Monday, June 2, 2014

Men die, ideas don't. Now is a good time to look at reality through the eyes of great men

To amend the poet slightly: The words of great men all remind us that we can make our land sublime. Ideas expressed and counsel given by some great thinkers sound extraordinarily apt at this moment of change in our country. The opportunity that knocks at the doors of the new leaders is unprecedented. Yet, the political class remains in their retrograde mindset, winners manoeuvring for positions and losers refusing to face the facts that made them unwanted. We the people need a moment of respite and what better way to ensure it than by letting the words of great men waft over us.

Francis Bacon (died 1626) reminded us: "Men in great places are thrice servants: Servants of the sovereign or state, servants of fame, and servants of business: so they have no freedom, neither in their persons, nor in their actions, nor in their times. It is a strange desire to seek power and to lose liberty; or to seek power over others, and lose power over a man's self".

Henry Fielding (d. 1754) wrote An Essay on Nothing, arguing that there was nothing falser than the old proverb that Shakespeare translated as Nothing comes from nothing. (Which Julie Andrews later immortalised in The Sound of Music. Interestingly Indian philosophy celebrates fullness rather than nothingness with the unique Purnamadah Purnamidam opening lines of the Isha Upanishad: That is full, this is full. From that fullness, this fullness removed or added, fullness remains).

Fielding postulates that in fact Nothing proceeds from everything and that the wise man must regard Nothing with awe and admiration "for then we won't be cheated. The virtuous, wise and learned may then be unconcerned at all the changes of ministries and government; since they may be well satisfied that ministers of the state are rogues themselves, and have inferior knavish tools, to bribe and reward, true virtue, wisdom, learning, wit and integrity will most certainly bring their possessors - Nothing".

T. N. Madan, (b. 1933) internationally honoured sociologist, delivered a lecture in Boston in 1987. Choosing the theme, The Prospects of Secularism in India, he said: "I submit that in the prevailing circumstances secularism in South Asia as a generally shared credo of life is impossible, as a basis of state action impracticable, and as a blueprint for foreseable future impotent. It is impossible as a credo of life because the great majority of the people of South Asia are in their own eyes active adherents of some religious faith. It is impracticable as a basis for state action either because Buddhism and Islam have been declared state or state-protected religions or because strands of religious neutrality or equidistance is difficult to maintain since religious minorities do not share the majority's view of what this entails for the state. And it is impotent as a blueprint for future because, by its very nature, it is incapable of countering religious fundamentalism and fanaticism."

Jayaprakash Narayan, the eternal socialist, do-gooder and dreamer, did not share Mahatma Gandhi's interest in mixing politics with the traditions of religion. He was closer to Jawaharlal Nehru, the prime promoter of secularism, in this respect. However, he visited an RSS training camp in Patna in 1977. Speaking there, JP referred to Hinduism's catholicity, how "those who put faith in Vedas and even those who decry them are [accepted as] Hindus. In fact the word Hindu is not an ancient one and is not found in any of the ancient books. It was other people who spoke 's' as 'h' and 'Sind' as 'Hind' who called us Hindu. In fact it had nothing to do with any religion and had only a geographical connotation."

Finally some sobering words from one of the greatest philosophers and controversialists of the 20th century, C.E.M. Joad (d.1953). Arguing that fascism bases itself on the idealist concept of the state according to which "the being of the state is a moral being", Joad quotes Wagner, the Bavarian Minister of the Interior, as saying: "What Hitler decides is right and will remain eternally right. Whatever is useful to the German people is right; whatever is harmful is wrong". Joad concludes: "Not only is the state not bound by the morality of which it is itself the source in its relations with its own citizens; it is exempt from moral obligations in its dealings with other states".

In short, idealism is harmful, secularism is impossible, Nothing is Everything, and those who get power lose their liberty. Strange world, strange humans.