Sunday, April 1, 2018

Getting Ready for College…………it is only the beginning and not the end.

(Presentation at Nrupatunka Kannada Koota Atlanta, 31 March 2018)

K.M. Venkat Narayan


Dear Young Students:

My name is Venkat Narayan, and I am a professor at Emory University and direct the Emory Global Diabetes Research Center there.

If you are looking for a cookbook or algorithm on how to get into college, I really do not have one. In fact, I do not think anyone could possibly have a cookbook, and if they say they do, I suggest you do not follow it. What I am offering you is some very general broad thoughts, largely based on my reflections.

My own personal experience: I grew up in India, where opportunities in those days were rather limited.  I was admitted to what is supposedly a top-ranking medical school in India, St. John’s Medical College in Bangalore. Very soon after starting medicine, I began to realize that the routine of medical school did not inspire me, and my aptitude was more in subjects like mathematics, philosophy, literature, history. Anyway, I struggled through medical school unhappily, enjoyed being a clinical doctor, but was not satisfied, and even considered quitting and doing law or English literature or biomedical engineering. Finally, I discovered epidemiology and medical research, and have had a wonderful and very productive career as a physician-scientist, not something my medical school professors could have advised.

Two years ago, I had the privilege of personally witnessing the process my daughter followed.  She went about making her own independent decision somewhat unconventionally and avoided the traps of peer pressure or other cookbook considerations.  She had offers at Harvard, Columbia, University of Chicago, Emory Woodruff Scholars, Georgia Tech Honors, and Carnegie-Mellon, and ended up picking University of Chicago, as she felt that school suited her academic needs and personality best.

Over the years, I have met many people who were perfect students, did all the right things, and ended up in careers they have found unfulfilling. Equally, I have met many people who were not exactly great students, had confused paths, but ended up in places and in careers that suited them and made them happy.

My reason for telling you all this is to highlight to you that the world of college before you is your Oyster. A simple or easy path that a cookbook can guide you to does not exist. It is very personal.

The transition from school to college is an important one. School was very structured, you were under your parents wraps, and you did what perfect students are generally expected to do. College is different. It is the start of your journey to independence. It is the beginning of a process where you begin to define yourself. It is a personal adventure with risks and rewards.

What is important is that you follow your passion. That is what is important. Your passion and your identity. You need to reflect on what motivates you, what gives you joy and sense of fulfillment, where your strengths and aptitude lie, what you see yourself as wanting to be. This should be the basis of deciding on your area of your study and your college selection. This reflection and conversation with yourself is the true part of “readiness for college”, not any cookbook formula. Do not be swayed by what your parents want you to do or what your peers pressure you to do. It is about YOU, that unique YOU. Find it and live it to the fullest.

The reason to go to college is to learn to think and to arm yourself with the weapons of the mind. These are important to acquire. You need to develop curiosity and be willing to step out of your comfort zone, stretch yourself, experience new places and things, try to understand what you see and experience.  You need to be always skeptical. Question dogma and question authority. Do not take anything on face value. You need to cultivate openness. Think of new experiences, read widely, explore areas outside your normal interests, meet new people, travel, learn history, and develop perspective. These are all the invisible life skills that no cookbook can teach you.

Nothing that you do out of genuine passion and curiosity will go waste. Some things may not seem immediately relevant or useful, but over time, all of these experiences and skills and perspectives come in handy, and things will fit and fall in place even without you knowing. People will tell you that you need a career plan. A wise person once told me that what is important is not a career plan, but a career and life philosophy. That is what you need to cultivate, a life philosophy. This is a journey, not a destination.

Remember that the world before you is changing rapidly. With globalization and technology, the change is going to be rapid. Many jobs of today will disappear, but many new jobs that we do not even know of will appear. This means you need to stay current, stay adaptive, and develop life skills that give you resilience and continuous learning. That is what is “readiness for college” and “readiness for life”.

You need to stay engaged. Involve yourself in civic activities. Involve yourself in politics. Think of causes larger than your own immediate concerns. Think of how you can contribute to that larger cause. Imagine a world you want to see and help create it.

As Steve Jobs said, “Stay hungry, stay foolish”.  Be bold and courageous.

College is not the end, but just the beginning. So, treat it as part of your growth, not as a cookbook-guided destination. 

Of course, you need to focus on some specifics to get you get into the college of your choice and into the subject of your choice. This involves knowing what you want. Yes, GPA and scores matter, but you do not need perfect scores. You just need good scores. You need to show that you have challenged yourself. You do not need to kill yourself with endless number of APs.  Your college essays matter. These essays should reflect your passion, your curiosity, your sense of humor, your breath, and not be trite or contrived.  Research about the colleges you are interested in and show in your statement why you want to go there. Make sure you mention some knowledge about the place and about specific faculty or aspects of that college. You need some good references. You need to show your involvement in extra-curricular activities, but these should reflect seriousness, not just something that you did to check the box.

Ultimately, do remember that the world you will inherit will be vastly different from the world you are in now. College entry is a beginning, not an end. Follow your passion. There are rich opportunities and options ahead. Enjoy your life and contribute.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Serialized quotes from "The Hindu View of Life" By S. Radhakrishnan
"Hinduism does not distinguish ideas of God as true and false, adopting one particular idea as the standard for the whole human race. It accepts the obvious fact that mankind seeks its goal of God at various levels and in various directions, and feels sympathy with every stage of the search."
"Hinduism accepts all religious notions as facts and arranges them in the order of their more or less intrinsic significance."

"The bewilddering polytheism of the masses and the uncompromising montheism of the classes are for the Hindu the expressions of one and the same force at different levels."


In Indian philosophy (shared across the Indic faiths - Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism....), the concept of "Brahma" is a metaphysical idea and quite unique. Unlike a personal monotheistic god, the idea of Brahma is abstract and formless, nonjudgmental, and represents a descriptive unifying view of the highest Universal Principle and Universal Reality, including the existent and the nonexistent. This is an idea that has inspired theoretical physicists, mathematicians, philosophers, and poets across denominations.

"To admit to various descriptions of God is not to lapse into polytheism. When Yahnavalkya was upon to state the number of gods, he started with the popular number 3306, and ended by reducing them all to one Brahman. 'This indestructible enduring reality is to be looked upon as one only." (On "Brahman".......From "The Hindu View of Life by S. Radhakrishnan)

Brahman is a Vedic Sanskrit word, and it is conceptualized in Hinduism, states Paul Deussen, as the "creative principle which lies realized in the whole world". Brahman is a key concept found in the Vedas, and it is extensively discussed in the early Upanishads. The Vedas conceptualize Brahman as the Cosmic Principle. (

Saturday, September 16, 2017

"The Hindu View of Life" by S. Radhakrishnan.

My friend, Saji Joseph, recommended to me a little book titled "The Hindu View of Life" by S. Radhakrishnan. It is only 95 pages, but dense and full of compact analysis and interpretation of a highly complex and unique world-view. I will share serialized quotes as I go along, but here is one to read and reflect on:

"The Hindu attitude to religion is interesting. While fixed intellectual beliefs mark off one religion from another, Hinduisim sets itself no such limits. Intellect is subordinated to intuition, dogma to experience, outer expression to inward realization. Religion is not the acceptance of academic abstractions or the celebration of ceremonies, but a kind of experience. It is insight into the nature of reality (darsana) or experience of reality (anubhava). This is not an emotional thrill, or a subjective fancy, but is the response of the whole personality, the integrated self to the central reality. Religion is a specific attitude of the self, itself and no other, though it is mixed up generally with intellectual views, aesthetic forms, and moral valuations."

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Indian Philosophy


Last December, I worked through two volumes of “Indian Philosophy” by Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, and more recently have been listening to a series of podcasts from King’s College London, and was very impressed by a succinct description of Indian philosophy and how it differs from Western philosophy.


Having evolved over a very long time, the Indian philosophical system is completely at ease with virtually any structure of spiritual thought - agnosticism, atheism, deism, monotheism, polytheism, animism, etc.  They can all co-exist. Reason has been used to develop multiple argumentative traditions (which are what the Upanishads are).  Several varieties of beliefs have coexisted with an acceptance of an abstract “Unity” and uncertainty have been in principle fundamental behind all of Indian thinking. 


The concept of "Brahman", unlike a monotheistic personal God, allows an encompassing worldview by its very abstract and non-concrete dimensions, inclusive of the existent and the non-existent. Nonjudgmental and detached, at that lofty level of "Unity" all diversity is simply part and parcel of that oneness as embodied in the Advaita thought.  There is no need to look anywhere other than within oneself – “Tat Tvam Asi” - You are IT!  That “IT” being all things “divine” – You, me, the universe, and all animate and inanimate beings, the existent and the non-existent. The non-existent is also important here.


Some readings…..


Interview with Professor Jessica Frazier -


Podcasts from Kings College -


Oxford University Online courses -


Indian Philosophy by S Radhakrishnan (2 serious volumes)

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Hindustani Classical Music

 (Written by Sarayu Narayan and Venkat Narayan)

"The world by daylight stands for Western music which is a flowing concourse of vast harmony, composed of concord and discord and many disconnected fragments. And the night world stands for Indian music: one pure, deep and tender raga. Both, touches our heart, and yet both are contradictory in spirit. But this is natural. Nature, at the very root is divided into two, day and night, unity and variety, finite and infinite.”
– Rabindranath Tagore

One of the more complex and comprehensive of music systems, Indian classical music has roots that trace back to the 2nd millennium BC. There are two main traditions of Indian classical music: Carnatic, popular in the southern parts of India, and Hindustani, prevalent in the northern and central parts of the Indian subcontinent. These two forms, while sharing common roots, began to diverge around 13th century AD. Carnatic music flourished in relative isolation, retaining its purity in solely Indian roots. Hindustani music, much like plural India herself, ripened syncretically, as it met with and embraced the cultures of Persia and Central Asia.

In common with Western classical music, Indian music shares similar structural design, attention to detail, and instrumental variation, amongst other more “specific” categories. Standard pitch temperament is based primarily off of octaves that are divided into 12 semitones for both styles of music. There are ingrained scalar systems, rhythmic meters, composition styles in classical Indian music, similar to structural conventions of Western Music. Scales and meters in Western theory may be considered loosely analogous to ragas and taals in Indian music.

In contrast with Western music, however, the base frequency of the scale in Indian music is not fixed. As Tagore expressed, the primary focus of the two music forms differ - while Western classical music is the epitome of harmony, focused on chords and group arrangements, Indian classical music is the ultimate exponent of melody, focused on individual expositions of emotions and moods

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Sugar and diabetes

Reflections from Kingston, Jamaica (23 November, 2014)

The University of West Indies, Kingston is a sprawling campus nestled among little hills, somewhat a secluded oasis in this otherwise busy but laid-back harbor city of Kingston. Much of Kingston holds harsh but forgiving memories of the horrors of slavery, indentured labor, and European colonization.

Even today, although independent, free, and democratic to a fault, Jamaica remains under the British Queen, and the streets and buildings still carry the names given to them by the colonial masters, who were reminiscing their own England in such distant foreign lands or worse were using the symbols of names and culture to dominate the innocent natives of these lovely islands and the slaves brought there.

Regardless, the place has begun to change and is now witnessing the American influences of KFC and McDonalds, not any less the creeping presence of Chinese trade. People are nice and innocent, and there is something in-built in the culture to be laid back and to enjoy life - perhaps, coping mechanisms that have helped them survive so many centuries of oppression, while the colonial masters lived a life of luxury feeding off the greed for sugar and rich mineral.

Now the population faces unprecedented levels of obesity and diabetes, and even on a morning walk one cannot miss this epidemic. Of course, it is easy to blame a single evil - Sugar, but is it that simple, I wonder?