The moral stream
SRI MADHAV ASHISH
THE past twenty years of misrule have brought us to a breakdown in cultural values and social morality which threatens the human state far more than the material and economic problems of overpopulation, shortages and inflation. The old order must change; but unless we revalue the criteria on which Indian society should be built, the new order it yields to will be as inequitable, corrupt and violent as the present one.
What gave and still gives to India its peculiar quality of ‘Indian-ness’? The vendors of ‘our cultural heritage’ would have us believe it lies in such things as architecture, sculpture, art, literature and handicrafts – things which reflect but are not in themselves the inner qualities from which they spring. They neglect the outlook which gave rise to the forms. What view of man found expression in India’s sculpted images of divinity? What unrealised human potential did the artist project into those divine forms? They were not projections of the desire for food, clothing, housing, uninhibited sexual play, and the leisure to watch television. They are images of the state of human perfection of which the soul aspires.
Cultural values stem from basic premises about the significance of the universe and, in particular, of human life. In adopting the western economic system and its industrialisation, and in treating them as the world norm, we have unwittingly subscribed to the material premises of current western culture: a worldview which regards human satisfaction as based on the satisfaction of man’s material and mental needs alone.
While we are all aware that much of what is called Indian culture – e.g., caste, ‘kitchen religion’, fatalism – needs to be abandoned, the hard core of the culture, its basic premise, derives from so profound an insight into the nature of man and the universe that it must not be jettisoned, for it is capable of providing a source of those basic values on which any viable human society must be built. This premise is not just a value; it is rooted in experiential perception of the unity of being from whose truth descend ethical values and social standards.
Two immediate causes of the current social breakdown may be identified. Firstly, the adoption of inappropriate development policies, which were totally unsuited to the Indian reality. Secondly, the usurpation of political power by a group whose interests were directly opposed to the humanitarian values embodied in the Constitution of India. In the current scheme of things, these two reinforce each other: industrial development providing the economic base for power politics.
The consequences threaten us with chaos. On the one hand, the population explosion and the enormously increased industrial consumption of raw materials have destroyed the village economy on which India’s old social order was based. On the other hand, the road to development through industry and foreign trade, after a start that raised hopes of our reaching living standards comparable with those of the developed world, is being checked by the global consequences of over-consumption of raw materials associated with western-style development and its resulting degradation of the world environment.
These consequences are the logical outcome of a social order which assumes that the higher the material level of well-being and the greater the freedom from labour, the greater the satisfaction. Such a worldview necessarily measures ‘development’ in terms that imply increased consumption of raw materials through industrial technology.
With the possible exception of the Chinese, all the current economic systems of the world – capitalism, State capitalism, and whatever the Soviet system may be if it is neither of these – are based on the same materialistic premise, namely, that if humanity’s material and mental needs are satisfied, the rest can be left to look after itself.
Our peculiarly difficult situation compels the question of what other economic system could be more suited to India’s needs than any of these known systems. The question has to be taken further, because Marxist communism, the readily available reply, is based on the same premise as the others.
It is this premise which has led to the glorification of science, technology and industry as being the harbingers of human well-being, and this in turn has led logically to the over consumption and environmental degradation previously mentioned. Any mere adjustment to the socio-economic order, based on the same premise, could not meet the current crisis, for it is a crisis not just of resources and their economic treatment but, more importantly, a crisis in strictly human affairs.
Any viable answer to the question should therefore be based on a reaffirmation of what constitutes human needs and their satisfaction, which in turn depends on mankind’s self-evaluation.1
In India we are still close enough to our pre-capitalistic and pre materialistic past for us to appreciate the validity of alternatives to those doctrines of materialistic development which were thrust upon us by the small but very influential economic elite. These are the only people to have gained the coveted lifestyles of the developed West. Whatever their political affiliations, they aim to retain their privileges against the mass poverty which is even now invading their urban islands of affluence.
The huge village and tribal populations are being driven by land shortage and the depletion of forests out of their old subsistence economy in which the material needs of life are obtained directly by labour, and into the market economy where labour and materials are traded for cash, thus losing their autonomy. The promised economic development has not materialised. They lack the power to claim a larger share of such development as has occurred. They cannot go forward and they cannot go back. It should go without saying that the laws ostensibly designed to improve conditions for this section of the populace are, for the most part, mere window-dressing.
Between these two groups lie the employees of industry, government and commerce, people who have moved away from the villages, are almost wholly geared to the cash economy, enjoy many of the benefits of development – in the sense that their homes contain more industrial products and consumer goods – but find themselves blocked from further progress by rising prices, widespread corruption and the other symptoms of a growing social and economic crisis.
Almost all the people of all these social groups are suffering from what is called a crisis of identity. The crisis differs in mode and in degree, but it is essentially the same problem. The nation as a whole has moved away from the old social identities, based on the status of family, caste, village, etc., but has not moved fully into identification with the industrial world’s individualism, where social groupings are dominated by shared economic and political interests.
This is not a peculiarly Indian problem, for it is shared with much of the Third World and, though in a different mode, with much of the developed world where the logical consequences of the capitalistic system are threatening to destroy the economic basis of the social order. However, the manner in which the people of India will seek solutions to the problem will be rooted in the past and present social and cultural systems of India.
The failure of most economic predictions about human behaviour stems from the view of man as an economic animal, governed entirely by economic compulsions. While it cannot be denied that the science of economics has provided important keys to the understanding of human behaviour and to the analysis of history, it is a mistake to ignore other psychological determinants than the desire for security, comfort and health, and the drives of personal ambition and profit.
Aperson also needs to feel he has an honourable place in his society – a requirement that cannot be generally satisfied in societies whose economic ethos limits respect to the inevitably few people who are successful in monetary terms. Where the sole achievement which wins respect is the accumulation and display of momentary wealth, its inherent inability to yield lasting human satisfaction is displayed by its insatiability.
On the subject of European socialism, Barbara Tuchman writes: ‘To the workers who increasingly voted for it... Socialism gave self-respect and an identity. A working man could feel himself no longer an ignored, anonymous member of a herd, but a citizen with a place in society and a political affiliation of his own.’2 Such a motive for joining a movement, even though unrecognised, is as significant as the desire for economic benefits promised by the movement.
In India, the huge increase in population has not been matched by corresponding growth in industrially related employment, nor have our national leaders acted in such a way as to arouse popular enthusiasm for participation in a trans-individual national development. All the real achievements of the nation have been monopolised by individual politicians, the ruling party, and the ‘government’ as contributing to their image of omnipotence. In consequence, even the beneficiaries of the system feel themselves frustrated in their personal need for recognition, and deprived of opportunity for rewarding participation in a transpersonal aim.
It is evident that people have many identities: family, social group, professional, national, etc. The most important identity is the one which gives a man his greatest sense of personal significance. This varies between different people, according to their individual characters. Very few people are so well-integrated that they stand as individuals whose sense of significance is independent of socially approved images of significance. The majority of people need to feel themselves supported by the ‘togetherness’ of a group whose interests they share – family, trade union, political party, corporate team, village community, etc. – and they borrow their sense of significance from the felt significance of the group. In short, the majority of people gain a significant sense of identity only through personal association with aims that are trans-individual in the sense that they are shared with and supported by groups whose solidarity gives reassurance.
Again, for the majority, the size of the group needs to be limited to the numbers one person can easily encompass in his sense of personal relatedness. If it is greater, depersonalisation begins to undermine directly human relationships. There are occasions, such as mass political rallies and national war emergencies, when the personal identity is submerged in the self-transcendence (or self-degradation) of mass hysteria. But these are special occasions which do not give a lasting sense of personal significance.
This question of the scale on which personal relationships or personal values can operate healthily, formed an important part of Gandhiji’s concept of the autonomous Indian village as the basis of an humanitarian Indian economy, for the base of the national economy should be within the comprehension of the people who make up the nation. The average Indian village is roughly on this scale. Although it might be argued that the destruction of the old village economy – a destruction in which heavily centralised government has played a large part – was necessary to break the stranglehold of caste on community life, it remains a fact that the old social identities have been lost, and that they have not been replaced by new ones.
Only a small part of the population has succeeded in getting on to the development bandwagon and temporarily achieved a new sense of identity with the aims and achievements of the developed world. The rest, finding themselves uprooted from their traditional backgrounds and frustrated of the promises of development, are in a mid-region limbo where they feel themselves belonging neither to the one world nor to the other. They are therefore vulnerable to movements which promise them a sense of being something significant, of giving them a sense of identity. The gain of an identity gives immediate satisfaction, even though the promised economic benefits are never more than a ‘pie in the sky’. An articulate aim makes a man someone who is presently working for that aim, particularly if it is reinforced by the approval of a similarly identified group.
This factor contributes to many of the socio-political movements which are causing India so much trouble, and largely accounts for their mass appeal. Frustrated in their early expectations for a great and new Indian nationalism, communities are turning back in assertion of their local identities: Maharashtra for the Maharashtrians, Assam for the Assamese, Khalistan for the Sikhs, etc. And in reaction to the failure of national secularism, we have such movements as the Virat Hindu Samaj with its attempts to revivify the Hindu identity – a movement which confuses the mythological beliefs of a geographically identified religious community with the completely trans-national and trans-ethnic truths of mystical perception.
The situation within which such movements have arisen stems from many mistakes in the past which might have been avoided by leaders of greater intelligence and integrity, for there was no dearth of voices, from Gandhiji onwards telling us that we were following policies unsuited to the needs and aspirations of the Indian peoples, even though it was not then appreciated, and hardly is now, that the era of capitalist economics is drawing to a close.
The people who opposed India’s entry into twentieth-century industrial economics appeared to have no clear alternatives in mind. Even Gandhiji, in a personal conversation, admitted that he hoped only to delay the impact of industrialisation. The opposition appears to have been based on feelings that something of immense value to India, and even the world, would be lost if India’s undefined though philosophically based sacramental culture were to be swamped by the crude materialism associated with the western style of profit-oriented industry and commerce. On the other hand, the proponents of industrialisation were clear about their aims, and they regarded old world values as expendable in the interests of a material well-being which, according to the doctrine of development, would be available to all.
The industrialists, rather naturally, got their way. The population of India was half its present size, the world was unaware of the impending global shortage of raw materials, and the first proposal was only to lay down the basic industries required for any sort of improvement in the life conditions of the Indian peoples, regardless of their economic or political leanings.
With the wisdom of hindsight, we might now be able to articulate the objectors’ feelings. The objection was not so much to industry in itself (except to the extent that there was an element of Luddite resistance to machines replacing manual workers) as it was to the western economic ethos – competitive, exploitative, profit-oriented, materialistic, impersonal, dehumanising, expansionist – which seemed to be imported along with the machinery whose mass production of goods required unnatural concentrations of labour and raw materials, on the one hand, and the growth of a western-style market, on the other. The market, with its advertising, distributing agencies and sales organisations, would spread the poison of the capitalist, ego-oriented profit motive all over the country, corroding whatever good was left in the old economic ethos, in which wealth was linked to social responsibility, and replacing it by the new ethos, in which money is accumulated for irresponsibly selfish gains.
In writing of culture contact, Karl Polanyi says ‘...the contact may have a devastating effect on the weaker part. Not economic exploitation, as often assumed, but the disintegration of the cultural environment of the victim is then the cause of the degradation. The economic process may supply the vehicle of the destruction, but the immediate cause of his undoing is not for that reason economic; it lies in the lethal injury to the institutions in which his social existence is embodied. The result is loss of self-respect and standards.’3
It is an index of the weakness in pre-industrial India’s predominantly Hindu society that the old value system crumbled at the touch of materialism. It shows that for the majority of Hindus the Sanatan Dharma did not constitute an internalised system of values whose firm principles could be adapted to changing circumstances. Lip service was paid to high ideals, while the real business of living was controlled not so much by ethical values as by the social web of interdependence which characterises any feudalistic society.
When the social and material conditions changed, values changed accordingly. One example will suffice: the Indian’s dignified acceptance of death as a satisfactory and meaningful transition from this world to an after-death state, interpreted as varying with the individual’s evolutionary status, was rapidly abandoned with the appearance of medical services which promised, and sometimes produced, considerable prolongation of the body’s life. From being an illusion which it was man’s duty to transcend, the material world became the only reality, and this in spite of constant reaffirmations of the supremacy of consciousness over seeming materiality by living Indian seers up to the present day.
Yet, the fact remains that many of us who have not sold our souls utterly to the rupee, and who still have a place in our hearts for those imponderable values which are consonant with mankind’s perennial aspirations for perfection, feel the need not merely to find a personal identity in some social, religious or political group, but far more importantly, to rediscover our roots in the ever-present source of the culture that was India, a culture that was rich in trans-personal significance.
This has nothing to do with the reversions to the study of Sanskrit, to classical song and dance, folk art, religious revivalism, or any other revival of what is called ‘our cultural heritage’. What is sought is close to the mystic’s answer to the question of identity, which stresses the identity of the individual with the universal – finding oneself by transcending the ego-centred self and its mundane identifications. The emptiness of a self-fulfilment measured in terms of competitive achievement in the rat race has been seen. What is lacking is the satisfaction of total participation in an aim which transcends merely private gratification.
At the core of Indian culture lies the seer’s experiential perception of the real, and of the significance of human life in relation to that reality – or its insignificance, according to one’s viewpoint. In the past, the nationwide acceptance of the seer’s perception gave to Indians of all communities and all walks of life a quality of superior humanity which, to many foreigners, made India seem beyond all other countries the land of the spirit, and, to Indians, made foreigners, with all their wealth of industry and arms, seem humanly immature. In short, the Indian’s sense of identity was not limited to family, caste, community, etc. Over and above these social labels and never far distant from his waking thoughts was his sense of participation in the play of divine forces which rule the world. To obtain a human birth was great good fortune, conferring both dignity and responsibility – responsibility for living as a human being should.
How a human being should behave is a question over which controversy has raged since man first walked the planet. Societal norms, which developed from the interplay of mankind’s idealistic and material needs, have followed a pattern of growth and decay in a process of change brought about by inherent contradictions. In the capitalist era, the dominant idealism has viewed human well-being – the enjoyment by all of the benefits of material and technological progress. Conflict has arisen only over the inequitable sharing of wealth which prevents the equality of material well-being, or even humanly adequate well-being. Mankind’s spiritual needs have been largely ignored, even though the passion with which socialism has been promoted derives from an (unacknowledged) feeling perception of human significance. For, had humanity no ultimate significance, the suffering caused by inequitable distribution of wealth would have no significance, either of the ultimate or immediate kind.
No real purpose would be served by comparing the social effects of different systems of morality which themselves derive from different levels of mystical and religious perception – comparisons that might be invidious. The argument is that both eastern and western cultural groups should return to their root interpretations of human significance in order to find a more satisfactory basis for the socio-economic order than the current one which is leading to global disaster. In the Indian view the roots of Indian culture lie closer to the truths of man’s essential nature and closer to the surface of the Indian mind than do the western, and are therefore more likely to prove valid as sources of inspiration when seeking solutions to the Indian aspect of the global problem.
One reason for the growing restiveness in the world population is the perception that world resources cannot match the expected level of material well-being. Another is that the view of earth from space, hailed as symbolising man’s highest technological achievement and interpreted as foreshadowing man’s conquest of the universe, in fact places our personal and social affairs in a perspective where to measure their significance only in material and technological terms is ridiculous.
It might appear to be one of life’s inherent contradictions that technological achievement itself provides us with a view of ourselves which makes nonsense of any solution to human problems framed in technological terms. The significance of human life lies neither in the equitable distribution of scarce commodities, nor in the inequitable enjoyment of scarce luxuries. The significance of worldly life lies somewhere beyond itself. Any proposed solution that leaves out this transcendental component of life must fail for lack of relevance to reality.
It is in this context that India stands out in the world as a land where the transcendental significance of human life is still recognised, where the man of spiritual attainment is still honoured, and the path of spiritual inquiry is still accepted as a valid life aim and occupation. Unlike in the countries of the developed world, here the immaterial roots of consciousness and being are not so deeply buried that they need heavy excavation to rediscover them. Their reflection can be discovered at the back of every India’s mind, even in the minds of our seemingly uprooted intelligentsia who have outwardly aligned themselves with the western lifestyle and all that it stands for.
It is due to the shallow nature of the overlay that there is so much confusion over the definition of Hinduism, for the average Hindu at one moment professes adherence to the universal truths of the Upanishads, and at the next is a fetishist, making offerings to a particular temple idol for his son’s success in competitive examinations. Yet, it is these universal truths, the monopoly of no religion, which constitute the hard core of Indian culture, a core which is found as much in the strong Sufi influence in Muslim India as in the Upanishadic influence on Hinduism. They are not absent from the West, but the Christian Church has in general distributed only religious dogma to the mass of the people. The lack of truths transcending dogma in the mind of the common man has contributed strongly to the decline in religious belief which has made ‘God’ an increasingly empty word in western culture.
At this time of crisis in human affairs when the purely material solutions to life’s problems are proving illusory, even in the countries from which we adopted them, nothing would be served by seeking further foreign models on which to base our hopes for salvation. Nor is it being suggested that we should turn to some sort of religious fundamentalism, as have the Iranians, for that would be merely reactionary and would exacerbate communal differences. Our Indian identity lies ready to hand: individuals in identity with whom the universal spirit works out the patterns of its fundamental harmony. The fact is universal; but it has to be called Indian because, alone among nations, the possibility of its realisation as a guide to meaningful existence lies available at the core of the Indian culture, whereas it is more deeply buried elsewhere.
It has to be stressed that this is not a simplistic proposal, such as that meditation on the Brahman or the eternal verities would solve any one of our material problems or even, in itself, check corruption and other forms of moral degradation. Nor does it subscribe to the silly gambit, played by some of our foreign envoys, that India, as it is, is qualified to send government-sponsored spiritual missions into the world.
The point being made is that, world problems being the sum of individual problems, the sum of individualistic, ego-oriented, competitive viewpoints must, in an overcrowded and resource-short country, result in the situation we have today, where a few people enjoy luxurious living standards while half the population or more is increasingly under-nourished and deprived. Followed to its conclusion, some form of chaos must supervene.
Two logical alternatives present themselves. One is to take the cynically inhuman attitude of a Stalin, which unflinchingly contemplates the solution of such a problem as overpopulation by a combination of starvation, disease and bullets, and the problem of economic corruption by spies and summary punishment. The other is to take a stand on what one believes or feels to be mankind’s potential for good, and to pursue policies which aim to realise that potential, hedging them with rewards and punishments that steer people towards realisation of their own higher qualities. What one means by ‘good’ and ‘higher’ depends on one’s personal or culturally inherited vision of human potential. It is in this realm that India excels.
* Reproduced from ‘India 1984’, Seminar 305, January 1985.
1. Cf. ‘What our age needs is the reaffirmation, for its own conditions and its own needs, of the essential values of human life. Tradition fails us and will betray us if we trust to it... We cannot restore a past society, even if the haze of history hides its evils from us; we must rebuild society for ourselves, learning from the past what lessons and what warnings we are capable of learning.’ (Robert M. Maclver. Foreword to Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation.)
2. Barbara Tuchman, The Proud Tower.
3. Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (abbreviated).