Friday, December 3, 2010
Rediscovering Humanities in Life and Literature
We are poised at a critical juncture in our history. The 20th century was a century of World Wars, an extended Cold War, Holocaust, Partitions, ideological collisions, death of imperialism, birth of neo-imperialism, collapse of erstwhile Soviet Union, triumph of market-driven capitalism and American globalization. In a way, we have experienced so much in our recent history that it may take us several generations to absorb and assimilate the impact of what we have collectively been through. One of the most obvious inferences we can draw from this situation is that the world around has changed at a frenetic, maddening pace so much so that it has left most of us reeling under the shock, quite disoriented, even off-centered. In his book, The Future Shock, Alvin Toffler says that one of the defining words of our contemporary reality is ‘Change’ and that this change is likely to take place at such a staggering pace that it would leave most of us in the middle of a maelstrom, swirling like leaves in a whirlpool.
One of the ways in which this frenetic change has impacted our lives is that it has given us a permanent sense of co-habitation with multiple crises. Be it the Great Depression or Economic Recession, failure of the ruling elite or the rights of the marginalized, oppressed minorities, fact of political corruption or the fiction of bureaucratic indifference, we, no longer, talk now in terms of finding a remedy or a solution, rather insist on how we can negotiate,’ ‘circumvent’ or ‘manage’ these crises. One of the ways in which the 20th century has changed our perception of our situation, milieu and circumstances is the way we invariably talk in terms of the ‘management approach’ over the ‘diagnostic approach.’ Until the end of the 19th century, it was the ‘diagnostic approach,’ supported by the medical science, which held sway over the human imagination. But somehow, the swirling changes in the 20th century compelled human beings to re-examine their approach to problem-solving. From attempting to find abiding, permanent solutions, which were nowhere to be found, as the problems far exceeded the limits of human understanding, to ‘managing’ or ‘containing’ or ‘cohabiting’ with the problems, there has been a great leap forward.
Now before I start outlining the exact nature of the ‘crises’ (I’m deliberately and self-consciously using the plural form here) confronting the ‘Humanities,’ let me raise a few semantic questions, which may even appear rhetorical to some. Let me first go into the history of the term ‘Humanities’ and see what kind of implications it has for the subject under discussion. The term ‘Humanities’ derives itself from the root word ‘human’ and is ideologically linked to the philosophy of ‘humanism’ that, we all know, gained currency in the West during Renaissance. As we all are familiar with what happened during Renaissance, I see no reason why I should elaborate on the social, political or cultural practices that supported, endorsed or legitimized Humanism. However, if I have to historicize this ‘idea’ or ‘concept,’ then it may safely be traced back to the 4th century BCE, a period in history that saw the emergence and consolidation of the Greek language, literature and civilization.
Though not many people are likely to accept this, but what happened before and after and also on account of the thought propagated by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle is closely tied to the philosophy of ‘Humanism.’ Despite their apparent differences, all the three great philosophers, in their own distinctive ways, promoted ‘humanistic’ tradition. ‘Humanities’ as a branch of knowledge and discipline is, however, a later invention, whose contours had begun to emerge around 16th and 17th century and coincided largely with the project of Enlightenment. Let me clarify, once again, that when I speak of Enlightenment, I’m not referring to the kind of Enlightenment Buddha experienced, which is purely spiritual in nature, but to the triumph of scientific reasoning, progress as also concerted efforts to build a material culture around these principles.
Now before I run into any semantic problems, let me clarify that I have a definite sense of what ‘humanism’ is or could possibly be. In one word, ‘humanism’ is a man-centric philosophy, and here I’m using ‘man’ not in its ‘gendered’ sense, but in its ‘generic’ sense. It has nothing to do with the primacy of man over woman, or woman as inferior to man or a whole lot of other ideological slants that our post-modernist/post-structuralist friends often give to it. Somehow, ‘humanism’ has been made into such a ‘pariah’ term these days that often we end up celebrating anti-humanism, without realizing its deeper implications. It is one thing to question the assumptions of ‘humanism’ or the project of Enlightenment that derived itself from it, but it is quite another to denounce it, lock, stock and barrel. In a way, the bad days of ‘humanism’ started with the arrival of Theory, which has apparently knocked ‘humanism’ out of the reckoning. Even since our friend Derrida challenged the notion of ‘metaphysics of presence’ and the rationale behind the logo-centric ‘subject,’ in the 1960s, not only has ‘Humanism’ become a bad word for most of us, but those of us who do believe in ‘humanism’ are constantly on the defensive, running for cover, almost to save our lives or our teeth.
I do not want to sound pedantic here, but let me say that ever since the moment of Theory arrived, we have stopped thinking of ‘man’ as a unified being and have increasingly begun to think of ways in which we can possibly split, divide, and fragment his identity. The markers of man’s identity are no longer his ability to either ‘be’ or ‘become’ but have been ‘contaminated’ or marked by race, gender, nation, class, caste, ideology and what have you. I’m not saying that Theory has not served much purpose. It certainly has, and that purpose is to make all those classes that have been marginalized, oppressed and colonized through history to reclaim their identity, and provide them with a framework within which they could, if possible, even create their own narratives of liberation. But has it really happened? Are the blacks in America or South Africa in a much better position today than they were in, say, 1960s? Have the colonized nations been able to work towards their ‘narrative of emancipation’ by overturning the colonial practices/colonial institutions or by re-creating the indigenous ones, instead? Have women across the world become freer and reclaimed their dignity after all the efforts made by the First World and/or the Third World Feminists? As a result of Theory, our hermeneutic and textual practices may have changed, but our economic, political and cultural practices have largely remained unchanged. If Theory has only given rise to another kind of neo-colonialism or neo-imperialism, or has only given us new logic for the sustenance of globalization (another unequal economic/political order), then I’d certainly prefer to side with the age-old, time-tested notions of humanism, even at the risk of being labeled a dinosaur.
Having said this let me now proceed to another dimension of the problem. It’s alright for me to assert that I favor the ‘return of humanism’ in some form, whatever it may be, but things are not as simple as they appear to be. Having been viewed with suspicion and distrust over the years, humanism is certainly in a state of deep crisis, today. Now, as far as I’m concerned, there are three possible ways in which we may configure this crisis. At this point, I would like to raise this question: when I do talk about the ‘crises’ (the plural version), what is it that I’m really talking about? Am I talking about the crises ‘in’ humanities, crises ‘of’ humanities or crises ‘for’ humanities? Though it might appear that it is just another linguistic game I’m playing with you, which has to do with the arbitrary change in the ‘middle term’ or ‘preposition’ of the proposition, it is not quite so. With each semantic shift, you would concede, a concurrent lexical shift would occur and our understanding of the problem would alter and shift, qualitatively and substantively, acquiring very different contours, even problematic. For instance, if it is conceived as crises ‘in’ humanities, it would possibly mean that there are crises everywhere, and so also in humanities, where the latter is merely a shadow or a reflection, big or small, of the former.
However, if I insist upon perceiving it as ‘crises of humanities,’ somewhere the assumption is these crises are peculiar to humanities, a particular branch of knowledge or discourse and, therefore, deserves to be viewed in isolation from the crises of the culture to which we belong. But in case, I choose to formulate it as crises ‘for’ humanities, one of the direct implications would be that these crises have been created, even manufactured for humanities by the forces inimical to it. I do not know if you, as readers and listeners, share my understanding of these propositions, but if you do, then it certainly gives me the legitimacy to proceed further, and if you don’t, some more clarification may be needed on the subject. My point is very simple: there are only two ways of looking at any crisis; either we see it in ‘relative’ terms or in ‘absolute’ terms. Further, we may perceive it either as a byproduct of both internal and external factors or merely the result of the factors extrinsic to it. My understanding is that crises in humanities is the resultant of both external and internal factors, is not peculiar to humanities but is an expression of much larger crises. On the one hand, it confronts other allied disciplines such as natural sciences, pure sciences and social sciences, while on the other, our own culture, as well. In other words, I’m hinting towards my preference for the relativistic, holistic approach, not the absolutist, segmented one.
Another point I wish to make is that my frame of reference for discussing these ‘crises’ is strictly native and Indian, not Eurocentric, circumscribed as it is by my understanding of our own context and milieu, with culture (in its broadest sense possible) being its overarching expression. At this stage, it might be argued that humanism, as a philosophy and ideology, too, is a Euro-centric concept and that it has a definite context of European Renaissance within which it originated, flourished and finally decayed. It may be further argued, what kind of distinction am I really making between two variants of humanism, Indian and Euro-centric? The popular perception of humanism, undoubtedly, brackets it with European Renaissance, and to that extent, it is perceived as a European or Euro-centric notion, though Europe had experienced humanism much before Renaissance actually dawned. The first flush of humanism in Europe, as I said earlier, coincided with the early phase of Greco-Roman civilization when Socrates, Plato and Aristotle held sway over human knowledge and thought. My point is historicizing humanism backwards is very simple: that humanism has a history that goes as far back as 4th century BCE. If this was the case with the European history, then what was the situation in the Indian context?
In the Indian context, the concept of humanism has, from the ancient times, been closely tied to the notion of dharma and is perhaps as old as is the history of dharma itself. One of the questions worth raising here is: Did the notion of dharma emerge with the Manusmriti or does it predate it and has beginnings elsewhere? Without putting too fine a point on this, let me say that the notion of dharma is to be found in our myths and legends, especially in our epics, The Ramayana and The Mahabharata, where it exists either as a normative principle or as exceptionalism. As it happened in Europe centuries later, the notion of humanism took its roots in the Indian context in our philosophical system, our structures of thought and feeling, our cultural matrix. To a large extent, it drew its main stimulus from the theological framework of Hinduism, though in its long journey through history, it became secular in nature as it sought synthesis with theological frameworks other than those of Hinduism, such as Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism. It is a sheer quirk of history (isn’t it?) that so many world religions found a home in India, had an interface and dialogue with other religions, and ultimately helped in consolidating, re-defining and challenging the limits of humanism from time to time.
My point is very simple: our concept of humanism is much more comprehensive, more composite and more synergetic or hybridized than the European notion could ever hope to be. It is not simply a case of scoring brownie points here, but a way of suggesting that our history has been much more inclusive than the European history, and as such, inclusivity, catholicity, comprehensiveness could easily be isolated as specific markers of Indian humanism. While in the West, the whole grid of humanism hinges upon the notion of existential, philosophical dualism, or what often passes off as ‘Self-Other’ differentiation; in the Indian context, it’s the all-inclusive, monotheistic notion of the ‘Cosmic Self’ that assimilates and is assimilated, that absorbs and expands, that recognizes no ‘Other’ except as an expression of the ‘Self.’ Besides, in the West, humanism is broadly seen as a god-centric or a man-centric philosophy, but in India, it is neither god-centric nor man-centric, but dharma-centric philosophy. At this point, some elaboration of the principle of dharma becomes absolutely necessary. Dharma, as it is understood in The Mahabharata, is something that pre-existed man and shall also exist after the generic man has ceased to exist on the face of this earth. In other words, dharma is said to be unchanging, immutable reality that is neither born nor dies, neither increases nor decreases, quantitatively or qualitatively. It is something that supersedes the temporal existence of man or men and so acquires an eternal, universal form and/or character.
In the penultimate chapter of The Mahabharata, when Yudhisththira finally decided to renounce the world and leave on his last journey to heaven, he was accompanied by his wife, brothers and a dog. Slowly, his wife and brothers fell by the wayside, but the dog continued to bring up the rear. When the moment came for him to enter the portals of heaven, Lord Indra offered Yudhisththira a choice between his faithful dog and heaven, saying, “Heaven has no arrangement for people with dogs. Think it over, good Yudhisththira. My suggestion is, you forget the dog. No wrong will be done if you do.” Yudhisththira said, “To abandon anyone who is devoted is immoral. It is as immoral as killing a Brahmin. Great Indra, I’ll not abandon this dog even if it means losing heavenly bliss.” As the story goes, that very moment, the dog transformed himself into the god of Dharma and began to sing Yudhisththira’s praises. Nowhere is the concept of dharma enunciated better than in the last chapter, where the significance of The Mahabharata is finally summed up in these words:
“Vyasa condensed the Mahabharata
for the sake of Dharma…
From dharma comes success and pleasure:
Why is dharma not practiced?
Never reject dharma – not for pleasure, not from fear,
Not out of greed either.
Dharma is eternal. Discard life itself,
but not dharma.
Pleasure and pain are not eternal,
The soul alone is eternal.”
It is this equivalence between dharma and soul that needs to be examined somewhat critically if the true meaning of dharma, enunciated as it is in our ancient texts, is to be grasped in its totality. Dharma is not only a moral precept or imperative that guides our path of life in this world, but a governing principle that determines our position in the ‘other world,’ too. Dharma is not simply a regulatory principle of social engineering, as we often take it to be, but also a way of enlarging our consciousness, and expanding our soul and spirit. In other words, dharma is the only connecting link, a bridge across this world and the world hereafter, the world of materiality and that of spirituality. Dharma, at once, offers deliverance from this world and from the next; a way of imposing order on the worldly life and also a way out of this world into a state of transcendence that Moksha promises. The Mahabharata also reminds us that the performance of dharma is a sacred duty, enjoined upon every living being, especially in the critical times, when adherence to dharma becomes a pretext for self-questioning or a calculated personal risk. Even in face of a Nietzchean nightmare, when one has lost the last vestiges of love and hope or faith in the legitimacy of human bonds, dharma stands firm as the sustaining, if not the guiding, principle of our life and existence.
Now my exposition of dharma, especially in the way in which it has been done in some of the preceding paragraphs, should not mislead my listeners into believing that I‘m trying to give it specifically a Hindu-orientation or suggesting that it be treated as a Hindu-centric notion. Far from it, I’m only suggesting that though it may have originated in Hinduism, it certainly has undergone several changes and modifications through history, especially as it was, from time to time, incorporated into and re-interpreted by the exponents of Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism in India. Though the Buddhists, the Jains and the Muslims may have been somewhat harsh and unforgiving in their emphasis on and orientation of dharma, Christians and Sikhs have recognized in it the only possibility of regulating social as well as the spiritual lives of its adherents. I have no hesitation in saying that the concept of dharma, as it either exists or is practiced today, is neither pure nor uncontaminated, as it doesn’t belong to a particular religious denomination or group, but over the centuries, has truly become a hybridized, indigenous form of humanism that is truly Indian in character, form and spirit. If I have gone to such pains to discuss this idea, it is only to emphasize that when in India we speak of ‘crisis in humanities,’ it is this absence of dharma in our emotional, social, political, religious, intellectual and cultural life that we are essentially trying to bemoan.
At this juncture, the question arises: Are there any solutions to this absence of dharma and the consequent threat to our humanity, our very existence? As I said earlier, we are living through the times when ‘diagnostic approach’ has already been abandoned in favor of the ‘management approach.’ Does it mean, we should now stop talking in the language of abiding solutions, permanent cures or prescriptive remedies? In a way, yes, but to accept it in totality would mean that we are walking into the trap of Euro-centrism. My argument all along has been that when it comes to crisis, nothing works better than our home-grown prescriptions, our own remedies. Often, in the times of crises, borrowed ideas fail to work for indigenous problems. So, if we can allow ourselves to step out of Euro-centrism, for some time, we may be able to work our way around our crises. In the 19th century, the West (read Nietzsche) had already proclaimed that ‘God is dead’ and now it has declared (read Derrida and company) that the quintessential ‘man’ in the sense in which we have always understood him, is now a ‘de-centred subject.’ Death of God and decentring of ‘Man’ have left them in a situation where they are busy re-writing ‘histories’ and re-reading ‘textualities.’ The author of their lives is ‘dead’ and now they want the reader (read Consumer) to step in and start playing an active role in scripting meanings. As far as they are concerned, there is perfect symmetry of thought and action. With the triumph of capitalism and globalization, markets have multiplied and so have the consumers. In that context, it makes sense to search for plurality of meanings, which creates more and more fissures and internal divisions.
But can we afford to abandon our God? Can we afford to ignore our dialogic tradition, our composite culture and our plurality that celebrates difference? More than ever before, it is now that we need to re-visit our Bhakti poets, revive interest in the Sufi tradition and look for other similar paths that reinforce our faith in both God and Man. This is where the ‘management,’ not the ‘solution’ of our crises lies, and this is where the ultimate redemption of our divided culture also lies. Let me now remind you of that composite culture, that dialogic tradition, of which we are the true inheritors, the inheritance that we have somehow lost in our times, because of which we, too, often feel, lost as a generation. Jalaluddin Rumi, a great Sufi saint says, “Try and be a sheet of paper with nothing on it./Be a spot of ground where nothing is growing,/Where something might be planted,/A seed, possibly from the Absolute.” Why go far, we have our own version of Sufism, available in Punjabi language and culture. At this point, I’m thinking of Baba Farid, who says: “O Farida! Why do you wander through the dark forests/Pushed back by the thorns, pricking your tender toes/Why don’t you return to the silent corners of your heart/Where your Sain resides, unbidden, waiting to greet you.” Of course, not to forget Baba Bulleh who says: “I am emancipated, emancipated I am,/I am no prisoner of being born a Syed,/All the fourteen heavens are my territory,/I am slave to none./Only they shout loud while calling others to prayer/Whose hearts are not pure./Those who go to Mecca on pilgrimage/Have little else to occupy them here.”
Let us bring back this humanism, which is already in our blood, and in our culture; not some borrowed, alien notion that has no connection either with our life or our literature. Once that happens, we would have taken care not only of our class rooms but of our society as well. It is the return of this kind of ‘humanism’ that can help us rediscover ourselves as human beings, negotiate the multiple crises we are facing today, or pave the way for our emancipation, at both the individual and the collective levels.