Current Events · Mother India · Personal reflections · Words of The Mother and Sri Aurobindo

The ‘aam aadmi’ obsession

As far back as I can remember I have always had an aversion to the phrase ‘aam aadmi‘, the ‘common man’. Before anyone accuses me of elitism or snobbery, or labels me anti-equality or anti-democracy or haute bourgeois or anything else, let me explain.

common man

I dislike the phrase because it reduces all the great diversity inherent among and within individuals, sub-groups and larger groups – diversity of outer concerns and challenges, diversity of their inner ranges of conscious development – to one featureless, homogeneous, blank, outer ‘common-ness.’

I dislike the phrase because it suggests that the ‘common man’ on the street is typically a powerless, agency-less entity with no mind or intelligence of its own, always at the mercy of those with the real power and agency and privilege to make things happen – socially, culturally, intellectually, politically.

I dislike the phrase because it creates an illusion (or a delusion?) that the only way the ‘common man’ can ever have any power is when some Utopian la-la-land is built via some imaginary revolt against the entity that is ‘not-common man’.

I dislike the phrase because it actually prevents the social-political machinery from figuring out what gives each separate sub-group (as per the Indian jāti-varna system) its unique cultural-social-economic-intellectual agency to organise its own collective life. Instead it gives a free hand to the system to broom away all the complexities under the simplistic rational-materialistic idea of ‘common man’! 

I dislike the phrase because it completely ignores the Indian concept of adhikāra, which essentially means capability, a sort of prepared readiness to receive something or be given an opportunity to do something specific, a concept which values the inherent differences in human capability and temperament while simultaneously recognising the essential equality of all. Instead, this phrase pushes forward the rights-based discourse which is based on a flimsy notion of outer-only equality and more significantly, which pits one group against another. Common man against the not-common man.

Most of all, I dislike the phrase because it is used as an intellectual-sociological-cultural-political device to bring down everything to the lowest common denominator. 

Everything – from cinema to art to music to literature to education to politics.

Do politics of and on the street because street is where the common man lives. Make ill-informed decisions and promote poorly-planned programmes so that the (poor) common man never really figures out a way to climb out of his common-ness.

Make mindless movies that will give a mind-numbing escape to the common man from his common problems of common life. Make art that will appeal to the taste of the common man who is only exposed to the most horrid common-ness of mundane reality and nature. Compose tunes that are super-duper hit at the common man’s birthday and wedding parties.

Make teachers teach to the common test so that no common child is left behind and every child, common or not, gets promoted to the next grade regardless of the actual learning. 

Write so that the quintessential common man can follow – don’t use big words or complex structure, keep sentences short or shorter, stay with common man’s themes or issues, keep the context common, concerns common, characters common, and conclusion common.   

Ever wondered that such social-cultural-political obsessing over the ‘aam aadmi‘ could actually be leading us toward a dumb and dumber society? 

Shouldn’t art, music, literature, education, even the social-political organisation help draw the ‘common man’ out of his common-ness and raise him to something higher, nobler, more beautiful, uplifting, inspiring, elevating?

*****

Disciple: Mahatma Gandhi at one of the literary conferences in Gujarat, 1920, asked the writers: “What have you done for the man who is drawing water from the well?”

Sri Aurobindo: What has he done for himself? I am afraid he has not done very much. Most of these people forget that everybody in England does not understand Milton and that the ordinary man has to prepare himself to understand high poetry.

Disciple: Tagore says that even if what you have to give is Amrita – ambrosia – it must be eatable by the ordinary man.

Sri Aurobindo: But people also must have capacity to understand and enjoy noble literature.

Disciple : Kalelker in a recent article has tried to make out that Valmiki wanted to serve janata, humanity – and so he recited the Ramayana from cottage to cottage! I can never understand this idea. I can’t imagine Valmiki doing it. When did he find the time to write the Ramayana, if he was reciting it from place to place?

Sri Aurobindo: But where does Kalelker find his authority for saying so? The Ramayana was not recited to the mass by Valmiki. It was the reciters who popularised it.

Disciple: He refers to some verse in the Ramayana which describes how the Rishis heard the Ramayana and gave Valmiki a Kaupin – loin cloth – a Kamandalu and a Parnakuti – thatched house.

Sri Aurobindo: Good Lord! But the Rishis are not jana sādhārana – ordinary people; they lived apart and had reached a very high spiritual status. Is Kalelker understood by the masses?

Disciple: I believe, formerly, Tagore had not got this idea of jana sādhārana – the common man.

Sri Aurobindo: No. He had been always speaking of the “viśwa mānava” – “the universal man.” It is not the same as jana sādhārana. In the Vishwa Manava all the best people, as well as the lowest of humanity, are included. Perhaps in the jana sādhārana only the lowest remain.

Disciple: It is the proletarian idea of literature coming with the Socialistic and Communistic ideology. Or, perhaps it is the echo of Vivekananda’s Daridra Nārāyana – the divine as the poorest.

Sri Aurobindo: I think it is Vivekananda who started the idea.

Disciple: He at least had the idea of Nārāyana while he served them – but nowadays the unfortunate part is that Nārāyana is lost sight of, – only the daridra – the poorest – remain. Some time back there was an article in Hindi “Kasmai devāya haviṣā vidhema” – “To which God shall we make our offering?” and the writer answered: “janata Janārdanāya” – “to the average humanity which is God”. Thus Janārdana – God – is to be equated to janata– humanity – which is ignorant and imperfect. It almost seems that according to these people God outside janata – average humanity – does not exist!

Sri Aurobindo: Quite so.

Disciple: And they don’t try to raise the janata – the common man – to Janārdanātwa – divinity. Every time they try to go down to its level. It does not seem possible to serve it by going down to its level.

~ Evening Talks with Sri Aurobindo

(recorded by A. B. Purani, 7/1 /1940)

 


Linking with ABC Wednesday, O: O is for obsession

 

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34 thoughts on “The ‘aam aadmi’ obsession

  1. This is a unique perspective. Honestly, I never thought of the term “aam-aadmi” from this point. It’s important to raise the masses from the label of “common man” and, make them understand their own rights and individual potentials… 🙂

    1. Thank you, Maniparna. I am happy to hear that the post was thought-provoking enough 🙂 I think the reason why we often just buy into the most popular meaning/interpretation of a term or an idea is because the system – politicians, mass media, everything – just goes on and on loud-mouthing only that one most mundane and lowest interpretation. But only when we give a jolt to our own thinking we realise that there is lot more to the idea than we have been conditioned to see or think!

  2. This post is like a tinder to the lumber of my mind!

    I don’t dislike the term “Common Man”. I abhor it with all there is in me.

    I abhor the alibi it automatically creates for the user. It erects a monument to mediocrity and invites everyone to stand upon it, arms akimbo. It creates an armor behind which all that is the lowest in humans, is promised a permanent shelter. It not only makes a virtue of being absolutely without distinction, it also justifies and celebrates it. What a nasty concept!

    And this horror was sold to us as an ideal to aspire for. To be common, to work for the common. Thus creating a heavy, insipid sea of the dullest grey which would suck everyone in, leaving not a spark of vibrant life visible on the surface.

    The term also- as you so eloquently said- takes away all power from humanity and turns it into an inanimate collection of chemicals devoid of volition or discernment- like a photographic plate which can merely record impressions but has no choice over what it may record or reject. It will eat what you give it, it will dance to the mindless music you play. It is mindless and incapable of choice.

    Oh yes! I hate the term.

    1. If there was a ‘love’ icon for responding to the comment, I would have used that. I absolutely love everything you say here, Dagny. The description of “heavy, insipid sea of the dullest grey which would such everyone in” is the perfect imagery for what I am trying to say here. So thank you for painting that picture so wonderfully!
      And I love, love the way you conclude your comment 🙂

      1. My sentiments exactly! A brilliant comment to a wonderful essay. God way to start a Tuesday 🙂

  3. Wow. Absolutely brilliant!

    You have articulated the ideas so very clearly. This “aam aadmi”, the common man, is a mythical being – the antipode of the mythical Jesus, the perfect man (in a non-religious sense) – both do not exist and shall never.

    But it is as you rightly said it is an intellectual-sociological-cultural-political device for dumbing down the intelligence level of people.

    Communism does it through common man and Christianity does it through Christ (again used in a non-religious sense). There is a well-established nexus between communism and church – the former tries to destroy uniqueness, while the latter tries to foster helplessness and superstitions, and the notion that the Just Jesus can deliver you.

    In other words both communist (political class) and church (monotheistic religions) want people to wallow in the mundane so that they may be exploited at will.

    The talks between Sri Aurobindo and the disciple at the end, truly captures the essence of this communist-church propaganda.

    PS: Church/ Jesus used above not to be associated with any religion. I have used them as an alliterative and symbolic device.

    1. If the post was brilliant as you say, your comment is even more brilliant! 🙂 And I mean it, sincerely. What I really appreciate in your analysis here is that you have highlighted and made much more explicit what was implicit in the post. This reductionist tendency to divide people into those who are ‘saved’ by the ‘un-common’, ‘miraculous’ hand, and those who are condemned to live a life of ‘common-ness’. Whether it is done via an exclusivist/monotheistic religion or via its exact anti-thesis of materialistic-communism, the division is along the same lines. The fact that we have in our country politicians who keep harping on this division and keep building their political careers and kingdoms on such nonsensical stuff is extremely distressing, to say the least.

      I am glad you enjoyed the excerpt from Sri Aurobindo’s talks. Elsewhere he has also said clearly that the only way communistic thought can do any good for the humanity is if it bases itself on the Vedantic ideal of equality. The materialistic-rational communism only kills the individual, and individual is the true basis for all progress on all levels of consciousness.

      Thanks again for your wonderful comment, Subhodeep.

  4. Very interesting to chew upon. I don’t dislike the term and I don’t attach the connotations that you’ve mentioned to it. To me, it is plain and simple a common person who does not have the luxuries and privileges that so many of us are used to. What I agree with is how this common man is misused, mislead and appropriated by vested interests.

    1. Thanks Rachna for sharing your perspective. I agree that most of us are used to looking at the term ‘common man’ through this most popularly used meaning only. And perhaps that’s because that’s the only way we have been ‘conditioned’ to see it, what with all the loud noises made by our politicians, media etc. The point (or at least one of the points) I was trying to convey through this post is that it is a convenient peg that these opinion-makers use to prevent us from deconstructing the meaning ourselves and to keep on buying into that one simplistic meaning – the common man who is common only because of his economic status. What is even more disturbing and destructive is that this whole mindset is reductionist – it reduces people to only their economic status, and is socially divisive – it assumes that ‘not-common man’ is the enemy who is not allowing the ‘common man’ to progress.

  5. Very interesting take and I feel differently. And on the political scene, I’m with you.
    I feel the common man is powerless. I feel in India, power and money rules. Look at all the road rage, look at value of human life, look at our government hospitals and policies. I know there is so much power in change and people are trying but the common man dies without even seeing the change he had sought.

    1. Thanks Parul for sharing your perspective. Difference of opinion is always welcome 🙂 I must also add however that what you describe about the plight of the common man is perhaps not only true for India but almost everywhere. Power and money rule everywhere. Everywhere. The only difference is perhaps in India it becomes relatively easier to manipulate the system by some in power, because for a huge chunk of our population – common man or not – the only time to participate in the country’s social-political machinery is at the time of elections. How many Indians, even the educated ones, even care to stay informed about the major developments – both good and bad? So such widespread ignorance can come in handy for those wishing to manipulate and abuse the system.

      I have lived in the US for almost 15 years and this was before the 2008 recession when things weren’t so bad there, economically. The huge economic inequality is very much a problem there. The vast differences in the condition of schools in rich and poor neighborhoods, other state facilities like medical, legal services etc – all these are things I personally witnessed there. I can imagine how worse some of these things might have become after 2008 with all that massive unemployment and economic failure. And this in the world’s richest country, so to speak!

      So the economic disparity will always be there, but the question is — does our system encourage the common man to work for his upliftment or does it only encourage more and more dependence on the system/state/govt to dole out more and more relief packages, subsidies, freebies? The kind of ‘sarkar is our mai-baap’ mentality that has been deliberately built up in huge sections of our population is the direct result of the Nehruvian-socialistic model that has been thrust upon us. This must change, if the common Indian man/woman has to get his/her self-esteem back.

    1. Thanks Vasantha! I am happy to hear that the post is provoking some deep thinking 🙂

      And isn’t that conversation at the end fantastic?! I love reading this volume of Evening Talks with Sri Aurobindo. It covers so many topics, from deep spiritual philosophy to art, poetry, religion, and the political events of the time…pretty much everything! I hope to share more passages from this in the coming weeks/months.

  6. To be learned, cultured, and a person of refined taste does not mean that one should be conceited. To say everything is music from a jarring rock to sublime classical pieces is an affront to sensibilities — to deny the deserved elevation of art is to bring everything to lowest denominator. Socialists and Communists tried to superimpose western class structures on our jati rubric. Hence the constructs such as sub-alterns, etc. You are right, the humanity must strive for elevation in knowledge, tastes rather to wallow in base excitement.

    1. Thank you so much for this wonderful comment. It is distressing to see how much our popular culture these days feeds to the lowest common denominator. Gone are the days when something as popular as Ram Lila or Raas Lila were also used as cultural mechanisms to help people want to become better. Now it is all about cheap thrills and instant entertainment and nothing else.

  7. Incredibly valid points…thes labels has done no good to us. The concept of intersectionality recognizes that people can be privileged in some ways and definitely not privileged in others. The quotes do justifies each pointers vociferously.

    1. Thank you Chaitali for adding this important point – privileged in some ways and not in others. I agree with you completely about labels not doing any good for anyone.

  8. True Beloo. As Rachna said, even I had not accorded much thought to it. But after reading your views I agree, the term is very patronizing as it paints everybody with the same brush. While the “powerless” aspect of it becomes implicit, those using it who refer to themselves are probably implying some kind their own helplessness to change things.
    And you are also right to say, that most of the consumption is designed around the lowest denominator, which is indeed just taking things downhill.

  9. i can totally relate to your post…. i dislike any form of judgement over another person bases on looks, the way one acts, the way one clothes himself etc etc

    Although i know (ofcourse) that there are people in this world with very bad actions…. i still want to (and try to do also) believe that the other person may be different from me but still has a good heart and tries to do his best within his possibilities.

    Living is hard enough on itself, we all have to face the struggle and we all have to try to survive it in the best way we can.

    Have a nice abc-wednesday-day / – week
    ♫ M e l ☺ d y ♫ (abc-w-team)

    1. Thank you for sharing your perspective.
      This term ‘common man’ is really used/abused in all sorts of weird ways – generally demotivating and discouraging ways. This has negative impact on individual drive and will to move beyond the limitations of his/her current circumstances.

  10. Enjoyed the dialogue between disciple and Sri Aurobindo I think “common man” is used in different ways in different places but agree that to use it in a demeaning way is inappropriate.

  11. There is nothing “common” about common men. The only thing common among most of us is that In each individual, the kernel of the infinite remains dormant, semi-conscious, trying to radiate its intense energy outwards, only to be clouded and occluded by lethargic sheaths engrossed in mundane surface-level activities.

    1. Thank you, Rahul for such a wonderful comment. You have really added an important and much higher dimension to the idea explored in the post. Appreciate it very much. Thank you!

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