Indian Resilience- Paradox of Dharma

It is debatable as to who will win the ideological and political battle being currently fought in the country but one clear winner which has emerged is the average Indian, who has demonstrated, yet again his/her grit and resilience in dealing with hardship. Over the past few days, many common Indians have been walking long distances, standing in serpentine long queues and that too with no certainty that their efforts will bear fruit. They have felt frustrated, anxious, angry and wondered how they will meet their immediate day to day needs. In spite of all this, at least so far, there have been very few instances requiring intervention from law enforcement agencies. In fact, one could even spot a few smiling faces, some friendly banter, and quite a few expressing their support for the decision which has caused them so much hardship. “It is a problem right now but it will be alright soon and in any case it is for the overall good of the country” is the sentiment expressed by at least a sizeable section if not the majority. This optimism may be misplaced and may not last too long but there is little denying the fact that it is playing a crucial role in sustaining their resilience.

Simultaneously, there are thousands of bank employees, working tirelessly in a a highly demanding and stressful situation. They do not have adequate infrastructure and more importantly adequate cash to meet the requirements of those who have been waiting in front of them for hours. They often have to absorb the ire of the angry and anxious crowds for no fault of theirs. Yet from whatever I have experienced and heard from others, they have handled the situation with exemplary equanimity, maturity and sensitivity. Many of them have gone out of their way to extend help and support particularly to senior citizens like yours truly. And then there are the invisible ones, the ones who are working behind the scenes – printing currency, transporting it to many outlets, crunching numbers, responding to emergencies, devising ways and means to minimise the hardship to different segments etc. etc. The sheer size of the exercise is mind boggling and one can not help but wonder as to where are these people finding their energy from and what is keeping their spirit alive?

Of course, this is not the first time that Indians have shown this spirit. It has been seen on several such occasions like the Chennai floods last year. What is perhaps not appreciated is that  resilience in face of hardship is part of everyday life in India. We may notice it only in moments like this but it is ever present. A couple of years back I had seen a research study which ranked Indians amongst the highest in terms of sense of well being/satisfaction/happiness etc. in spite of the hardships of everyday life in India. Sudhir and Katharina Kakar have talked about the “pervasive presence of hope, even in the most dismal of life circumstances” in their book “The Indians” It appears that resilience in face of hardship is an integral part of the Indian psyche.

What makes the present situation even more striking is the fact that the hardship has not resulted from a natural calamity (like the Chennai floods) or enemy action (like Bombay blasts). The present hardship is a direct consequence of a somewhat controversial decision taken by their own government. While politicians, media persons, activists, financial experts, have screamed and shouted at each other on behalf of the “common person”, the so called “common person” who is at the receiving end of it, has gone about his/her business with minimum of fuss. He/She has expressed helplessness and/or satisfaction with all the commotion around but has simultaneously found ways and means to sustain “life as usual” with the stoic stance of “this too shall pass”Interestingly, no political party has so far succeeded in organising any sort of public action and/or mass protest. On the contrary, most of them have been rather diplomatic in their criticism focussing more on issues of implementation and integrity of intent rather than the step per se. The obvious hypothesis is that they believe that in the eyes of people (rightly or wrongly) “dharma” lies on the side of the government and hence it would be suicidal to make too much noise till such time that people run out of patience or can be convinced of the adharmic nature of the government’s action. A mere appeal to hardship may not suffice.

This brings me to the centrality of dharma in the Indian consciousness and its relationship with faith in cosmic benevolence and resilience to deal with ups and downs of life. Needless to say, I am not using the term dharma in a religious sense but as a perspective and way of life. The core belief on which this perspective is built is that Cosmos/Universe is  orderly, fair and benevolent. All that a person needs to do is to focus on his/her role obligations and not worry about the fruits of his/her endeavour. The cosmic order ensures that in the ultimate analysis each person receives his/her “karmon ka phal” i.e. legitimate due in accordance with one’s actions.

This may sound like Hindu philosophy ,but perhaps is a perspective shared by most Indians irrespective of their religious affiliation. Most Indians believe that the short term vicissitudes of life are beyond human comprehension and hence it is best to accept them with the spirit of “whatever happens, happens for the good and hence the seeming adversity is perhaps also a blessing in disguise”. Recently, I heard a lady talk about a near fatal accident of her husband which has left him with serious disabilities. What was amazing in the tonality of her narration was the complete lack of bitterness and complaint.Instead she seemed full of gratitude and feeling very lucky because “it could have been a lot worse”. One can not help but marvel at this tremendous ability to extract what ever little positive that one can from any situation- an ability which I have sensed in many Indians and which I believe has something to do with the centrality of dharma in their lives.

This leads us to the obvious question- If Indians are such dharmic or virtuous people, then how does one explain the widespread corruption, nepotism, insensitivity, oppression of the weak etc.? It is tempting to attribute these ills to a handful of evil people, but perhaps, the reality is a lot more complex. I think, the root of this paradox lies in the notion of dharma in the Indian consciousness. To the Indian mind, dharma is not an absolute but only contextual. The same act performed by one person in a certain situation can be regarded as dharmic , but becomes undharmic in another situation and by a different person. I suspect that Indians must rank as the most frequent users of the term “it depends”. As the famous poet and scholar A.K. Ramanujan suggested, Indians have a distinct preference for “context- sensitivity” rather than “context-free” ways of thinking. For us virtually everything is contextualised be it morality, arts, health, day to day living,relationships or any thing else.

Our propensity to be context-sensitive provides us great amount of flexibility, adaptability and resilience. Simultaneously it creates many ethical ambiguities. Take for example, the fact that many shopkeepers and small traders are continuing to accept the old currency notes despite the ban. Their only precondition is that you should not place too much burden on them to return change. Thus they are not willing to accept a 500 rupee note for a 50 rupee purchase but will happily do so for a 400 rupee purchase. Technically speaking their act is “illegal”, but would they regard it as immoral or undharmic? I do not think so. From their point of view, there is a world of difference between laundering large quantities of unaccounted money through purchase of gold and striking an honest business deal by stretching the rules a bit. The issue here is not whether what they are doing is right or not, but only that it is perfectly possible for an Indian to regard his/her act as virtuous and dharmic even if it violates some other standards of legality and morality.

The absence of absolutes in our notion of dharma is both a curse and a blessing. We are all too familiar with its downside viz. our double standards, our “chalta hai” attitude, our insensitivity to oppression of the weak, our lack of systemic discipline etc. etc. While it is important to take cognisance of these and address them, it is equally important to celebrate the positive side of our “context-sensitivity” which enables us to be flexible, adapt to the imperatives of a situation, respect diversity, peacefully co-exist with differences and deal with vicissitudes of life with resilience and equanimity. In other words, learn to celebrate ourselves for “who we are”. Perhaps for far too long, we have searched for our national pride in either our glorious heritage and/or aspirations to become a super-power. It may be more meaningful and productive to look for it in the smiling face of an average Indian who refuses to give up his/her cheerful optimism in spite of all the adversities which life throws at him/her.

 

 

 

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.