What to Believe?

The past month has been the saddest in memory as the communal violence in Gujarat has not only diminished us all but has brought home the truth that Hannah Arendt uttered forty years ago, that evil, in the end, is banal. Some Indians have persistently asked, what let us down? Others wonder what do we dare to believe in now?

An academic friend of mine ascribes the barbarism to the loss of certainties of fifty years ago when the Nehruvian consensus helped guide our parents. That consensus was based on the values of modernism—a rule of law founded on the pillars of democracy, socialism, and secularism, and aimed to wed the ordinary Indian to the decent idea that religion of any kind ought not to intrude in public life. In a similar vein, a Marxist intellectual blamed the madness in Gujarat to the loss of ideology, arguing that socialism, at least, offered an idealism that turned people's minds away from religion and polarised society along the healthier divisions of class rather than religion. But a young teenager, whom I recently met on a train, indicted all organised religion. Bitterly she said, “The truly religious know that faith is a private matter and God is inside you, and a plague on all your mandirs and masjids!”

With Nehru's age of innocence gone forever, and communism dead, must we now be resigned to a world without ideology?  Some Indians are searching for a new set of beliefs that will help us to cope with our frustratingly pluralistic society. But I happen to agree with Isaiah Berlin that the quest for a new ideology is misguided. The idea of a perfectible world, in which all good things exist, is not only unattainable, it is dangerous. Those who allow themselves to come under the spell of any kind of dogma religious or secular become victims of myopia and in the end become less human.

Spontaneity is the fundamental human quality, Henri Bergson reminds us, and it is not compatible with 'total solutions' or organised planning by the state. The history of the twentieth century is littered with graves of ideologies, all of which had some great benign aim, and were meant to be for the greater good of mankind. This was the faith of Lenin, of Mao, even of Hitler, and who knows maybe Pol Pot. In India, we escaped these tragedies, but even our modest experiments with Fabian socialism led to statism, and we are still trying to shake off that yoke.

This does not mean that we must necessarily lose our idealism. Some problems can be solved and should be. We should do everything we can to reduce hunger; we should fight against injustice and social oppression; we should resist state induced suffering, such as torture; we should help the homeless and the sick. The lesson of Gujarat is that the most important obligation of a decent society is to avoid the extremes of suffering. This may sound like a boring answer to young, idealistic Indians of today who seek to build a noble society based on great truths. The fact is that there is no great truth, and we should be shy of anyone who thinks that he might have found it. And the reason is that human beings are not straight, but made of “crooked timber”, as Immanuel Kant put it.

With the rise of nationalism in recent years in India, we are sometimes exhorted to look for an ideology in “our glorious past”. The truth is that ancient Indians were cruel, barbarous, mean, and oppressive to the weak; but they also created the wonderful Mahabharata and Ramayana. These epics are filled with a deeply moral quest. They are concerned with the same things as we are--what is responsible for injustice, oppression, falsity in human relations? They care profoundly for the human condition and for human weaknesses. They were searching, just as we are, for the roads to peace, justice, love, human dignity and spiritual fulfilment.

These masterpieces, however, belong to the ancients, and that world is long gone; there is no point in trying to slavishly recreate it, even if we could. Our world has science, democracy, the Internet, and the promise of prosperity engendered by economic growth. The best that we can to do with our past is to read the great texts; but read them with intelligence and a critical eye, as the source of history and myth. Part of our current malaise is that we are adrift from our moorings, and the reading of the texts will help to centre us. A sensible understanding of the past allows one to fuse creatively tradition with the demands of modernity. But it is futile (and dangerous!) to revive the past or to base an ideology upon it.

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