For readers’ comments on this post, click HERE for its previous version.
In India today, we are witnessing a clash between the decades-old social-political-economic order and a new order struggling to establish itself. This is resulting in quite an unrest on various levels, especially when we view things only from the outer surface.
Part of this unrest has led to a disturbing uncovering of an extremely narrow, rigid and ideologically biased nature of a big section of the ‘intellectual’ scene in India. With every passing day it is also becoming clear that much of this ‘intellectual’ scene was deliberately nurtured and nourished by the political parties which had been in power for decades, thus creating a rather unhealthy nexus where intellect is forced to become a captive to the politics of the day.
A positive result of this unrest is that directly or indirectly it is compelling the concerned Indians to reflect upon what it means to be an ‘intellectual’. Can merely writing bestseller books, pontificating via weekly columns, winning some state-endorsed awards, making provocative statements on TV debates, producing documentaries on controversial topics make one qualified to be labelled as an ‘intellectual’?
For years, things in the Indian ‘intellectual’ scene had been sliding to such a low point that today certain powerful sections of our socially upward classes don’t even think twice when labelling socialite celebrities and advertising entrepreneurs as “public intellectuals.” Such outdated and completely absurd notions are being aggressively challenged as a result of the unrest we are witnessing today.
One of the fundamental reasons for the unrest is this. Those who think of themselves as ‘intellectuals’ align themselves with what they see as ‘progressive’ values, necessary for a pluralistic society (their chosen phrase is “idea of India” — a coinage that is being hotly contested today, and for good reason). On the other hand, those who are not enamoured by the outer sheen and ‘politically-correct’, public statements of these ‘intellectuals’ question the very definition of this term ‘progressive.’ They accuse these so-called ‘intellectuals’ of playing politics by hiding behind such high-sounding labels, by imposing their westernised and limited notions of ‘modernity’, ‘secularism’ in their role as ‘civilising missionaries’, thus perpetuating the colonized mentality.
The ‘intellectuals’ in return accuse their critics of being ‘conservative’, ‘parochial’, ‘regressive’, ‘stuck in past’, ‘irrational’, ‘communal’ etc and label their critics’ angst and voices as something potentially harmful for the progress of the society.
Interestingly, in this clash we see the so-called ‘progressives’ closely aligning themselves with the old social-political-economic order, the ecosystem which actually led to their rise as ‘intellectuals’. And those who are being labelled as ‘conservatives’ and ‘regressives’ are interestingly on the side of the new order that is beginning to make its impact felt in various ways in the country’s social, economic and political landscape.
When the noise level in a debate becomes so loud and unreasonable, nobody bothers to question the fundamentals. Everybody claims they are thinking in the interest of the society, but nobody asks the question – are we really thinking? Or what does it really mean to think? What is intellect?
What does it really mean to be a conservative? What does it really mean to be a progressive? Who is a true intellectual? A true thinker? Do we know?
The other day, I found myself revisiting some of the older essays of Sri Aurobindo. I was once again struck by the essay titled “Conservation and Progress” which was first published in Arya. For anyone interested to understand the deeper psychological forces working behind what we ordinarily speak of as being ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ must read this essay written almost a hundred years ago.
The deeply grounded and rich analysis presented by Sri Aurobindo makes one reflect upon the truth that a true independent thinker is not bound by any such conflicts or dualities of a ‘conservative being stuck in the past’ and a ‘progressive being only future-oriented.’
A true thinker rather strives to see the past, present and the unknown future as part of an overall march of the divine movement, not fixed in outward details and forms but as an attempt to work out the spirit of things and a progressively greater self-fulfilment of humanity, of the nation, of the individual.
Such a thinker, a true intellectual, will have some essential characteristics. Sri Aurobindo describes them beautifully in the last paragraph of this essay. I am listing them below as separate points for ease of understanding (though in the original text we find them all as part of one long sentence).
Such a thinker, according to Sri Aurobindo:
“will strive to understand the greatness and profound meaning of the past without attaching himself to its forms, for he knows that forms must change and only the formless endures and that the past can never be repeated, but only its essence preserved, its power, its soul of good and its massed impulse towards a greater self-fulfilment;
“…will accept the actual realisations of the present as a stage and nothing more, keenly appreciating its defects, self-satisfied errors, presumptuous pretensions because these are the chief enemies of progress, but not ignoring the truth and good that it has gained;
“…will sound the future to understand what the Divine in it is seeking to realise, not only at the present moment, not only in the next generation, but beyond,
“and for that he will speak, strive, if need be battle, since battle is the method still used by Nature in humanity, even when all the while he knows that there is more yet beyond beside which, when it comes to light, the truth he has seized will seem erroneous and limited.
“Therefore he will act without presumption and egoism, knowing that his own errors and those which he combats are alike necessary forces in that labour and movement of human life towards the growing Truth and Good by which there increases shadowily the figure of a far-off divine Ideal.” (CWSA, Vol. 13, pp. 131-132).
That’s quite a high ideal for any one who wants to become a true thinker, a true intellectual. Such an ideal requires not only a mentalised notion of what it means to apply one’s intellect, what it means to think. But it necessitates that a true thinker recognises the limits of the intellect and the faculty of mental reasoning. It compels that the thinker must begin to develop an inner faculty to ‘see’ things, to see deeply and beneath the surface of the happenings, events and phenomena.
This ideal necessitates that if we want to be truly progressive thinkers, we don’t confine ourselves to the narrow mental prisons of past, present and future, but rather learn to see things as part of an evolving, growing Truth that is trying to express and manifest itself in many different forms. It requires that we learn to develop a deeper sense, a deeper faculty of discernment, an intuitive capacity to distinguish between the outer forms and the real, deeper essence of things, a capability to be able to sense the inner forces driving the outer events and phenomena.
This ideal compels us to stand up and act, act aggressively if need be, but without “presumption and egoism.”
Do we see any such thinker, any such intellectual today? Question to ponder indeed.
Interested in readers’ comments? Click HERE to visit the previous version of this blog.
Linking with ABC Wednesday, Q: Q is for Question