Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Ravana mode of development – V

The ‘modern’ which Gandhi critiqued was a process by which knowledge, science and economics were removed from their ethical and spiritual underpinnings and were pursued separately from moral philosophy. He recognized a key feature of modernity that had never been present earlier - the elevation of vices like greed and selfishness to the status of virtues resulting in the institutionalizing of irresponsibility. His concern had been based on his perception that modernity over-emphasized the material comforts of life and under-emphasized the ethical dimension – it encouraged the pursuit of bodily needs without the framework of ethics. This resulted in his seemingly weird criticism of doctors and lawyers – modernity had ‘freed’ these professions from the restraints imposed by morality. For eg., he says in Hind Swaraj about the practises of lawyers (all of which are practised more brazenly today and rationalized as 'normal business practice'):
...the profession teaches immorality; it is exposed to temptation from which few are saved... The [lawyer's] duty is to side with their clients and to find out ways and arguments in favour of the clients to which they (the clients) are often strangers. If they do not do so they will be considered to have degraded their profession. The lawyers, therefore, will, as a rule, advance quarrels instead of repressing them. Moreover, men take up that profession, not in order to help others out of their miseries, but to enrich themselves. It is one of the avenues of becoming wealthy and their interest exists in multiplying disputes. It is within my knowledge that they are glad when men have disputes. Petty pleaders actually manufacture them. 
Gandhi challenged the European claim that they alone valued truth and Indians did not. He launched a counter-critique by asserting that the European Enlightenment, by emphasizing pure reason, self-interest and the utilitarian calculus had in fact dethroned truth and morality. His objection to modern civilization was that it does not provide any 'inducement to morality'. It had always been known that there was a dark side to human nature that didn’t need much encouragement to show itself. There was recognition that there was some chance of keeping this unpleasant side in check only by over-weighting the moral aspects of social interactions. It can be said that over time, the balance had tilted too much against politics and economics in the Indian context and Gandhi was trying to correct this imbalance but to remove the checks altogether was asking for trouble. Modernity came in a beautiful garb but it had huge hidden costs and made people morally numb. This was the crux of Gandhi’s concern about it.

This moral degeneration is illustrated by the statement by the economist John Maynard Keynes that “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.” (It is fantastic to assume that after a century of internalizing this norm, society will magically revert to one populated by do-gooders.) The notion that private vices resulted in public good was opposed by Gandhi who believed that private morality had public consequences. His philosophical framework challenged the divorce of issues of justice and equity from business and economics. Gandhi wrote in 1937: “True economics never militates against the highest ethical standard, just as all true ethics to be worth its name must at the same time be also good economics.'

Gandhi observed that the fallacious assumption that informs modernity is the idea that 'might is right'. This was coupled with Spencer's unfortunate description of evolution as 'survival of the fittest' which was deemed to be a law of nature. This led to the 'greed is good' culture resulting in huge inequalities. This mind-set can be seen all the time - for example, compromises on human rights and environmental standards are justified because dominance in the global marketplace is given primary importance.  In the modern world, morality and politics are determined by economics. Economic advancement is a good servant but a bad master.
Gandhi rejected the worship of material advancement as an end in itself - a claim made by both capitalists and communists. He argued that the modern version of material advancement is a regression rather than a higher stage of human evolution, because it displaces dharma (as ethics) from its primacy. He argued that all efforts to improve the human condition are bound to fail unless they put dharma, or a moral framework and a sense of higher purpose, above the pursuit of artha (wealth) and kama (pleasure)(See Gandhi : Hind Swaraj and Other Writings.) Gandhi places the greatest importance on the means that are employed to attain a goal. He believed that only fair means can produce a fair end.

He accepted that some are more talented than others at producing the material goods of life but in his world-view, greater talent was always accompanied by greater responsibility. (The loss of the capacity to feel guilty and the consequent loss of a sense of responsibility may be the biggest problems facing the world today.) He said that education had made a 'fetish' of the knowledge of letters and ignored completely the ethical dimension, cultivating instead 'the pretension of learning many sciences'. He felt that science and technology were aimed more towards luxury than towards the discovery of truth. Truth for Gandhi was moral and experiential while science regarded Truth as a cognitive model of the world.

Gandhi was suspicious of the scientific world-view because it encouraged a psychological split - the dissociation of actions from feelings and ethics which allows actions to be pursued without being burdened by these emotions. The person cuts himself off emotionally from the subject of his manipulations. This promotes a focus on the universal and thereby the ignoring of the particular, a disease of modernity that concerned Gandhi. As Stalin said, 'One death is a story, a million deaths is a statistic.' (Although he didn't seem to care either way.) This split is the direct cause of immorality in politics and violence in society. Gandhi's view is echoed by Einstein's observation that 'before mankind could be ripe for a science which takes in the whole of reality, a second fundamental truth was needed...all knowledge of reality starts from experience and ends in it.'

This problem that Gandhi foresaw was apparent during demonetization when it was said that there will be 'some pain' in the short run but big benefits in the long run. If 'some pain' referred to people like me, it was understandable but people lower down the social and economic ladder were in danger of losing their livelihoods. That  is not 'some pain'. This was also visible during discussions about GST. There were hardly any discussions about the likely problems for the small trader who has never used a computer or traders in villages that have little or no electricity.

Gandhi’s explanation for why history is not a good guide to human behavior is interesting. He writes in Hind Swaraj,  ‘History, as we know it, is a record of the wars of the world...How kings played, how they became enemies of one another, how they murdered one another, is found accurately recorded in history and if this were all that had happened in the world, it would have been ended long ago.' If people are sitting in a hall enjoying a musical performance, as happens all the time, it will not be recorded in history. But if a person throws a bomb inside the hall and kills 50 people, it will enter the history books. Gandhi says that ‘history is really a record of every interruption ‘ of the normal  tenor of life.

In Indian epics, there is no total demarcation between good and evil. There is something of a demon in a god and something of a god in a demon. The question is, which combination of characteristics do you choose? In Traditions, Tyranny and Utopia, Ashis Nandy writes, ‘The Ramayana did not reject Ravana intuitively, mechanically or purely ethically. He was considered, given due respect and then rejected as an unacceptable design of a person.’ This was how Gandhi rejected certain dominant features of modernity - it encouraged 'an unacceptable design of a person’ by incentivising the Hyde rather than the Jekyll within. His  action was never a total rejection. It was the much milder non-acceptance.

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