Our Times

Once a disciple asked Gautama Buddha, “O Lord, where have we all come from? Where do we all go after death?”

I do not know whether Lord Buddha actually knew the answer to this perennial question of humanity, but what he gave as a reply (it is hardly a reply though, if not a pert backchat) not only bypasses the exact question asked, it also steers his disciple away from asking such ‘irrelevant’ questions. He says, “It is none of your concern. What you should be really concerned about is that you are unhappy. You do not get what you desire, cannot preserve whatever little you get and cannot be happy with what you can preserve. Hence, getting rid of this cycle of unhappiness is what you should be bothered about and nothing else.”

Religions have differed in their prescription of ways people can go past this vicious cycle, but they all agree on one account – achieving the ultimate happiness by treading the path of denial of sensory pleasures. “All ethical gymnastics consists therefore singly in subjugating instincts and appetites of our physical system in order that we remain their masters in any and all circumstances hazardous to morality; a gymnastic exercise rendering the will hardy and robust and which by the consciousness of regained freedom makes the heart glad.” (- Immanuel Kant, Metaphysics of Ethics; translated by Semple)

In effect, the claim is, if ever a person tries to achieve happiness beyond momentary pleasure, there can be no other way than taking resort to carnal rationing. Apparently, though it might seem paradoxical that we are seeking happiness through discomfort, the basic logic behind this school of religious beliefs nevertheless is pretty straightforward (at least as far as I can fathom) – if only there is reduction of one’s innate desires through wilful self-deprivation can it be possible to achieve happiness, sans dependence on worldly possessions and emotions.

I have heard cynics lamenting on how our generation (which is arguably the product of the so-called new-millennium consumerism) has completely forgotten this fundamental precept of life and thus has outgrown the need of a religious belief-system. While it is certainly true that commodity-fetish is a hallmark of our generation (so much so that often the only meaningful calibration that we can provide for our happiness is solely based on amounts of material possession), I cannot say that this is anything to be criticized per se. I believe we have entered an era of a diametrically opposite religious belief-system, where people try to understand the worthlessness of worldly passions not through renunciation (as in the erstwhile religious beliefs), but through over-indulgence. Notice that even in the new system, the goal of achieving happiness transcending material boundaries has not changed. What has changed is that people are no longer conscious about actually choosing a particular way of life to achieve happiness. They are simply indulging in the material pleasures to the fullest extent permitted by their varying personal resources, without thinking whether this will facilitate their freedom from worldly possessions. In other words, previously people consciously used religion and its associated morality to deviate their attention from sensory pleasures, whereas now people do not feel any conscious urge to involve in any such ethical gymnastics. However, this does not mean that they do not eventually land up with the same goal of achieving happiness. They consciously believe that unbridled consumption is capable of rendering them happy, but very soon they eventually realize that renunciation beyond a certain level of consumption is absolutely necessary to be happy. Obviously, today there are idiosyncratic differences in how fast (or with how much consumption) a person can reach that threshold of consumption beyond which he finds any additional consumption as conspicuous and hence abhors any such, just as there used to be in the past, interpersonal variations in how efficiently a person could impose carnal sanctions on himself. Evidently, just as there was no guarantee in the erstwhile days that a person would find it worthwhile to seek redemption from the vicious cycle of more-greed-more-unhappiness, today also there is no guarantee that an individual will ever reach his threshold consumption level. Thus, I feel that the new way of achieving happiness in life that has evolved in the cradle of consumerism is limited by humanity’s innate desire to decongest one’s life after a threshold of consumption, by limiting consumption.

I know sceptics will disagree with me, saying that my idea does not work in the real world, because if it did, we would not hear Steve Jobs blatantly proclaiming, “You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.” I would retaliate by pointing out that if the society wants new things for consumption, it does not necessarily mean that it wants more things for consumption. Moreover, even if a certain section of the society actually does want more consumption, it is only because that section has not yet reached that threshold consumption.

There is only one snag in the new system – the subjectivity of adequacy. While the older school of thought urged people to impose self-restrictions, the new system does just the opposite – it fans the craving for consumption in people until they are satiated. This leaves open the possibility that an individual, particularly one who cannot afford to buy enough consumption so as to be satiated, is never satiated. In the classical religious belief (if you allow me this rather ambitious nomenclature), people, who did not have ‘enough’ resources, were as worthy of finding happiness in life as were their richer counterparts; but this egalitarianism is lost in the new era. Thus, our religious epoch has seen what I prefer to call “religious inequality” – people are no longer equals even in their access to transcendental happiness, let alone worldly pleasure. I believe that the only way to get past this new kind of inequality is to make our Buddhist disciple believe that being the richest man in the cemetery or going to heaven after death does not matter; what matters is going to bed at night saying one has done something today to satisfy his needs better and limit his greed further. Thus, the ability to distinguish between one’s need from one’s greed is the only education that can solve this problem.

As we leave ISI, we must learn to recognize this religious vacuum that is plaguing a large section of our society. I know for sure that most of my ISI friends will achieve enough material resource as well as the required prudence to reach the consumption-threshold I discussed here, but my essay will prove meaningful if they can be instrumental in alleviating this “religious inequality” from society in whatever humble way they can.

An August Debate Revisited

Who is the Father of our Nation? – Mahatma Gandhi. No debate on that, please!

Who is the Mother of all debates on the future of India? – Mahatma Gandhi. At least historian Ramachandra Guha thinks so and not altogether without reason.

While the quintessential Indian loquaciousness has left no stone unturned to ignite a debate, especially regarding matters of public policy, it does not require much of knowledge or intellect to appreciate Gandhi’s pivotal role in igniting the debates that shaped modern India. Be it the secular polity of the Indian State, or the non-interventionist foreign policy, or the democratic rights of the citizens to express dissent against the establishment – hues of Gandhian ideologies are not hard to spot in the Indian socio-economic and political fabric. Nevertheless, one must not presume that Indians have been all too obedient to listen to the Mahatma on all grounds. It had often been the case that the side of the debate for which Gandhi had fought, did not get the majority support and thus the Gandhian philosophy regarding such issues have been systematically reduced to nothing more than obsolete ideologies of a “half naked Indian fakir” in the moth-eaten chapters of history. One prime example is of course the Charka fiasco.

Gandhi popularized the use of Charka (or the spinning wheel) as part of the Khadi Movement in the 1920s, with the motto that every Indian would spin his or her own cloth. Since its very inception, the concept of achieving economic independence from the capitalistic clutches of a colonial economy, only merely through the Charka evoked widespread dissent. However, such voices of dissent were not quite heard till Gandhi’s death (because of Gandhi’s sheer political stature: Gandhi himself noted, “The Congress did accept the Charkha, but did it do so willingly? No, it only tolerates the Charkha simply for my sake…if you continue with me without faith [that the Charkha has the power to achieve Swaraj (i.e., home-rule or independence)] you will be deceiving me and doing great wrong to the country.”); the exception being none other than Rabindranath Tagore. The Prophet and Poet, as is widely known, shared differences in their personal ways of life, religious views, socio-political and economic ideologies; but the debate on the Charka is one of significant importance to modern India, and hence I decide to make this revisit to the august debate.

Gandhi’s idea of the Charka revolved around two pivots: the first was obviously the precept that the village should ensure its own requirements of cloth itself. The idea was to meet the basic needs of cloth and food – in exchange of extra cloth – and freedom from unemployment for all the rural folks. Basically, the Charka promised economic independence to the millions of hapless people and prepared them economically and psychologically to stand up to exploitation. At the first glance, this might seem to be a prescription of a rather stern doctrine of self-sufficiency and dignity. True as it might be, for ‘the spinning-wheel gradually became the centre of rural uplift in the Gandhian scheme of Indian economics’ (B.R. Nanda, 1989), Gandhi’s advocacy of the Charka transcended the realm of economics. Herein lies the second pivot of the Charka ideology: Gandhi perceived the toil of spinning the wheel as a way through sacrifice for people who are better off to identify themselves with the less fortunate. He himself explains in no uncertain terms, “’Why should I, who have no need to work for food, spin?’ may be the question asked. Because I am eating what does not belong to me. I am living on the spoliation of my countrymen. Trace the source of every coin that finds its way into your pocket, and you will realize the truth of what I write.”

While Rabindranath seemed to be convinced of the Gandhian ideal of village self-sufficiency (for he himself experimented with rural reconstruction at Santiniketan and Sriniketan, where he introduced training in pottery, basket-making, paper-making, leatherwork, woodwork, weaving and other crafts to achieve self-sufficiency), he most certainly could not understand exactly how only the Charka can deliver that, let alone deliver Swaraj. As for the concept of Charka as an instrument of thought-provoking reflective penance, Tagore had his own misgivings – “The charka does not require anyone to think; one simply turns the wheel of the antiquated invention endlessly, using the minimum of judgement and stamina.”

In retrospect, it is fascinating how Tagore’s apprehensions about the practicality of Charka proved to be true. In fact, 3 years after Tagore’s demise, Gandhi had confessed, “I first introduced Khadi and only later studied its implications and experimented with it. I find that I have been deceiving myself. What I gave to the people was money but not the real substance – self-reliance. I gave them money in the form of wages and assured them that it contained Swaraj. People took me at my word and believed me, and continue to believe me. But I have now my own misgivings as to how far such Khadi can lead to Swaraj. I am afraid that Khadi has no future if we continue it as today.”

While Gandhi recognized the inherent flaw in his Charka ideology, it is not altogether worthless to consider revival and implementation of his economic policy – that of building a ‘non-violent economy’. Resonating well with the Gandhian philosophy, 20th century economist E.F. Schumacher notes that the poor of the world cannot be helped by ‘mass production’, only by ‘production by the masses’. The technological system of mass production, based on sophisticated, highly capital-intensive, high energy-input dependent, and human labour-saving technology is inherently violent, ecologically damaging, self-defeating in terms of non-renewable resources and stultifying for the human person. On the other hand, the system of production by the masses mobilises the priceless resources which are possessed by all human beings, their clever brains and skilful hands; the philosophy of the technology is to serve the human person instead of making him the servant of machines.

In today’s world of mass xenophobia, workaholism and widespread apathy towards modern life, the Gandhian economic ideal certainly calls for reconsideration. It is an irony that Gandhi’s economic views were not put to practice in his own country. The Nehru-Mahalanobis model of rapid large-scale industrialization and mechanization of production in independent India under the tutelage of Gandhi’s own political heir, Pandit Nehru spelt doom for the Gandhian economic ideals. The inevitable result has been “a lurid counterfeit of prosperity”.

Until the time we recognize the significance of the Gandhian scheme of economics – a scheme which was beyond any debate between the Poet and the Prophet, I think we can only take recourse to Keynes’ speculation (a nagging habit of any Economics student like myself!): “We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful…But beware! The time for all this is not yet. For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to everyone that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.”



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