On Reactions to Ashis Nandy’s Statement

Many have now read news reports to the effect that Ashis Nandy, an eminent academic and scholar, unwittingly blurted out at a “Literary Festival” in Jaipur that “Most corrupt people come from …” and mentioned certain caste-based sub-groups in India.

Though I am inclined to think that Nandy did not quite mean what the statement literally says (for which he has apologized) culturally offensive words like that deserve to be repudiated, criticized and condemned. They should not go unchallenged by other scholars and commentators.

However, subjecting the man to police questioning, and calling for his arrest with threats of putting him in jail for making an outrageous, inappropriate, and morally reprehensible statement is another regressive step towards re-affirming our medieval mindset which has been raising its ugly head all too frequently in various contexts in various garbs.

I fear that many Indians will hesitate to express an honest thought about what or how they feel about aspects of their culture, religion, society, or politics, unless it is soothingly adulatory.  

God knows there are nations in the world where even stricter codes of behavior and beliefs are enforced on the helpless populace by the governments in power. So far India has kept away from membership in such Dark Age clubs.

It is refreshing that some bold thinkers in India have come to the defense of Nandy, not for what he said, but for his right to speak out his mind in however clumsy and offensive a mode. They realize that the freedom to express one’s thoughts, sublime or ridiculous, enlightened or absurd, is a precious kernel in any civilized society in the modern world. Curbing it is among the necessary acts for reverting to the bad old days.

January 29, 2012

Reflections on the Gita: Cross-Cultural & Non-Tradiional

1. dharmakṣetre kurukṣetre samavetā yuyutsavaḥ

māmakāḥ pāṇḍavāś caiva kim akurvata sañjaya 1.1

In the field of dharma, in the field of Kurus, gathered and eager to fight,

My own men and the Pandavas, what are they doing, Oh Sañjaya?

The Gita appears in the epic Mahabharata which recounts many events and episodes from Indic sacred history. But the central thread of this longest epic in world literature is the rivalry between two families of cousins: the noble Pandavas and the ignoble Kauravas.

Conflict is the motif in many epics: the confrontation between the forces of good and the forces of evil. In many of these works, as in Greek and Babylonian myths and in the Puranas, the manifestations of good and evil are mythic beings. But in others they are earthly ones, men and women like the rest of us. In the Mahabharata, which is not without its supernatural elements, Pandavas and Kauravas, though endowed with superhuman strengths, are still humans. Therefore, the Gita tells us not about wars between demons and angels, or between asuras and devas, but about  perennial struggles that are part of human history. 

Then again, Pandavas and Kauravas are not strangers, but cousins. The French thinker François Fénelon said: toutes les guerres sont civiles; car c’est toujours l’homme contre l’homme qui répand son propre sang, qui déchire ses propres entrailles: All wars are civil wars, for it is always man spilling his own blood, and tearing his own. So is the war in the Mahabharata: it is between kith and kin.

Many have pointed out that the first word in the Gita is dharma: a term that is as untranslatable into English as the term hermitian operator is into Sanskrit. Dharma has been variously interpreted as religion and righteousness. Etymologically it refers to a framework in which one supports, i.e. one is at peace with oneself and with the world around. It is clear that this is not easy to achieve, but this is what most normal people crave for. The Gita offers pointers for achieving this by revealing to us much about the human condition.

The second word is the field of Kurus, suggesting that our physical life is also the field of adharma, of unhealthy forces. This is why many commentators interpret the Battle of Kurukshetra, not as another historical encounter between enemies on a battle-field, but rather as the tug that ethically bound human beings often experience. Some enlightened Muslims of our time choose to interpret jihad in such terms. In these instances we see how ancient religious texts may be given different interpretations. These depend as much on the context where they are applied and  the goals for which this is done, as on the personal philosophy of the interpreter.

The blind Dhritarashtra asks helplessly, “What are they doing?” Like Dhritarashtra, in our state of ignorance we wonder what we are doing in the context of ethical dilemmas. Jiddu Krishnamurti once remarked: “Hitler and Mussolini were only the primary spokesmen for the attitude of domination and craving for power that are in the heart of almost everyone.” But there have also been spokespeople for the opposite longing: for caring and compassion, for peace and justice, This ancient truth is implicit in the very lines of the Gita.  It is in such insights that we recognize why the Gita has been described as a work that embodies perennial truths. Like the laws of nature, such truths about the human condition transcend culture, religion and nationality.

Salute to Vienna

We went to the Orchestra Hall Symphony Center in Chicago on December 30, 2012 to enjoy some joyous Viennese music that often lights up the season in many parts of the world. Situated right across the Arts Institute, the Symphony Center is a beautiful hall with lovely chandeliers. It was good to see the hall full, even at what struck me at steep ticket-prices.

The conductor Klaus Arp, with his graying beard and friendly mischeivous smile, was an absolutely delightful impresario for the afternoon event. He introduced every number on the program with a touch of wit and history, and told us about Joseph Strauss and Victor Herbert. I did not know that Herbert was originally Irish. His Royal Sec was n the program as a Champagne Gallop. Arp told us about black-haired Gypsies, and introduced us to the blond soprano Monika Rebholtz who sang Heia, Heia in den Bergen from Gypsy Princess. Ms Rebholtz’s voice was simply fantastic, drowning the loud orchestra behind her. It was her debut performance in Chicago.

The tenor Zrinko Soco, originally from Croatia, who had started his career at the Zagreb National Opera, not only sang his solos Freunde, das Leben ist lebernswert and Dein ist mein ganzes Hertz, and duets Dieser Anstand and Wer hat die Liebe uns ins Hertz gesenkt, with extraordinary dynamism; he was also a most charming showman in his gestures and moves.

The ballets Schatz Waltzer and Leichtes Blut Polka by Johann Strauss Jr and Franz Lehar’s Gold and Silver Waltzes performed by the three young men and the three young women of the Vienna Imperial Ballet added spice to the music played by the Chicago Philharmonic.

At the end of it all we were treated to some sumptuous extras – not in the program – which included the Blau Danau, Auld Lang Syne of seasonal relevance, and the ebullient Radetzky  March in which the audience participated with rhythmic clapping under the direction of the Klaus Arp.

It was a most enjoyable afternoon, reminding us that even in the midst of all the calamities, man-made and nature-instigated, humanity is capable of so much  joy and good cheer, especially from art and poetry, and especially from great music. We are grateful to Vienna at the birth-place of so much magnificent music in humanity’s heritage.

December 31, 2012