Sunday, April 19, 2015

Harking back back to a glorious past - I

It is not difficult to call for a return to the past, to tell men to turn their backs on foreign devils, to live solely on one's resources, proud, independent, unconcerned.  India has heard such voices.  Tagore understood this, paid tribute to it, and resisted it. - Isaiah Berlin

H.L. Menken said, “Politics, as hopeful men practise it in the world, consists mainly of the delusion that a change in form is a change in substance.” One of the biggest delusions that people have is to think that recreating a Golden Age of the past is the answer to all problems. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay alluded to this in a talk quoted in Makers of Modern India.

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was one of the Makers who I knew nothing about. Apparently, after independence, she could have entered Parliament, Union Cabinet, become an ambassador etc. but she rejected all offers and preferred to concentrate on social work instead. Ramachandra Guha writes, "That Indian crafts are still alive and, moreover, have a visible national and international presence, is owed more to Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay than to any other individual." In a speech quoted in the book, she accuses the Muslim League of spreading 'medievalism' and the Hindus of similarly spreading 'fanatical passions'.
It has...souught refuge in a demagogic past. It tries to cover the complex present with the veil of a vague past, tinting the harsh realities with elusive shades and the gross angles with sentimental contours, conjuring up in short bygone ghosts to lend heroics to commonplace sentiments.
She warns that the selling of this Hindu mirage is trapping immature minds who, being overwhelmed by the present, 'fill the imagination with past achievements, which at least for the fleeting moment gives them a sense of security'. She warns that present problems cannot be tackled by going back to a glorious past but  by 'a bold and courageous reckoning up of existing conditions and their appraisal'.

It is often claimed that the democratic practices of modern India was a tradition of ancient India. Actually, the Indian constitution with its emphasis on equality and fundamental rights is a radical break from a hierarchical past. The hierarchical nature of the society can be seen in many parts of India even now. I can hear many statements of caste, gender and religious biases from supposedly liberal people who will swear that they don't harbour such biases. The idea of caste privileges exists even among educated city dwelling people. It is easy to change laws but it is not easy to change customs. As Sunil Khilnani writes in The Idea of India:
Mere recovery of the past could not make Indians self- sufficient: the necessry veneration of a rich and unusual history had to coexist with a modernist, more self-critical idiom that acknowledged the immense failings of that past. 
Every country has a Golden Age to talk about which in India is usually the Gupta period or the Vedic Age. People who don't know about either the science or the relevant scriptures will  neverthless be thrilled when told that something that science has discoved was actually foretold in an ancient text. It is regularly claimed that NASA has proved something in Hindu scriptures. It would seem as if NASA had nothing better to do than verify the historical truth of incidents in Hindu scriptures.

Instead of providing metaphorical explanations of speculative musings in Hindu scriptures, people will try to pretend as if they are the same as the discoveries of modern science. For instanc some have interpreted Vishnu’s ten avatars as foreshadowing the Darwinian theory of evolution. They know that their audience is science illiterate, that they will remember a few scienc words from school, put two and two together and conclude that philosophical musings and science are the same. Indian gurus do it all the time

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