By Jamuna Rangachari
Fired with a love for the divine and with a focus on the larger whole, the hallmark of the Indian genius is simplicity, humility, selflessness and inspiration
You Indians are absolute geniuses,” exclaimed Switzerland-born Sharon (name changed). As she was working with a group of programmers here in connection with a software project then, I assumed it was the Indian software prowess she was referring to. I soon learnt that I was way off the mark. Sharon, with her keen observation, was absolutely amazed at the roadside shopkeeper who had neatly stocked CDs, books, greeting cards and various gadgets, in a minimum amount of space and produced anything she asked for in a jiffy; at the driver who took her through complicated routes with poise; at the waiter in the hotel who balanced a phenomenal number of drinks and snacks in a tray and remembered who had ordered what without noting down anything; and most of all, the (now famous) dabbawallas of Mumbai who delivered thousands of tiffins in clockwork precision without a single written instruction. Furthermore, she was impressed with the sheer happiness writ on their faces that had no signs of stress or anxiety.
While her use of the word ‘genius’ is perhaps not really the conventional use of the word, it certainly brings out some unique Indian traits, foremost among which is the capacity to integrate one’s work and one’s life and the ability to flow willingly with the tide of life.
Who is a Genius?
In the true Indian tradition, intellectual or artistic ability, no matter how immense, has never been considered adequate in itself. It is the motive behind the pursuit of one’s work and the manner in which it is undertaken that defines an Indian genius. “Genius” has no straight equivalent in the Indian language. “Vidyan” is a scholar, “pandit” or “ustad”, an accomplished artist or academician, but both of these do not capture the ‘superlative’ quality associated with a genius in quite the same way. Mahatma (great soul) perhaps comes closest. As one can see, the word itself clearly indicates that what India values most is the quality of the soul.
Pandurang Shastri Athavale
In 1954, Pandurang Shastri Athavale, a Vedic scholar, gave a lecture on the concepts of Vedic ideals and the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita at the Second World Religions Conference, held in Japan. Though the speech was appreciated, many people were sceptical, wanting evidence of such thoughts being practiced. With this came his resolve to show the world a model community peacefully practicing and spreading Vedic thoughts and the message of the Gita. Thus was born the Swadhyaya movement that has galvanised more than 80,000 villages in Maharashtra and Gujarat.
Swadhyaya literally means the study, knowledge or discovery of the Self or atman. With the firm belief that individual transformation inevitably leads to social change, he used the concept of devansh or God’s share, in his movement, advocating the redistribution of this share of both money and effort among the poor and needy. This manifested as Yogeshvar Krishi (divine farming) in farming communities, a scheme in which each family contributed to the purchase of land, and subsequently devoted one day a month for its cultivation. Seen as God’s plot, the income thus generated was consecrated in the local temple (called Amritalayam) and later disbursed to those in need as prasad or divine blessings. A larger version of the Yogeshwar Krishi was the Vriksh Mandir, where inhabitants of 20 adjoining villages devoted one day a month to cultivating a fruit orchard. The idea was not just to provide for those in need, but also to forge friendly ties among the villages, thereby creating larger circles of universal brotherhood. In fishing communities, this took the form of Matsya Gandha (floating temple) instead of land.
The effect was stunning: fishermen in Gujarat and Maharashtra acquired 71 boats and a 600-tonne cargo ship; 5,000 community farms and 250 orchards – whose income was again used for the villages – were formed; and four hospitals, where 1,000 doctors converged to take turns in treating patients, began functioning.
Athavale passed away in 2003, a worthy recipient of both the Magsaysay award and the Templeton prize, both of which he received during his lifetime.
At the height of the Telangana revolt in 1951, in Andhra Pradesh, when many villages lived in an atmosphere of deep fear, occupied by government troops during the day and by communists at night, Vinoba Bhave, seen by many as the true spiritual heir of Mahatma Gandhi’s ideals, stepped in. Refusing police escort, he and a small group set off on foot.
Setting himself up in the courtyard of a Muslim prayer compound in Pochampalli, a communist stronghold, he soon started receiving visitors from all the factions in the village. Among the visitors was a group of 40 families of landless Harijans. The Harijans told Vinoba they had no choice but to support the communists, because only the communists would give them land. They asked if Vinoba would ask the government instead to give them land. Though Vinoba replied, “What use is government help until we can help ourselves?”, he himself was not satisfied by the answer and held a prayer meeting that afternoon. Presenting the case without really expecting a solution, he asked, “Brothers, is there anyone among you who can help these Harijan friends?” A prominent farmer of the village stood up. “Sir, I am ready to give one hundred acres.”
Vinoba himself could not believe that in the midst of a civil war over land monopoly, a farmer was willing to part with 100 acres out of simple generosity. He was further astounded when the Harijans declared that they needed only 80 acres and wouldn’t accept more. In this, Vinoba saw a solution to the problem and thus began the Bhoodan movement. Over the next seven weeks, Vinoba asked for donations of land for the landless in 200 villages of Telengana.
The Telengana march became the launching point for a nationwide campaign that Vinoba hoped would eliminate the greatest single cause of India’s poverty: land monopoly. He hoped as well that it might be the lever needed to start a “nonviolent revolution” – a complete transformation of Indian society by peaceful means.
Soon Vinoba and his colleagues were collecting 1,000 acres a day, then 2,000, then 3,000. Several hundred small teams of Sarvodaya workers and volunteers began trekking from village to village, all over India, collecting land in Vinoba’s name. Vinoba himself – despite advanced age and poor health – marched continually, touring one state after another.
The total land collected eventually reached over four million acres. There certainly were pitfalls; much of this land turned out to be useless, and in many cases landowners reneged on their pledges. Still, the Gandhians were able to distribute over one million acres to India’s landless poor – far more than had been managed by the land reform programmes of the government.
When Anna Hazare returned to his village Ralegan Siddhi, in 1975, it was much worse than what he had left it as. A drought in 1972 had crippled its already grim conditions. Fist fights and vandalism throve around the liquor vendors and the bazaar. Wood work from the now crumbling temple had been ripped out to stoke the stills. Some relief work was being carried out by the Tata group and the Catholic Relief Society but it was hardly adequate.
Prompted by his intuition and powered by the settlement funds from the army, he renovated the village temple and started living in two rooms there. Voluntary labour, or ‘shramdaan’, guided by his persuasion, showed the way out of this mess.
Thus began small watershed works. As soon as about 60 small bunds, check dams, trenches and percolation ponds had been built, there was a dramatic change: water table rose throughout the village. Anna had changed a despairing mind set and set the pace for galloping changes.
In 1992, the village built itself a school with its own funds and labour, where children from not just Ralegan, but from all over Maharashtra, attend.
“As long as there is ‘my’ and ‘mine’, there is sadness,” says Anna. “When you define your family in narrow terms, the contrasts within it and without will be stark. So there will be sadness. But as soon as you define ‘family’ in inclusive, wide terms all sadness disappears.”
So it is with Baba Amte, one of India’s most revered social and moral leaders, who has devoted his life to the care and rehabilitation of leprosy patients after turning his back on a lucrative legal practice.
Allowing even his body to be used for experiments to grow leprosy germs, the noble soul has devoted his entire life to the care and rehabilitation of leprosy patients, the physically disabled, tribals and homeless people. With indefatigable energy and dedication, Baba continues to empower the 2,500 strong community at his development project, Anandvan, near Nagpur.
“I sought my soul, my soul I could not see, I sought my God, my God eluded me, I sought my brother, and I found all the three,” is a favorite quote of Baba Amte, displayed in the ashram. The great soul continues to live by its principles, embracing more and more people as his brothers.
What is clear in all of the above is that the change has been enabled, not imposed or given. For only with inner transformation can there be sustainable societal change. This is, of course, the language of spirituality too, a language India truly understands and responds to.
“Ecology is permanent economy,” said Sunderlal Bahuguna, the founder of the Chipko movement. Hugging trees as a deterrent to deforestation was a unique, nonviolent way of mobilizing people in this movement that spread through the country in the 1970s.
The leaders and activists were primarily village women, acting to save their means of subsistence and their communities played an active role. Poets and philosophers joined in with the slogan: ‘What do the forests bear? Soil, water and pure air’, stressing the unity of life and the respect due to Mother Nature, who nurtures us with her bounty.
Sant Balbir Singh Sinchewal
Piety and passion for environment conservation drove Sant Balbir Singh Sinchewal to bring a “dead river to life” through kar seva (voluntary service). He was overwrought by the terribly polluted condition of the “Kali Bein”, a 60-km-long river, which springs from Dhanoa village in Hoshiarpur district of Punjab. Guru Nanak is believed to have taken a holy dip in it and attained enlightenment five centuries ago. Determined to act, he jumped into the muddy waters overshadowed by overgrown weeds and began removing the hyacinth. The act drew hundreds of his followers to the river, which had turned into a virtual sewer with several drains pouring into it from adjoining townships as well as effluents from the Railway Coach factory in Kapurthala.
His efforts did not stop there. Extolling others to join him in his efforts to revive the river, he continued the onerous task of cleansing it. The effort took six years but was definitely a great success, for the river is no longer dead. It has been embanked and openings allowing the entry of polluted water have been plugged. Flowerbeds have been laid on banks.
This yeoman service, often quoted by President Abdul Kalam in his speeches on environmental issues, is an example for all of us.
On March 15, 1959, Jashwantiben Popat got together with six other bens from the Lohana community of Gujarat to make papads and to become self-sufficient. This effort, based on the concepts of business, profit and devotion, slowly diversified and the enterprise became a household name.
Every branch is headed by a sanchalika (branch head) who is chosen from among the sister-members by consensus. Similarly, allotment of different works like dough-making, distribution of dough, weighing and collection of papad and packaging are decided by the sister-members by consensus. The wage pattern is such that the same amount of work fetches almost the same wages and it is the collective responsibility of the sister-members to manage and market their products.
Any woman can enrol if she agrees to follow the core values of the organization. Lijjat papad today is a symbol of women’s economic empowerment and good management.
Jashwantiben Popat has won many accolades for her leadership, including The Economic Times Businesswoman of the Year award in 2002. A classic example of business acumen par excellence combined with the Gandhian principle of Sarvodaya, she continues to live in her middle class apartment in Mumbai. Her only desire is that the movement grows more and more without compromising any of its principles.
When Dr Mohammed Yunus returned home to Bangladesh after his PhD in Economics from the United States, he found the situation in newly independent Bangladesh worsening day by day. He felt the inadequacies of elegant theories of economics in tackling real problems and decided to make the poor his teachers. He began to study them and question them on their lives. One day, interviewing a woman who made bamboo stools, he learnt that, because she had no capital of her own, she had to give up more than 93% of her proceeds to the middleman. Dr. Yunus identified the problem as “lack of credit to the poor”. Thus the idea of micro-credit, an idea that is both simple and revolutionary, was born.
The Grameen Bank which Dr. Yunus has built over the last 22 years, is today the largest rural bank in Bangladesh. It has over two million borrowers and works in 35,000 villages in a country of 68,000 villages. Ninety four per cent of its borrowers are women. The bank is based on simple, sensible rules, meticulous organization, imagination and peer pressure among borrowers. The break that Grameen Bank offers is a collateral-free loan, sometimes of extremely small amounts. Much to the surprise of many sceptics, ninety eight per cent of its loans are honoured. Thus his belief that, given the opportunity, the poor can lift themselves out of the mire of poverty, has been proven beyond doubt.
Dr. Yunus lives modestly in a two-bedroom apartment in Dhaka and is the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, in recognition of the fact that peace is not passivity but action to eradicate potential causes of violence, of which poverty is the prime one.
Mahatma Gandhi would have smiled, at this epitome of a man who is basing his actions on the talisman of development he espoused, to see if the action would benefit the poorest of the poor and on seeing the Indian ethos alive in the entire subcontinent.
A sculptor who has studied only up to the fourth grade manufactures artificial limbs that are in demand all over the world due to its wonderful design and low cost. Watching patients at the Sawai Man Singh hospital where he taught handicrafts to lepers, Chandra became convinced that he could fashion a more lifelike – and useful – artificial limb. He took his proposals to Dr Sethi, a fellow of Britain’s Royal College of Surgeons, and orthopedic surgeon at the Sawai Man Singh Hospital in Jaipur, who explained to the barely literate craftsman about pressure points and the intricate movement of bones within the foot. After numerous experiments, the limb that takes only 45 minutes to build and fit onto the patient and is sturdy enough to last for more than five years, was constructed.
Since then, countless land-mine victims in many countries have been fitted with the Jaipur foot. Chandra works with a Jaipur-based charity, the Bhagwan Mahaveer Viklang Sahayata Samiti, which provides free artificial legs for the poor not only in India but in other countries too. Unconcerned with commercial success and accolades, he is happy to be able to help people get back into a normal life and continues his ongoing effort to improve the Jaipur foot and create new artificial limbs.
Dr Shripad Dabholkar
An original Indian genius driven by a mission to improve the lives of the common folk, Maharashtra-based experimenter, Dr Shripad Dabholkar, has emerged with a string of remarkably simple and effective solutions to fundamental Indian problems. His first experiment was a model of education that combined self-study with customized knowledge sharing that helped even school dropouts get through higher education.
Though this was a great success, he realized that institutionalised knowledge alone was not enough for transformation. He began experiments in agriculture, horticulture, poultry, sericulture, in rearing goats, in sum all that an average farmer deals with. Grape production, which many thought unsuitable for the drought-prone areas of Maharashtra, is now a 500-crore industry benefiting lakhs of small farmers. In the case of every crop, his experiments and innovations have been attuned to the small and marginal farmer, and now those who have adopted his methods have clearly established that a family of five with just a quarter of an acre can grow enough to acquire a living standard of a middle class family.
In the art World
“Won’t you feel bad when the kolam (rangoli) is swept off?,” I asked my grand-aunt, a matriarch who spent hours crafting brilliant kolams based on the epics on all important family occasions. “Not at all,” she said, with a smile. “I fully realize that I cannot determine its life and neither can I determine how many people will appreciate its beauty. Still, I always put my heart and soul into the piece, which is really an expression of my perception of the divine.”
This philosophy is essentially at the core of all Indian art.
Spirituality has almost always been the foundation of all artistic endeavors in India. The sculptures, paintings and wonderful works of art that adorn the ancient monuments are all essentially an ode to the Divine, with the artist losing himself in his art. A dancer merging with the dance, a musician merging with the music, a sculptor merging with his sculpture, a painter with his painting, is the essential quality of Indian art. Hardly any of the physical creations has a name associated with it, for the Indian artist does not think it necessary that his name should be remembered in posterity but that the image or manifestation of the divine that he has worked on should take people to a different realm of consciousness.
A writer, playwright, songwriter, poet, philosopher and educator, Rabindranath Tagore, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913, obtained his protean powers from his complete and total immersion in the worship and evocation of the spirit behind all creation. Indeed, most of the literature indigenous to India resounds with a similar concern with and devotion to the Divine.
The motive for creation clearly being the evocation of the Divine, we in India have typically been unconcerned with the establishment of copyright or, for that matter, patents. Creativity being a manifestation of divinity, the individual shrank from claiming ownership of it and freely released it for the use of the world. It is indeed a tragedy today that we have become patent-conscious and even spiritual masters and organizations are not above imprinting TM over their techniques and processes.
MS Subbulakshmi, who enthralled India with her music for many years, was a deeply spiritual person to whom music was clearly a vehicle to divinity. Most of the proceeds of her concerts were given to charity, while she lived a simple life, living, breathing and imbibing music.
Ustad Bismillah Khan
Ustad Bismillah Khan, who is perhaps solely responsible for making the shehnai a famous classical instrument, was a pious Shia Muslim and also, like many Indian musicians regardless of creed, a devotee of Mother Saraswati. He retained an old world Benares charm in his lifestyle and lived among a family of 66 members. Refusing the Rockefeller award and repeated invitations to settle in the US, he said, “Where will I get my Ganga and Vishwanath in America?”
But it is in the realm of spirituality that the unique genius of the Indian people flowers out with greatest intensity. The mystic is India’s USP and has been so for thousands of years. Yogis and seers populate every corner of this great country, whose very civilization is focused on the goal of self-realization. Where other countries prioritized conquests, power, fame and glory, this country quietly and purposefully pursued the path of self-conquest.
Little wonder then that it is the land of the Vedas, bastions of realized knowledge whose profound wisdom can be equaled but never excelled, because it carries the spiritual quest to its logical conclusion by proclaiming: all is one and all is divine because the Creator and creation are one.
This ultimate truth has been extolled by great sages from time to time – living claimants of India’s unique heritage.
These include the Sage of Arunachala, Ramana Maharshi, who helped numerous people on their spiritual journey, by helping them communicate with their own selves. His highest teaching of ‘self-enquiry’ was imparted in the infinite silence of his presence by numerous devotees from all over the world.
Convinced about the eternal nature of the soul, the Maharshi told his grieving devotees on his deathbed, “You say I am going away, but where can I go? I am always here. You give too much importance to the body.”
Ramakrishna Paramahansa, considered by many to be “beyond genius”, was a simple priest, who could neither read nor write, but had an intuitive grasp of complex philosophical concepts. Describing the brahmanda, the visible universe and many other universes, as mere bubbles emerging out of Brahman, the supreme ocean of intelligence, he spent his entire life in not just the quest of the Divine, but the experience of it through all the major religions, proving conclusively the essential oneness of all paths. When a Sufi taught him about Islam, Sri Ramakrishna lived the life of a devout Muslim and soon had the vision of Prophet Mohammed. Not long afterwards, he was attracted to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Soon, he had the vision of Jesus also, and another of Mother Mary and the holy child and of Lord Buddha, too.
Sree Narayana Guru
“Oru jati, oru matham, oru daivam manushyanu (one caste, one religion, one God for humanity)”, preached Sree Narayana Guru, the great seer and Advaita scholar of Kerala, who worked tirelessly to eradicate superstition and caste differences in the state in the early part of the 20th century. Instead of criticizing Brahmins and upper caste Hindus for the conditions of the lower castes, Narayana Guru stressed on the uplift of a community through its own efforts by the establishment of schools and temples. Brushing aside conventions based upon the rigid caste system, he transformed the social order, advocating the essence of the Advaita philosophy of Sankara that clearly emphasizes the eternal spirit being present in all living beings.
In Tune with the Feminine
Bharati Amte, Baba Amte’s daughter-in-law who runs a hospital at Anandwan, has said in an interview, “He taught me that the first thing I should ask a patient is, ‘Have you eaten?’ Many people who came to Anandwan have to walk for miles. They are tired, hungry and poor. They don’t teach this humanity at medical school.”
Mahatma Gandhi too was extremely concerned about the comforts of the inmates of his ashram and guests, no matter which complex issues he was grappling with. A telling incident about his psyche is the episode where an emissary went to Kolkatta with an invitation from Nehru and Patel for India’s Independence ceremony. The first question Gandhi asked him was. “Have you eaten?” When the emissary said he had not, Gandhi served him food and only then opened the letter. Gandhi was firm in refusing the invitation, as he could not bear to celebrate when Bengal was still burning with communal riots. When the emissary started for his return journey in the morning, Gandhi picked up a dry leaf that fell from the tree and gave to him, saying this was the only gift he could give Nehru and Patel as his gift on Independence. Hearing this, tears from the eyes of the emissary dropped on the leaf. With his characteristic sense of humor, Gandhi lightened the mood, saying “How great is God. He did not want Gandhi to send that dry leaf. He made it wet. It is glistening with laughter now.”
Both the caring and self-deprecation seen in the above are essentially feminine traits that are an essential part of the Indian ethos.
The intuitive, feeling side of the Indian mind is ingrained in the creative arts and mysticism, too. The bhakti compositions of Jaidev in Bengal, Tukaram and Eknath in Maharashtra, Meera and Surdas in the North, the Alwars and Nayanars in the South and those of the Sufi saints and musicians, to name a few, are all examples of a feminine expression of love for the divine.
In the recent past, Shri Ramakrishna developed his strong understanding of philosophy not with complex logic but with an intuitive understanding.
Indeed, India has always recognised that knowledge that resides only in the masculine aspect of our being, which comprises of intellect and logic, is useless unless it percolates into the feminine aspect that comprises of our intuition and emotions.
Indian Genius, Reexamined
The geniuses mentioned here are by no means complete or exhaustive.
In fact, as seen in the beginning of the article, others see many acts we often take for granted in India, quite rightly, as an act of sheer genius. For the capacity to integrate one’s work into one’s life seamlessly with joy is a quintessentially Indian trait. The Indian way replaces the complexity and bigness of modern systems with simplicity and smallness. Even in the tiniest hovel, a family will adjust itself and its needs with dignity and grace. Instead of using different robes for different roles, the Indian will use a single piece of cloth as his turban, his towel, his blanket and whatever else may be the need of the hour. Instead of elaborate crockery and cutlery, the Indian uses the banana leaf to dine on (no longer, alas), which, folded and discarded, provides a tasty morsel to a waiting cow.
In the artistic arena, the act of artistic expression in India is, in a sense, a statement of the universal, and in a way, is an act of worship in the deepest sense, as it carries with it the elevation and joy of a profound spiritual experience.
In the social area, the work undertaken without ego and with the spirit of working with and not merely for a section of society or even the entire world, becomes a transformation that sustains itself by sheer strength of conviction. At the level of enterprise and innovation too, it is a unique Indian trait to move towards a larger purpose.
In religion, only India has the subtlety to craft a progressive path that begins at the simple level of rites and rituals for the common man and progresses to yoga for the man of discipline, bhakti for the artist, karma for the man of action and jnana for the intellectual. The path starts from worshipping God in an object, progresses to experiencing God as a protector, a friend and a lover, and finally ends in seeing God in oneself and all of creation. All Indian masters recognize the need to accept the seeker’s current belief system and take that itself to a greater level of understanding and depth. As Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the second president of India and a great Indian genius himself, said, “The characteristic genius of the Indian mind is not to shake the beliefs of the common man, but to lead them by stages to the understanding of the deeper philosophical meaning behind their beliefs.”
The Indian genius has always been existing as a strong foundation, even under the deluge of the rat race, materialism and ostentatious living.
It is only a matter of time before it reemerges as the pillar of India, recreating our systems and ways of life, bringing sanity, a holistic perspective, concern for the larger good and a refulgent creativity that will light up not just India but the whole world.
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