Prejudice is not a dirty word

Prejudice as a phenomena, and not as a problem

Most of us are prejudiced against prejudice. We tend to regard prejudice as something undesirable and a problem to be eliminated. Thus a large part of developmental initiatives in the area of diversity, focus on dealing with unconscious bias and prejudice. Ironically, this way of looking at prejudice only creates guilt and shame and usually leads to politically right stances without dealing with underlying beliefs and predispositions. The end result is that  prejudice is only denied or suppressed and often turns even  more vicious. Perhaps we will be better off, if we try to understand and befriend our prejudice rather than regarding it as an enemy and fighting it. This will require looking at prejudice as a “phenomenon” rather than as a problem to be eliminated.

As a phenomenon, prejudice can be seen as “an unintended consequence of a  natural and essentially healthy mental process of making associations and categorisation”. No matter what our epistemological beliefs, we can hardly deny the importance of association and categorisation to our learning and effective living.

Associations and Categories

Virtually all our learning comes from making associations. We associate food with nourishment, fire with danger, air with breathing, visual appearances with identities of people and so on. These associations are placed into different categories which are extremely helpful in making sense of the world around us. Thus when we meet a stranger, several categories are “at play”. Based on the complexion, body structure, features, clothes, mannerisms etc. we make inferences about the person’s gender, race, age, socio-economic status and even personality traits. These inferences are made on the basis of mental categories that we have in respect of these features. The inferences are not always valid, but it would be impossible to live without them. In such instances, where the society believes that the there should be no ambiguity, care is taken to make the association explicit, for example, through assigning uniforms to cops. Even such cases are not hundred percent “error-proof”. After all, one can always run into someone who is wearing the uniform of a cop and masquerading as one.

Thus, the process of association and categorisation always carries the risk of error. These erroneous inferences can be quite harmful both for the individual concerned and others,particularly the people who are at the receiving end of these inferences. However,more often than not, the individual concerned is not even aware of this harm because from his/her point of view the inferences are valid and reasonable. The person usually remains blissfully unaware of the associations which are at the root of the  erroneous inferences and attributes his/her beliefs and judgement to a very different set of factors. Thus a person may carry the association of untrustworthiness with people of a certain community but may remain totally unaware as to how his/her judgement of a person from that community is being impacted by this association.To complicate matters, a large number of associations that we carry in our heads have nothing to do with our direct personal experience and have been handed down to us either genetically or through process of socialisation/acculturation.

There is considerable research evidence to suggest that almost all of us are a lot more prejudiced than we realise. What this means is that while at a conscious level we may regard ourselves as egalitarian and free of prejudice in respect of race, gender,age, sexual orientation etc., our actual predispositions are being determined by a host of “associations in our minds” that we are blissfully unaware of. However, condemning these associations  as unconscious bias and prejudice does not help anyone. It is only likely to make us feel misunderstood/wrongly accused/defensive or guilty and ashamed. It is for this reason that interventions for making people “prejudice-free” are rarely effective. Instead, it makes more sense to focus on how these association lead to erroneous inferences and how best to avoid them.

Pitfalls of assocations/categorisations

As stated earlier, the process of making associations, putting them into different categories and then applying them to specific situations, has many potential pit-falls. There are several sources of error,which can derail the process. Some of the most common ones particularly in respect of prejudice are as follows-

  1. Universalisation of a category association                                                                          Associations in respect of a category may have some validity but are not equally applicable to all members of the category. Thus association of a certain body structure with gender (e.g. men are taller, stronger etc.) may have an overall validity but is certainly not applicable to each and every man and woman. There are many women who are taller/stronger than most men. In case of a tangible factor like physical attribute, it is easy to spot the error and correct it but when it comes to intangibles like psychological attributes ,the situation is a lot more complex. Firstly, their validity can not be determined in an objective manner and secondly when they are being applied universally, the error is not so obvious. Thus a person may associate aggression with north indians and then assume that it is applicable to all north indians and their individual differences may not even become visible to him/her.
  2. Over magnifying a category                                                                                                                Every phenomenon can be related to multiple categories. However when we choose to focus only on one or two categories, we run into problems. Imagine the plight of a person who associates fire with only danger and overlooks the other categories to which it belongs like light, warmth, transformation etc. This is a major source of erroneous inferences in respect of other people.                                                                                                                                                          In relating to others, there are always multiple categories at play. Thus our response to a colleague is being influenced by several factors e.g.  gender, age, profession, role status,ethnicity etc. The associations in respect of these categories may converge or diverge. Thus if one associates softness, sensitivity and compassion with the category “woman”, then one may experience some difficulty in coming to terms with a demanding and aggressive female boss,  even if such behaviour is consistent with other categories associated with her role.                                                                                      While most of us try to focus only on contextually relevant categories, the pull of some of the categories may be so strong that it may not be easy for us to ignore them. Invariably, each one of us has a a propensity to pay greater attention to some categories and underplay others. Some of us may magnify the gender category whereas others may pay greater attention to age or ethnicity or professional affiliation. Consequently, one or two categories end up clouding the rest of the person and the person becomes only a symbol of these over-magnified categories. In such a situation it becomes extremely difficult to draw meaningful inferences about the person.
  3. Frozen associations                                                                                                                                        All associations are made in a certain context. However over a period of time, these associations become frozen and tend to acquire an absolute character irrespective of the context. The saying “once bitten twice shy” captures this process whereby an association arising from one bad experience becomes a determinant of all future engagements.                                                                                                                                       At a macro level, the impact of these frozen associations is clearly visible in the area of gender relations. Our associations in respect of gender identity and dynamics belong to an era of human context (largely agrarian patriarchy) which no longer exists but the associations continue to influence us even though we may consciously resist them. Such associations can not be discarded like a piece of old clothing. Whether we like them or not, they are sitting right within us and by pretending that they do not exist we only make them more virulent. Perhaps the best we can do is to be mindful of them and not let them lead us astray to the erroneous inferences which may be detrimental both for ourselves and for others.
  4. Emotional valency of associations                                                                                                            All associations come with a feeling tonality. If darkness is associated with danger, then for most people it will have a negative feeling tonality. Similarly if brightness is associated with hope, then most people are likely to hold it in a positive tonality. This attribution of feeling tonality is much more applicable to associations in respect of people categories. Thus if one associates untrustworthiness with people of a certain community then it is likely to influence how one feels towards the people of that community. More importantly, this negative feeling is likely to impact all other associations in respect of that community i.e. one is more likely to associate other negative features with that community (for example, that they are also selfish,mean, uncaring etc.) and generally ignore and dismiss any evidence that shows them in positive light. In other words, the emotional valency of associations makes them self-selective and self-reinforcing.

This perhaps is the biggest source of “erroneous inferences”  because

a)  it  can completely blind us to  those features of a category which carry the opposite valency and

b) it makes the grip of the associations that much stronger on us.

In many ways, the earlier three pitfalls can be seen as derivatives of this. Thus the higher the emotional valency of associations with a category the more it is likely to be magnified, frozen and universally applied. For instance, if a woman has strong negative and emotionally loaded associations about men (e.g. they are uncouth, selfish, aggressive etc.) then it is highly likely that these associations will be applied indiscriminately, become frozen and the category “man” will supersede all other categories.

Hence recognising the emotional valency of the associations with any category is the doorway to dealing with all other pitfalls leading to erroneous inferences.

 

 

 

Hierarchy Vs. Authority

This morning while taking a walk, I witnessed one of the security guards in our building trying to prevent a hired car driver from driving on the wrong side. The resident sitting inside the car was arguing on behalf of the driver rather than telling him to follow the rules. While it would have been just a matter of seconds for the car to have reversed and drive through the designated path, much time and energy was expended in this exchange. Clearly, it was not an issue of time or convenience!  What was at stake here was a conflict between two strong principles namely, hierarchy and authority. The security guard  had the authority to regulate traffic movement inside the building complex but since he was seen as lower in status hierarchy, his authority was not acceptable to the resident sitting in the car.

This conflict between hierarchy and authority is played out on almost a daily basis in virtually all spheres of our personal and professional lives. This particular incident reminded me of a paper which Gouranga Chattopadhyay and I had written several decades back. Our central hypothesis was that the concept of hierarchy present in almost all modern organisations creates the breeding ground for incompetence and invisible waste. It is seen as a necessary requirement for exercising authority but in fact, it is one of the biggest impediments to exercise of meaningful authority .

Authority is a structural arrangement whereby certain decision making rights are delegated to a role-holder for effective task performance. In the incident described earlier, the right to regulate traffic movement has been delegated to the security guard and his relative hierarchical status is of no consequence. Hierarchy on the other hand is a relative construct- it places individuals/groups on a scale of lowest to highest on the basis of a criteria. For example, in the Indian caste system the criteria deployed is of purity vs. pollution. The caste groups considered as the purest are placed at the top and those considered as most polluted are placed at the bottom. In another society, economic status may be the primary criteria of hierarchical ordering, but the essence of any hierarchy is the notion of lowest to highest and an assumed superiority of the higher over the lower.

Serious problems arise when this notion of higher/lower is applied to authority which is essentially a task based construct. One of the damaging implications is the assumption that the authority which rests with any role holder also rests with his/her so called superior or boss. The absurdity of such a notion becomes obvious if we imagine a school where the principal has the authority to overturn the decisions of a teacher in respect of his/her pupil or a hospital  where the CEO has the authority to overturn the decision of a medical specialist. Nonetheless, expressions like “higher authority” are freely used by many people in spite of the fact that the concept of higher or lower can not be applied to distribution of authority.

Another deadly implication of this confusion between hierarchy and authority is that status differentials become a pre-requisite for exercise of authority. The individuals concerned start believing that authority becomes legitimate only when it is exercised by a person who is supposedly “higher” over a person who is supposedly “lower”.In other words, the belief is that authority only flows downwards and never upwards or laterally. Consequently accepting the authority of someone gets equated with accepting his/her higher hierarchical status. It is therefore not surprising that most people are over-cautious in exercising authority over someone who they regard as higher or equal and blatantly callous when dealing with someone who they regard as lower.

The end result of this confusion is that many bosses happily usurp the authority of their subordinates and many subordinates happily “delegate” their authority to their bosses- taking their decisions more on the basis of what they believe their boss wants rather than their own judgement. Needless to say, in such a scenario no real accountability can exist. The real decision maker (i.e. the boss) has no structural legitimacy and the the person who has signed on the dotted line (i.e. the subordinate) has no psychological ownership of the decision.

Meaningful exercise of authority has two main elements

-sanctity of role and structure, and

-requisite competence.

For any structure to work effectively it is important that the authority delegated to a role holder is commensurate with the responsibilities/accountabilities and  that the relevant information is available to the role holder for effective decision making. However, when hierarchy enters into the picture, this scenario changes.  The role holder  tends to delegate his/her authority upward as mentioned earlier. Thus it is not uncommon for bureaucrats to delegate their authority to their political bosses and for even elected political leaders to delegate their authority to their “high commands”. In such situations, authority is exercised not by the relevant role holder but by  someone else who may neither have the relevant information nor the associated responsibility/accountability. Thus, the structural/role sanctity gets compromised through creation of extra-constitutional centres of power and consequent disempowering of the legitimate role holders.

Every effective system needs to work continuously on upgrading the skills and competencies of its role holders. The most important source of this is feedback from the operating levels like the shop floor or the market place. When hierarchy enters the picture,people at lower levels tend to hold back their real thoughts and feelings lest they offend those who are higher than them.  Similarly people at the higher levels run the risk of not paying adequate attention to the messages coming from below.  In absence of authentic feedback it becomes extremely difficult for people to work at their own incompetencies. Interestingly,  higher the person is in hierarchy, the more difficult it becomes for him/her to upgrade his/her competence. I recall some time back I had asked a senior manager of a company about their experience with a prestigious consulting firm. His response was very telling- ” What the consultants told us is what our shop floor supervisors have been saying for years, but having paid millions to the consultants, we had no choice but to listen”. When hierarchy is confused with authority, no negative feedback flows from “lower” to “higher” levels, and the system as a whole can never work on its incompetencies.

It may seem that hierarchy can be helpful in at least upgrading of competence at lower levels because “negative feedback” can be more easily given from a higher level. However this is rarely the case. More often than not people at lower levels dismiss this feedback and attribute it to non-appreciation of the ground realities by their seniors. I recall, once  I and another colleague were working with a group of middle managers in a supposedly professional company. Throughout the day the group kept telling us as to how little their seniors understood the ground realities. In the evening we had invited some of their seniors for a joint session. However, the group preferred to just listen to their seniors (and mentally dismiss it) rather than express their own thoughts and feelings. All our invitations and attempts to facilitate a dialogue were ignored by both sides. The end result was that what could have been a significant learning experience became a meaningless ritual.

While confusion between hierarchy and authority is a widely prevalent phenomenon, cultures with high power distance (like India) are particularly susceptible to it, because it keeps getting reinforced on almost daily basis. Often this reinforcement is so subtle and seemingly inconsequential  that we don’t even notice it. Take for example, a fairly common expectation that a person of lower status hierarchy  than ourselves must behave in a polite and courteous manner or should be the first to greet/salute us OR our own difficulty in being direct and forthright with someone who we regard as higher in status hierarchy. Over a period of time, these seemingly inconsequential ways become part of us and become “par for the course” What we witness at the organisational and macro-social level are merely more dramatic and magnified versions of the same themes.

Thus any attempt to delink hierarchy from authority must begin with greater consciousness about how it plays out in our day to day life; and how we engage with people who we regard as lower or higher than ourselves in status hierarchy. Honouring and gracing the authority of a security guard or a maid servant may seem like a small matter but it can have profound impact on liberating authority from the clutches of hierarchy .It may also help us to learn to exercise our own authority without getting caught with the issue of our relative hierarchical status vis.a vis. the other person.

 

Vigilante Virus and Swatchh Bharat

One of the most frequently used expressions in hindi cinema is “Thakur  tere papon ka ghada ab bhar gaya hai”(the pitcher containing your sins is now full). It is often accompanied by its other half “Bhagwan tum kab tak aise chup chap dekhte rahoge” ( Lord, for how long will you remain a mute spectator?) Put together, the two dialogues remind you of the assurance which Sri. Krishna gave to Arjuna that whenever the universe is overwhelmed by adharma, he will descend to restore dharma. Perhaps Sri. Krishna’s intent was to foster faith in cosmic benevolence, however over time, it seems to have  infected our collective psyche with a deadly virus- the Vigilante Virus or VV to be short.

The person infected by  VV  sees the context as overwhelmed by adharma and takes upon him/herself the task of setting things right. In this process the person gives to him/herself the license to transgress boundaries of normal social conduct and legal/moral limits. Generally, the process takes the following course-

  1. Most people in the protagonist’s context believe  that their primary focus  should be on adherence to personal dharma i.e. fulfilment of role responsibilities in a righteous manner.
  2. The sloth created in this process ( an inevitable part of living) is dumped outside  their personal space and it is assumed that some one else will take care of it.
  3. When this collective sloth becomes unbearable, it is attributed to a powerful and oppressive villain.
  4. The collectivity  silently suffers and waits for a super-hero or a messiah to arrive who can then wage a Mahabharata (great war), in which the normal rules of rightful conduct can be set aside.
  5. It is hoped that after the demon is vanquished, the accumulated collective sloth will disappear through a magic wand.

Countless number of Indian films and t.v.serials have been made on this theme. There is an oppressive demonic despot (usually a landlord or a business tycoon) who controls the entire system through a corrupt bureaucratic and political machinery . There is the silent suffering populace and there is the protagonist who takes matters in his/her own hands and does not mind transgressing the boundaries of legal/socially acceptable behaviour. There are of course several variations to this- sometimes the protagonist is governed by personal vendetta, sometimes by ideological commitment and sometimes is a victim him/herself . While the advent of the “angry young man” has made VV more easily visible, its presence could be seen even earlier. For example, in a typical family drama, the demon could be a distant relative, a close friend or even a despotic mother-in-law. The essential theme of an entire collectivity being at the mercy of a powerful/manipulative demon waiting for deliverance by a messiah was always present though in different forms and shades.

Accumulation of  sloth in collective spaces is very much a part of our lives in virtually all spheres.Political leaders and parties vie with each other for the exalted role of a scavenger who would clean up the system of all the accumulated sloth. Not surprisingly, one of the major political miracles in recent times has been a party whose symbol is a broom and whose one point agenda is to clean up the system of corruption, nepotism and other forms of adharma. Exposing “dirt” is one of the most profitable journalistic endeavours and anchors of TV shows happily shout and scream “on behalf of the nation”. Similarly, we have vigilantes for culture, religion, freedom of speech, democratic rights and so on. Needless to say each group of vigilantes creates the need for counter-vigilance , which is great news for VV .

Most systems recognise that the  collective sloth can easily become a breeding ground for VV.Hence,  in order to ensure that VV does not become epidemic, organisations undertake periodic scavenging exercises.  As a consultant, I am often called upon to act as a scavenger to clean the emotional residues accumulated over time and restore the systemic hygiene. Some times this scavenging is done by HR departments, particularly through their training programs. One of the main functions of many of these programs is to provide cathartic release to the participants.While such spring cleaning is a useful way of maintaining systemic hygiene, the question which is rarely asked is – why do we allow the sloth to accumulate?

Sudhir Kakkar and Katharina Kakkar have given us a clue through their suggestion that there is a basic difference between India and west in handling of that which is considered dirty. According to them “Whereas in the west there is much effort expended in masking the dirty inside, in India it is directed towards shifting the dirt outside”. Thus we are more prone to accumulating sloth in collective spaces. Not surprisingly  it is often said that Indians are a very clean people who live in a filthy country.

This is the real challenge in front of Swatch Bharat. Defecating outside is not just an economic/infrastructure issue- it is a distinct psychological preference. To complicate matters, a large part of modern urban living and prevalent organisation cultures are fairly westernised. Thus we often suffer on both counts. On one hand we try and mask the dirt inside and on the other try to shift it outside.This peculiar mix of masking and dumping allows us to defecate in public not with the innocence of a child but with the stubbornness and reactivity of an irresponsible adult. One often comes across expressions such as “Why should we be required to segregate our waste? Don’t we pay taxes for this purpose? ” The callousness with which even the so-called educated people sully the collective spaces is far too well known.

At another level, we rarely acknowledge our obnoxious behaviour , let alone taking responsibility for it. Instead, we blame someone else for it and justify our behaviour as a reaction to what the other did and often gloat about having taught an appropriate lesson to the other person.Teaching someone a lesson, is a favourite activity of the people infected by VV. In doing so they try to get rid of what they regard as dirty within themselves (their own rage, sadistic impulse, punitiveness etc.) in a perfectly righteous manner. Thus that which is regarded as dirty  within ourselves is simultaneously masked and dumped outside.

It is this simultaneity of masking and dumping of sloth in which VV breeds. It creates an illusion that sloth can be eliminated  and hence there is no need for us to learn to manage it. Hygiene is all about effective dealing with sloth and not about eliminating it. When the focus shifts to getting rid of what is regarded as dirty, we only get destruction. Those of us who are old enough, will recall the horrors of Turkman gate, when a whole lot of destruction was unleashed in the name of a clean up drive.

Imagine a system (home, workplace, city,country) which has no sloth- no rage, no hatred, no envy, no lust,no greed, and where every person is only “clean and pure”. Such a place can only be fit for robots and I wonder if any human life can survive in such a place. Life is messy and can not be sustained without the sloth which is an integral part of it. Be it Swatchh Bharat or other endeavours of healthy, hygienic homes and work spaces, they can only be meaningful if they befriend sloth rather than try to get rid of it.

To sum up, we can neither resort to masking nor dumping that which we regard as “dirty”. Our only choice is to acknowledge it, befriend it and take care of it. I believe, this is what Gandhi ji tried to teach us but like in all other spheres we have chosen to worship him rather than try to live by his teachings.

 

 

 

Beyond Peaceful Co-existence

In early 60’s Sahir Ludhianvi wrote one of my  favourite songs “tu hindu banega na musalmaan banega, insaan ki aulad hai insaan banega ( you will neither become a hindu nor a moslem, being a human offspring, you will become a human being). I loved it then and I love it now, but there is a difference. Somewhere along the line, the word “banega” (will become) got reconfigured as “rahega” (will remain). Let me explain- as an adolescent, I believed that sectoral identities based on region, religion, race etc. are an impediment to embracing humanness.Today, I think that embracing my hindu-ness or moslem-ness is a necessary first step to embracing  my human-ness. The problem arises when the hindu-ness or moslem-ness becomes a prison and I remain its captive. The emphasis has therefore shifted from denial/rejection of sectoral identity to  accepting it,valuing it  and transcending it in order to embrace a larger identity.

I often  come across people who are more comfortable being a “person” rather than being a “man” or a “woman”. Similarly I find many people who find it easier to identify with the notion of “global citizenship” rather than with their national, linguistic, racial, religious identity. There seems to be some anxiety/discomfort with acknowledging differences of any kind lest they become a source of discord and discrimination.  I recall several years back, I came across a hoarding which had been put up either by UNICEF or by some NGO working in the area of social harmony. It showed 5 or 6 infants of different ethnic backgrounds with their eyes closed. The caption read “Don’t open their eyes to the differences that they can not see”. It left me wondering as to how could negation or denial be seen as an effective way of dealing with difference.

The fear of combat and violence between different sectoral identities is very real  and hence “closing one’s eyes to the difference” becomes a tempting choice.However just because we choose to close our eyes,  the differences(and associated feelings)   do not disappear, in fact like all repressed phenomenon, they become even more virulent. The rise in religious fundamentalism and racial sensitivities, across the world, is a clear evidence that sectoral identities can not be denied or repressed.

The traditional Indian way of dealing with differences between sectoral identities has been through “segregation”.  The basic assumption being that if different identity groups can be kept separated from each other and their interaction regulated ,then they can co-exist peacefully.This is the basic rationale behind the rigid caste-system and the strong prohibitions in inter-community relations. Some time back Mani Ratnam had made a film called Bombay about communal tensions and violence. The film starts with life in a village where Hindus and Moslems live in harmony, amiability and good-will, but maintain the requisite prohibitions particularly in respect of inter-dinning and inter-marriage. However all hell breaks loose when a hindu boy and a moslem girl fall in love with each other. I think this was an excellent portrayal of peaceful co-existence through segregation and controlled interaction.

Dealing with differences through segregation can be witnessed in virtually all facets of life in India including corporate world. Fragmentation into silos(based on function, department, region, ethnicity etc.) has been a wide spread phenomenon in Indian organisations. By and large, these fragmented groups follow the policy of “non-interference” and “peaceful co-existence”. Thus difficulties in collaboration in India, are less due to “in-fighting” and more due to “indifference”. This is not to suggest that inter-group conflicts and rivalries are not present, but only that they are generally expressed through subtle sabotage and undercutting than a direct combat. At the manifest level, the relationships are marked by the principle of “live and let live”, and compromise/collusion play a huge role in conflict resolution.

The complex design of modern day organisations is more like an intertwined web in which neat segregations are a virtual impossibility. In this design, the individual does not have the choice of belonging to a stable well bounded fragment. On the other hand, the individual has to belong to multiple groups and forge many relationships. It is therefore not surprising that most Indian organisation today are struggling to make the transition from a simple pyramid to a complex matrix structure.

Even at the macro social level, It is becoming increasingly clear that the choice of keeping the other at “an arm’s length” and hoping for peaceful co-existence is no longer feasible. Whether we like it or not, in an interdependent world, we are in each other’s  way. Add to this the factor of discrimination which is an inevitable fall out of segregation (as in the case of caste-system) and the conclusion is inescapable viz. the traditional Indian ways of dealing with differences through segregation have serious limitations in the present day world. Simultaneously, we can not eliminate differences through combat and violence. Closing our eyes to them and pretending that they do not exist is equally problematic, as argued earlier.

That leaves us with only one choice- learning to cherish differences rather than treating them as a threat. This is easier said than done. It is fashionable to extol the virtues of diversity, but the fears, anxieties and discomfort of dealing with “differences” are rarely acknowledged and addressed. Mostly they are denied by pretending that they do not exist OR the other is kept at an arm’s length in the spirit of “live and let live”. This approach is no longer feasible,but more importantly it does not allow the different fragmented groups to interact with each other, learn from each other, and enrich each other .If this is to happen then segregation and peaceful co-existence is not enough. It will require a more pro-active engagement- a greater willingness to experience each other, dialogue with each other and assimilation of each other.

A more proactive and intense engagement with the “other” will necessary be a bumpy ride. To expect it to be hassle free and smooth is to deny its very essence. It will necessarily be accompanied by some tension, chaos and conflict. Thus it can only regard peaceful co-existence as a basic value and not as an absolute operative principle. Peaceful co-existence can help in living with diversity, but cherishing diversity also requires valuing conflict and chaos.

 

 

 

Paradox of Frameworks

I have a very ambivalent relationship with frameworks- I love them because they help me to think cogently but simultaneously, I hate them because they restrict the free-flow of my thoughts and feelings.Feeling/ Thinking is a fluid process on which structure can be imposed only “post-facto” Undoubtedly, there is some connection between the “chain of thoughts” but the possibilities are so many that no one can predict as to the direction in which this river of thoughts and feelings will flow. The experience of a “falling apple”, made Newton ask a certain question which led him to the path of discovering the principle of gravity. There is no particular reason for him to have traversed that path, instead he could well have speculated about the taste of the apple or its nutritional value or the different colours,shapes and sizes in which they come or even what would have happened if the apple had fallen on his head and injured him etc. etc. The possibilities are endless and the connections between any two thoughts can only be in hindsight.

It is here that frameworks play an important role. They channelise the thought process, put them into a pre-fixed structure and enable us to make some sense out of them. However, this structuring extracts a heavy price. It requires us to ignore (or at least put aside) all such feelings and thoughts which do not fit into the pre-fixed structure. For example, if one is thinking about the issue of “gender relations” using the binary framework of Men and Women, then it becomes necessary to exclude all thoughts about people who do not fit into this binary.This is most evident when people use simplistic frames like good-bad, beautiful-ugly, success-failure, right-left, liberal-conservative, selfish-altruistic, introverted-extroverted etc. The more rigidly a person holds the framework, the more he/she is forced to “exclude”. For example  a person who has very rigid ideas about “good” and “bad” will end up excluding everything which is “grey” as compared to the person whose framework is more nuanced.

However, no matter how complex and nuanced a framework may be, it will necessary exclude something and whenever we engage with the excluded phenomenon ,we will be confronted with a paradox. To understand this, we need to understand the nature of paradox.

Paradox is one of the most misunderstood and misused  terms in general discourse. Often we mistake it as any contrary/contradictory pull. For example if I say that I want to be at home and at work at the same time, then this phenomenon is NOT a paradox, it is merely a presence of two conflicting desires. Paradox arises when a logically drawn conclusion from a premise, contradicts the premise itself. A simple example of a paradox is the assertion “I always tell lies”. The difficulty with this assertion is that if it is true, then the person is telling a lie and hence it is necessarily untrue. In other words, a paradoxical assertion has to be “false” in order to be “true” and vice versa.Similarly, a paradoxical injunction can only be followed by disregarding it. When a parent tells a child “don’t listen to me”, then a parent is giving a paradoxical injunction to the child. The child is being asked to “listen” to the parent in order to “not listen”.

Normally, such paradoxes do not create much difficulty for us because we take it for granted that the assertion or injunction is not to be applied to itself. In the examples given above the statement “I always tell lies”  – if not applied to itself ,becomes a simple confession of a compulsive lier. Similarly the parental injunction for “not listening” is simply asking the child to develop his/her own thinking. The difficulty  arises when the  assertion/injunction is applied to itself.  In paradox theory, this  is called  “self-referrence” i.e. when an assertion or injunction is applied to itself. For those who are interested in this subject may like to see my paper   “Beyond The Law Of Contradictions” available here. For the limited purpose of this piece, it is enough to note that the paradox arises  from this phenomenon of “self-referrence”

The paradox becomes apparent whenever a framework (i.e. structure of ideas) is applied to itself. Can an insane person see his own insanity?  In order to do this, the person will necessary have to step out of his/her insanity. The same is applicable in virtually all spheres. An introverted person must be able to step out of his/her introversion in order to recognise it and similarly an extroverted person can see his/her extraversion only by turning the gaze inwards. Take the example of Defence Mechanisms- a very powerful and useful framework for understanding human behaviour. So long as the person is caught in a defence mechanism, it can not become visible to the individual. The moment a memory or an impulse is repressed, it becomes inaccessible to the individual and hence an assertion like “I have repressed something” is self-contradictory or paradoxical.

Thus, the meaningfulness of any framework rests on our ability to stand apart from it. However, the framework by its very nature prevents us from this side-stepping. The framework becomes a sentry of sorts which screens our thoughts and feelings and views their admissibility from its own unique lens. Thus, if an individual is using a framework which looks at organisations as purposive instruments then he/she can only engage with thoughts which pertain to efficiency, productivity, output, skills, competencies etc. All feelings and thoughts about human sensitivity,ambience,  ecology, etc. must be blocked as potential distractions and irrelevant to the matter at hand. The only way in which these thoughts and feelings can find an entry is through questioning the assumption on which the framework is built, which in the case cited above would be – Is organisation only a purposive instrument of performance? If this question is not asked then all endeavours  of humanising the organisation will paradoxically become instruments of further dehumanising as can be seen in expressions like human resources, human inventory, human assets etc. whereby the human being is reduced to being a “commodity”.

Similarly if one tries to fit the phenomenon of “intimacy” in a framework of introversion-extraversion, one will  constantly be running in circles. In intimacy there is a deep connect both with the Self and the Other- it can neither be regarded as introverted nor extraverted. Even if one regards introversion and extraversion as two poles of a continuum, with a large middle ground, it still can not explain intimacy. Intimacy does not happen in any middle ground- it is a state wherein both introversion and extraversion are intense and mutually dependent upon each other. In a sense one is deeply connecting with oneself through connecting with the other and vice versa. Hence in order to engage with intimacy, one has to go to a higher/deeper level wherein introversion and extraversion can be held in simultaneity rather than as two poles of a continuum. This is not to suggest that the framework of introversion and extraversion is of any less value, but only that like all frameworks it stands on some basic foundations (in this case, a clear separation between “inside” and “outside”) and any attempt to engage with phenomenon which go beyond the limits set by its foundations will necessarily create a paradox.

This is in line with the theory of paradox which stipulates that no paradox can be resolved/dissolved at the level in which it arises. In order to address a paradox meaningfully, one needs to move to a higher/deeper level of enquiry. In case of Frameworks, this deeper level refers to the philosophical underpinnings of the framework.

Interestingly, we are living in times when our reliance on frameworks in virtually all spheres of life is increasing exponentially. Be it our personal lives or professional, we are inundated by frameworks like diet charts, exercise regimes, child-rearing practices, competency mapping, bench marking, balanced score cards etc. etc. Simultaneously  our patience and  willingness to understand  the underlying assumptions of these frameworks is coming down. Consequently the only criteria by which we can assess any framework is its relative popularity and acceptance in the market place and the only understanding that we have of any framework is what can be quickly gathered through Google and Wikipedia. The motto of our life seems to be “Why waste time in thinking? Just Google it and act”It is therefore not surprising that today in the name of frameworks what we have are mere fads- which come and possess us for a little while and are then replaced by another set of fads. This is an inevitable consequence of the all too prevalent aversion towards philosophy in our times. Nearly a century ago, Aldous Huxley had painted the picture of a “Brave New World” which will only be driven by technology and in which Philosophy will have no place. It seems we are proving him right.

Frameworks are extremely useful provided they are used for stimulating our thinking and organising our thought process. Paradoxically, if we become their captives they can also become the biggest stumbling block to our thinking and hence defeat their own purpose. Perhaps instead of looking at frameworks as “providers of answers”,  if we engage with them as  stimuli for questioning and deeper understanding, we can forge a more meaningful relationship with them.

 

 

Door Ka Rahi

Tension between the Captive and the Wanderer has always fascinated me. Both are an integral part of my identity and I suspect reside in all human beings at least to some extent. They come in various shapes, forms and sizes. A few common embodiments of the captive are-  bird in the golden cage, Atlas, Shravan Kumar etc. Similarly Wanderer can be easily seen in the explorer, vagabond, , roving minstrel and many other similar forms.

There is obvious contrary pull between these two identities. My first cognitive encounter with this tension was in my adolescence when I read Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage”.I have forgotten most of it, but I recall  that the protagonist wants to be an artist but becomes a doctor, wants to travel around the world but decides to settle down to a conventional domestic life. The other thing that I recall is that the protagonist was an orphan and had a club-foot.At that time, I did not recognise the significance of this and saw the whole drama only in terms of the conflict between need for anchorage and call of adventure. Much later, I realised that the injured/handicapped orphan was an important part of this drama.

Kishore Kumar’s film Door Gagan Ki Chaon Mein is a good example of the relationship between the  Orphan and the Wanderer. The image which is stuck in my mind of this film is that of a mature adult who is carrying a handicapped child on his back. The film is about a soldier who on his return from the battle-field discovers that his house had been ravaged by fire in which his wife had also perished. The only survivors was his son who also lost his voice because of the trauma. Essentially the film is about the father’s quest to restore “wholeness” for his son. This quest is captured by the lyricist Shailendra in two of the songs of the film which  to date,linger in our collective memory. The two sides of this quest are – nostalgia for the lost paradise ( Koi laute de mere beete hue din) and  search for the promised land (Aa chal ke tujhe mein leke chaloon, ik aise gagan ke tale)

Door Ka Rahi, another Kishore Kumar film, breaks out of this lost paradise/promised land paradigm. The theme song of the protagonist here is “Panthi hun mien us path ka, ant nahi jiska”(I am traversing a path which has no destination) In a sense, the film brings into play all three identities- The Orphan, The Captive and The Wanderer. The protagonist Prashant is a wanderer who has dedicated his life to service of humanity at large. During his several encounters, he keeps meeting orphans and captives, alleviates their suffering and moves on. His last encounter is with  the duo of an old man (in a “wheel-chair”) and his “widowed” daughter-in law whose husband looked exactly like Prashant. A bond develops between the three and the old man wants Prashant to marry his daughter in law and settle down with them. In wrestling with his confusion, Prashant recalls his own orphanhood and how he had been brought up by a kind holy-man (Swamiji) . Prashant also recalls the pledge that he had taken, at the time of Swamiji’s death that he will stay clear of personal attachments and dedicate his life to the service of mankind. Needless to say, Prashant decides to move on in his never ending journey.

One can look at Prashant both as a Captive (to his pledge) and as a  Wanderer in search of his own wholeness. Interestingly, both perspectives are linked to the Orphan who neither feels whole in himself nor a meaningful and integral part of a larger whole. This psychodrama between the Orphan, the Captive and the Wanderer has often played out in my life several times. The Orhan in his search of  a “home” finds himself in a prison from which he wants to break free. But once the Captive breaks the shackles and turns into a Wanderer, he is haunted by another song written by Shailendra-

“kabhi yeh bhi socha ki manzil kahan hai; bade se jahan mein tera ghar kahan hai

Jo bandhe they bandana who kyun toed dale; kahan ja raha hai tu ai jane-wale”

( Where is your destination” where is your home? Why have you snapped all your ties? What is the purpose of this wandering?)

And then begins another search for home and consequent experience of captivity. The oscillation between the Captive and the Wanderer seems endless but reinforces the recognition that all nostalgia of the “lost paradise” is imaginary and all conceptions of a “promised land” are a futile attempt to escape the “dukha” which is an inevitable part of being human and existential aloneness . In such moments, I am reminded of Ghalib’s verse “Rahiye ab aisee jagah chal kar jahan koi na ho”. An approximate translation of which is-

I wish to live in a place where there is no one else;

no one to relate to or communicate with,

I wish to build a house which has no walls or boundaries

When I fall sick, let there be no one to take care,and

When I die, let there be no one to mourn

 

Thus it is in fitness of things, that Door Ka Rahi begins with an old Prashant, all alone in a glacier, remembering the events from his life. The film ends with Prashant breathing his last in that cold yet serene solitude. As though life has come back a full circle and one is reminded of yet another Ghalib verse-

“Ghame hasti ka Asad, kis se ho juz marg ilaj

Shama har rang me jalti hai sehar hone tak ”

( There is no ultimate answer to human suffering, the candle must burn till the dawn comes)

Simply put, what Prashant tells us is that there was no “lost paradise”, there is no “promised land”. The only reality is “living” and this endless journey.At least that is how I make some peace between the Orphan, the Captive and the Wanderer in me. Would love to know how these identities play out in you.

 

 

 

 

 

Whose Bhavana are we talking about?

Some time back, I received a forward of a video made by Kasbah Digital. It was an open letter written to a symbolic person Bhavana (Sentiment) . The letter was signed “we, the people of India”. The video had been shared several times and I guess received fair degree of appreciation from many people. For those, who may not have seen it, I am giving below the content of this open letter. The video had  powerful visuals, which I can not reproduce here, but the script will give the broad idea.

Dear Bhavana,

How are you? I got a bit worried when I heard about you. I don’t know what you look like, how old you are or where you stay. But from whatever I have seen,read and heard about you, I feel you are a little child. A child who is getting younger as time passes, which is just not right. I am hoping through this letter, I will be able to communicate with you better.

At times you get irritated by someone eating beef. Or when someone says “we need to correct something in this country”. At times somebody raising questions bothers you. It seems you have blisters all over your body,whichever side you turn ,it bothers you. You must be feeling, everyone wants to trouble you-especially the artistic kind. But let me tell you, it is not true. Let me tell you that from reading the news and my day to day experience, I know that you have a lot of well-wishers. And that too in a large number-who defend you by the strongest argument “Bharat Mata ki Jai” They are people who can die or kill for you without thinking twice. Its a different story that we haven’t heard of someone giving their life. But news about their killing people keeps coming.

Bhavana(Sentiments) you are very lucky. Otherwise in times like these,it is very difficult to find such people. It is because of you that a lawyer at lower or high court gets his life. It is because of you that people who do not see eye to eye, speak in the same tone. It is because of you  that people recognise that they belong to a specific caste, region or religion. Your contribution towards the unity and greatness which we see written behind trucks is incomparable. I would appreciate if you shift your focus to some other issues as well.- Farmer suicides, Floods, Fire, Vyapam, Scams, Politics and the issues in it. There are a lot of issues that you are not aware of, for once focus on them as well. When you find time, just think about the fact that when so much was happening in the country, where were you hiding?

First wipe your tears.Stop abusing at every situation and come to terms with ground reality. I have just one small request. Be strong,read self-help books, practice yoga,some meditation, and if possible,change your company In the words of Baba Ramadev “It will happen if you do it.So do it.”

I would love to hear from you. Until then take care of yourself.

Your well-wishers,

We, the people of India.

On first reading(listening and watching to be more precise) I found this video quite harmless, sensible and too an extent even evocative. But I also experienced some unease and tried to figure out what is it that I felt uneasy about. I realised that I experienced some identification with Bhavana and felt touched when the letter mentioned the blisters on Bhavana’s body.However right thereafter I felt a huge sense of let down.Not merely was there no attempt to understand the nature of these blisters (let alone healing them) there was a complete denial of any responsibility in the matter with a curt “This is not so”. It seemed the message was that the blisters are a mere figment of Bhavana’s imagination and hence she needs to be counselled to forget about them. I was reminded of a famous couplet of Ghalib- “Ye kahan ki dosti hai, ke bane hein dost nase; koi charasaaz hota, koi ghamgusaar hota ( What does one do with friends, who start preaching at you, Wish they could heal or at the very least be with me in my pain)

As I  thought some more, the anomaly of the letter became even more stark. Here was a letter supposedly written by “people of India” and yet the writers had no idea who Bhavana is- what she looks like, how old she is and where she lives. They have only “heard” about her. Clearly their stance is of “outsiders”-well meaning but outsiders nevertheless. The all important question is that if Bhavana is a stranger to “people of India”, then to who does she belong? Are people who identify with Bhavana not Indians ? Are the makers of the video suggesting that distancing oneself from Bhavana is a precondition to qualify as “people of India”

It became clear to me that my unease had nothing to do with the content of the message (in fact, I agreed with most of it). Also, I felt reasonably certain that the intent of the makers was honourable. My unease stemmed from this stance of an “outsider”- who critiques, comments and advises but has no sense of identification. Then why call your self “people of India”. Simply say that while we may be Indians, we regard ourselves as separate and distinct from the rest of our countrymen.

This is a phenomenon I have encountered quite often. Several of my friends and colleagues (who I respect a great deal) often talk about India and Indian-ness in a way that one talks about some other people rather than about oneself. As though India and Indian-ness is something “out there” and not a part of them. In my limited experience with people from other countries/cultures, I rarely experience this. When they talk about their country or culture, you find them including themselves in it. However with a certain category of Indians, it is rarely the case. Their location remains primarily of “outsiders” who are commenting and critiquing but in a way that it excludes them. This is not restricted to only “arm-chair critics” but also includes people who are actively engaged in social action. Undoubtedly, these activists do considerable service to their respective clientele but their essential stance remains that of an “outsider”

The saddest consequence of  this distancing and hence disowning of Bhavana by many of us, is that she is hijacked by a host of vested interests who manipulate and exploit her and in the name of “looking after”, leave her even more wounded. If we really want her to heal and become stronger then we first need to own her up, accept her as an integral part of ourselves and stop treating her as a millstone around our neck. Standing apart and preaching will only add to her wounds. Simply put, we need to acknowledge that Bhavana is not some one “out there”- She resides within each one of us and is crying to be treated with some compassion and empathy. It is another matter that many of us have chosen to turn away from her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IIMs and JNU

Some time back I received a link to a “point by point rebuttal” of Kanhaiya Kumar’s speech. Not surprisingly, the rebuttal was being given by a person with IIT/ IIM background. I said “not surprisingly” because increasingly, I am finding some clear differences between the stances of people who belong to these two broad categories. Clearly there are variances within each group, but for the moment I am focusing on broad patterns. Also I am using both IIM and JNU in a symbolic sense. Not every JNU type necessarily belongs to JNU and not every IIM type necessarily belongs to an IIM. For example, before joining IIM Ahmedabad way back in 1970, I would describe myself as a JNU type though I had never been there. Let me elaborate.

After flirting with Engineering, I had made up my mind to pursue an academic career preferably in Philosophy. I was studying an unusual combination of Philosophy, psychology and Mathematics. Though I was reasonably good in academics, a large part of my time was spent in college canteen/ India Coffee house, pontificating about all kinds of issues. I was actively involved in student politics and had strong leftist leanings. Much later in life, I realised that these leftist leanings had very little to do with political ideology. They were more an expression of my “romantic idealism” and an innate “anti-establishment” streak. Thus while I revered people like George Fernandise and Madhu Limaye, the same reverence was not extended to Indira Gandhi in spite of the fact that she was fighting against a strong right-wing syndicate within the Congress party and had taken strong measures like bank nationalisation and abolishing of privy purses. Perhaps her being part of the “establishment” had much to do with it. Thus whatever she did was seen as political expediency, whereas whatever likes of Limaye did was seen as an act of commitment and conviction.

However, very soon I got disillusioned with the lack of substantiveness of University life,particularly in the philosophy department and made a compromise decision of joining IIM Ahmedabad. I call it a compromise decision because I had no emotive pull towards pursuing a career in Management. I wonder if any one pursues management education for the love of the subject. Generally speaking their choice is determined more by ambition and issues of  career-success  than emotional/intellectual fulfilment.

I soon discovered that both my romantic idealism as also my anti-establishment streak were not very compatible with the ethos of IIMA. I was surrounded by colleagues who  were very proper in their behaviour,took their studies seriously and had brilliant academic records. While they liked an occasional “Adda”, their primary focus was on their studies, getting good grades and bagging a prestigious job at the end of the course. Further, management as a discipline is much more comfortable with rational pragmatism and tangible empirical evidence than any philosophical enquiry which is based on a different set of beliefs and assumptions about human condition. After all, it will not be very comfortable if managers were to start questioning the primacy of constructs like “cost-benefit analysis” or “increasing market share” or “growth/profitability”etc. Thus “managers are not philosophers” is a statement that has been repeatedly thrown at me both during my IIM days and thereafter. Gradually, my romantic idealism began to wither away and I was in the complete grip of my “anti-establishment” streak. This got manifested in blatant disregard for systemic requirements, mindless arguments and actions of utter self-waste. My stay at IIMA was best captured by a friend in the course-end booklet-

” All night card-games in smoke filled rooms,vehement arguments with harassed instructors, old film songs, impeccable Hindi : that’s Mama. On those rare occasions when he has the time and the inclination he goes to class” ( Mama was my nick name at the Institute)

To cut a long story short, I was a misfit amongst the JNU types and I became a misfit amongst the IIM types. Perhaps there is some perverse romanticism about being a misfit OR may be non-polarisation of ambivalence is such an integral part of my identity that no matter where I am, I become a misfit.This ambivalence has surfaced with great force in the last couple of months while the difference between the JNU types and the IIM types has become very sharp in the social discourse/social media triggered by some recent developments.In this discourse, I hear two very distinct voices both of which leave me feeling ambivalent.

The first voice I hear is of the JNU types. The romantic/idealist in me resonates strongly with their emphasis on humanistic values of liberty, Equality and Fraternity. My anti-establishment streak is reinforced when they talk of all the injustice and oppression that we have inherited from our past and how it is all too prevalent in our present social order. On the other hand, I also start feeling a little uneasy with their emphasis on only the negatives be it of our heritage or of our present condition. It overwhelms me with feelings of guilt and shame as an Indian and particularly as an upper caste Hindu. I ask myself – is caste/gender based oppression the only thing that they see about us? Do they see nothing to celebrate in the Indian reality? While they keep harping on virtues of diversity and plurality, have they ever bothered to ask as to what are the inherent strengths of this civilisation ? If caste/gender based oppression was its only narrative then how could this diversity flourish?

The other thing which puts me off about the JNU types is what I experience as their  intellectual arrogance and the ease with which they dismiss any view point other than their own. The meanings that they give to words like Liberalism or Secularism or their narrative of Indian tradition and history can not be questioned. While they decry the Brahmincal Indian tradition, I wonder if they ever see as to how much of Intellectual Brahminism they display. They come across to me as very erudite people but leave me wondering about the depth of their assimilation of what they are talking about.

Another voice that I hear is of the IIM types. I strongly resonate with their rational pragmatism, with their refusal to be emotionally blackmailed by sentimentality, by their respect for structure/order and their pursuit of progress/development without upsetting the apple cart. My difficulty with them arises when they refuse to look beyond what seems like “common sense” to them -for example when they talk of “meritocracy” without getting into the nuances of “merit”. Listening to them I feel that there are no structural inequities in this world and all will be well provided  there is “law and order” and people did their work honestly and diligently. Needless to say, corrupt politicians /bureaucrats are their favourite punching bags . Perhaps they do not see much difference between running a company and managing a nation state and believe that all that it takes to set things right is  competent and honest leadership.

The other difficulty that I have with the IIM types is their arrogance of success. In their book, the ultimate test of any perspective is “success” which is invariably defined in tangible terms like GDP, FDI, Improvements in infra-structure etc. Any mention of intangibles like social disharmony, ambience of fear/intolerance, ecological insensitivity is either dismissed for “lack of evidence” or treated as minor aberrations or attributed to malevolence of people who want to detract us from our “development agenda”. Also in their world, people are clearly divided as “winners” and “losers” and needless to say, it is only “winners” who are regarded as worthy of listening to.

One of the main differences between the IIM types and the JNU types is the way they engage with the prevalent values and beliefs of their context. For the IIM types these values and beliefs are “common sense” and hence “self-evident”. They strive to play by the established rules and excel. Consequently they seek stability and thrive in it. On the other hand the JNU types believe that the rules themselves are flawed and need to be re-written. Hence they seek to disrupt and thrive in chaos. It is not easy (at least for me) to say as to who is right and who is wrong. I believe both are partly right and partly wrong.

What adds to the difficulty is the propensity of both groups to deploy the logic of “either-or” variety. Both groups seek to bifurcate on the basis of binaries like good-bad, right-wrong, true-false etc. It is another matter that what one group regards as “right”, the other sees it as “wrong”.  Both groups are very sure of themselves and there is very little space for “self-doubt”. Thus one can only agree or disagree with them- particularly when it comes to their basic beliefs and assumptions.The end result is that rather than complementing each other, they end up fighting each other.

It is hardly surprising that some one like me for who “doubt’ has been a constant companion, should feel a bit out of place amongst people who are so sure, so clear, and so certain, irrespective of what specific position that they take. Simultaneously,since I have strong identification (and equally strong reservations ) with both JNU types and IIM types, I try to co-hold them to the best of my ability. Indeed it creates some difficulties, several misunderstandings and considerable confusion. If there is one thing that I am clear about – it is the need to co-held them, or for that matter all such perspectives/phenomenon which seem contrary and mutually exclusive.

Do share your experience with binaries both in yourself and the world around you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On behalf of Intellectual Shudras

images

I  understand Rajiv Malhotra has coined a term called “Intellectual Kshtriya” presumably to describe himself and to inspire his supporters to fight for certain ideas. The term made me think of applicability of Varnashram categories to the intellectual community. The more I thought about it, the more sense it seemed to make. Most of the intellectuals that I have come across seem to fit into three main categories- Brahmins, Kshtriyas and Vaishyas. Each of these groups has its own orientations and predispositions.Needless to say, I am using the Varnashram categories in a symbolic sense and not as social categories of belonging.

There are intellectuals who value knowledge for its own sake, pursue it with complete dedication and are regarded as the final say on what constitutes valid knowledge.We can call these people  Brahmins of the intellectual community. They know their discipline inside-out and focus on maintaining its purity, rigour and quality standards. . They love delving into nuances, finer points and complexities of their area of study and are generally suspicious of simple straight forward formulations.Consequently they become the gate -keepers of “acceptable knowledge” in their respective areas and any new idea or perspective must gain the stamp of their approval before becoming credible. However dialogue with them presupposes a high degree of erudition and familiarity with their language. This in effect means that over a period of time they become an elite club into which only a select few can be admitted.   Application of knowledge to living reality is relatively less important to them and consequently they are some times seen as living in ivory towers which further reinforces their elite-status. Like all elite groups they have their share of internal politicking, but show remarkable degree of solidarity when their collective privileges and entitlements are under attack.

Then there are intellectuals who take up the role of protecting the knowledge system from external attacks and internal chaos. They  provide the necessary muscle power to the intellectual community and can be regarded as its “Kshatriyas”. For them intellect is a resource to be deployed in service of their “ideology”i.e. the set of beliefs that they hold.. They generally have strong convictions and clear positions about what they stand “for” and what they stand “against”. Most of their formulations generate mutually exclusive categories such as true/false, good/bad, right/wrong etc. They recognise that knowledge and intellect are significant factors in power dynamics and hence  spend considerable time and effort in sharpening their intellectual sword. Also they take the trouble of understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the other side before taking them on in an intellectual combat. Their unambiguous stances help them to communicate more effectively (as compared to intellectual brahmins) with people at large. They  become extremely active in situations which are emotionally charged and polarised for example (a)when their is a conflict within the Brahmin community or (b) when there is a significant challenge to the prevalent belief systems.  In such situations their role as representatives of the ideological group to which they belong comes to the fore.

Then there are intellectuals who link the knowledge system with the day to day living process of the community. They are the technologists and traders of the intellectual community and can be called the “Vaishyas”.  For them knowledge and intellect are “means” for betterment of life. This “betterment” is generally defined in terms of material conditions and social efficacy. They strive to become the link between Intellectual Brahmins and people at large. They try to take the essence of the “learnings” from the Brahmins and then translate them in a language which can be understood by people and hence becomes usable in day to day living. Consequently they are extremely popular amongst general public and their “self-help” books often  figure in the best-seller lists.They are actively engaged with the day to day living process and make themselves available as problem solvers/consultants.  With the growing influence of the corporate sector, the stock of these intellectuals is at a high and seems to be rising exponentially. Simultaneously, they are often accused of oversimplification, corrupting the essence of the “learnings” which they claim to rely upon and even down right manipulation.

What have been described above are broad prototypes. Each person will be a unique configuration of all three. Also each of these play a crucial role and all  of them have their own down sides. Whether or not they are able to play their respective roles effectively depends upon the hygiene of the eco-system in which they operate. It is in this respect that the fourth category namely the Intellectual “Shudra” becomes important, whose primary concern is with maintaining this hygiene and enabling life to blossom.

If the term intellectual is used only in a limited rational/theoretical sense then it may not seem applicable to this group, as they are not very erudite or learned people. They have no great theories to propound or any quick -fix solutions to offer. Their contribution is essentially of providing necessary service to the context so that healthy and meaningful intellectual endeavour can flourish. Thus they focus more on  the “process” aspect of the intellectual endeavour. In their scheme of things, intellect is not divorced from emotion and/or action. They believe that what one thinks, how one feels and the way one behaves are all inter-related and parts of an integrated “eco-system”. It is the hygiene of this eco-system which is most precious to them. They pay special attention to the fact that their “mind” responds differentially to different ideas. Some ideas find ready acceptance whereas others are strongly resisted. Similarly how they feel towards the “other” has a significant impact on the way they listen and impacts the quality of their dialogue with the other. Much of their effort and energy is spent on creating ground conditions and fostering a healthy ambience for meaningful intellectual endeavour.

The best example of an Intellectual Shudra that I can think of comes from an old story which made a very deep impact on me. The story is of a cobbler Ramdaas who lived in a town with his family and earned a living through repairing the foot-wear of his clients. One day the queen of the town dreamt of a beautiful pair of bracelets. She was so enamoured by them that she insisted upon having them. The king summoned all the reputed jewellers of the town and ordered them to produce the pair of bracelets which the queen desired. The jewellers tried their best to figure out what the queen desired but repeatedly failed in their endeavour. The king was exasperated and ordered that if the jewellers failed to produce the bracelets within a specific time period all of them will be be-headed. As the time given by the king  was coming to the end and the jewellers were not making any head way, they came across a wise man. The wise man told them that such a pair of bracelets can only be obtained from Ganga (one of the most pious rivers in the country) He also told them that the only person who “knew” how to communicate with river Ganga is the cobbler Ramdaas. The jewellers were highly sceptical about it, but since they had no other choice they approached Ramdaas and requested him to accompany them to the banks of the river and convey their request. Ramdaas expressed his inability to do as he was tied up with some work assigned to him by his client. When the jewellers told him about their predicament and the urgency of their need, Ramdaas agreed to help them. However instead of accompanying them, he merely closed his eyes and put his hand into his Katauthi (the earthen pot of water which he used for his work) and took out the pair of bracelets which the jewellers were looking for. The jewellers were overjoyed and wanted to know how Ramdaas managed to get them without going to the river. Ramdaas smiled and replied “Man changa to Katauthi mien Ganga ” ( If you are in sync with your being then the holy river is an integral part of your life)

What strikes me as most significant about this story is that for Ramdaas, his knowledge is neither an end in itself nor an instrument for betterment. In fact his knowledge is so integral to him that one can not segregate them from each other. It resides in his mundane day to day living. One can look down upon him for being too caught up with the mundane aspects of living or one can marvel at his ability to experience the divine in his engagement with the mundane.

Being  a Ramdaas is neither easy nor particularly rewarding and yet it has a strong emotive appeal for me. I think there is part in each one of us which is like Ramdaas who silently works behind the scene to ensure that our feelings, thoughts and action remain integrated and interact with each other in a reasonably healthy manner. It is the efficacy of work done by Ramdaas which determines the hygiene of the eco-system both within ourselves and in our engagement with the external world. It is the health of this eco-system which determines the quality of the intellectual endeavour which can flourish. Thus like in all other spheres of life the Intellectual Brahmins, Kshtriyas and Vaishyas within us  can play their part meaningfully only if the Intellectual Shudra within us provides with the necessary ground conditions to do so.However if we carry the hierarchy associated with Varnashram in our mind then  the Intellectual Shudra within us is  likely to be neglected or oppressed and  we will only see the most negative side of the Brahmin, the Kshtriya and the Vaishya.

Look forward to your sharing of how you see intellectual endeavour within your self and in the world that we live in.