya namaskar from Baba Ramdev. He is brilliant in that. For discourses on the Bhagavat Gita, one may be advised to consult him. Hindus could perhaps go to him if their moral compass needs a bit of tuning. He’s a specialist. But when it comes to politics, economics, technology, foreign policy, electoral reforms, brain surgery, superluminal space travel, avionics, genetics, astronomy, cosmology, national defense, stock markets, cosmetics, geology, haptics, motorcycle maintenance, computer programming, agriculture, etc., etc., I would advise you to give Baba Ramdev a wide berth. Just like Baba Ramdev is a specialist in yoga, there are specialists in those and hundreds of other disciplines. Getting your tax advice from a brain surgeon is a sure way to lose money (although perhaps not as bad as getting your brain surgery done by your tax accountant.)
Specialization matters because the world is a complicated place these days. Granted, 5,000 years ago, you could get your medical treatment from the same guy who was also a specialist in fortune telling. But today the guy who has spent 20 years learning brain surgery has not had the opportunity to learn much about anything else.
Baba Ramdev should stick to what he knows and maintain absolute silence on topics that he neither has any training nor competence in. I am not privy to what Baba Ramdev thinks, or even know of his views on a variety of matters. Just occasionally I get to read an article or two about him, like this article in the Wall Street Journal titled, “Nine More Things Baba Ramdev Wants”. Granted that it’s a hack job of an article, written by someone who is clearly biased and is interested in ridiculing him. But one has to admit that Baba Ramdev has brought the possibility of ridicule by straying into areas that he should have scrupulously avoided.
I commend Baba Ramdev for his vocal opposition to crooked politicians and for his fight against public corruption. I fully support him in his attempt to mobilize his supporters to kick the corrupt out of power. But with equal force I oppose his “buy Indian only” demand, his “no Western medicine” demand, his “go organic” demand, his “train Indian scientists in Hindi and regional languages” demand, and his ““cure” gay people through breathing” demand. In the interests of keeping this post short, I will not go into the details of why those things are silly at best. Perhaps I could be persuaded to go into them later. For now, I will make a few general points only.
Point number one. Stupid bleeds into the neighboring areas. If you say something stupid in one domain, it bleeds into other domains that you touch. Suppose you are a highly trained, widely respected quantum physicist, and suppose you make an utterly foolish statement about foreign policy. People who know foreign policy will judge you to be quite uninformed about foreign policy. But since they don’t have a clue about quantum mechanics, they will suspect that you are not particularly smart about quantum mechanics either. Your natural stupidity in one domain will make your expertise in another domain vulnerable to suspicions of incompetence. Revealing one’s ignorance is not a bad thing at all. In fact, the ability to say “I don’t know” is one of the defining characteristics of really smart people. They know the extent of their ignorance. People who don’t even know that they are ignorant of something are ignorant to a degree that exceeds mere everyday ignorance.
Point number one point five. Stupidity bleeds but smartness does not. Nobel prize in literature, for example, does not automatically confer expertise in economics. We witness over-reach by people too often and the sight is not pretty.
Smart people figure out early on in life that the thing to do is get expert advice. They say, “I don’t know the answer but I am sure there’s someone out there who knows this stuff. Let’s get him or her to tell us.” They hire the best and that’s what makes them smarter than the others who think that they know it all. One lesson we should take to heart is that no one knows it all. A bit of humility is what we chiefly need since we are mere mortals, and omniscience is not our lot.
“Wait a bleeding minute,” you may object. “Baba Ramdev is a free citizen of a free country with freedom of speech. He has a right to express his views on whatever topic he fancies.” Becoming indignant, you may ask, “Who died and made you in charge of deciding what Baba should say and not say? What about that freedom of speech that you constantly go on about? And haven’t I read you holding forth on a number of topics on this very blog when all you know is a bit of economics?”
Fair enough, I will answer. Here’s my point number two.
Yours truly is not a Baba Ramdev. The essential point of difference is that I have exactly three and a half followers on a good day. Baba Ramdev has thirty million followers — and that too on a bad hair day. That’s the point. If I say something foolish (which is not unheard of), no one could care less. No great harm will come out of my insisting that 2 plus 2 is 5. But Baba Ramdev’s prescriptions on matters economic can potentially result in massive avoidable misery for millions. Banning technology imports (whatever that means in a world that is so awesomely connected) is a prescription for disaster. Insisting on “organic only” is a sure way to increase hunger and starvation.
I can afford to be careless because what I say has nearly zero impact. With his immense following, Baba Ramdev can be a force for great good or for great harm. He has to be very very circumspect in what he says and does.
If I were to start my own political party tomorrow, no one will even know about it. But if Baba Ramdev so much as hints that he is considering starting a political party, great things will happen. Antonia Maino, aka Sonia Gandhi, will heave a great big sigh of relief and rejoice publicly. The Congress party will be assured of electoral victory for another generation, and consequently India will sink ever deeper into incomprehensible poverty. The Little Prince Raul Vinci, aka Rahul Gandhi, will be assured of his future as the prime minister of India. Baba Ramdev will accelerate the downfall of India. India’s future misery will make today’s misery look like a period of relentless prosperity in comparison.
Baba Ramdev is a very great man. That’s why I fear the very great harm he can do. So far, the signs are not very hopeful.
Related post: Three years ago — June 5th 2008 — I had written a post where I mistakenly referred to him as “Swami Ramdev” instead of Baba Ramdev. “Swami Ramdev’s Peculiar Beliefs.”