‘You’re not thinking; you’re just being logical’

Here’s an interesting extract from Maurice A. Finocchiaro’s book, Arguments about Arguments:

In his autobiography, physicist Otto R. Frisch tells the following revealing anecdote about Niels Bohr. Bohr, we are told, “never trusted a purely formal or mathematical argument. ‘No, no,’ he would say, ‘You are not thinking; you are just being logical.'” It would be arbitrary and uncharitable to interpret Bohr’s point as implying that being logical is not a form of thinking. Rather, it seems obvious that he is distinguishing between two types of thinking, logical thinking and another kind which might be appropriately labeled as critical thinking.

Niels Bohr’s point actually applies to all types of thinking, even political. So, political thought is also of two types: logical and critical. Logical is going by the book, sticking to the rules. While many would like us to think logically, it ends up killing the critical thinker in us. If you’re only logical, you’re more of an advocate of law. What if the law itself is not worth being followed? What if the book has serious flaws? What if it has been written by others, not us? These and other questions are not addressed by the purely logical thinker. The establishment always wants you to think within the box. The box is golden for it and it rewards the most logical of thinkers. But it is the critical thinker who thinks outside the box, and in doing so, reforms it.

The disappearance of choice

There was a time when India’s different cultures could benefit from each other by sharing their best art. A Kannada poet could learn from a Bengali poet, a Marathi sculptor could learn from a Tamil sculptor, and so on, and so forth. That which was worth sharing with others in one culture, then, used to stand up all by itself to such a great height that every other culture would take notice. It was ultimately left to the recipient cultures to partially or fully accept the novelty, or even reject it entirely. True, everything so shared was not necessarily good for all of humanity; and true, the recipient cultures did not always exercise caution in accepting the novelty. But you still had to have done something exceptional in art for your work to travel.

One easy example is Valmiki’s Ramayana. Its fame spread so far and wide that it is very difficult to imagine how it could have done that at a time when there were no modern means of transport or communication. The epic had a profound impact on cultures not just in today’s India but also outside it. Of course, it underwent several changes over several centuries to suit host cultures, but there is something exceptionally brilliant about it which gave it wings. It did not have only good effects wherever it went, but that’s not the point here. The point is, one had to be a Valmiki for one’s art to travel across the subcontinent.

Today, not only is art of the caliber of a Ramayana missing, but all art is arguably on its deathbed everywhere in India. Yet physical flesh-and-bones people travel and settle down wherever they want in India. Unfortunately, these people outnumber and outshine any remaining art from their home cultures that could deserve to travel more than them. Dry economic and political factors give these people wings today, and the host culture doesn’t have the choice to reject them; that would be unconstitutional. As a result, cultures no longer have the choice of what they import from other cultures.

The first problem with this is that it destroys culture everywhere. People can no longer distinguish between good and bad, beneficial and harmful, what’s worth exporting and what’s worth importing. Cultures that were used to evaluating foreign art before accepting or rejecting are now being forced to accept foreign flesh and bones, and this forced acceptance dilutes them further. Even the cultures that send out these flesh and bones are losing sight of the importance of art. There was a time when they used to send out the works of Valmikis, but now they send out people with no food or work, let alone art, and this seems to them to be a valid way to interact with other cultures.

The second problem is that migrants physically replace natives. This is a war-like situation because the natives are increasingly robbed of their right to the basic necessities of life and gradually, life itself. This creates a further barrier between cultures through which art finds it impossible to travel. More dangerous are the walls of hatred that get built because of imposed suffocation and consequent resistance. Nor are the fountains of flesh and bones coming anywhere close to containing themselves any time soon. The very fact that they can physically spread out dilutes the reason to contain and yet, those who are being forced to accommodate are the ones who are family-planning themselves out of the planet.

All this, ladies and gentlemen, is due to Indian nationalism as conceived today. It must change.

The necessity of (operational) corruption

In The Pyramid of Corruption, I don’t discuss operational corruption, which is the usual corruption you hear of in the news. The book is about India’s primitive corruption, which is ‘abuse of public power for private gain’ of a completely different kind, embedded into the very foundation of the Indian nation. I talk about abuse by the system, not of the system.

If you want to understand operational corruption, I think Shiv Visvanathan’s essay titled The necessity of corruption, which I discovered just yesterday thanks to Shri Akshara K.V. of Ninasam, is a good starting point. He argues that corruption (he doesn’t call it operational corruption, but that’s what it is)…

…performs three services. Cognitively, it is a knowledge economy, in fact the first of the great modern knowledge economies. It provides life-giving or life-denying knowledge about access or entry. Second, it is a ritual service, where the tout and the clerk provide a priest-like knowledge of the system which is formidable in its intimacy. Third, the tout familiarizes one about the system, domesticates power in a paternalistic patron-centred language, creating a pastoralism of a parallel kind. For example, it redefines access as ascription, rather as an achievement or legal rationality. It embodies power, especially the power of intermediaries so the system acquires concreteness. Who you know determines how you enter. The Punjabi English question ‘koi approach hai, koi contact hai?’ sums up the rules and techniques of entry. Power rather than becoming abstract and remote becomes approachable.

In short, instead of blindly blaming those who indulge in operational corruption, and believing that everyone is morally degraded, Shiv Visvanathan makes the only known attempt to understand why the phenomenon exists. I have myself remained aloof from the topic because I have always felt that primitive corruption is much more important to understand and deal with. I am often asked how primitive corruption and operational corruption are related, but my answer has been “I don’t know, I haven’t studied it.”

However, this much I know: the ideas for dealing with primitive corruption which I give in the last chapter, if implemented well, will automatically reduce operational corruption. For example, if the Centre holds only defense and external affairs portfolios, there will be no question of cronyism there. It moves to the states but the intellectual task of understanding operational corruption becomes much less daunting at the state level for the simple reason that the number of parameters to deal with is considerably smaller.

Bangalore to Bengaluru: the Untold Story

While the ‘national media’ is fixated on things of ‘national importance’, the media in Karnataka, both Kannada and English, is abuzz with the news that the Centre has agreed to the Government of Karnataka’s proposal to ‘rename’ several cities in the state. Bangalore is now officially Bengaluru, Mysore is Mysuru, Belgaum is Belagavi, and so on and so forth.

Despite all the hype, celebrations, and the occasional mention of the late U R Ananthamurthy’s name (he stood for this cause), it’s important to pause and understand what exactly has happened here. Are the names really new? Who are they new to? In which language or languages are they new? All in all, does it matter?

These names, Bengaluru, Mysuru, Belagavi, etc., are not new to the people of these cities or of Karnataka as a whole. Nor are they new entrants to the Kannada language. Nobody has ever used the words Bangalore, Mysore, Belgaum, etc., in Kannada; it has always been these ‘new’ names. It is, in fact, impossible to use them because it’s foreign pronunciation. British pronunciation, to be precise.

So what’s happening now is not ‘renaming’ from the point of view of those Kannadigas who take their own language more seriously than others. Yes, it’s true that the India outside of Karnataka is going to try and use the same names as used within Karnataka. I say ‘try and use’ because Kannada names cannot necessarily be pronounced by non-Kannadigas. The ‘l’ in Bengaluru, for example, is not pronounced north of the Vindhyas – at least not any more.

So, is this whole thing a sort of an achievement? Does it call for a celebration?

To get some perspective, consider the fact that Germany is not pleading with the EU to be ‘renamed’ as Deutschland; The Netherlands is not pleading to be ‘renamed’ as Nederland; France isn’t pleading to be ‘renamed’ as République Française; the number of such examples is not even countable. In fact, people worldwide have their own names for all the countries and cities they’ve had the opportunity to talk about.

To take one example of a city, what the British call London is known and written in some of the world’s languages as follows: Llundain, Londër, Londain, Londan, Londe, Londen, Londhíno, Londinium, Londona, Londonas, Londra, Londres, Londrez, Londyn, Londýn, Lontoo, Loundres, Luân Đôn, Lundenwic, Lúndūn, Lundúnir, Lunnainn, Reondeon, Rŏndŏn, Rondon, and Londoni. Is this a let-down of the people of London? No. In fact, it’s a matter of Londoner pride for their city, like all living things, to have a Vishnu Sahasranama of its own.

So then, why did some Kannadigas ask for this, why do they call it ‘renaming’, and why are they celebrating now? There is only one answer. They have resigned to the fate, decided for them by the Government of India, of Hindi and English being more important than Kannada. To ask for the Kannada names to be approximated in Hindi and English is, first and foremost, to accept the over-lordship of these two hegemonic languages. Even U R Ananthamurthy advocated for Hindi’s emergence as a pan-India link language; I don’t think he worked out the full impact of such a disaster on Kannada. Perhaps it gives the celebrators some solace now to think that the hordes of migrants who are coming into these cities from the North will at least try and preserve the names of their cities – if not Kannadigas’ existence in them.

First Published: IBNLIVE, 18-10-2014

Bad eggs don’t help

In a brilliant talk titled Does the news do us any good? Alain de Botton, a Swiss-British writer, philosopher, and television presenter in the UK, says:

The thing about the news is that it’s obsessed by bad eggs. It’s obsessed with the Watergate paradigm which associates everything that’s wrong in society with a few bad eggs… who’ve done some things wrong… and you can try and identify them… and then put handcuffs on them… and then take them to jail… and all will be… well. The thing is that most of the things that are really wrong with our society… you can’t bundle someone in a prison van and take them away. There are systemic problems that arise not from evil or crookedness but from lazy thinking, lack of inspiration, etc. The news is very bad at seeing systemic problems…

This is, in some sense, my point of departure in The Pyramid of Corruption. Those were times when there was so much hype about the Anna Hazare movement that I was forced to think what really corruption is all about. Will all be really well if the bad eggs are identified and sent to jail? And then I realized that we are so used to blaming individuals about our political problems that we tend to forget that they’re systemic.

The definition of corruption as ‘abuse of public power for private gain’ has nothing in it which requires us to attach it only to individuals. I argue that entire groups of people can indulge in it. The very foundation of the modern Indian nation is afflicted with such group corruption. I call it India’s Primitive Corruption. It’s impossible and pointless to point at individuals – contemporary or past – and blame them for it. We have to get out of this individual-bashing mindset to understand what’s fundamentally wrong with the Indian nation.

How Hindutva kills Hinduism

I.

In Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.4, the sage Yājñavalkya decides to retire to the forest after dividing his property between Maitreyī and Kātayāni, his two consorts. Maitreyī then gets into a discussion with Yājñavalkya on whether the property would keep her happy forever. She asks:

yan nu ma iyaṃ bhagoḥ sarvā pṛthivī vittena pūrṇā syāt kathaṃ tenāmṛtā syām iti.

“Would I become immortal if all the wealth of the world were to become mine?” Yājñavalkya has to make a clear choice between artha and moksha here, and this is what he says in response: no.

neti hovāca yājñavalkyaḥ. yathaivopakaraṇavatāṃ jīvitaṃ tathaiva te jīvitaṃ syāt. amṛtatvasya tu nāśāsti vitteneti.

“No, your life would be like that of those who have rich possessions. There is no hope of immortality through wealth.” And then the Upanishad goes on with Yājñavalkya revealing, upon request, one after the other spiritual truth to Maitreyī.

This short episode should clarify beyond doubt that the true focus in this, as in every, Upanishad is moksha, not arthaamṛtatva, not vitta. If it weren’t for this focus on deliverance or salvation, the Upanishads would have lost meaning long ago, as many of the other parts of the Vedas have.

Noise can make us forget that the Upanishads, not other texts, are central to Hinduism. But in reality, one cannot claim to uphold Hinduism but let go of Upanishadic messages. It is impossible to uphold some other text or portion thereof, if it contradicts the message of the Upanishads, and claim to uphold Hinduism.

II.

Why am I writing this? This is to set the record straight after reading an article titled ‘The Desirability of Artha’ by Bibek Debroy. I would perhaps not have bothered if it were from someone else, but for such a prominent public intellectual to let go of the centrality of the Upanishads in advocating for Hinduism illustrates that the intellectual disaster that has struck India’s right-wing elite is of a greater magnitude than I had imagined.

In an article which sets out to establish the desirability of artha, which desirability is, of course, not questionable, Debroy makes the point that the superiority of moksha in Hindu scriptures is ‘superficial’. This is an unpardonable mistake. There is no question of comparing artha to moksha in the core of Hinduism; the latter wins hands down, and explicitly.

After having made this seminal mistake, Debroy’s article gets entangled in a mess of absurdities.

Take, for example, the idea that the Varna system represents ‘nothing but economic specialization’ if we were to consider it ‘without defending its subsequent hereditary aspects’. This is like saying cyanide represents harmless matter if we were to consider it without defending its poisonous character.

Debroy also claims to give the original meaning of Brahmacharya. According to him, it need not necessarily involve celibacy. No doubt one can achieve moksha even while being a gruhastha, but that does not mean you go and preach sexual intercourse to the Brahmachari.

Continuing, Debroy argues that Hinduism is quite concerned about wealth creation (one could argue it’s always transformation); the impression that it isn’t concerned comes, according to Debroy, from a selective and biased reading of Hindu texts. Well, one can argue without end about which texts are part of Hinduism and which aren’t, but there is no doubt that the Upanishads are. There is also no doubt that they are central to the religion; any selective reading must involve them in order to remain meaningfully Hindu. In such a situation, to bring the limited scope of a couple of parvas from the Mahabharata as proof that ‘Hinduism’ cares for wealth-creation – so much that moksha loses its supreme position among the purusharthas – is to give up the core of Hinduism and wallow in superficiality.

Debroy even pushes his economic agenda into the mouth of the scripture. According to him, because public works were driven by individuals, not kings, we must take it as an acknowledgment by scripture that there should be little State involvement in public works today, too. I am not opposed to the proposition itself, but the farce of deriving it from the Mahabharata.

And what is that reference to the Buddha doing in the last paragraph of the article? The claim is that the vaishyas supported Buddha. So what? That makes moksha‘s superiority superficial as claimed? Or is it that we should welcome the author’s economics as ancient and absolute truths which supported the Buddha? Or is it a way to draw to his brand of western economics those who are concerned about the economic state of the Dalits?

Why is this intellectual disaster happening? Why are the self-appointed protectors of Hinduism themselves defaming Hindu scriptures (Debroy is apparently translating the Mahabharata and it is said to be a seminal work in Indology)? Why are the Hindutvavadis defending the indefensible exterior of the religion and discarding the perfect core, i.e., the Upanishads? Why do they not even hesitate to deny supreme importance to moksha to argue for their brand of artha?

The reason is that they try to approach Hinduism through the politico-economic lens. What appears through it is the monster created by the British and worshipped by Indian nationalists – the Indian Nation. This monster is their God. In singing its praise and positioning themselves as its high-priests, they do not seem to understand that they are destroying the impeccable spiritual core of Hinduism.

The Airport

The rich, the business-savvy, the English-or-Hindi-only environment, the Hindi-only guards, the tight security, the lavishness, the unsustainability, the air-conditioners, the wiping away of local languages, the land-grab, the handing out of petty jobs to the lucky survivors of farmers who committed suicide, the unhealthy food fully certified and complete with nutritional information, the foreigners who think they’ve seen India, the fair and lovely women, the drunken men, the helpless praying for the journey to be safe, the businesspeople pouring into their devices losing battery life, their complaining wives in flashing jackets and high heels, the insignificance of the engineer’s payload compared to the distance traveled, the meaningless lives that have to travel like birds to live like underground parasites, the whatsinitforme, the conquering of all social and political freethinking by the poverty of imposed individual opulence, the masking of disease by forced smile, the artificial love, the missed gifts to children, the mating calls of women in posters, the artificial sense of closeness of the source and the destination, the television sets pointing out the state of the political economy, the leather jackets of diaries nobody uses, the expensive watches that don’t help realize that time is running out, the glittering pens that have more value than what’s ever written using them… this is the elite’s idea of India, manifested in its full glory in an Indian airport.

One question you must ask about Aryan Migration

The whole debate on Aryan migration, as it runs today, focuses on the northwestern border of the Indian subcontinent. While most scholars claim that the Aryans traveled from the west to the east of that border (i.e., Into-India), Hindutvavadis claim that they traveled in the opposite direction: native to India, they went westwards (i.e., Out-of-India) to civilize the world.

I have listened to both sides of the argument, and I find the Into-India claim more convincing than the Out-of-India claim. This is because of the linguistic, archaeological, literary and genetic evidence that the adherents of the former theory provide. It’s all in the public domain, so I don’t need to elaborate on it. The Hindutvavadis, on the other hand, have little more than pride in Akhand Bharat to offer. Obviously, I am open to scientific evidence from them in case they happen to provide it. I read nearly everything Shrikant Talageri, David Frawley, Koenraad Elst, and others write.

In The Pyramid of Corruption I take the Into-India view as the default model but make it clear that nothing in the book requires it. The Out-of-India model is equally good for the purposes of the book. Neither camp opposes Aryan migration itself. However, there is no agreement on what the words Aryan, Dravidian, etc., mean. This is because they came from linguistics and it is the Into-India folks who understand it to any significant degree, not the Out-of-India folks. The latter most often dismiss it as pseudo-science. When I say Aryan, I mean the speakers of Indo-Aryan languages (I drop the Indo because the book is about India); and when I say Dravidian, I mean the speakers of Dravidian languages.

After this rather long preface, let me make a very simple point about the geo-location of the whole Aryan migration debate. It is actually quite baffling for a South Indian like me. It is this, that both sides of the debate are focused on one particular region of the Indian subcontinent: the northwest. Nobody seems to be interested in Aryan migration into South India and yet all of India, which is so huge, is called into attention whenever this debate surfaces.

The Hindutvavadis have this idea of one-nation-one-everything which takes them understandably away from the idea of Aryans migrating anywhere within India. That would mean they weren’t already there. But even the Into-India folks seem to have lost interest in Aryan migration to the south. So the whole debate centers around the northwest, taking South Indians quite far away from it all but still telling them it’s related because they’re also Indians.

What is even more baffling is the fact that it is this Aryan migration to the south which is beyond doubt. There is linguistic evidence available, even today, which conclusively proves that the languages of South India are structurally unrelated to those of North India. There has been give and take of words here and there, but in terms of grammar and etymology of native words, the two are different language families. There is no disagreement on this.

Yet, Aryan migration to the Dravidian south, together with the Sanskrit language, is hardly a topic of scholarly discussions today. Instead, the whole Aryan migration debate is restricted to a region admitted to be Aryan by everyone! This has to change because Aryan migration into non-Aryan regions is more important and interesting than into Aryan regions. Even the Hindutvavadis have no option but to start using that bad word – Dravidian – if they want to appear even slightly scientific in their approach to Indian languages.

So, next time someone talks about Aryan migration, I think it’s a good idea to ask: To where? To South India?