By Pavan K Varma
October 25, 2014
The great Indian Republic, which is also the world’s largest democracy, and one of the world’s oldest civilisations, has been hit by a new malaise, politically as fatal as the Ebola virus: the absence of space for a civilised dialogue.
The symptoms of this malaise are easy to spot: outright intolerance for another’s point of view, the belief by every faction that they alone have a monopoly on truth, absolute black or white categorisation of every issue leading to the complete absence of appraisal of merit or nuance or relativisms in debate, an atmosphere of constant suspicion and hostility, the routine use of foul language and lumpenisation of almost all processes of dialogue.
What are the causes behind this malaise? The first is a new form of ‘informed’ intellectual shallowness. Everybody claims to know the answer to every question. There is no scope for self-doubt. The denunciatory vehemence with which views are parroted is in inverse proportion to an in-depth knowledge of the subject. This atmosphere of superficial certainties is in direct violation of the cerebral refinements, based on Moulik Soch or the power of original thought, which has been the hallmark of our 5,000-year civilisational journey.
Dozens of examples can be given to illustrate this historical legacy, but i will confine myself to just two. Some 600 years before the birth of Christ, Bharata wrote a treatise called Natya Shastra. This was not a pedestrian compendium of the arts. It is a compilation of 6,000 Sanskrit Shlokas on what constitutes the essence of the aesthetic experience, rasa.
Such an astonishing degree of intellectual sophistication happened at a time when in most parts of the world people had not yet come down from trees. Nalanda, a couple of centuries later, is the other example.
One has only to read Hieun Tsang’s evocative account of this great university founded more than a millennium ago, to which students came from as far away as Japan and West Asia, to understand how the most exacting academic achievements were maintained not by rote but by encouraging students to delve far below merely a surface knowledge of their subjects.
The second cause is a newly developed amnesia to the dialogic nature of much of our civilisation. The Vedas begin with a sense of eclectic wonder at the miracle of creation. The Upanishads explore the ultimate essence of existence not by reiteration of dogma but by intellectual enquiry. Our sages, thousands of years ago, were prepared to accept that truth can have many facets, Ekam Satya, Bipraha Bahuda Vedanti: The truth is one, the wise call it by different names.
Shankaracharya, who revived Hinduism in the 8th century CE, propounded his theory of Advaitavad, not by fiat, but through dialogue, discussion and informed argumentation, Shastrarth, for which he travelled across the length and breadth of Bharat. In Hindu metaphysics there are six systems of philosophy – not just one – in addition to the iconoclastic Tantric tradition and the Charvaka School which questions the very existence of God. Even in the secular realm Chanakya (4th century BCE), otherwise a man of strong views, was willing in the Arthashastra to consider all points of view before he pronounced what he believed was right.
During the medieval period the entire corpus of the Bhakti school, which transcended religious boundaries and encompassed personalities as varied as Kabir, Guru Nanak, Mira and Ghalib, was based on the demolition of the uni-dimensional preserve of bigotry. These great poets and saints carried out a joyous dialogue with the Almighty, as seekers of truth not as bearers of blind orthodoxy.
Significantly, this dialogic process was a hallmark of our freedom movement as well. The letters between Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru are replete with candid statements of differences, both on tactics and ideology, but always within the restraint of civilised language and an acceptance that views can, and often should, differ. The correspondence between Sardar Patel and Nehru presents the same picture. Even BJP’s founding fathers were willing to debate and discuss issues internally, as part of the process of Atma Chintan.
Alas, for some time now, Indian democracy has become a barren landscape of brittle mediocrity. People expound, but rarely listen. The cyber world in India is full of unpunctuated, ungrammatical, uncouth expressions of hate. Such illiterate venom raises the decibel of debate but reduces its quality to abysmal levels.
Debates in Parliament have mostly deteriorated to uninhibited slanging matches where lung power routinely overwhelms the elegance and substance of argument. Absolute leaders nurture absolute followers who believe in absolute intimidation. The high command remains an impregnable citadel. Leaders welcome sycophancy. To question is to be suspect. Democratic dissent is equated with disloyalty. Those in opposition are enemies.
There is an atmosphere of near complete intellectual inertness. The syncretism of our culture, which was itself the consequence of a remarkable socio-philosophical dialogue, is being sought to be replaced by a hate-filled ‘me’ versus the ‘other’ campaign. A richly endowed, complex culture has been reduced to a sterile simplification: don’t talk, vilify; don’t discuss, condemn; don’t differ, just follow.