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.
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