This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
’ - Attributed To Zsa Zsa Gabor Every now and then — just as individuals do — nations too should take stock of their lives. We need to ask as a country, what is fuelling our run, what is charting our course? What are the big ideas of India that we hold dear? Every generation produces its own, distinctive set of poisoned words or concepts, lovingly bequeathed to it by the earlier generations. One generation’s favourite visions and tools of a good society have a tendency to become the next generation’s nightmares. An inventory unfortunately makes clear that some of the ideas contemporary India takes for granted are either irrelevant or thoroughly dangerous. Our value systems, even in India, are increasingly based on reason. Which is why, perhaps, we constantly feel like we are a country sitting on a tinderbox — riots, terrorism, insurgency, discontent. After running after reason for hundreds of years, it is time we returned to values based on compassion. But for that we will have to get rid of some our favourite ideas. From the enormous lexicon of poison I have picked three: the pursuit of happiness, progress and secularism. The Pursuit Of Happiness The idea of happiness has gradually transformed from a mental state to an objectified, measurable quality of life that can be attained. The global middle class pursues it the way an Olympic athlete, after training under the guidance of experts and going through a strict regimen of exercises and diet, gets a medal. In 2007, one of Britain’s leading schools, Wellington College at Crowthorne, announced it would offer classes on happiness to combat materialism and celebrity obsession. The following year, the magazine New Scientist summarised the results of a 65-country survey to show that the highest proportion of happy persons lived in Nigeria, followed by Mexico, Venezuela, El Salvador and Puerto Rico. Happiness surveys do differ in their findings. According to some surveys, happiness has to do with prosperity, development and healthcare; others say these don’t matter. The second set has produced countries like Vanuatu, a former happiness pageant winner that most have not heard of, and Bangladesh, this year’s world champion in happiness, which many believe could well qualify as one of the world’s unhappiest countries. In comparison, some of the richest nations languish near the bottom of the list. The discovery of happiness as a teachable discipline suggests that in some places happiness is becoming a realm of training and expertise. The surveys reaffirm the ancient ‘self-consoling’, ‘naïve’ belief that you can’t always be happy just by being wealthy, secure or occupied. You have to learn to be happy. In Lin Yutang’s interpretation of Confucius, to seek happiness you should find a good chair to sit on. The Panchatantra suggests finding a friend or two
nor can it be given. both by-products of the ideology of individualism. that happiness cannot happen. The Soviet Union. has now become compulsory. only that the more recent guides to happiness are less magisterial. Happiness of the kind we now associate with individualism has an uncertain status in the nonmodern world. afterlife. which later seeped into the Vedantic worldview. The reaction then is this: if you can’t avoid death and illness. for instance. Alternatively. These societies discover that despite their best efforts. or a guru. the determined pursuit of happiness is a response to a new disease called unhappiness. Both the disease called unhappiness and the determined search for happiness afflict the more developed societies. Do not confuse the new idea of happiness in the modernising West with the Buddhist concept of ananda. you can at least live a happy life by forgetting them or by denying their existence. Today. up to them. from a personal philosopher. the other explanations are the growing confidence in the power of human volition and the developing technology of human self-engineering. wise man or woman. counselling or expert guidance from a psychiatrist. If you say you are not happy in a utopia then you are criticising the utopia and you are a dastardly traitor. The trend continues. such as the Chinese and the Indian. one can hazard that only those who have lost their moorings in conviviality and community life can hope to learn to be happy from professionals. It is now the domain of professionals. and . Happiness. individually. like school uniforms. Nazi Germany did even better — it liquidated such delinquents as State enemies. there were a number of bestsellers by respected scholars such as Bertrand Russell that sought to guide us through this troublesome. as Russell put it. they can’t cheat death. In the post-World War II world. unhealthy state called unhappiness and to help us ‘conquer happiness’. psychoanalyst or professional counsellor or. Where does this pursuit of happiness come from? All societies deny the idea of death.Together they partly explain why the clenched teeth pursuit of happiness has become a major feature of our times. subjective states like happiness and unhappiness. or by their less ambitious versions of agony aunts and weekend advisers in newspapers and tabloids. Perhaps. Any claim of being unhappy becomes a confession of crime. Such traitors have filled the psychiatric clinics and jails in many societies in the 20th century. was never secretive about this tacit component of its State ideology. more so because some major civilisations. One is tempted to guess that only after one’s basic needs have been met can one afford the luxury of worrying about vague. In the post-war era. but in successful capitalist societies — bereft of religion. unhappiness in some parts of the world has been systematically medicalised. locate their utopias in the past. old age and many forms of illness and catastrophes. However. alternatively. To acquire normal happiness one now requires therapy. These changes push many to believe it is. rebirth or any of the philosophies that transcend death — the panic is profound. It has to be earned or acquired. to do something about their own happiness. whether written by such space-age sages like Deepak Chopra and Jack Canfield (the intrepid author of the Chicken Soup series). they are by no means less popular.
In such societies. Such small forms of happiness serve as oases within deserts of unhappiness. organised. Before the 18th century. This is probably what Freud meant in his famous letter to a patient’s mother. more nuanced and yet more down-to-earth. . too. dramatic. Such modest prescriptions are possible only in societies where grander versions of happiness are usually seen as mostly outside the reach of individual effort and volition. conventions demanded battle begin at sunrise and stop at sunset. the ancient Indian folk tales. The idea of perfect happiness is consigned to the domain of the momentary. This argument.the Christian concept of bliss. For instance. exchanged pleasantries and talked of happier days they’d spent together.) Panchatantra. to Freud. on which he spent long hours under the portico. At sunset. Aoki talks about the struggle to acquire a language to discuss happiness. According to philosopher KJ Shah. Appropriately. In such a life. The way to happiness. The unpleasant becomes part of a happy life that oscillates between the pleasant and the unpleasant. manufactured or otherwise. is finding one or two good friends. he was known by his chair at the India International Centre in New Delhi. but by how much quarrelling the relationship can take. they claim. the transient or the mythic. people are brought up to be happy with odd bits of happiness that come their way. the warriors visited each other’s camps. They are also not allowed to overwhelm entire societies by democratic consent. the predominant mode of seeking happiness in all cultures was intertwined with theories of transcendence. cultural anthropologist Tamotsu Aoki pleads that we give up the grand idea and opt for small ideas of happiness. For the last 20 years of his life. This is not oriental wisdom. The smallness itself ensures that the ideas of large. work and play. exactly as a pleasurable pastime may comprise some work. achievement and failure. There survives another concept of happiness. expert-guided happiness get a lesser run in our lives. where he advised her to reconcile herself to the ‘normal’ unhappiness in her son’s life. the strength of a human relationship should be measured not by the absence of quarrels. mentally healthy people show their sense of well-being by being able to live with some unhappiness and what is commonly seen as ill-health. In the genocidal battle of Kurukshetra. being and becoming. but may be realised in exceptional moments. has a parallel definition of happiness built into it: a happy person should be able to bear larger doses of unhappiness. Vocation includes leisure. are only slightly more ambitious. It affirms that healthy happiness must have a place for unhappiness. We need to be practical and reconcile to live in this imperfect world with our normal unhappiness. if you seek happiness you should find a good chair to sit on. in Lin Yutang’s interpretation of Confucius. This is a radical thought for the happiness athletes to consider — the presence of the unpleasant does not necessarily mean the diminution of happiness. the kinds that one finds strewn about in everyday life. (The gifted Indian philosopher Ramchandra Gandhi discovered this independently. too. work becomes vocation and leisure need not be reinvented as the antithesis of work. It can’t be achieved in life.
Progress One of the dirtiest words in our poisonous lexicon is ‘progress’. we should have learnt to hang our heads in shame when using it. But we don’t. All these theories of historical stages assume that human societies are crawling up an inclined plane of history. perspiring and out of breath. Much of the Southern hemisphere has now been redefined as a part of the past of Western Europe and North America. . The theory presumes that if a society is obedient and faithful to the textbooks that have been produced for its benefit. The ones at the top are advising the others on how to cross the stages more efficiently. it seems that today when educated Indian and Chinese die. When we talk of progress we are not talking of the synonym for simple improvement or upgrading. others are at different points on the plane. they go to Paris. bureaucrats giving progress as the reason for taking unconscionable risks or for inflicting “collateral damages” on citizens. It is a way of hijacking the diverse futures of cultures by flattening them into a single. the three states that struck an aggressively progressive pose — Soviet Union. it has been the same story. Let me put it more starkly. it will be a more successful climber than the rest. institutions and ideologies as progressive or not. irreversible and serves as a benchmark when. progress has served as a major justification for some of the most obscene forms of violence and ethnocide from slavery and colonialism to Soviet and Maoist terror and developmental authoritarianism. in turn. for instance. such as those of just war. Oscar Wilde joked that when good Americans die. they go to New York Almost all environmental catastrophes have seen some group or other policy makers. we judge persons. they go to New York. Progress with a capital P is now a crucial part of many powerful public ideologies. Progress has come to mean a process through which human fate unfolds. If you prefer political correctness. a part of their history. they go to Paris. Concepts that might have been once emancipatory legitimise new forms of Satanism in the name of progress. China and Cambodia — accounted for about half of those who were victims of genocide in the 20th century. monolithic vision. is seen as nothing but an edited version of what the advanced or developed societies are today. In this incarnation. the clash of civilisations. Oscar Wilde joked that when good Americans die. It survives with impunity in public life. One axiom in the theory of progress was the belief in inescapable historical stages. Apart from this. human rights and revolution. From Chernobyl to Minamata to Bhopal. The future of countries such as China and India. It is a major source of institutionalised or structural violence globally. Some societies have reached the top already. it seems that today when educated Indians and Chinese die. as every Adivasi in India will attest to. This progress is linear. By this time. It still constitutes the basis of many theoretical frames. scientists. I can put it more agreeably and propose that ‘progress’ is one of the most double-edged ideas of our times. economic growth.
They were ignored as impractical romantics. Perhaps the rediscovery and growing political stature of some of them. In recent times. the Thai Buddhist monks fighting their military rulers by sometimes immolating themselves on the streets of Bangkok. The unofficial. and avoid the ideological baggage that comes with the idea. What we need in our complicated world as we deal with violence. Otherwise how could they reconcile their ideological frames with concerns for the environment and cultural survival? I’m convinced that all visions of a desirable society in the future will have to bypass the idea of progress as essentially anti-democratic and anti-life. the level of development has become one of the main indices of progress. It should be a consolation to the progressives that about two-thirds of the victims of genocide in the 20th century died at the hands of secular States. and a little more than half at the hands of States pursuing some theory or other of progress. Secularism Let us turn to the third killer in our violent lexicon. Let us. expanding human awareness has taken a heavy toll of the theories of liberation themselves. riots and terror is not the tolerance enshrined in the modern idea of secularism. has begun to change our intellectual ambience. in the past two or three decades. People are always talking of Ashoka and Akbar being secular — they had never heard of secularism! Ashoka was a Buddhist . Even many progressives in recent times have tried to disown their violent rhetoric of revolution and modernisation. in the absence of a better term. which has produced an entire galaxy of political leaders in South America. call them the untamed language of dissent in which some cultures and movements specialise. And it too has quickly developed its official and unofficial theories of stages. Africa and Asia who would have been remembered as gifted comedians but for the sadism and paranoia that characterised their rule. Luddites. It is poetic justice that. transcendentalists. ecologists and conservationists — not only in Asia but in Europe and North America too. Most of the theories are not only discredited. mostly environmentalists. the Pashtuns or Pathans fighting British imperialism in India non-violently — they all used categories not accessible to the dominant discourse on democracy. There were critics of progress earlier too — among conservatives. The Dalai Lama supporting the Buddhist monks who protested the Burmese military junta.In recent times.) What we need is the tolerance that is part of our faith. The official theories have turned out be less dangerous than the unofficial. It is my belief that the dialogues of cultures will remain incomplete unless we can at least partly access that untamed. there has grown in many societies a deep scepticism about the role and moral stature of the idea of progress. Indira Gandhi introduced the terms secular and socialist in 1976. There are forms of dialogue that transcend our well-honed language of public life and our concept of dissent. which our civilisation has shown for centuries. Does this sound impossible? It is not. critics of industrialisation and modernity. slightly mysterious language of dissent in which the powerless often speak. the few that survive have followers who are cynical and mostly exploit the rhetoric of liberation. (People forget that secularism was not always part of the Indian Constitution.
That’s when you fall back on what I call the laptop version of Hinduism. nothing is familiar anymore.and he thought that was good enough for his tolerance. Who has read Vyasa’s Mahabharata or Valmiki’s Ramayana? Everyone has read their own local epics. He wrote in his will that he did not want a religious funeral or his body to be carried on the shoulders of mourners. Dharma does not mean religion though. one of the most venerated shrines — get a Muslim son-in-law? When you move away from home and your local gods. It is the anonymity and the loss of your culture that leads to disaffection. Akbar was a Muslim and he thought Islam was good enough for teaching tolerance.5 percent were people in the villages. Then you talk of Vedas and Upanishads as the approved texts of Hinduism. But there is a Duryodhan temple in Himachal Pradesh. Hindutva itself is a secular idea. ) What we call religious violence is secular violence — it is the violence of people who have lost their faith. It is a faith based on personal gods. Unfortunately . No Indian language has an equivalent word for religion. as the language of gods. a Vibhishana temple in Sri Lanka. people will try to break it. only 3. He willed he be taken by motorised vehicle instead. you will find that of those killed by communal violence. it means a code of conduct. it also means right of people to exercise their choice in categories they find meaningful in life. Democracy not only means the right to vote. Nobody is offended. 96. who refused to give his wife a Hindu funeral despite a dharna by the women of the Hindu Mahasabha in front of his house. Ravan worshippers in north Bengal. Now everyone is offended by everything. we should know that this is an anti-Hindu act and it can happen only in cities. (In our anglicised. ask yourself which population is more immersed in tradition? It is obvious you have nothing to teach the rural population.4 percent killed were from the cities. His vision of Hinduism was one of nationhood. You begin to talk of Sanskrit as the mother of all Indian languages. ishta devatas. You can bicker with a god. You can make fun of her. You cannot banish them by government fiat. Christianity and Islam — are local. Gandhi had the perfect comeback for that — those who say you must not mix religion or politics understand neither religion nor politics. they have something to teach you. not faith. Today if you try to build a temple in a city for Duryodhan. You can abuse him or her. There has always been a tradition of being friendly with gods. saying you must keep religion and politics separate. So when AK Ramanujan’s essay on 300 Ramayans gets banned as it just did in Delhi University. If you look at the data about communal violence in India in the past 50 years. The cascading incomprehension caused by mechanical translation is a conversation for another day. organise a demonstration and call it an insult to Hinduism. All our faiths in India — Hinduism. village goddesses. Savarkar was secular and so is his legacy. Bengal alone has about half a dozen Ramayanas and they differ in crucial details. family gods. Here is a man who accused Gandhi of not knowing political theory. Never mind that all the Dravidian languages are older. Now. How did Vishnu — in his Tirupati incarnation. I use the word ‘faith’ because it more closely approximates what we experience. as will become amply clear when you read what Veer Savarkar wrote. We need courage to admit the need for faith. mechanically translated world we use the word ‘religion’ in place of the word Gandhi used — dharma.
I will love Muslims only if they are modern. Let us begin by rejecting the old lexicon of poison. Rather than celebrating your sameness. . which is more about silence and sanitisation.most people don’t have access to these stories. what we need is the courage to talk of faith. I will love this person only if they have a drink with me — not that kind of thinking. It is the same way Jinnah’s love for ham sandwiches and whiskey has been erased in Pakistan. Instead of some idea of secularism. We have to take on the usurpers who have acquired the right to dictate our lives because we don’t want to talk about it. We now tend to undervalue compassion and reverence for all forms of life. India’s capacity for diversity is best described in a phrase from Mexico’s Zapatista movement — hosting the otherness of others. The challenge of a global consciousness is in creating an intellectual climate where we can examine our lives without wearing blinkers. I don’t tolerate you only according to the standards of modernity. particularly when that compassion and reverence is backed by non-rational considerations such as religious beliefs. We should recognise the fear Hindus have in a ‘secular’ country that only the BJP is their friend or Muslims have that only Jamaat-e-Islami is pro-Muslim. I don’t tolerate you just according to my standards. So much of Indian traditions have been pushed outside our consciousness. primordial social ties and the ethical commitments based on cultural traditions. I accept your ‘otherness’.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue listening from where you left off, or restart the preview.