Frontiers to freedom

Is humour for one offensive to another? Is fun at one’s expense mirth for another? When does humour transgress limits to become a slight? Are we touchy when we are made fun of but can’t hold back a smile when another is being mocked? These were questions that  were bounced off in a debate on television yesterday. The context was a PIL (public interest litigation) by a Sikh group in the Supreme Court of India against the infamous ‘Sardarji’ jokes that stereotype male members of the Sikh community as being dim-witted.

The Americans for their English (‘Americans haven’t spoken English in ages’, Prof. Henry Higgins, immortalised on screen by Rex Harrison, famously said), the British for their accent (when attempting to speak in Indian languages, for instance), the Germans for their love of ‘organization’ and their lack of humour (see the delightful ‘Those Magnificent Men and their Flying Machines’) and Indians for their love of loudness – in everything from speech to honking on the road to colourful attire – are all stereotypes that humorists unapologetically milk to the hilt.

While artists of all genres (from stand-up comedians to actors, writers, painters and media-persons) are unanimous that they have the freedom to spoof whoever they wish, they stop short of political incorrectness. Certain communities (of which the brahmin community is not one) and certain religious adherents (of which the Hindu affiliates are not one) are sacrosanct, their sensibilities and sensitivities are not to be trifled with.  As for the rest the said actors, litterateurs et al refuse to be held responsible for thin-skinned audiences.

Can there be frontiers to freedom? Should there be? Wouldn’t talk of ‘limits’ to freedom become oxymoronic? Perhaps, an answer can be found in this ‘Fool’s Prattle’. Says D V Gundappa in his classic work of philosophy for the layperson, Mankuthimmana Kagga:

The roving bird responds to the call of its nest, the ambling cow lets the rope on its neck hold it back. What is life if not bound by any value?

Self-restraint and allowing oneself to be restrained by societal norms are limits that make freedom a happy choice for all and not just the ones who claim their right to it. To be civil is not to be unfree!

Poor Pothi!  Poor Pothi? Poor Pothi.

 

Pothi is the name of my neighbour’s home-bound domestic help – a smart slip of a girl some ten or so years old.  I have exchanged a few smiles with the child, but can’t speak her language.  So I can’t claim to know what is going on in her heart and her head as she goes through her days, sweeping, dusting, mopping, cleaning, washing, and though I haven’t actually seen it, probably cooking, and, most likely, polishing shoes and ironing clothes of a family of four and an endless stream of live-in guests.

She is constantly in demand: ‘Pothi, close the gate!’ call the two other children who live there – one a little older and another a little younger to her – when they go off on their bicycles to call on friends or to their tuition classes.  ‘Pothi, come and bowl’, it is, when the children are short of a hand at a game of cricket.  ‘Pothi!’ the house-owners call when dark clouds threaten rain and clothes have to be taken off the line, when there is someone at the door, when the car has to be washed, the garden watered, the compound swept, the garbage cleared when the municipal workers have played truant, leaving several days’ garbage bags hanging from the tree outside their gate, when guests have to be attended to, their children entertained … and so it goes on, hour after hour, day after day.  Pothi has not had a holiday in years. Poor Pothi!

But is Pothi the one to feel sorry for?  While the children of the household grow up in boisterous abandon, frittering away their energies on facile attempts at play – except when exams are round the corner, gibbering away in acquired accents of English-medium ‘international’ Indian schools,  trying to skip or skate away their extra kilos in feeble fits and starts, Pothi is learning many life skills: to concentrate on the work at hand while all around distractions abound, to be tough since indulging in self-pity is not an option, to be circumspect about exhibiting emotions as hand-me-downs and leftovers become par for the course when others get the treats and the pampering, to learn how to manage time and to multi-task, doing every task well as there is no other option.  While the children of the household could grow into maladjusted adults because they have never learnt to lead independent lives or to live responsibly, Pothi will be a competent and capable person, an asset to the larger society.  Besides, when day in day out there are reports of child-abuse and child-trafficking, when children run away from public institutions meant to shelter them, and from the homes they were born in because they cannot withstand the drudgery or horror, when the world Pothi was born in and the larger society we live in are such cesspools I wonder, should I describe this child next door, who is growing up in a decent family ambience, as Poor Pothi?

But then again, what accounts for this patent unfairness?  Why should one child be bonded in labour, seeing to the comfort of other children her age and the adults who are blind to the child in her?  It is only because Pothi was born into an economically deprived family.  To what avail legislations and government departments, activists and civil society organisations if sections of our people are so poor that they cannot even take care of their own?  When a family has so little to sustain itself that it has to ‘sell’ off one of their kids, what would happen if a child of theirs is ‘rescued’ and restored to them?  What would happen if, after investing in their dreams of a university degree and a job to follow a society can assure a child like Pothi neither? Can a #ChildLabour law or a #RightToEducation law operate in a vacuum?  The reality of the poor, like Pothi, and their life worlds have to be factored in when framing laws for their welfare.  Strengthening structures and systems has to precede, not follow policy implementation.  Only fail-safe supporting frameworks and their continuous monitoring will ensure that the intended ends are truly realised.  The Pothis of the world are not commodities that can be traded in; equally, they are not properties that can be used to enhance the prestige of platform exhortations[1].

[1] A term used by V.T. Lakshmi in her early twentieth century note, A Suggestion Offered.

Yoga: beyond physical well-being

The PubMed biomedical literature database reports a spurt in #Yoga research in recent years but > 90% of it relates yoga to health conditions.

In a 2014 article in the International Journal of Yoga (In search of yoga: Research trends in a western medical database) Marcy C McCall reports that while the first recorded yoga article in western medical research dates to 1948, authored by E. Abegg, there has been a surge in academic interest post-2007, with an average of 200 articles being added every year in recent times.  The article concludes by stating, ‘Systematic reviews and yoga trials are increasing, indicating a potential increase in quality of evidence. Three conditions show consistently high correlations with yoga research: stress/anxiety, pain, and depression. A significant rise in the number of cancer publications suggests an area of emerging research.’

Yoga has been described ‘as a safe and effective intervention to increase strength, flexibility and balance, and treatment for high blood pressure, heart disease, aches and pains, depression, stress, and potentially asthma’ by the National Institutes of Health, USA, and by the National Health Services, UK.  It is less known that yoga seeks to align individual health with social health, which is in line with WHO’s definition: ‘Good health is a state of complete physical, social and mental well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Health is a resource for everyday life, not the object of living, and is a positive concept emphasizing social and personal resources as well as physical capabilities.’

The Bhagavad Gita (verses 5.23 and verses 6.20 to 25) tells us that yoga helps us reconcile our aspirations with the outcomes, tolerate agitations that arise from desire, and recognise that expectations and disappointments are par for the course for sentient beings as long as they live.

The path of Yoga suggested by the Gita provides for the inescapable reality of expectations.  It also grants that it is natural to feel frustrated when these expectations are not met.  However, it counsels us to show forbearance in the face of such disappointments.  Yoga, says the Gita, helps us cultivate an endurance to the psychological pain akin to the fortitude with which we learn to bear physical pain.

I too have been discriminated against …

… but no one has spoken up for me, and so many hundreds of thousands like me.  Because I’m born a brahmin – that most hated of castes in the land of my birth. 

We are portrayed in school text books as vile creatures who hold fellow humans in contempt and deny them the right to be aspirational.  Our mannerisms, dress, customs and appearance are ridiculed in movies and literature.  We are stereotyped by associating us with certain identification marks drawn from our language and appearance, which too are fodder for mocksters. We are often deprived of admission to professional courses of choice because no performance is stellar enough for the likes of us who are designated a ‘forward’ community.  When it comes to government or public sector jobs, we have to ensure our performance falls within the narrow band of the highest scorers.  We are discriminated against at every stage of our lives because history holds our ancestors responsible for various social ills that have percolated to the present day. 

Ours is a fast dwindling community, with each subsequent generation choosing to restrict the number of offspring – in a sense, you could say we are a ‘minority’ too.  But no one has, or ever will, stand up for us or question the discrimination against us – because, you see, we are brahmin.

Censorship and Debate: a lesson from ancient India

Censorship may not be all bad.  Problem is, it doesn’t work.  True, all minds are not cultivated to the same degree, trained sufficiently or mature enough to approach with suspicion, question before absorbing the import of what is being said, or to suspect intrigue.    But you cannot even censor your own kids: they will find ways to use the words, read the literature, and do the acts you prohibit.  So, where does that leave larger entities that try to clamp down on free speech, thought and expression?

Western systems, since millennia, appear to have considered it prudent to censor thought: Plato, in Republic, goes into some detail about what young minds should be exposed to, and Rousseau’s Emile is premised on this.  But in India, what has come to be called ‘Hindu’ philosophy preferred healthy debate to censorship, which is one of the reasons it  keeps giving rise to breakaway cults and heterodoxies that become strong, individual congregations in their own right.

Nyaya, a precursor of Western Logic, for instance, is among the earliest systematised schools of thought rooted in the ‘Hindu’ philosophy.  It predates the Christian era and was the fountainhead of several treatises on Tarka, which may be loosely translated as reflective analysis or argument.  Tarka, an important scholarly enterprise of ancient India, which was honed as both a science and an art, was instrumental in establishing the claims of one philosopher or philosophy over another, often in an assembly of scholars, laypersons and aristocrats.  The written word was also used to powerful effect at transformational change by following the norms of scientific debate.

Contemporary Indian polity – by which term I mean the nation and its various organs from government to media to the public at large – would do well to reclaim this ancient Indian tradition of logical reasoning and healthy debate to counter what are perceived as deviant opinions rather than try to cow down discomfiting strains of thought with censorship.  Rather than ban a book, film or play, write a book, produce a film or stage a play with an alternative viewpoint.   Don’t take the easy way out and just try to wish away what you don’t like or want with a blanket ban.  The atheist streams have had their space in Indian society: from Carvaka-s of ancient India to Dravidian movements of contemporary times.  No one banned them.  They did not gather steam or drifted away from their moorings because the larger sections of Indian society found greater meaning in non-atheist thought.   If you want your view to prevail, you will take the trouble to give it the contours of reason and substance.

Children: objectified, reduced to a mere statistic.

Children ceased being just bundles of joy since a couple of decades.  For many, they had become a ‘responsibility’.  One did not just enjoy having them and/ or having them around.  One had to ‘plan’ when to squeeze them in depending on career needs, care-giver availability, and even travel plans in the case of global parents who had a choice of countries that they could offer their yet to be born offspring to choose to be citizens of.  But, at least, children were still considered human organisms.

The position of children took a turn for the worse when they became objects of scientific and social experimentation: think sperm and egg banks, advocacy of free living, surrogacy and so on.  Most recently, self-proclaimed spiritual leaders have been urging the devout adherents of their respective creeds to bring more children into the world – so that they may save their faith from extinction or claim pride of place as the world’s most populous religion.  Children, now, have been reduced to a mere statistic.  Join the race or be damned.

PostScript: Science and religion may well come together and set up labs that can reproduce babies on demand for every kind of need: to pass on your inheritance, to borrow an organ, to populate your faith, to churn out a workforce, you name it.  And lobbyists and social scientists would be kept busy arguing for/ against the rights/ freedoms of citizens and tracking the grossness of the new world and predicting worse …

Karma: A definition and a deconstruction

“An object which is sought to be reached by an agent through a kriya is what is meant by karma.”

– V. T. Tirunarayana Iyengar.

Examining the individual components of the scholarly interpretation, we can see that karma involves:

an object or goal,

an agent or actor who is seeking to reach the goal,

a process that is undertaken to try and reach the goal, and

kriya or performance of acts intended to facilitate the process of reaching the goal.

Attainment of the object or goal is the purpose that motivates the kriya or act.  Every act, therefore, is expected to be done with an aim to further the process of attaining the goal.  An unstated, underlying clause appears to be: Moments lost in acts that detract from this purposeful journey impact the extent of success in the quest.

However, it is important to note that the goal is sought to be reached. The emphasis, therefore, is on the performance of the act and not on the outcome per se.  Implicit in this interpretation is the awareness that while one has the capacity to engage in action, the outcome may be impacted by external factors.  These factors could include personal limitations, limitations of the environment in which the action takes place, and other factors that are not feasible to fathom out for a variety of reasons. However, read in conjunction with the explanation of kriya, it is clear that there is a certain emphasis, expectation even, on the manner of acting.

The object is sought to be reached by an agent.

Digressing a bit here, and interpreting the definition in a way that was probably not intended, I want to ask: Is it possible that the rule called varna-ashrama dharma could have been originally intended to make it possible for actors to frame meaningful goals, which, in turn might fall under the broad classification of purushartha-s, namely dharma, artha, kama and moksha? In any case, the varna-ashrama  rule could be applied to contemporary times by understanding it to mean that at any point of time an individual should balance the demands of their vocation in accordance with their stage of life.  For, when setting the goals and doing the kriya or actions intended to achieve the goals, is it not simply common sense to want to think in terms of our natural proclivities/ acquired vocation (varna) and our stage of life (ashrama)?

Getting back to the definition, it seems that karma, in philosophy, is a concept which is concerned with the ends, and the means employed to attain these ends.  Whereas, in common parlance, karma is a theory that tries to explain results proactively and retrospectively.  For, karma in common parlance is used to convey ‘payback’ which may be understood to mean:

a) benefits and costs arising from individual acts of body and mind impact our state of being; and

b) the accumulation of benefits and costs of past acts impact the outcomes of ongoing and future acts.

How can this commonsensical understanding of karma be reconciled with the scholarly interpretation?  Reconciliation, I believe, would motivate individuals to positive action to attain their goals rather than allow them to wallow in passive acceptance of status quo.  At the same time, the emphasis would be on sincerity of purpose rather than success of an endeavour, making the agent and their actions central rather than results that are impossible to predict or control.