|Employer:||Deen Dayal Upadhyaya College, University of Delhi|
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School: I did my ISC from St. Xavier School, Jaipur in 1973. I still remember one of my class teachers, Mr.A.S.Junia. Once I had worked very hard at my studies and done particularly well in exams, topping the class. When he called me to his room, I was feeling smug and virtuous, and I had my modest-good-boy-look pasted on my face, expecting a well-deserved pat on the back. To my surprise, he told me – and rather sternly too - that life was not all about studying, and that he wanted to see me at the football field in the evening. That little intervention has shaped my understanding of fundamentals ever since.
College: Did my B.A. and M.A. in English from St. Stephen's College, University of Delhi (1974-80). Those were magical years – built my house of friendship, fell in love with literature studies, and some where deep down, decided I'll take up teaching as a profession.
Mrs. Muriel Wasi taught me in the first year, that is, in 1974. In 2009, for the first time, I read her collection of autobiographical essays in the book The Narrow Corridor: Moments in Woman's Life. I was absolutely astounded – and disconcerted - to discover, that as a teacher, for the last 25 years or so, all I have been doing is echoing and adapting her ideas. Here is one of them. In the essay “Teaching and Learning the Humanities” she writes that the supreme virtue in the teacher is “continued dissatisfaction with himself, with his knowledge, his ability to communicate it, to penetrate to the heart of what the wise dead taught and what the living grope to say.”
Research: I learnt more about academic writing and research from a page of Dostoyevsky assignment that Prof A.N.Kaul corrected, than from anything else ever. Eventually, I did my Ph.D. on the topic “The Self-Conscious Dimension: A Study of Hawthorne's Romances.” I used Nathaniel Hawthorne's writings to think about how one should go about thinking about those who have thought about - evil.
Scholarship: In 1997, I got the Fulbright Scholarship and spent almost a year in US. At the University of Pittsburgh, Prof. Jonathan Arac introduced me to the rigours of genuine scholarship. And in Washington DC, on the second day of the US Open, Tiger Woods gave me some genuine gyan.
I had managed to arrange for a press pass to cover the US Open, and on the second day I found myself attending a Woods press conference. I decided to challenge the champion with a question that would force him to think on his feet. The aim was to ask a sharp 'yes-no' question for which neither a 'yes' nor a 'no' would do. So while everyone else was talking about the use of two iron instead of the driver, I stood up and asked, ‘Do you think you are the Chosen One?”
Woods' answer: “The Person Upstairs gives each one of us what he thinks we deserve, and then it is up to us to make what we can of all that has been given to us.”
Seminars: They are an occupational hazard. I find it very difficult to sit through them, so try and avoid them as far as possible.
Teaching: I started career in the early 80s by teaching English to Cambodians who were all victims of the Pol Pot Holocaust. Three years of close interaction with my Cambodian students helped me to understand that a Teacher, (as apposed to an instructor) needs to take on the challenge of corrections: not just of the errors on the written page, but also of History's wrongs.
Advertising: My first advertising campaign directly resulted in the stoning of the client's factory. People took to streets, processions were taken out, editorials written and court cases were initiated against the company. Everyone realized that I had what it takes to be a copy-writer. For a couple of years wrote campaigns as a free lancer for national and international brands. And then got bored with it all – and got back to literature and teaching in earnest.
Journalism: Wrote a weekly golf column for a year for a couple of national dailies. I wanted to revisit my family heritage – golf being the family game. My grandfather introduced the game to all of us. A Gandhian freedom fighter, family legend has it that he was jailed six times by the British, and that he even spent a month in solitary confinement. After independence, like many other freedom fighters, he found himself occupying seats of power which the British had vacated. He became a minister in the U.P. Government. And now that he was a minister, the first thing he did was - take up Golf. Small wonder that the grand child now teaches Shakespeare.
He ended up as a five handicapper, and a lot of my childhood was spent trotting on the fairways besides this outlandish figure wearing the uniform of the Congress politician of the 60s – a white Khadi kurta, white Khadi pyjama along with the white khadi topi perched precariously on top of a bald, slippery head.
Books: In the 90s, I wrote a clutch of coffee table books which were translated into quite a few European languages. In those days a lecturer's salary was almost not worth taking home. I wrote to make money, but carefully chose topics that interested me: Banaras, Hinduism and Indian culture. In all my writings, I was basically addressing only one question: Why are so many of us – urban, middle class, north-Indian Hindus – innately duplicitous?
John Keats: “…several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a man of achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean, Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without an irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
Mahatma Gandhi: “I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest and the most helpless person you know, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away."
W.B.Yeats: “Truth is the dramatic expression of the most complete man.”
Since the topic is structured as a yes-no question, we have to first of all decide whether there is a distinctive way of thinking about women which can be called ‘Indian’ or not. Also, there are problems associated with the indefinite article - ‘an’. Is it at all possible to reduce the long and varied history of Indian thought so that it can all be reduced to a single unified proposition? Then, as we all know, there are problems associated with the word ‘Indian’ itself – the term is notoriously slippery and not easy to pin down with a definition. Finally, why the dash before ‘about’?
I do believe that it is possible to come up with a formulation that captures the underlying essence of the incredible diversity and the long civilizational heritage of India. Of course the formulation will necessarily be reductive, and one would need to perform intellectual acrobatics. But both have their value. The latter can be entertaining, and the former can serve as a useful peg to hang, for a while at least, our identities – especially if we are thinking of changing the outfit that we have been going around in for a while - as seems to be the case with ‘Women Studies’.
As for the term ‘Indian’, I am not even going to try and define it. I am just going to assume we all know what it refers to. I will talk about the ‘Indian way of thinking’ by focusing on the modes of thought that have been in operation for a long period of time among a lot of those who live in the region known as India. In other words, I’ll focus on the popular living Hinduism by examining the key concepts that underlie its ritual, mystic and devotional traditions.
The dash is there in the title because I am going to try and outline certain typically “Indian” categories and patterns of thought independently from issues related to women. It is only after I have established the so called ‘Indian way of thinking’ that I will highlight the implications for women and ‘Women’s Studies’ by raising questions which we often dodge, primarily because confronting them involves a radical rethinking about our own modes of being.
At the heart of the Hindu ritual tradition is the yagna – the fire sacrifice. In the Rig Vedic period it was a simple affair: an offering of grain or an animal in the presence of Agni, the god of fire to propitiate the gods of wind, rain and thunder. But over a period of time, the sacrifice became increasingly complex, until only those who were specially trained could perform them.
A new metaphysics, elaborated in religious texts known, as the Brahmanas was developed to reinforce the system. The ideology underlying these texts looks back to "Purusasukta" myth of the Rig Veda, which describes the great sacrifice of the primal man at the beginning of time, and establishes that sacrifice is fundamental to the universal process.
In this famous hymn, the gods create the world by dismembering the cosmic giant, Purusha or Prajapati, the primeval male or person, who is both performer and the victim of the sacrifice. This sacrifice creates the whole universe. To maintain the universe in good working order, constant repetitions of that original sacrifice were considered necessary. Ritual sacrifice then came to be seen as the chief cultural resource for the regeneration of both the social world as well as the cosmos. Without it order would disintegrate.
The implication of this ideology and practice were to prove crucial for the evolving history of Hinduism. It became the basis of the hierarchical vision of man. Madeleine Biardeau has rightly pointed out that the four castes or varnas are first and foremost defined in orthodox theory in specific relation to the rite. The Brahmin is the priest who conducts the sacrifice; the Kshatriya, king and warrior, is the sacrificing agent and the protector of Brahmin; the Vaishya, artisan, farmer and the trader, is the producer of wealth required for the maintenance of the ritual activity without which there is no prosperity on earth. The Sudra is not allowed to participate in the ritual activity in any direct manner.
Women, denied any autonomous role in ritual activity, participate in rites performed by their husbands. Thus, they have no personal destiny in life, and after death being reunited with their husband is the reward for the most virtuous. To be born a woman, even in a Brahmin family, is therefore, in orthodox theory, another form of expiation of past sins.
The ritual tradition that evolved around the fire sacrifice helped the Brahmins exercise complete control over the lives of individuals. A vast corpus of text, traditionally known as smriti, was produced. These texts laid down the norms for the social and ritual behaviour of every Hindu. Practically every aspect of the life of Hindu men and women, from birth to death, is addressed in these texts, leaving no doubt as to the proper course of conduct in a given situation. More than forty samskaras, Hindu sacraments, covering the entire span from conception to funeral, had to be performed according to strict ritual procedure. Many of these like namkaran, Annaprasana, Mundan, Vivaha and finally Antyeshthi continue to shape Hindu existence even today.
But let us not forget that this elaborately mapped out ritual tradition is rooted in a particular hierarchy. Hierarchy involves ranking or grading in terms of importance and necessarily leads to unequal distribution of power and wealth. And in the hierarchy legitimized by the rituals, women occupy the lower rungs. This, as we all know, remains the root cause for their widespread exploitation, both in the public and the private spheres. Female infanticide, dowry deaths, domestic violence and the discrimination against the widows and the elderly are all forms of oppression rooted in the patriarchal order which in turn is based on the concept of hierarchy constantly being reinforced by the rituals.
As students of Women’s Studies we, therefore, need to ask the following questions: Are we merely fighting for a higher ranking for women, or are we thinking of doing away with hierarchy as a system of ordering altogether? If the latter, then we need to think about the principle of ordering with which we propose to replace hierarchy? And last, but not least, how are we going to shape our communal identity without the power of the rituals?
Just as the ritual tradition revolves around the fire sacrifice, the mystic tradition revolves around the Brahma-Atman concept. Basham points out that it was the very success of the ritualism that eventually fostered a reaction. It came to be believed that the accumulated power of so many ritual actions could not possibly be used up in one lifetime. The benefit might well wash over the temporary boundary of death into new life and it was the idea of rebirth that ultimately undermined ritualism. The constant cycle of birth, death, and rebirth came to be seen as infinitely wearying. Thus the release from the cycle, moksha – the merging of our inner truth Atman with the cosmic spirit Brahma – became the highest possible goal for the Hindu.
Rebirth, the theory of Karma, and the ideal of Moksha are all rooted in cyclical time. By collapsing birth and death into one and by seeing death as a new form of birth, Hindus can link actions and consequences across lives and establish the notion that time is endlessly repetitive. The creation of cyclical time, however, is possible only by undermining the dignity of human reproduction and natural fertility – and these are the natural domains of women. Thus the renunciation philosophers – from Buddha to Gandhi – have all stressed non-desire, non-attachment and have explicitly sought to undermine sexuality in general and female sexuality in particular.
As students of ‘Women Studies’ we need to ask the following questions. Is it at all possible to reduce gender disparities with the framework of cyclical time and transcendental mystical ideals? If yes, then is that what we want to work towards, or do we want to do away with both – cyclical time and transcendental ideals?
The bhakti tradition dominates modern Hinduism. It is rooted in the concept of a psychic surrender to a personal god. The Bhagavad-Gita is the quintessential bhakti text and it helps to reconcile the opposition that obtains between the ritual and the mystic tradition. The ritual tradition points to action, to involvement with the world, and its orderly organization in hierarchical terms. The mystical tradition points towards renunciation of the world and emphasizes universalism, asceticism and meditation. Because Gita resolves not only Arjun’s doubts on the eve of the great battle, but also the essential ideological conflict of Hinduism, it has come to occupy a unique place in the Hindu sacred literature.
Krishna begins by accepting the social hierarchy. He repeatedly asserts that it is better to perform one’s own duty, however badly, than to do another’s well. Krishna tells Arjun that he must do his Kshatriya dharma failing which he would be the object of scorn of all his peers, and would be thrown into hell after death. He then goes on to put forward the influential doctrine of motiveless action. Adapted from the renunciation philosophies, this convenient formulation shifts the act of renunciation from the physical level to the psychological. He goes on to suggest that this disinterestedness is possible only through a willing, total surrender to a personal deity from whom all things emanate and through whom they subsist and perish. The later career of Hinduism was shaped by the brilliant compromise of Bhakti affected in the Gita. The concept of avatara coupled with idol worship allowed Hinduism to incorporate in its fold all the popular local deities. The epics and the Puranas helped spread the doctrine to all parts of the subcontinent.
With bhakti, every Hindu, irrespective of caste, seemingly has a good thing going. In life he has personal access to a universal god, and after death there is the ultimate possibility of merging with Him. Bhakti seems a revolutionary doctrine promising equality through a new relationship between man and god. But the fact remains that bhakti insists on defining both hierarchical man and universal god in term of the older, traditional systems of thought.
Thus, although equal access is theoretically granted to the supreme god, in terms of day-to-day functioning bhakti insists on continuity with the past by preserving the social hierarchy while effectively taming the challenge of renunciation through the doctrine of motiveless action. In short, bhakti allows a less rigid, more acceptable form of the older hierarchical order in through the backdoor.
But there is no getting away from the fact that it is rooted in contradictions. The ritualism, of which the caste system is the corollary, and the mystical ideals represent two sets of values, two ways of looking at the universe. They negate each other and therefore cannot be held on to simultaneously in a rational, sane existence. The Hindu version of devoitionalism manages to square the circle. It creates a framework in which the two co-exist, in which the starkness of their opposition is neither blunted nor dissolved. As a result the commitment to bhakti makes an eternal Kurukshetra of the Hindu psyche, where opposed set of values are forever ranged one against the other. The Hindu must at all time live with ideas that pull him in opposite directions. The only relief possible is in terms of surrender - to the deity, to the priest and to the existing social reality.
Hindu bhakti thus leads to indiscriminate inclusivism. When confronted with an either/or choice the Hindu way of thinking will invariably try and choose both, even if it means making an eternal battleground of the psyche. The phenomenon is reflected in our national choices as well. Thus, our constitution is an unholy mix of the British and the American constitution; our economic model is aptly term ‘mixed’ economy, and our foreign policy is ‘non-aligned’.
It also leads to sentimental emotionalism, as well as commitment to non-empirical codes. All this leads to the undermining of rational discourse and consensus building, and when the tensions get acute - as it often happens with gender related issues – to pathological, schizophrenic barbarism. Female infanticide, sati, dowry burning and the neglect and killing of the girl child are, in the final analysis, manifestations of a cultural pathology that is, in fact, deeply rooted in our inherited modes of thinking.
As students of ‘Women Studies’ we finally need to ask ourselves the following questions. Do we want to merely reduce the number of victims, or do we want to do away with the modes of thinking that lead to the problems in the first place. If the latter, then with what, and how are we going to replace the gods?
Basham, A.L. The Origins and Development of Classical Hinduism. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Biardeau, Madeline. Hinduism: The Anthropology of a Civilization. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1981.