In 1991 India changed. We opened up. We started becoming part of the global economy. Globalisation finally engulfed us. Slowly some disturbing signs started emerging. In 1996 we at SIDH (“Society for the Integrated Development of the Himalayas”), organized a week long seminar on: “Re-thinking the New Economic Order: Gandhi & Beyond”. It was not a typical seminar in which speakers come, read their papers and often do not even listen to others. Here the idea was to honestly deliberate in a self-reflective manner, explore, contemplate and question – not neccessarily in order to provide answers. It was a wonderful experience for all twenty-five odd participants, opening new doors of perception. Among others, one of the main speakers was Kishen Patnaik. Kishen-jee was a socialist. A politician – but of a rare variety. He was authentic, a deep and original thinker, not stuck in his views, but ever willing to change them, if he was convinced otherwise. On the third or fourth day of the seminar, Kishen-jee, commenting on Mahatma Gandhi, admitted that people like him, i.e. the socialists, the leftists, (but I think it applies to most people), did not understand or rather rubbished Gandhi’s spiritual or religious aspect. They felt that Gandhi used it as a ruse to entice and allure the common Indian. But now (in 1996), he admitted that perhaps they had made a mistake in their understanding of Gandhi. He now felt that spirituality is as fundamental a need of a human being as “roti, kapda aur makaan” (bread, cloth and dwelling). This was a major statement coming from a hardcore socialist. All of us who knew Kishen-jee were surprised, and it made us think deeply about the meaning of spirituality.
Even though I am not a Gandhian, Gandhi has helped me understand many things – the question of civilization, the inherent goodness and wisdom of the ordinary Indian, the beauty of the Ordinary, the potential strength of Indian civilization, and last but not the least, the modern civilization and its systems. I am indebted to him (as I am to many others) for this. I also find that in modern times he was perhaps the only mass leader who spoke about the importance, (actually more than that, he spoke of the dire necessity) of dharma* in politics. He was not secular. He saw the greatness of India – in its civilizational understanding of existence, in its values, and in the ways of, and mindset of the ordinary peoples of India. He was not a materialist, even though he understood the value of material needs. It is worth reading his speech given in Muir College, (now Allahabad University), in a seminar on: “ Is Economic Progress the Real Progress”, on December 22, 1916.
The dominant politics in India have by and large been secular and focused mainly on materialism – i.e. having to do only with material concerns. A few leaders spoke of morality in politics, but they too refrained from speaking about dharma. Morality was also mostly restricted to honesty in material terms, and hardly went beyond that.
So, the focus of modern politics in India has been largely confined to material concerns. But a human being is far more than just the body and its needs. Respect, confidence and trust, are some of the basic needs of a human being. A human being has an inherent sense of nyaya (justice), of fairness, even though they may behave and act otherwise. All this is inherent in the ‘Being’ of human being. Fear, inferiority, shame, anger, angst, frustration etc, are the other side, which human nature likes to avoid, dislikes and abhors. This too is part of the Beingness or the Isness. This is Truth. It is reality for anyone to see and experience, beyond logic but self-evident.
India is wounded. Naipaul called it “a wounded civilization”. It has been inflicted with violence, terror, and the sense of shame; first during the long Islamic regime, and then under British rule. The wound is deep, and it has been ignored and left to rot, manifesting sometimes in cowardice, hypocrisy, self-consciousness, imitation, pettiness, myopia, and sometimes in vulgarity, and small time violent, aggressive and abusive behavior. It requires healing, however painful the process.
Mahatma Gandhi, being an extremely sensitive person and an introvert, understood this malaise; first through his personal experience, and then through observation and the incisive insight he had. Therefore his politics were not confined to political freedom alone. He was trying to address the issue of healing the people of India by giving them a sense of pride, confidence, respect, and trust in their own ways (of doing and perceiving). He also understood not only the values embedded in Indian civilization, but the damage (at the level of the mind and the psyche), as a result of Modernity. In Hind Swaraj, while critiquing modern civilization and its systems, he also tried to show the beauty inherent in Indian civilization.
This is not being written to eulogise Mahatma Gandhi, but only to set the context for what needs to be elaborated. Today in the time of Coronavirus, the world seems to have slowed down. Whether the crisis was man-made or an act of nature, it has shaken people like no other crisis, perhaps since the Second World War. If it hasn’t already, it should make the entire world, and in particular us Indians, think deeply, introspect and reflect. Perhaps it is a blessing in disguise. It should be quite obvious that the general direction of ‘development’, ‘progress’ and ‘growth’ adopted by most countries of the world, is not only unsustainable, but also violent and discriminatory. It is time to boldly review and make a course correction, even if it requires making a complete U-turn.
India has been in deep trouble in more ways than one. The basic necessities of millions of people are yet to be met, disparities of all kinds are increasing by leaps and bounds, the villages are under deep neglect, migration is rampant, the traditional and the adivasi (indigenous tribal) life is under severe threat, etc. We need not elaborate. We have seen different political parties – old ones and new ones – doing the same things that have been done in the past. Following the same path of ‘development’ and playing the same old dirty tricks to remain in power. It is déjà vu every time. It is time we came to the conclusion that the answer does not lie in the kind of system or paradigm we have adopted and been trained into believing would deliver. We need to look into how the human mind has been indoctrinated by Modernity. This needs to be understood before we can start thinking in a fundamentally different, and right direction. Patchwork solutions will not work. The Modern system has the capacity to absorb and digest even righteous dissent. It gobbles up anything coming from within the same paradigm, (even dissent); which is often propped up by its own design. It has the capacity to sometimes even promote opposition, and lend support to both sides, like the Democrats and the Republicans, and in India, the Congress (and its various allies including the communists), and the BJP. It can support both the establishment and the anti-establishment forces at the same time. It has refined the art of management and manipulation of the human mind to a very high degree through the media, research, education, NGOs, institutions giving awards and organizing lecture tours, the academia and the intellectuals. The Modern system works invisibly, remotely and it is almost omnipresent. The modern GOD!
We need to wonder at the present day contradictions: Communist China and its capitalist/imperialistic ways, capitalist America and its institutions supporting and nurturing the liberals, the leftists etc. The cry for “development” all over the world, its alignment with ever increasing consumption, in direct conflict with the environmental crises which can no longer be ignored. These contradictions should wake us up and make us wonder and be in awe of the power of Modernity and its ways. Only then can we objectively understand its core. Contemplation on its contradictions and paradoxes has the potential to reveal this. We also need to connect seemingly disjointed events and happenings to see its design.
Modernity stands on falsity, individualism, comparison and competition. It mercilessly rejects the past. It seeks the new, mistaking the new with originality and creativity. It does not distinguish, deliberately perhaps, between fact and truth, between perception and truth. Hence the biggest falsehood it has been successful in propagating – supported by the lure of individual freedom – is that “there is no (absolute) Truth; and that everyone defines their own truth”. In actuality, everyone has their own perception (as different from Truth). Truth is Universal. In one stroke Modernity has blurred the sharp and important distinction between Truth and perception, between Truth (eternal) and fact (transient), between truth and information, between knowledge and information. In fact, so much so that now information is perceived to be knowledge, and opinion is taken as Truth. So freedom becomes the individual’s choice, to be defined, as he or she likes. The consequence is that morality and ethics get thrown out of the window; they are a hindrance to individual freedom. Morality becomes an imposition. Individual freedom is the only value; and individual freedom seems to be a license to do as one pleases. This is in absence of any understanding of (eternal) Truth and the existential order, the dharma.
Morality and Ethics need to be grounded in Truth. Truth, ethics and morality go hand in hand. Morality can only be derived from Universal principles – the sanatana (eternal Truth). If we do not accept (forget understanding) that there is Truth, which is universal, beyond time and space, then there cannot be an agreement on the question of ethics or morality. We need to come to a shared understanding on universal Truth followed by an agreement on morality and ethics.
Modernity talks of objectivity but confines it only to the material, the manifest world. But the fundamental reality is of the un-manifest, the unseen, and not of the manifested and sensorial, which is changing all the time. The world of Meaning and the world of the Word are two different realms, inter-connected but different. The reality is that the world of Word is dependent and indicative of the world of Meaning, which is fundamental and which is beyond language, which IS – whether one understands it (the meaning) or not. Words can be learnt but meanings have to be understood and ultimately experienced. Modernity tries to objectify the manifested (which is changing all the time), and subjectify that which is fundamental, constant and needs to be felt, experienced and understood, all within. This is topsy-turvy. But Modernity ignores this reality, and lays emphasis only on the manifested, the material, the sensorial, and the measurable. This is the modern paradigm. This breeds comparison, competition, individualism and violence, it pushes everyone into running the same race – globalization, uniformity and homogenisation – different names in different contexts, but all emanating from the same source. Both freedom and equality, the two great values of modern times, are perceived in the manifested world without any understanding of their true meaning. In reality, in Truth, both freedom and equality belong to the paradigm of meaning, and not to the paradigm of word.
Most political movements base their ideas on alleviating the plight of the common man. However, they do not take into account either the wound of the common man, or the inherent faith and values of the common man. If this is taken into consideration at all, it is only to exploit. The common man of India despite the corruption and indoctrination through modern education and the media; still believes in ethics, in morality, and believes in the sanatana. The common man is caught in between – the race for ‘development’, (the race which the modern paradigm ensures every one must run), and the sanskaras* of ethics, values and the sanatana. The common man is caught in between and somehow hangs on to these values while trying hard to run the race, which is an impossibility.
All political movements in India (with the exception of the efforts made by Mahatma Gandhi but hardly understood by his followers) have been grounded in the modern paradigm. They have been led by people who hardly had any issues with the modern paradigm. They were themselves caught in individualism, and were caught in the images of their own personal identity (that were either created consciously by them, or got created by others). I am not trying to deride or demean the entire political class. Some of them were great and worth admiring. But this is the general trend politics has been taking. Most political leaders except Mahatma Gandhi were certainly impacted by modern education and came under its influence to a small or larger degree. In this context it is worth reading the speech given by the Mahatma on March 17, 1918, at Sabarmati Ashram on the day he decided to sit and fast until death, in support of the demands of the Mill workers of Ahmedabad.
The present paradigm is solely a materialistic paradigm, which promotes individualism (in alignment with the idea of personal freedom). And individualism breeds violence. It encourages comparison and jealousy. But the idea of individual freedom (which translates into ‘do what you please’) is alluring to the political class. They never understood the deep synergy between the exploitative results of the paradigm they were trying to challenge, and the idea of individual freedom, individual right, comparison, competition, the market economy and modern State – each supporting the other.
The modern state abhors society, (samaaj* is a better word) as the samaaj is comparatively speaking more self reliant (and not just in material terms), it shares more or less the same values and code of conduct, and hence has the strength to pose a challenge to the State. Samaaj also discourages vulgar or excessive consumption and displays of wealth. It is therefore in the interest of both the State and the market (economy), to disintegrate the samaaj, and promote individualism. Modern education and the media are the two most effective instruments in this game.
Colonial education was successful in building a false narrative around our traditions, where spirituality, religion, ethics and morality were all clubbed together and thrown out of the window as useless, retrograde, and seeped in ignorance and superstition. Secularism, on the other hand, was fashionable, alluring and modern. But secularism has no basis (in Truth). The blurring of the distinction between fact and Truth helped the spread of secularism.
So a new political movement will have to be grounded in Truth (the sanatana), followed by ethics and morality. It will have to develop a clear understanding of swa-tantr-ta (in alignment with Truth, the existential reality) and swa-raj* as different from the modern concept of freedom and independence. It will have to have a very clear understanding of the distinction between Needs and Wants, between the fundamental and the manifested (the meaning and the word; the Being and the Doing or appearing etc). To summarize, the new politics will have to be grounded in hardcore spirituality, Truth (eternal, sanaatan).
Dharma – The eternal and inherent nature of reality, the cosmic law underlying right behaviour and social order
Sanatana – The eternal Truth.
Sanskaras – Behavioural traits or dispositions.
Samaaj – Community or society, a body sharing the same belief and knowledge system, lifestyle and ethics.
Swaraj – Self-determination. Swa- is the self. The beingness. It is to be in control or alignment with that.
Paintings by Kiran Kumar Sen and Rabindranath Tagore