Category Archives: Vivekananda

On ends and means, rights and duties

A quite generic model of a human is one who has certain ends that he wants to pursue (gaadi-bungalow, moksha, etc.,), and is looking for means to achieve these ends. Given this, your preferred ends are finally governed by your ethical, moral and metaphysical outlook, and the normal means are politics, economics and religion. For example, if national service is what interests you, you might want to look at politics (replace national with self, and still the same means holds. Politics is such an adaptive thing!). If you wish a comfortable life, you look to the market to sell your goods/services/labor to make money. A normal person will have many such ends, and we end up doing politics, economics and religion. Now, if we are to accept the axiom that each person must be free to pursue any end that she so wishes, the as societal beings, we must come up with a way to ensure that this axiom holds, atleast theoretically.

And thus we come to the concept of a State. Whether it materialized due a ‘social contract’ or as a necessity in a Hobbsean society, the main function of a State is to ensure the above axiom holds. Thus, the State has powers of coercion over its citizens, which is willingly given to it by the citizens themselves (who are given a fancy name: ‘polity’) to ensure that each can lead a fulfilling life. Why this is necessary has been written about before.

There cannot be a common set of ends for all, since each person is unique (not everyone wants the same brand/color of motor vehicles!). There are, in any sufficiently organized society, limited number of means, and they are normally classified as those that do not harm others, and those that do. Since we want each person to acheive whatever he wants to, provided he does not hurt anyone, each person is assumed to have a set of ‘rights’. There are some negative rights (‘right against something’, ‘something’ can be being cheated, murdered, discriminated, etc.,) and positive rights (‘right to something’, ‘something’ can be a good education, employment, etc.,). There have been arguments as to whether the State much only ensure negative or positive or both kind of rights, but that is a different story altogether. Get this if you want to dive into this stuff.

The Indian State is no different, and certain rights are guaranteed by the Constitution. Violation of these can be referred directly to the Supreme Court, without going through any lower courts. We also have certain duties, but these are not enforcable and citizens are ‘morally obligated’ to perform them. This is not the case with other countries, with Switzerland having compulsory military service for all male citizens.

In all political activity seen nowadays, the main cry is to demand for certain rights, whereas duties are never mentioned. Bangalore demands a positive right to water, but Bangaloreans have absolutely no interest even in a basic duty such as voting. The reason for this is a conception of humans as ‘possessive individualists‘, which simply says that people have to make money from their (god-given, or acquired?) skills, and owe nothing to society. Whether it be Dalit, Brahmin, tribal or industrialist, the political scene is full with clamor for rights, new rights, and redressal for their violation. Everybody wants good food at the mess, but nobody (including myself!) wants anything to do with how it runs. It should simply run itself, somehow.

Another approach is to say our duty is to pay tax and obey laws, the rest is the duty of the State. This has worked well in the Scandinavian countries, but in a country as vast and heterogenous as India, this amounts almost to escapism – no State of reasonable size can ever perform the duties of a billion people. The gradual withdrawal from society to ‘attain realization’ amounts to saying moksha can be pursued without the fulfillment of dharma. It is in this sense that modern economics and liberalism have been a liberating force: they have given theoretical justification for people to be liberated from the ‘shackles’ of dharma. Religions were the traditional body of authority which dictated the duties of an individual, but no longer wield the same influence as before.

Asceticism or the theory of karma cannot justify the non-performance of dharma. Renunciation, as taught by Buddha, Mahavira or Sankara, which involves a complete removal of oneself from society to attain moksha has found rebuttals by the actions of reformers like Basavanna, Rammohun Roy, Gokhale, Vivekananda and Gandhi. Even Buddhism requires of enlightened individuals to alleviate suffering by removal of ignorance, which is what Buddhism considers the root of suffering. While this purely mental view of human suffering may not be correct, but it is aleast something. The new age philosophers/activists, especially Gandhi, believed that only through active participation in civic duty can one harmonise artha, kama, dharma and moksha. Gandhi himself, though a continuous seeker of moksha (which he called Truth as well), used the instrument of politics to achieve this end. Of course, his idea of politics which was to uplift the underprivileged, unlike present day netas.

And thus from Gandhi comes the most clarifying present day articulation of what one’s dharma should be in this day and age:

I will give you a talisman. ‘Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test: Recall the face of the poorest and most helpless person whom you have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he be able to gain anything by it? Will it restore him the control over his life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj for the hungry and starving millions?’ Then you will find your doubts and self melting away.

The difficulty of being an ‘Indian’ in India.

As a working definition of an ‘Indian’, “A person rooted in tradition, but eager to learn and absorb from other cultures” will do as well as any other. The number of people in this category is quite small, but surveying the present political and economic landscape one can see that this species is being driven toward extinction like many other non-human ones in India.

To begin, one must differentiate this definition from the more schizophrenic prescription that Vivekananda had for Indians to develop, that Indians learn from the West about the material world and they learn from India about the spiritual world. Considering the recurrent crises in economies modelled after the Western ones and the Climate issue that is a direct consequence of such an arrangement, to claim that economics is something that we should learn from the West can defnitely be challenged. Anyone travelling across India will tell you that most Indians are as spiritual as the investment banker on Wall Street. Therefore, whatever else one accepts from Vivekananda, this particular prescription must not be accepted. Rather, a more subtle approach which also recognizes and appreciates local economic arrangements and great thinkers from the West is in order.

The reason I call Vivekananda’s prescription schizophrenic follows from my previous post – material arrangements cannot be divorced from non-material ones. For example, a culture that does not allow cruelty to animals cannot advance anatomical knowledge through dissection of live animals – some other means will have to be found. A culture that treats some people as untouchable cannot provide equal opportunity to all. Thus, whole hearted appreciation of western material arrangements can lead one quite far away from one’s cultural roots, leading to what has been called as ‘anxiety nationalism‘, made famous by bands of thugs known as Shiv Sena or Rama Sene. It can also lead to complete westernization, but these are too busy shopping in malls to be politically active, so they are not very relevant to this discussion.

The intellectual scene here seems to be dominated by what one can call ‘Instant Nirvana’ intellectuals – those that read a couple of (propagandist?) books or blogs and claim to have understood the realities of India today, forming what is known as an epistemic community – their world view, shaped by few leaders of the community, is infallible and any opposition to it can only be due to delusion of the opponent. A good example is of people who seem to suffer from the ‘persecution complex’ – Babur tried to destroy Indian culture, therefore all Muslims are bad, and therefore we need to acquire nuclear weapons. One cannot really follow the logic, but similar arguments will be used against Chinese, Christians, anyone who does not worship at a temple anywhere in the world. Another example is of those who see Indian history as a systematic oppression of everyone by the Brahmins – We know from Marx and other great people that all history is about someone oppressing someone else, bourgeois culture is symbolic of this oppression, India is ‘of the Brahmins, for the Brahmins’.

Like most ideology, both these examples are both true and false – unless one understands that, there is no dialogue, only rhetoric and finger pointing. Here lies the problem for someone who wants to see the whole elephant rather than only some of its parts – say one is true, you are branded a Communalist. Say the same for the other, you are branded a Marxist. There are a couple of reasons that I feel have led to such a sad state of affairs.

The first is the domination of Indian political language by non-Indian terms – Anyone or thing is either Left or Right, Communalist or Marxist, Middle, upper or lower class, neoliberal or Maoist, Libertarian or Statist. One can always appeal to Samuel Huntington, Koenraad Elst, David Frawley or if one has different tastes, Marx, Foucault or Bakunin are always present. All one needs to do is look at the newspapers – the immense epistemic void in our political vocabulary will be immediately evident. There is even a Dalit group called the ‘Dalit Panthers of India’, reminiscent of the Black Panthers of the USA. This, of course, is not to deride people who have made contributions to the understanding of India from their own perspective, but just that understanding India from an Indian’s perspective seem to be contributing very little to the public sphere (another western term, sigh!!).

Not that we have not done anything in understanding ourselves – M. N. Srinivas, Muhammad Yunus, Ela Bhatt, Krishna Kumar are names that immediately come to mind. The problem may just be that of language – almost all of the Indian intellectual sphere is dominated by English speakers who cannot (will not?) read intellectuals who write in the vernacular. As Ramachandra Guha laments in a recent article, the multilingual intellectual is a rare species in India. Unless the language and epistemic barriers are broken, one sees little hope for furthering mutual understanding and respect. Are there political and economic frameworks that have been generated within India, which can by used to analyse a country that always frustrates external analysis ? I don’t know, but neither does anyone else I guess.

The second is the pseudo war-like situation that we find ourselves in nowadays – Opposing intellectual groups are fighting to imprint upon the populace their imagination of India. Thus, if you are not for us, you are against us. There are giants like M. K. Gandhi who are claimed by most groups for their own due to the fact that none really understand him well, but lesser mortals are forced to take sides, else a side will be chosen for them. War always has a homogenizing influence on society – unity, after all, is strength. Thus the preponderance of rhetoric from all groups, rather than meaningful dialogue. We cannot even have sane dialogues within the country, and we want to further dialogue with Pakistan!! Hypocrisy is nowhere are colorful as in India. Easiest way to see this is to see programmes like the ‘Big Fight’, which is the standard intellectual fodder (gulp!) for most Indians. The point of people to get onto such programmes is to abuse and condescend rather than understand.

These are some issues that one can immediately see, without too much analysis or reflection. Maybe there are more. But the fundamental constraint stays – unless you understand yourself from within, and understand yourself from another’s perspective, without getting carried away by either in any field – economics, politics, science etc. etc., there is really no hope for a truly ‘Indian’ identity.

Review: Debates in Indian Philosophy

yes, yes, I had promised not to do much philosophy in these pages, but this book deserves an exception. With an agenda as good as the exposition itself, it is worth recollecting.

I will not try to explicate  the arguments (which require atleast a couple of readings to understand properly), instead will try and give an overview so that anyone interested can pick it up themselves. The book concerns itself with the question of the lack of debates in contemporary Indian philosophy, which were a regular feature in classical times (Upanishads are a good exmaple), and also of Western philosophy at all times.

The author tries to understand the conflation of philosophers who differed in important aspects like Vivekananda and Gandhi as something that was required in the colonial scenario, since a show of unity was important to the nationalist agenda. He tries to set the record straight by bringing out the differences in their thought which he hopes will provide fresh material for debates to continue.

He also tries to understand the socio-cultural milieu in which they existed, wherein classical Indian philosophy was not the only factor to consider, but Western ideas needed to be imbibed and used to make their voices heard and understood by their colonial masters. He argues that contemporary Indian philosophy does not have a direct continuity with either classical Indian but has lost a major structural feature which is the dialogic tradition.

This being said, he embarks upon a journey to read from these philosophers and show differences which were never expressed directly even though they were from the same time. He chooses three hot spots : Vivekananda and Gandhi, Savarkar and Gandhi, and Sri Aurobindo and Krishnachandra Bhattacharya.

In the first, he shows how Vivekananda supported a ‘barter’ between the East and the West, gaining material progress from the West in exchange for our spiritual knowledge, and how Gandhi rejected Modernity and tried to define progress in a manner different from the Enlightenment’s notion of increasing rationality and material affluence. He argues that Modernity is a completed task in the West, whereas in India the modern and the pre-modern coexist, often on the same street. He argues that Modernity is anthithetical to pluralism due to its focus solely on the individual and not on the community and rejection of differences between people of different communities (This is something I have personally noticed when in conversation with Indian friends in the US). Something like a Brave New World scenario. You can call it the Melting pot scenario as well. The difference in the cosmopolitanism of a New York and a Mumbai or Bangalore make this distinction all the more stark. Communal identities are still strong in Indian megacities unlike in the Western European or US ones. The author tells us that Gandhi’s was a more realistic ideology since it was based in the realities of the Indian social structure.

Addendum: some parts of the argument above was taken from the Savarkar-Gandhi chapter, but can be justified since both deal with the same issue: nation/state building vis-a-vis society building.

I will not go into the other two debates, between Savarkar and Gandhi (one politicizes religion, the other spiritualizes politics) and Aurobindo and KCB (one says science and metaphysics complement each other, the other that science denies metaphysics), but if the one above sounds interesting, then this book is for you.