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Friday, September 25, 2009

Counterculture

This ‘counterculture’ (see previous post) I have been talking about has deep and ancient roots in Indian scripture, folklore and the popular psyche. It goes at least as far back as some verses in the Vedas, and much advice about the king’s duties and behavioral desiderata given in the two great epics, as well as those who have been portrayed as models of virtue, such as Rama (and Bharat while he was officiating in Rama’s place), and Bhishma, and Govindamanikya of Tripura whom Tagore used as a model for Rajarshi (The Royal Sage). A great deal in the Arthashastra, that famous how-to manual written by one Kautilya for his pupil, India’s first (historically-speaking) emperor, deals with the rules to be followed and ideals to be aimed at by anyone who wishes to be respected and remembered as a ‘good’ king: and among other things, it enjoins that the king, however rich and powerful, conduct himself not only as a wise guardian of his people, but one who sets standards of probity and sanctity that they may emulate for the greater common good, even though that may require that he sternly restrain all his greedy material impulses, including gluttony, lust and avarice. And it cannot be denied that many rulers all through Indian history at least tried to live the non-greedy and generous life, from Chandragupta Maurya himself through Harsha and Rana Pratap and Shivaji to Gandhi and Subhas Bose and Lal Bahadur Shastri and Morarji Desai and Jayprakash Narain and a great many ICS officers, judges, doctors, teachers and other lesser lights too numerous to list here…

And it was not just about kings, either. I think India, more than any other country, has consistently idealized the non-greedy man, the saint, the ascetic, the scholar (not the technician, mind you, who is too commonly confused with a scholar these days), the artist in love with his art for art’s sake, the wandering or meditating wise man, and even the householder who lives a quiet, undemanding, self-controlled, socially-responsible and charitable life – the grihi sanyasi (which, I think Swami Vivekananda once said, is the hardest kind of sanyas to practice!) At least, it is India where not conquering generals and rich shreshthis or even kings who have been traditionally accorded the highest social esteem; rather, it was expected that such men who have won great worldly success be seen as prostrating themselves before those who have been recognized as ‘holy’ men. And whereas I am sure that the great majority of kings and tycoons did so only for the sake of form, to keep on the right side of overwhelming social opinion (the same reason why so many medieval European kings did not want to rub the Church of Rome the wrong way), there were many, from Ashoka, Menander (Milinda) and Akbar to Shivaji and the early Chogyals of Sikkim (and countless less-known minor princes and zamindars) who did so out of genuine conviction, esteem and awe of men whom they genuinely felt to be superior, men from whom they could learn lessons of lasting value. Maybe things have started changing rapidly of late, but even a hundred years ago (and that is only a blink in India’s history), Rudyard Kipling was quite right when he wrote that across the length and breadth of this land the humblest of folks considered feeding a wandering sadhu a matter of earning merit (punya); he was not sneered at or shooed away as an importunate beggar but treated with reverence as a better man. Also, I can say both from my reading as well as from direct personal experience that, while charlatans there have always been aplenty (as there are among scientifically-educated men today, such as doctors!), truly wise and holy men have never been lacking in this country either.

And if you ask why this ideal was so strongly held and insisted upon, well, I have found through very wide reading that it was because India discovered long ago (long before western socialists and environmentalists and psychologists started spreading the word around the world anew), once and for all, that high living is not good for you, as an individual and as a society. It ruins you in both body and mind, it makes decent social life impossible, it hurts the ecosphere that nurtures you too badly to be sustainable for long. Intelligent and well-informed people will realize that I am summarizing whole libraries here, but to give a few indicators of what I mean – look around yourself, and you will see millions of obese and brain-dead people glued to their potato chip packets, beer cans and video games or football on TV or hanging out at the shopping mall: that is a little of what I mean by saying it ruins you in body and mind. In a world of competitive high-living, where everyone is playing the game of consumerist one-upmanship all the time, everyone is bound to burn with jealousy and discontent and malice towards relatives, friends and neighbours; no society can exist in a healthy state under such conditions, because no one can wish anyone well, and widespread ‘corruption’ (which stems from millions of the undeserving, from rickshaw-pullers and police constables to MBAs and MLAs alike determined to access the high life by hook or by crook), frequent scandals, riots, insurgencies and wars will be inevitable: that is a little of what I mean by saying that it makes decent social life impossible. And the warnings that the environmentalists have been giving out for at least forty years now, about increasing pollution levels and rapidly-dwindling natural resources and ominous signs of man-made climate change are hints enough about what I mean by saying that it ruins the ecosphere and threatens the very continuance of human life on the planet. Those (from George W. Bush down to my fat neighbour who insists that she only has a thyroid problem and her pampered brat is not a lazy rascal but only ‘suffers’ from attention-deficit disorder) who choose to believe otherwise are living in denial: the best they can do is carry the world with them towards doom.

This is getting to be rather a long post again, given today’s typical attention spans (another sad sign of the consequences of ‘high’ living!). So far I have written mostly about the negative aspects of chasing the high life. In the next post I shall try to explain what I have understood about the positive aspects of abjuring the same.

7 comments:

Shilpi said...

Suvro da,
I've got a couple of questions again.
How/why do people choose one way in favour of the other? I've been thinking that it doesn't really make a difference where one is born (given your two stunning examples toward the end and others..) nor whether one is born rich or poor. So what does make one individual leave high living alone while another fools himself into thinking that that is what matters while yet others despise or at least seem to despise high living yet secretly wait for the day that they can flout their own high style life?

And when people do pursue the mall-crazy, material-goods and food crazy lifestyle - is there anything that can really make them see things differently? And what about the hypocrites (whom you mention in the previous post)? What could possibly poke or prod or nudge them into seeing things differently?

I have some other questions but I'll keep them in stock for now.

Of course I've been scratching my head but I can't even answer my questions even in 'abstract'/ideal terms.

Terribly interesting post this one of course - but that goes without saying.
Will wait for your response and for your next post.
Take care.
Shilpi

ginger candy said...

Sir,

I had heard the saying "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication" a long time ago. Your post has been a great help in understanding those words in a deeper way. If I were to say so to myself, I would account the ostentatious mentality of the general public to be a prime factor of the decaying social values these days. I have noticed that people have developed a morbid fascination towards showing off, regardless of how trivial accomplishments they may garner (like buying a new cell phone or a flat on a lifetime of EMI schemes). This vulgar trait of exhibitionism apparently pays off- many people think that this is the end of the rainbow, the sure-fire way to climb the ladder of social status. Whether or not it is worth spending your health, time and dignity upon is of course another question. To make matters worse, hordes of undeserving idiots are climbing this ladder too soon in their life. Why bother to learn and work hard when any moron can get his B.E. and M.B.A. degree (courtesy of dad's equally undeserved money) and find himself a grand job in an MNC? And why on earth should they care to lead a simple (another term for 'boring' these days), unpretentious life at a time when the market is sated with latest gizmos?

You know, I could go on and on about this, but I would stop right here. Maybe the answer is not in lamenting about this pompous life style, but in showing the world the benefits of refraining from the same. I am eagerly awaiting your next post.

Wishing you and all the readers here a Shubho Bijoya.

Thanks,
Joydeep

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I think I can answer both of you by saying that

1) No change will come about until a man or woman is not only ready but desperate for a change (and indeed, a lot of people are, but they don't know where to look, what else is possible, because of the kind of education they have had, and the kind of company they keep),

2) It is usually only some kind of traumatic event that makes adults start looking for alternative lifestyles.

I shall be glad to answer more questions.

Rochishnu said...

Sir,

The other day, in a not-so-famous TV comedy show, an elderly man came up and started saying many anecdotes and jokes, each of them having serious messages. A part of his performance, which particularly impressed me most, perhaps conveyed somewhat the same thought as your post (some part of it), only in a different style.

He said the VIPs in our country have '0's at the end of their custom cell-phone numbers, while the VVIPs add double '0's to exclude themselves from others. Doesn't it mean, the more number of 0's to your phone number, the higher your social status is?!

Then again he said, since VIPs are (most of the time) to be found roaming, hence a '0' is also added at the beginning of the phone numbers! The journey from one zero to the other is what we call "tarakki"!!


Love and regards,

Rochishnu

Amit parag said...

Sir when you wrote "millions of brain dead people" and then "In a world of competitive high-living,where everyone.....",I could not help asking when did this culture start or when did it turn into a full blown epidemic in India.Can we point out any time frame like post-independence when people turned to high living and little thinking, or we say that this culture has been seeping slowly for quite sometime?But in the other post you said that at the time of Gandhi,Tagore no one would give a thought to Nizam,except the most shameless fools.

But to the question of why did it start.I think the answer is Bertrand Russell's quote " Most people would rather die than think; in fact, they do so". Is it the right answer,Sir? or that the masses are not recognizing the "falsity of material wealth"(to quote FDR), but the it boils down to the same thing-the habit of not thinking.
And in the following post you said that some titanic event(with subtle hints to ,I think, World war 3) will cause mankind to see sense.This might be a truth which I would not want to digest,but which I can not avoid.
So I hope that the "little sparks of life in the engulfing darkness" turn into fire enough to consume the whole world.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Well, the desire to make a lot of (easy) money and splurge had always been around, Amit, and it had been growing in a creeping sort of way for a long time (even in the days of our so-called socialist Raj, under Nehru and Mrs. Gandhi), and inspirations came from abroad, such as when Deng Xiao Bing buried the ghost of Mao Ze Dong in China back in the '80s by declaring that even in China, 'it was glorious to be rich'. But in India, the stops were taken out and the floodgates opened with the so-called 'reforms' introduced by Manmohan Singh, Finance Minister to P.M. Narasimha Rao, in 1991. The process gained momentum only about a decade ago, when lakhs of bank clerks and junior PSU officers suddenly got huge pay-hikes and started buying cars and making holiday trips abroad and sending their kids to private colleges with gusto. As I have said in a recent comment on Alka Dwivedi's blog (where she wrote about Mont Blanc selling premium pens named after Gandhiji for Rs. 12 lakhs), it is a terrible thing when money gets into the hands of people without culture in huge numbers (the kind of people who buy underwear which promises to make you more macho...)

More if you want to know.

Amit parag said...

Sir, I have been asking my father about the 1991 reforms and how did it affect him.He said that even though the economy became more liberal (i.e. loans were granted easily and similar measures)those steps did not help the PSUs and their employees much.But then I compared the inflation rate(which fell down from 10.7 in 1991 to 4.6 in 2001)and the pay hikes in 1997 and in 2009.So would it be apt to point out that while rich (businessmen class) got richer and the poor got children,and the middle class with new found money wasted it all on material(and practically useless) things.
And I would surely like to know more.Do write a few lines about those economic segments which derived benefits from those measures,benefits in the proper sense that is unlike the benefits which bank clerks derived.