Saturday, August 1, 2020

Our Concern for Ordinariness and Bonhomie (English Version of the previous post धर्मसंस्थापनाथामय: हमारा साधारण समाज)

I think it was Lenin who had asked “what is to be done” and “how is it to be done?” And the answer led to a revolution 100 years ago. It not only changed Europe but also started the project of making a new world. I do not know how much currency Lenin’s answer has to the situation of ‘India that is Bharat’ but I do believe that the two questions are important for us as well. We must ponder over them in our private and public conversations. And this manthan is likely to have greater value if it would be in the bhāśā of our ancestors; in the categories of the civilization.

 What work is worth doing in these times? A revered friend said, “to spend the whole life planting trees”. Another friend said, “to tell good stories of good people” is what is needed to be done. Another possible answer can be to work towards reestablishing the ordinary way of life. The term loka-vidyā amongst its multiple meaningful interpretations would include the celebration of wisdom of ordinary people in our surroundings. The marriage of loka (a priori conditions) with vidyā perhaps needs the sacred fire (tapas) of ordinariness! I am attempting to share an English re-narration of the earlier post in Hindi on our ordinariness and bonhomie with respected seniors of Lokavidyā Andolan.

 To Establish Dharma in Contemporary Situations

 Mahatma Gandhi was one of those Indian political leaders who understood India independent of the European view of life. According to him, India’s problem was (and is) that it had wandered away from the path of dharma[1]. I believe his entire spectrum of political activity emerged from this concern. All his actions- call for swadeshi, promotion of charkhā, taking up fasts, non-cooperation with British rule etc. were intended for “धर्म संस्थापनार्थाय” or to work towards re-establishing dharma. I think, this maybe the most significant aspect of his unrealized legacy and any recalling of Mahatma Gandhi must be in this light.

 From an aitisāsic point of view, man’s concern has always been for establishment of dharma[2]. All our cultural stories tell us that since time immemorial man’s primary quest has been this. And so is this true for our times as well. We too need to work with the primal concern.

 The civilizational view has been that it is the concern for dharma which fundamentally distinguishes man from animal. Only man worries about dharma, animals don’t. An animal’s concern is limited to food, rest and reproduction. And that is why the primary concern behind any animal gathering is protection and security. But humans are different. If humans too gather for the purpose of protection and security, then it would not be possible to distinguish between the two. Our civilization saw a human gathering distinct from animal gathering; the former is called samāja and the latter is called samaja[3].

 Birth of Modern Society in Europe

In modern times, societies were born in Europe with the concern of protecting property. The few who owned properties formed societies and started influencing the Kings and the Queens to ensure protection of their property. The justification for it was provided by a view which considered property to be an extension of human body. Just like clothes were mere extension of one’s body, so were the assets and property. And protecting them was akin to protecting one’s body. The same view when extended, encouraged those without property to go out in the world and acquire it; a useful justification for colonial conquest of the world. As time passed, monarchies gave way to democratic states, but this view continued unchanged. So much so, today the primary responsibility and occupation of the state is to protect property (and facilitate those without to it).

 Perhaps in these times, the most important goal of modern states is to ensure everyone becomes a property owner. American thinker Hannah Arendt called modern states to be institutions of “mass housekeeping”[4]. Such has been the dominance of societies over the modern state, that the concerns of a household i.e. food, clothing and shelter, have now become the primary concern of the state. As a result, the modern man has willingly given up this responsibility to the state. In India, the state is often called माई-बाप which tends to infantilize its population by (forcibly) becoming parent like. Today, even if some families intend to come together and aspire to re-establish their sovereignty over material fulfillment, it is not possible to do so. Although one can find a few such well-intentioned efforts and experiments, however their success has only been limited. The modern society has fundamentally weakened the households by usurping all the conditions of material fulfillment. The most recent example in India perhaps is the (near) complete control over kitchen fuel and defecation space.

 I think it is important to re-claim the civilizational view of human gathering; the samāja. And it is necessary to clearly distinguish between the imagination of society and that of samāja. Translations have often resulted in serious mistakes. For example, the modern society has no interest in the issues of dharma-adharma. In these times, the concern for dharma has been pushed out of public contemplation. For the self-preservation of society, it was deemed necessary to make dharma a private matter or else the society risks falling apart. Whereas the imagination of samāja has been completely different from this. At its core lies the concern for dharma-adharma and all of samājiktā (bonhomie) finds purpose in establishing dharma. I think, at least in the Indian context, those friends who are making efforts towards creating a space for samājiktā in contemporary society would find it useful to collectively contemplate on the civilizational imagination of it.

Civilizational Imagination of Samāja

According to Hannah Arendt, the modern society was built in direct contradiction to how the civilizational Greeks constructed the polis (the space of political). For the Greeks, the household (private realm) was concerned with food security and health. The private space was a space of well-being of life; a space for rest, recuperation and parenting. On the other hand, the public space of political was concerned with those issues that are at play on the margins of life- issues of death, immortality, birth, re-birth, purpose of life etc. The political was not concerned about well-being of life. Or at least, that was not its primary concern, and nor did it restrict itself to such issues. For Arendt, the beginning of modernity is marked by obfuscating the distinction between the public (political) and the private (household). Modern times saw the “rise of social” between the political and the household and it has gobbled up the two. Such powerful was this assertion by Arendt that it ruffled many feathers in the contemporary world, including of those who otherwise were appreciative of her. Her criticism of rise of social is an important critique of Marx and the project of making the world.

 Much like the development of polis in Greece, India witnessed development of samāja; also, completely distinct from the modern society. Probably the first use of the word samāja is found in Bharat Muni’s nāttyaśātra; the treatise on drama[5]. In nāttyaśātra, the word samājik is used for the spectators of drama.

 Classically, the nāttya (drama) has been considered to be mother of all art forms. And the purpose of art is considered to re-orient human interest in issues of dharma-adharma. The story of origin of drama in the introduction of nāttyaśātra presents this beautifully.

The change of times from kriti-yuga (sat-yuga)[6] to treta-yuga is marked by a fallacy that developed in human behavior. The gods noticed that human beings have lost interest in issues of dharma-adharma and have begun chasing sukha (happiness) and shunning dukha (unhappiness). Worried, the gods took a procession under the leadership of Indra to the Creator Brahmā. They requested Brahmā to create a fifth Veda which would on one hand be a summary of the four Veda-s and on the other be सर्ववार्णिक or that which is accessible to all. And so, the nāttyaśātra was created which is also known as the fifth Veda. Brahma gave the सर्ववार्णिक पंचम वेद to Bharat Muni along with 100 sons and 1 daughter (who later came to be known as नट or nata-s).

 There are two important things to note here. First, the purpose of drama (art) is to re-orient man’s interest towards issues of dharma-adharma. And second, art is expected to be accessible to all men.

 Those who gather to witness the drama and collectively contemplate on the dharma-sankata-s raised in it constitute spectatorship. In nāttyaśātra they are referred as samājik. In other words, samāja is born when men gather to collectively contemplate on issues of dharma-adharma. Further, when collective action is taken up for establishing dharma then samājiktā (bonhomie) finds purpose. Other than this, all actions- food security, material wealth, marriage and parenting, issues of relationships etc. are all addressing this primary concern. This is our civilizational imagination of samāja.

 This civilizational imagination is completely different from the popular historical view we hold today, that when man graduated from being a hunter-gatherer to producer of food, then he felt the need to come together with other men. Agriculture on one hand ensured that ample food was produced but on the other hand needed collective effort. As a consequence, for the first-time issues of storage of excess food and distribution amongst individuals gained currency. However, such an imagination of human gathering is fundamentally not very different from an animal gathering. Here, the concern for food security is placed at the core of all gatherings.

 In one imagination of human gathering, the concern for food security is placed at the core and in another the concern for धर्म-स्थापना or establishing dharma is placed at the core. It is clear that the two imaginations originate from two different sources or paradigms. For us and our friends, it is perhaps both important and necessary to appreciate this distinction to understand our own collective situation. The imagination of society falls short of appreciating both the Greek polis and Indic samāja.


Sādhāranikaran (Immersion) and Samājiktā (Bonhomie)

In order to be samājik one is required to be engrossed in issues of dharma-adharma. One needs to be engrossed in the dharma-sankata presented in the drama. And one needs to be engrossed in the solution of those dharma-sankata presented in the drama. The everyday life presents numerous challenges to us for the needed long and deep contemplation. For example, if I am not sure about my next meal or if my roof demands urgent repair, then I cannot afford to contemplate on the dharma-sankata which Rāma faced about Sitā or the efficacy of Lakshmana-rekhā in contemporary times.

 The success of drama depends on the affordance of spectatorship i.e. the quality of contemplation. For this it is necessary that one’s living is sahaja (simple) and one feels assured about the future. A complex living where arrangement of two square meals takes the effort of life or when entire life is spent in converting the home into museum-like will leave not much scope for drama in life. If I am unsure about the future, I cannot be expected to contemplate on issues of dharma-adharma. Only when the living is sahaja and assured does drama finds a place in life.

 Such a condition of life is called sādhāranikaran in nāttyaśātra. This becomes the cause of deep and long contemplative ability. And this condition is considered a necessary requirement for one to be samājik[7]. It is said that sādhāranikaran achieves sah-hridaya (oneness?) between the spectator and the performer. Manmohan Ghosh translates sādhāranikaran as immersion[8].

 Navjyoti Singh linked the condition of sādhāranikaran with denuded man; what he called the bare human being. When an individual temporarily suspends all his adjectives; like the adjective of man-woman, adjective of King-folk, various adjectives from ideologies, adjectives of potter-farmer-weaver-iron smith-leather worker-scholar etc., then what is left is the bare core of man. Spectatorship requires one to access the core and only then the contemplation on dharma-adharma reveals something worthwhile. In such a contemplation there is the possibility of getting a glimpse of Truth. Navjyoti ji considered this to be the source of aesthetic beauty in art. And gathering of spectators to be samāja.

 One important point to remember here is that the storyteller never suspends his adjective. A storyteller does not get immersed in the drama. He is every moment aware of the distinction between drama and the natural world. His storytelling performance needs him to follow the laws of material realm. It is the responsibility of the storyteller to first immerse the spectator into drama and then at its conclusion bring the spectators back to their reality[9].

 For serious contemplation on issues of dharma-adharma the spectators need to be immersed. However, in order to act for establishing dharma, they need to return back to the reality with the respective adjectives. A potter needs to be a potter again, a weaver needs to weave again, a King needs to be King again. For one to do action, one needs to be present in material realm. I think samāja has simultaneous presence in “realm of drama” (we call it parloka) and in realm of material. Parloka is the realm of contemplation; it is composed of impressions, judgements, images, ideas etc. And persona is born in parloka[10]. And material realm is where action is performed. Samāja exists in both the loka-s (a priori conditions).


Civilizational Village

For immersion to happen, nāttyaśātra calls for construction of a play-house. The play-house is expected to remove all the obstacles which prevent or break immersion. For example, if in middle of the performance it rains, the immersion will break. Or if the performer is not audible the immersion will not happen. That is why a well-constructed auditorium adds to our experience of spectatorship.

 It is interesting that nāttyaśātra mentions certain obstacles which do not seem to have any relation with the play-house. It talks about “fear of famine”, “fear of political unrest”, “fear of war” as obstacles that a play-house is expected the protect the drama from. We can understand that such fears will prevent one to be immersed in drama, but we cannot imagine a play-house to cater to them. After all, how can a play-house remove the fear of famine or war?

 It is here that it may be useful to develop interest in the traditional village structures. Ravindra Sharma of Adilabad was one such person who understood the traditional village[11]. Although he only spoke of villages in Adilabad, however the listeners could relate the description to their own villages in other parts of the country. According to Sharma ji, every village fulfilled two basic requirements- assured livelihood and dignity of labor for all families. Each individual in the village felt assured about the future. And it will be accurate to give credit for this to the traditional jajmāni system.

 Besides these, there was one other equally important aspect of jajmāni villages. They also provided patronage to families of bhikśā vritti (artist communities). These families belonged to different artistic professions- puppeteers, storytellers, singers and musicians, jāti-purāna performers, genealogists, medicine men etc. Jayadhir Thirumal Rao of Hyderabad (former director of AP archives) has compiled a list of 74 such distinct communities in the Andhra-Telangana region[12].

 In my view, the bhikśā vritti families played the crucial role in functioning of the traditional villages. Their primary contribution was development of samājiktā (bonhomie) amongst the families in the village. Through continuous performances of stories; year after year, generation after generation, they created a rich culture of collective contemplation on issues of dharma-adharma in villages. For example, it can be said that for thousands of years every village in India has contemplated on the dharma-santaka faced by Rāma.

 Our villages were not stable units because of economic inter-dependency. But, the foundation to economic inter-dependency was provided by the collective contemplation on dharma and the collective effort towards its establishment. According to Ravindra Sharma, it is our “common interest in dharma” which is the source of unity amongst our diversity. Such an assertion may interest those friends who are interested to explore the challenges of diversity in human realm. The west has experimented with the project of multi culturalism in last 40 years with very limited success.

 Our ancestors saw a village as a unit of prosperity, not family nor individual. And the purpose of prosperity was to ensure that each family gets to afford spectatorship. Universal prosperity by itself was not considered to be the goal. Moreover, any activity of wealth generation which adversely impacted the samājiktā (collective effort towards dharma) was not considered worthwhile. Today we are all aware of dangers of wealth generation which is indifferent to the concerns of dharma.



On looking back, we can see that at the core of village lies samājiktā (bonhomie) i.e. collective effort towards dharma. And samājiktā is reached only when there is ample collective interest in issues of dharma. And for that to happen, families need to feel assured about future and life could be lived in sahaja manner. In the past this was achieved by the jajmāni system.

 Assured families can afford to be spectators of drama. And such families constitute samāja. And the primary motivation behind samāja is to establish dharma.

 In contrast to this, we see the modern society today. Here security of wealth (property) is a goal in itself. The popular tendency in contemporary drama is to be uninterested in dharma and most have become mere tools of entertainment. Imaginations around wealth acquisition and multiplication and the sensory pleasure obtained from it have become the dominant concerns. As a result, life in society has become complex and increasingly immaterial (purposeless). A respected friend described complex living to be symptomatic of kal-yuga.

 What is to be done for bonhomie in future and how is it to be done? Perhaps it would be useful to look back at classical concerns once. And for that we may have to reclaim classical imagination and bhāśā.


-    Harsh Satya, 30th July 2020

[1] Acharya, Nandkishore in Hindi “Sabhyata ka Vikapl: Gandhi-Drishti ka Puranarvalokan” Vagdevi Prakashan, Bikaner 1995.

[2] Here it is useful to keep in mind the distinction between the approaches of Itihāsa and History. In this context, one can see Singh, Navjyoti “Sense of Past: Itihāsa vs History” in Remembering Dharampal SIDH 2007.

[3] Monier Monier-Williams “A Sanskrit-English Dictionary: Etymologically and Philosophically Arranged with special reference to Cognate Indo-European LanguagesAsian Educational Services New Delhi 2005.

[4] Arendt, Hannah “The Human Condition” University of Chicago Press, 1958.

[5] Ghosh, Manmohan “The Nāttyaśāstra: A Treatise on Hindu Dramaturgy and Histrionics. Ascribed to Bharat Muni” The Asiatic Royal Society of Bengal, Calcutta 1959.

[6] Times of ordinary life.

[7] The samājik can be translated as (Arendt’s) political.

[8] Immersion is a precondition for communication. Many have called sādhāranikaran as communication itself.

[9] In Christopher Nolan’s film Inception, the totem is an object which brings the characters out in reality.

[10] Hannah Arendt talks about second birth of man. Navjyoti Singh explains the classical term dwija in this respect.

[11] Ed. Gupta, Pawan and Gupta, Ashish K.Smriti Jagaran Ke Harkare: Ravindra Sharma (Guruji)” SIDH 2019.

[12] Satya, Harsh Ph.D. thesis “Towards Revitalizing Diversity: A Study of the Traditional Jajmani System in India”, Appendix-III 2020.