Thursday, December 15, 2005

the New Man is visible at ashram communities in India

Shall the twain meet? Can we conceive of a modernity which is not Western but evolves from the matrix of Indian culture, asks MARTIN KÄMPCHEN The Statesman Jan 23, 2003 (The author is a German Tagore scholar and freelance writer based in Santiniketan.)
One of the most fascinating and troubling aspects of Indian life is the co-existence of pre-modern and modern mindsets and lifestyles. One does not seem to influence the other. Pre-modernity does not merge into modernity. The invisible wall dividing the two seems impenetrable. What makes this wall so strong? Scholars may give many reasons, relating this intransigence to the power of tradition, to the strongly felt need for identity of each group in a highly diversified society, or to colonialism which has created an aversion to modernity. Having lived in this country for nearly 30 years and mingled both with the upper and lower strata, I’ve reached a conclusion: Modernity and pre-modernity coexist because of India’s strong family bonds.
Critics bemoan the weakening of the Indian family system; its breaking up into nuclear units; weakening of morals, especially of the erosion of selflessness which allows to put family interests before the individual’s. And it’s always “the West” with its selfish individualism which is seen as the corruptor. Even the vulgar Bollywood film extols in its incongruent ways the family values of Hindu society.
  • The family is held together by hierarchy.
  • There’s no room for equality in a traditional family set-up.
  • The “higher” and “lower” is determined by seniority, or by the proximity of relationship.
  • The entire cosmos is kept functional by the way each member knows his/her position in relation to the others.
  • There can be no serious challenge to authority because traditionally authority is determined by extraneous factors, such as age, gender, and kinship, or sometimes by ritual authority, but not by such vague concepts as knowledge, experience, or wisdom.
  • The assumption is that with age, knowledge, skill and wisdom increase as well.
  • The hierarchy and non-equality of the Indian family is, I wish to emphasise, mostly a comfortable one.
Those who read Rabindranath Tagore, know of the stress and friction within a large family and of the amount of sacrifice needed by the individual to persevere in his/her subordination to the totality of the family. Yet, one generally grows into these sacrifices from infancy. For, one doesn’t really see them as sacrifices, but as the price to be paid for the comforts of family-life. There is little competition for love, for attention, for material needs, and for opportunities. In a way, this is the nuclear model of an ideal society. But this family structure is non-equal, hence non-democratic, and it typically provides only limited space for individual dynamism and social mobility. Thus the family structure is pre-modern. This is not a value judgment but indicative of a stage of societal evolvement.
Family values are extolled not only in Bollywood films, but more seriously by an Indian urban middle-class which tries to come to terms with the demands of modern life. They’re praised and emulated more passionately by the expatriate Indian community in Europe and North America where it struggles to balance between integrating itself into an alien society and culture, and preserving its Indian identity. In India, any family member is capable of making heroic sacrifices for the welfare of the others. I’ve often heard of brothers who have sacrificed their right to marital bliss because of a sister who could otherwise not get married. Or there is a son who surrenders well-paid employment somewhere far away to follow his ageing mother’s call to return home. Would such sacrifices be even thinkable in Europe or North America?
The very same family members, however, walk past a poverty-ridden family squatting on the pavement in front of their house day after day, for years, without ever being moved by their misery. Would this be possible in Europe or North America? In both cases the answer is in the negative. Indians always perceive modernity as a Western concept. There’s no attempt to imagine a modernity which evolves out of the matrix of Indian tradition. And this Western modernity is always seen as a threat to Indian family values. Western-style modernity is seen as a hothouse of individuality, competition, sexual permissiveness and selfishness. Certainly, the average family in the West is no longer a shelter radiating emotional warmth and human togetherness. Neither the parent generation whose duty it might be to generate such warmth and togetherness, nor in fact the younger generation see the need for such nesting beyond infancy.
The family is a launching pad for life in the wider world. The elder generation envisages a life beyond child rearing, and the younger generation beyond family bonds. With this mindset, Western youths become independent, mature for practical life and resistant to the perils of a competitive wider social life much earlier than their Indian counterparts. Modernity even from Indian family values’ point of view is not necessarily a concept dominated by negatives. The breaking up of pre-modern Indian family life under the pressure of modernity need not result in a lack of orientation and in emotional confusion. When politicians and professional saviours of Hindu tradition say they don’t want “to ape the West”, they passionately narrow their gaze to the competitive, permissive, selfish dynamics of Western public and professional life. These dynamics should not, however, blot out our awareness of the Western ethos which focuses on deeper human needs. A civic sense seeking to maintain the obligations and rights not only of oneself but of the entire community, is deeply ingrained in even the young generation of Europe.
  • Couldn’t there be a dialogue between pre-modernity and modernity in India?
  • Is a dialogue conceivable which aims at a merging of these two divergent concepts of life? That is, a merging of the positive, constructive, dignified, deeply humanistic elements of these two stages in the evolvement of our human potential?
  • Is this an entirely utopian construct?

Living with one foot each in Indian and European cultures, I feel pained when I see my mother turn 89 in the hands of an Old Age Home nurses when she should be taken care of by loving family members. I feel equally pained when I see the campus of Santiniketan, where I live, littered with plastic bags and garbage without any of its highly educated members protesting and starting a cleaning drive. Both are shameful imbalances. If Indian family values prevailed, my mother would live in her own home in more comfort, and be in the care of an extended family. But that would have clipped my wings: I would have had to return to Germany. and would not have been able to do serve totally “alien” people of Indian society.

If modern values prevailed, the eyesore of Tagore’s sanctuary would have prompted the Santiniketan community to put up litter boxes, organise a cleaning service and pay for it. Pre-modern social values are by definition hermetically conservative; the reason why they survive deep into the era of modernity. An Indian physics professor feels comfortable to visit an astrologer for advice. An industrial manager obeys his mother who forbids him to travel on a Thursday, even though it may harm his business. There is a danger that people who are unable to integrate pre-modernity and modernity tend to become insecure and discontent individuals. On the other hand, they can turn to creative, hyper-dynamic, ambitious activities. Instability is the price they pay for living forever on the threshold. In conclusion, two questions remain:
  • First, can we imagine a modernity which is not Western-oriented but evolves from the matrix of Indian culture itself?
  • Second, can we imagine a merging of pre-modern and modern values into a new entity? Do we see perhaps such an entity already practiced somewhere?

Traditional Indian ethos has a deeply idealistic strain. It begins with the Upanishads, continues with Buddhism and Jainism, flows into the Vaishnava mysticism of the Middle Ages and floods the writings of Mahatma Gandhi, Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo and Tagore. The herculean attempt to overcome a colonial ruler by non-violent means is inconceivable without such idealistic promptings. Much in the epics is imbued with such idealism, although Hindu mythology has very diverse strands, many of which are of an un-idealistic nature. Such idealism constitutes a spiritual and emotional energy which is manifest in the luminous face of the Buddha, in the eroticism of the Radha-Krishna narrative, in the countenance of Sri Ramakrishna. This same idealistic energy courses in the blood of young Indians too, although – alas! – it is rarely tapped for their own good and the good of society. But I’m optimistic that their idealism can give affirmative replies to my two questions.

This idealism is, in its very character, not adverse to modernism. Indeed, it operates above the pre-modern/modern duality by embracing everything that is noble and good. This idealism transcends family, rejects caste and other artificial dissections, and yearns for an ever-widening and more-embracing intellectual understanding and social convergence. It must be at the base of a congenially Indian modernity. Some modern age gurus have been preaching it in the West, thus translating this idealism into a Western social idiom. Unfortunately, such attempts have mostly failed. Either they preached a much-watered down version of Indian idealism to please their clientele, or they were unable to really strike roots in the souls of Western people.

Yet marginally, the New Man is visible at ashram communities in India – the laboratories of the fusion of old and new. This way of living together is ancient, yet flexible enough to adjust to new definitions of community life. The ashram describes the family ethos anew by broadening the definition of family and kinship. This fusion happens for example in the Pondicherry ashram and in Auroville as well as in Gandhian and Christian ashrams in India. The Santiniketan ashram, too, was meant to be an experiment of bringing pre-modern and modern India together under the guidance of an inspired poet. This answers my second question too. Obviously, such deeply Indian modernity would be the most appropriate merger of pre-modern and modern approaches to life. It will certainly preserve what is valuable and forward-looking in the Indian ethos, and at the same time absorb Western cultural characteristics wherever they complement the Indian ethos and can amalgamate with it.

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