Indology - Return to sanity
by VN Narayanan
The first lesson in life, wrote Oscar Wilde, "is to be as artificial as possible. What the second duty is, no one has yet discovered". Viewing, hearing and reading the mass media over the past fortnight, I could see how prescient that remark was. How unfeeling the analysts have been in apportioning blame without a trace of emotional empathy with the victims of mindless violence routinely brought to our drawing rooms by the media!
Artificiality and make-believe come naturally to our generation because there is so much of this in our daily lives. We live in a desensitized and technological world in which deeper feelings have given way to matter-of-fact handling of even basically human issues as motherhood, death, children, marriage, and so on. At best, we approach these areas of fundamental emotions as, to quote T.S. Eliot:
…a raid on the inarticulate with
Shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of
imprecision of feeling.
Looking back in time, I now understand why we post-Independence Indians related more to Jawaharlal Nehru than to Mahatma Gandhi. The Mahatma represented and emphasized higher, eternal concepts like truth, justice, dharma and correctness in public life. He was the mind and soul of India. Nehru, on the other hand, was the bumbling idealist with human frailties. He became the heart. We worshipped, revered and apotheosized Gandhi and assassinated him as a human. We loved Nehru and always allowed him to forgive us for his faults. Neither Sardar Patel and C.
Rajagopalachari nor Maulana Azad approximated Nehru in the expression of feelings and arousing of emotions, though all of them, in retrospect, had greater political wisdom and administrative ability than the Mahatma's chosen heir.
Thinking of the Mahatma and Pandit Nehru calls to my mind the avatars of Rama and Krishna and why Krishna, the butter-stealer, prankster, trickster, much married and philandering, is a more loved incarnation than the idealist, socially and politically correct Maryada Purushottam, Rama. In the evolutionary progression of avatars, Rama should have been the later one—the perfect human being and ultimate image of God in mortal frame.
But Krishna was a logical next step, the fascinating variety of humanness, the obverse side of everything and justification of righteous ends by the application of dubious means. Rama evoked respect, admiration, adoration, but Krishna to us symbolized joy, love, kinship and the infinity of emotions. Our love for Rama, like our love for Gandhi, is sublime and reverential—it emphasized the distance between him and us. Our love for Krishna, like our love for Nehru, was human, emphasizing nearness and mixing of identities.
It is not that Rama was away from his people. He was apart, someone who could leave his kingdom and people to uphold a father's vow (pran jaye par vachan na jaye as the perennial motto of Raghukul stated) and subject his wife to a fiery trial of chastity on flimsy evidence. His people expected that of him.
One of the most touching passages in a Sanskrit version of the Ramayana is where the people of Ayodhya bid a tearful farewell to Rama. They tell him: "We will not remain silent because that would mean we accept your leaving us; we will not ask you to return because that would mean our assuming an authority we do not have; we will not advise you what to do because that would be presumptuous; whatever you do, please bear in mind that the love of the people of Ayodhya is with you."
As the people of Ayodhya were to Rama, so were the people of free India to Mahatma Gandhi. At the height of the Champaran agitation when the British regime got jittery about its continuance, the Mahatma invoked his principle of nonviolence to stop the nationwide agitation. The whole of India obeyed him without asking why; needless to add, almost the whole of India disagreed with the decision of the Mahatma.
Two of my student days' idols are philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau and poet William Wordsworth. The former, while laying the intellectual foundations of the French Revolution and the basis for the violent autocracy after the Revolution, left a more profound legacy—the emphasis on human sensibility ushering in the later age of romanticism. After Rousseau, it became acceptable for grown-ups to cry in public.
Display of sentiments was no longer confined to the four walls of the family. The 'Declaration of the Rights of Man', which the French Revolution brought to the fore, was shipped across to the new world of the Americas. Europe itself was moved by an unstated 'Declaration of the Rights of Feeling'. Wordsworth in the last years of the 18th century symbolized that movement.
From Godhra and Gujarat to the Ayodhya of the Ides of March, my mind wandered all over our own past with its unique blend of wisdom, faith, duty and tolerance. The universality of our socio-religious traditions was the main reason why despite suffering a seemingly endless war with itself since Independence, the nation could effortlessly lapse into sanity from frequent bouts of violent insanity.
Not being able to make sense of the current madness, but being sure that it too will pass, I relived my adolescent years with Wordsworth and his 'poetry of feeling'. My reference to motherhood, children and death earlier in this essay owed directly to that.
Few humans can fail to be moved by a lyrical ballad We are Seven which explains, "the perplexity and obscurity which in childhood attend our notion of death, or rather, our utter inability to admit the notion". In that brief poem, an adult confronts a little girl, one of a family of seven children, two of who have died. Says he:
If two are in the churchyard laid,
Then ye are only five
But the child who sits and sings to her siblings in the grave there is no acknowledgement of death. She says: "Nay, we are seven!"
All great poetry is "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings". Those visual and verbal images in the media of hurt and homeless innocent people and bemused children, should force us all to think of mothers, children, death and the shedding of licensed tears in public. Beneath all the ruthlessness, normlessness and lawlessness that the media dish out as our daily information diet, I think that people have started looking for sincerity of emotions in day-to-day relations. People are looking for solutions to their problems from machines and institutions not realizing that they have no emotions or feelings. The breakdown of institutions and the rusting of machines is what has happened to humans in our times. Godhra, Gujarat and Ayodhya are not aberrations. They are manifest symptoms.
Mahatma, thou shouldst be living at this hour. India has need of thee. To rekindle humanity's hope of a return to living on emotions and feelings. Come to think of it, this column is itself a testament to that abiding faith.
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