Symbols and Persons

Recently, I read a small book about Arnab Goswami, written by Vir Sanghvi. Till then, Arnab Goswami was merely a symbol for me- symbol of a certain kind of T.V. Journalism which I intensely dislike. The book helped me to see the person behind the symbol, but more importantly, it provided insights about the contextual forces which had created this symbol. 

Mr. Sanghvi looks at not just the personal background of Arnab Goswami but also at the ethos of T.V. journalism (specifically English news channels) prior to the Goswami era. It appears that several processes were at play which created a fertile ground for someone like Arnab Goswami to emerge. Some significant features of this context were –  pretence of neutrality, compulsive consensus, synthetic amiability, focus on a selective viewership, Delhi centricity, clannish elitism etc. In this scenario, it was to be expected that a strong counter point would emerge who is direct, blunt, populist, confrontational and very very loud. Mr. Goswami fitted the bill, but it is important to remember that what we see in him, is not just him. It is also a reaction to the processes which belong to the collective context. 

In our preoccupation with individual personalities, we often overlook how the person becomes a symbol who in a sense is not just his/her own person but a carrier of the wishes, hopes, frustrations, stresses, repressions etc. of the collective to which he/she belongs. This is not to deny the significance of personal attributes, differences, choice making or the Agency of the individual. Surely they play a part, but once the person concerned has swallowed the symbol placed upon him/her by the collective, there is very little choice left for the person. The person becomes a captive of the symbol and the entire collective puts its might behind ensuring that the person concerned sticks to the script which has been laid out for him/her.

This process is starkly visible in case of public figures but can be easily witnessed in day to day life as well. R.D. Laing in his path breaking research on mental illness found that “pathology does not belong to the individual alone but to the entire family”. In my own work with individuals and collectives (groups, families, organisations) I have often discovered that what is attributed to a person, generally belongs to the entire collective. At the very least, the collective ensures that the person remains fixed in the allotted symbol.

While this is a fairly normal process, some times the symbols become so powerful and exercise such a stronghold over everyone concerned, that both the person and collective are unable to break free, even in face of heavy cost to themselves. Let me take a few examples.

One of the widely prevalent symbols among leaders in the Indian context is that of the “distant father”. While there are other symbols as well (macho go-getter, brilliant visionary etc.) the distant father has a special appeal in the Indian psyche. Several CEO’s take it for granted that in order to be effective and also to maintain their authority, they have to act the distant father, lest they appear partial, vulnerable, unfair or be taken for granted. Invariably, the rest of the organisation, plays the complementary role of the “good obedient children”, putting their best foot forward, while dealing with the “father”

A direct consequence of this process is that the “distant father” remains blissfully unaware about the “messy” side of the organisation. I recall, once a CEO was sharing with me his sense of shock on learning that one of his bright stars had left the organisation because of “interpersonal problems” with his immediate boss. When I asked him as to how did he remain unaware of something happening right under his nose, his response was” but how was I to know? These things are never voiced in my presence- they behaved so normally in my presence that it was impossible for me to know that trouble was brewing”. When I suggested to him that it may be a good idea for him to spend some relaxed and informal time with his people, he was shocked because he felt that it could seriously impair his image as a fair and impartial authority figure.

The captivity of the symbol becomes so strong that it becomes impossible for the people concerned to operate in any other way. As a result, the entire collective remains caught in its unexamined fears about intimacy and how it can contaminate the sanctity of authority relationships.

Another symbol that I have frequently encountered is that of the “villain” . In many systems, I frequently hear people saying ” But for so and so, everything would be perfect and hunky dory– ” The belief is that all problems are arising out of a single source. Sometimes this source can be a group or collective and not just an individual. For example, one often comes across the symbol of “politician” as the villain. The central argument being that since politicians are supposed to be all powerful, all ills can be attributed to them. All religious tensions, communal/inter caste hostilities/corruption/ indiscipline etc. are sought to be placed at their doorsteps. I sometimes come across people who genuinely believe that but for these handful of crooked politicians, there will be bliss and prosperity for all concerned and different communities/religious groups will be living in perfect harmony.

Needless to say, in order to make the politician into a villain, the rest of us are required to play  the complementary role of “helpless accomplice” – we have no choice but to bribe/ seek favours/ bend the rules etc. etc. On the other hand, the politician has no other choice except to play the role of the all powerful demigod who is not constrained by “normal rules of conduct”. The beauty of symbols is that they lock the  parties concerned in a relationship which neither can escape.

Both the symbols described above, ensure maintenance of status quo. There are also symbols of disruption like Arnab Goswami. In this scenario the individual becomes the medium through which the repressed shadow of the system finds expression through a “counter point”.  For example, one may find a highly aggressive and violent person in an otherwise pacifist family. The person concerned holds the aggression and violence on behalf of the entire family.

The ‘counter point” disrupts the status quo but is sustained by the hope which the collective places on it.  The hope is that the ‘counter point’ will release the collective from its present entrapment and begin a new era.  While this may lead to sporadic outbursts and releases,  the apparent  shifts in the systems are generally of only an oscillatory kind ( pendulum moving from one point to another) with no real movement.

In case of Arnab Goswami, the hope was that the TV debates will become more substantive and real.  However, we can see that the “synthetic amiability” has been replaced by “in your face aggression”. But has it led to meaningful debate as was presumably the intent? It is intense and passionate alright but where is the listening to the other? Where is the space for calm discourse and dispassionate rationality? All that Mr. Goswami has succeeded in doing is that he has replaced “compulsive consensus” with a “shouting match”,where the louder you scream the better. Expectedly, this new “ethos” of shouting matches has become the norm for many other anchors/channels.

One of my learnings from my work is that in order to meaningfully engage with collectives(groups, families, organisations, society at large) one needs to go beyond the person and understand the “symbol” which the person has become. What plays out through the individual does not belong to the individual alone. In a sense, it is part of the collective psyche which is finding expression through the individual. In absence of this appreciation all that we are left with are blame games and scapegoating.



On behalf of Intellectual Shudras


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.