Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Mother India and the Ego

युक्तियुक्तं वचो ग्राह्यं बालादपि शुकादपि
युक्ति हीनम् वचस्त्याज्यम् वृद्धादपि शुकादपि 
yuktiyuktaM vacho graahyaM baalaadapi shukaadapi
yukti heenaM vachasthyaajyaM vruddhaadapi shukaadapi

(Words in line with reason should be grasped whether it comes from a child or even a parrot.
Words not in line with reason should be rejected whether it comes from an elder or from the great sage Shuka.)

The above Sanskrit couplet is reproduced here only to have a proper orientation… to take the following words entirely on their own basis, which I think is a reasonable request.  The reason for this is because the subject of the article is one in which there is, justifiably, a lot of emotion involved. Here knee-jerk reactions abound, even knee-jerk reactions wrapped in a web of logic, as differentiating reason and biased reason is a tough task. Hence, please forgive the dryness and abstractness which I have clothed this article in.

India is facing a unique situation today, and that fact is penetrating everyone. In this global world, Indians from all quarters are facing the same situation, a nation whose chronic problems have suddenly come to the fore, in which contrasts are cropping up at an accelerated rate. Never before had we been conscious of such cruelty as we have seen in the case of the recent rapes, in all the perversion in sexual affairs, with children and with adults. Never before had we been agitated about corruption, as a nation. I mean, these things have been there for a long time, they have been present at all levels, but it never shook us as much, it never really hit us, for some reason. Suddenly we are facing a situation, as a nation, as if for the first time, even though well meaning individuals, NRI’s and social groups have been shouting themselves hoarse for decades. Satyameva Jayate (Truth alone triumphs) was broadcast. Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal spear-headed anti-corruption movements in politics. Actors and celebrities are coming out to speak about it, and all these topics are entering the dinner conversation. Before this, as individuals, we were ashamed of many aspects of our social system. Now, the nation appears, if not ashamed, uncomfortably aware of the state of affairs. We cannot even invite someone to visit our nation with a clear mind today.

Why is that so? I do not know for sure. I do not know why the nation is stirring at this time, what kept it in a stupor for this long, and what really has jerked it up. But this I do know, that something is happening. The nation is waking up and finding that the things it ignored all this time have grown and the infections have spread… in short, it is an emergency. It is not for nothing that “Jaago re” slogans are being voiced. And if the individuals who make up this nation do not lapse back into another sleep, something can be done, and that is where the real questions start bubbling up, getting more and more desperate. What do we do? Where do we correct the faults? Do we make laws stricter? Do we jail all the bad guys? Do we change our education? How should we change the education? How do we know we are treating the disease, and not merely its symptoms? Where, really, are the problems? Are WE the problem, i.e. is there something intrinsically wrong with India and Indians? If so, what is it? How do we correct it?

In such a situation, the first instinct is to look to other nations for the answer. When we turn our gaze to the Western world, the world which is much-maligned by many elders for being the source of cultural deterioration, we see at first glance that indeed many things are much better there. The average woman has a greater level of freedom; sexuality is more in the open; corruption, even if present, does not clog the day-to-day work of the people as much. Many expat Indians, particularly those who have resided abroad for many years, are quick to offer the solutions that they have seen around them… better laws, better respect for individual freedom, and the like. “Do this!” they say, all the while wishing well for their Motherland “Do this, and things will improve! Only then can we come up to the level of the developed countries!” Many educated Indians in India as well are quick to observe the civil rights, right to information, women’s rights, sexual rights movements which have spread in a wave from Europe to America… and are equally quick to pick up the end results of these struggles, and prescribe the remedies with great confidence. As a result, problem areas of the nation are highlighted from the same perspective: a long standing patriarchy, a long standing caste-problem, and a long standing absence of work-ethic.

These answers appear logical, fair, and obvious, and yet… and yet there is something nagging us in this whole narrative, something that doesn’t entirely fit. If removal of patriarchy is indeed the issue, then how is it that one of the nations where patriarchy is said to have been minimized, e.g. USA, has the biggest military presence abroad? While it is true that our work-ethic is distinctly lax, obsessive work life that shatters families is also something that does not sit well with the Indian heart. It will be difficult to explain why going to the factory or office day in and day out is termed work, while cooking for the family and bringing up children is termed “not work”. While it is true that something needs to be done, it is also true that unless both the problems and the solutions are identified by India, there is no question of improvement. We cannot blindly accept the diagnosis given by the West, not unless we have figured out the same from our own experience. Isn’t that what created the problem in the first place? Look at the terms that make the rounds nowadays “economic growth”, “global superpower”, “scientific advancement” and “human rights”. Which of these are really born from the experience of this nation? It is not the question whether the above themes are worthy or not, they may well be worthy, but the issue is: did India figure it out for Herself? Were the answers the result of any real understanding?

That is the position we reach, as we withdraw our gaze from the surrounding world. Yes, there are some problems, and yes, the world has offered some steps to take, but both the problems and the solutions, since they have not originally been recognized and understood by India herself, would not really go very far in having an effect. That is why one has the nagging feeling, that everything is not as clear as it seems, and it is not a question of reproducing the results of the West without proper thought. That means we have to attempt something like this: get to the essence of the strength of the nation, get to the essence of development of the West, and then develop the goals of this country in the light of this knowledge. It is crucial neither to reject western development, nor to simply copy it for ourselves, but to try to address it in harmony with what India actually is.

Respect to The Mother (“Maatru devo bhava”)

Something that has been sustained in the nation from time immemorial is a reverence for motherhood, which runs deep into the life of the typical Indian. No matter the age or the qualification, the Indians understand inwardly that even if he is the King of the world and if she is the Queen of her career, they both stand at the same level in front of their mothers. The fact is expressed not only in cinematic experiences, and in mythological stories, but in reality… the struggle and selflessness shown by the mother is remembered with gratitude, and works on even in modern life. When bringing up this quality, we cannot say that it is absent in people of different nationalities, nor that this is not the ideal of any other nation, nor that there are no mothers who fall short of this ideal in the nation. No, rather, if we ask ourselves if this quality is sufficiently strong in India to the level that it is felt to be a great ideal by all Indians, then we must invariably answer “yes”. That is what is important, that it is true, it is felt, and acknowledged at some level by all Indians. In the respect for motherhood, we touch on the very soul of India.

Let us now think of some consequences of this. In most cases, this means that women across the nation with children sincerely believe that putting the needs of the children and the family first, is truly worthy, and actually act on it. The spirit of sacrifice underlies the actions, aimed at the success of children. And therein we come across the first stumbling block faced in upholding the ideal. To become a mother, it is necessary for a girl to have sexual activity, and since motherhood is the ideal, everything preceding it, lies in a shadow.

What do I mean by that? The basic relationship to the mother is a direct blood-relationship; we are born of the same body. However, for the same reason, no light is shed from this great ideal on the sexual relationships of a woman, it does not belong to its domain at all. The sexual relationship is not a blood-relationship, in fact it is clearly exclusive to it. But nevertheless, the ideal of motherhood is so strong, that it throws its effects into the domain of sexuality and marriages as well, to keep them as close as possible to the blood-relationship, close to its own nature. This is the origin of the shadow-side of the Motherhood ideal, the desire to stay within the community, something that is felt by most Indians when looking for a partner. The entire family, all linked by blood-ties, tries to take active part in keeping the marriage as close as possible to the same caste, language, religion, region… the extended family would never suggest someone from a different nation or race! The desire to act out the goal of life, at least for a woman, as motherhood, means that all family activity is centered on being a good mother to the children, and that is where the push is felt. Here we are not stating things as right and wrong, but merely trying to highlight how the same impulse can act differently.

A second consequence of the ideal of Motherhood is that, aside from sexual relations, no light is thrown on what follows motherhood. Once a woman is a mother, very little is expected of her, as the goal of life has been reached. Moreover, even on the children, the shadow side of Motherhood is that there is a state of perpetual infancy at some level… where the individual is not completely grown up capable of determining his or her course of life without support structures, but instead stays close to community expectations, or social expectations. Readers who have gotten this far would have noticed the various stereotypes I have asked them to swallow till now: woman, Indian, mother, child… this is to highlight the position of the individual, in this whole discussion. The question of an individual, as an individual, is something that brings us to the core of India from another side: the Ego.

Ego and Egoism (Ahamkaara)

The ego is the quality due to which a person indentifies the self as distinct from another, making the person a distinct, unique, individual. Nowadays this word is used interchangeably with egoism (called Ahamkaara in Indian scriptures), which has the qualities of superiority, selfishness, arrogance, vanity and hubris. In ancient Indian tradition, this concept of reducing egoism was the domain of men, just as motherhood was of women. This idea of reducing it is taken to an extreme, and it is said that the individual ego itself has to be completely dissolved, to achieve the great goals of life. This simple word, ego, in essence contains the whole religious and spiritual striving of Eastern wisdom, and so far as this penetrates into our modern life, puts an Indian into a complete dilemma. India is still a nation that values humility, and respect of superiors, and it has also never been a nation that pulled itself together to go on a conquest, or even to adequately show aggression. Even the struggle for freedom, rightly or otherwise, was based mainly on the principle of non-violence, showing this to be a uniqueness of India. A lack of egoistic feelings, also helps to maintain strong friendships, where one is not tripped up about “me and mine” all the time… instead there is “Chalta hai, adjust karlo” (It’s ok, just adjust). In addition, there is a natural distrust that springs up in the Indian’s mind whenever someone is describing his own achievements, and the reluctance of Indian students to raise questions in classrooms is quite well known. So in that sense, we are justified in identifying this ideal beside that of Motherhood, the ideal of destruction of the ego, as something that penetrates India.

However, this is the dilemma: how is being an individual different from being selfish? That is the question that faces the Indian when he or she interacts with the western world, a world where the importance of the individual is highlighted strongly. This is the point where he comes face to face with an identity over and above that of being an Indian, or a community member, or a woman or man. It is observed that the west has never really solved this problem, but instead has mixed up the two concepts and uses them interchangeably. One of the key differences is that an individual determines the course of his life by himself or herself, while a selfish person, while trying to do the same, places his own needs as higher than that of another person. In other words, both the individual and the egotist determine the course of action independently, but in the second case it is exclusively to the benefit of the self.

Here we come to the effect of this ideal of having no Egoism… on the one hand, we do generate the quality of humility, of genuine reverence, of flexibility, of a willingness to consider that someone else could be right, of respecting a person who is more knowledgeable. On the other hand, however, we throw the baby out with the bath water, and in reducing the egoism tend to reduce our self-thought, and refuse to determine the course of our lives by ourselves! “No egoism” does NOT mean: no ego, no individuality, and no self-determination. It rather means that the individual, though seeing that he is a distinct and unique person, serves in the people around him with his skills.

Either one extreme is reached, where the Indian does not rise to the level of the Individual Human, and can hardly think for himself or herself, or determine anything by one’s own… or the other extreme is reached, of giving up this whole ideal and lapsing into an extremely selfish and narrow mindset in all of one’s dealings. So while trying to determine the path based on the teachings from traditions, one is most likely to fall into either of these two traps: of becoming a slave obedient to the words of a higher authority, or a petty and scheming person with regard only to his own well-being. These are the shadow sides of this ideal, and sometimes can occur together in the same person.

Compounding Errors

So, on the two pillars of Motherhood and No-Egoism, we have two genuinely deep ideals, which have been struggled for and provided as guiding principles by our ancestors, and is felt and practiced by Indians to this day. However, neither ideal is complete in all ways, they both have shadow sides. This does not mean that either ideal is useless or mistaken, but that it is possible to misunderstand and act on the shadow sides of the Ideals, instead of their real moral impulses. What happens when the shadow sides of the Motherhood ideal (where there is no guidance for anything other than the blood relationship) is linked up with the shadow side of the No-Egoism ideal (where there is either slavery or petty suppression)? That is the reason for a sick hierarchy called patriarchy being born, where an egoistic hierarchy is created, from wife->husband->guru and so on. A hierarchy which can function in a healthy way is distorted, because the levels at which the people are individual beings are not recognized, human rights are not considered, and instead of a support structure one has an oppressive structure, such as the caste system. In a similar way, a distortion can occur that includes sexuality… and where patriarchy and sexuality meet, it’s literally a double whammy, and rape and sexual oppression of the weak aren’t far behind.

It is possible to see how some of our strongest ideals, when we are either not conscious of their limits or refuse to think for ourselves, can become the worst oppressions, and can lead to an actual rot in the society. This is a tragedy, the fact that our strongest and deepest ideals can reverse like this, and lead to social evils. However, it does nobody any good to look at this situation and be constantly depressed; instead what can really remedy the matter is for us to search for ideals that serve to balance this situation out. It does not help us in the long run, to abstractly preach against patriarchy, or to fight blindly against the evils of the society, no matter how well-intentioned. Like weeds, they would keep cropping up, because they are distortions of already existing ideals, ideals which even the most well-intentioned among us are in agreement with. The struggle might keep the symptoms at bay, but they do not really cure. How, then, can we overcome this?

A Suggested Way Forward

With this knowledge, we can cast a fresh glance at our heritage, and look for the remedy. A question is worth asking here, why must we even bother about our heritage? Has it not been shown, with modern education, and with the way these evils are running wild, that our heritage is not directly relevant today? While that may or may not be true, we have to choose this route out of straightforward practicality… a large portion of our nation is still very rooted in its traditions. Be it the villages, towns, or even cities, almost the entire nation runs on its traditions, and those are facts. In addition, the traditional ideals we just examined are still true in their original forms. So, if our solutions are to have a meaning for the Indian, if it has to be relevant, even if we have to identify something new, at least in the beginning we must seek the seeds for it within the old.

We require an ideal that helps us set the right relation with respect to the stranger, the outsider, in any sense. We have a streak of hospitality that is on the right track, where we treat the guest as the lord: “athithi devo bhava”. In the original meaning of the term: “thithi” stands for a certain date, or a specified time, which is all important in family matters. “Athithi” hence stands for the unexpected, the encounter with an unknown person. While in ancient times where every duty was specified a time, this might relate itself only to the unexpected guests, while today, nearly all of the interactions are with “athithi’s”. When we meet a stranger outside the home, he or she is an athithi. When we meet a foreigner, either to our caste or to our family or to our nation, he or she is an athithi. When a boy meets a girl, she is once more athithi, and so is an auto driver or the peon. There is no gender or family tie associated with that word, it belongs to all human beings. Here is an ideal that is half-developed… until now restricted to the simple meaning of “guest”. It is this ideal, which would need to be developed by all, as a living principle with constant practice. In fact, we even greet each other with “Namaste”, a term that is a direct result of practicing the same principle. In “athithi devo bhava” and “Namaste” lie the seeds for human rights, which have been developed in the west, but have mainly been left aside in our nation. It is only when that is brought back up can any light even be shed on sexual relations.

The second aspect, having to do with egoism, is where a much greater struggle will be required. The Western world has fought and ravaged the land in trying to deal with it, and is still not fully successful. The biggest weakness an Indian faces is the fact that he or she does not generally strengthen the ego. Development of the ego requires a development of independent thinking, independent decisions… and as this is developed, egoism will crop up again and again, and will need to be overcome repeatedly, which is a separate matter. Independent thinking means we cannot simply copy the thoughts, but have to derive them for ourselves, just as no one can understand mathematics by copying down the theorems. This is a way to hold the balance while still following the principle of reducing egoism. If we do not even have a strong ego to start with, how can there be any egoism to reduce? Following that principle was destined to become meaningless, unless we take it upon ourselves to help every adult to think independently. It is not necessary that this has to be done only in education, but it is possible to apply it with any man and woman… to encourage every husband, wife, parent, stranger, manager, friend and colleague to think for themselves, and to practice that on our own as well. For too long we have misunderstood humility as cowardice, for too long we have misunderstood reverence as blind obedience, and we have definitely been scared of acting on our own.

It is necessary to bring this critical thinking into every thing, including our heritage. Our heritage is a living heritage, and not a dead one, and the main quality of life is to adapt. However, if we are not strong enough to enliven it, to give it fresh life, to suit it to present needs properly, then it is inevitable that our own traditions wield a chokehold on our development as they die. It is not the fault of our traditions, but our own, if we do not take it up seriously.

What does this mean in our day-to-day life? It means our ideals of motherhood and lessening egoism, while well developed, have a limited reach, and to counter that, we must develop our own thinking, and extend the respect to every individual in accordance to it, every single day. We cannot break up the systems of patriarchy by thinking up harsher and harsher punishments, or by asking people to be afraid of other people, or even by blindly copying the law structures of the west. Those measures may work for a short while, but will worsen the actual situation. Neither can we fight it by breaking up the ideal of motherhood, or that of humility… we can breed a lot of arrogance and shatter families that way.  It cannot be “getting rid of corruption” or “getting rid of patriarchy” as a knee jerk reaction alone that can be a goal, it is the positive development of at least the above two ideals that might help. Our goal cannot be to get rid of a diseased organ, but to bring it back to health, to nurse it back to health. Now that we are waking up to that fact, it is important to supply the right cure.

These ideals of India, of motherhood, of humility, and of hospitality, are those which cut across all religious, lingual or gender divides. Hence, a living India is close to our hearts, even when we criticize it or complain about Her all day long. And that can be our only motivation to act on this each day. We cannot do it out of any blind sense of duty, we cannot do it out of a sense of moral superiority, nor can we do it in the sense of fixing a machine. If we approach this task with love, with a regard to how much She has given us, to how much wisdom has been provided, only then we might be able to find that strength to take up these tasks. I sincerely hope, with all my heart that it happens.