Individuals have always herded together in tribes, clans, communities and nations for survival against the challenges that nature, and other similar herds, throw at them. Without the capacity to combine skills and divide labour efficiently, human survival would be impossible.
However, each individual is born with a unique identity, and is the site for unique thoughts, skills, perspectives and experience, which makes the human species unique, and gives it the ability to gather new knowledge, and harness it to gain some mastery over nature.
The tension between the individual and the herd is as old as the species itself. There is no sure-fire way of resolving this tension of who should prevail over the other. What makes the tension difficult to resolve is the fact that it is easy to confuse trees with the forest, because the forest is so much bigger, mysterious and awesome, than a humble tree.
However, it is the trees that make a forest. By itself, a forest can’t exist because its essential constituent is the humble tree. A forest is thus an empty basket in which we put lots of trees to make a coherent ensemble. No doubt, the forest then has an ontology of its own, but take away the trees, and there is no forest. The same is the case between the individual and the herd. It is the individuals that make the herd and give it its unique ontology and personality.
It was in recognition of this primacy of an individual’s ontology over that of the herd, that the Constituent Assembly gave us the Constitution that begins with the sacred and inviolate words, “We the people…”
It was the people–qua individuals –that came together as a nation to give us a Republic that we now know as India. This was no idle thought or passing fashion. For the Indian experience since antiquity has not always been so.
The ancients privileged the herd over the individual in our philosophy, religion and culture. M.S. Golwalkar, one of the ideologues of the RSS, explained this view rather poetically:
“Well, this question stems from a superficial view of our Hindu life. A tree, for example, appears to be full of heterogeneous parts like the branches, leaves, flowers and fruits. The trunk differs from the branches, the branches from the leaves — all as if entirely different from one another. But we know that all these apparent diversities are only the varied manifestations of the same tree, the same sap running through and nourishing all those parts. So is the case with the diversities of our social life which have been evolved down these millennia. They are no more a source of dissension and disruption than a leaf or a flower is in the case of a tree. This kind of natural evolution has been a unique feature of our social life.”
It is a beautiful but deceptive analogy. It captures the view that individuals in a herd ought to come together as a harmonious organic whole but loses the individual in the process. A leaf, a branch, a flower, are not individuals with an existence of their own. They have separate functions, but they can’t exist independent of the tree.
Nor do they have minds, thoughts, feelings, or an ontology of their own just as our hands, feet, and eyes, or even brains don’t have an existence independent of us. It is the tree that is a whole, just as it is we – individuals – who are a whole.
A deeper reason for this is that a tree’s ontology is completely encoded into its DNA. It cannot learn anything new. It cannot do what is not already in its genes. Humans on the other hand, are always thinking, exploring, experiencing and learning. They gather new facts, put two and two together, and learn to transcend the limitations of their DNA by acculturation.
It is their capacity to create and perpetuate a cultural DNA outside of their biological DNA, [which is what Vedas are for instance] that makes humans unique, and such a successful species compared to others. Which means, unlike a tree, we cannot pretend we already know all there is to know and are here only to live out our lives passively as Golwalkar’s analogy with a tree implies.
You cannot shoehorn an individual into a narrow function of a stem or a root or a flower as Golwalkar assumes. We are not cogs in a Sanghi machine. The fact is that the invisible hand, that guides free persons negotiating exchanges with others in their own self-interest, produces a much more coherent whole than even the tree, because such a whole preserves the ability of the individual to gather, harness, and profit from new knowledge for herself and the herd.
Indian philosophy has never adequately recognised the key role played by new knowledge in human progress. That the invisible hand can accommodate both selfish and altruistic behaviour, while producing the best possible outcome for the herd, is an added advantage over a system directed by an authoritarian gene or brain. It is not Golwalkar’s fault that he adopts such an erroneous view of life. All six schools of Indian philosophy hold that Vedas are eternal truth, and that all that there is to know, is already in them.
However, the Upanishads [that are now treated as intrinsic part of Vedas] were written by Vedic Brahmins to correct the four original Vedas considering widespread criticism of them by the Buddhists and others, because their tribal rituals and sacrifices often failed to produce intended results, and animal sacrifice was abhorrent.
Vedic Brahmins spent the better part of a 1000 years arguing with the Buddhists about the eternal truth of the Vedas, while the latter denied the very existence of this world, saying it was an illusion. Both views are antithetical poles.
If there was no need to discover, gather, assimilate, and harness new knowledge, then you could as well say Vedas are eternal, and the “Tree View” of life is true. But then how are you going to build a knowledge-based society of the future if you assume nothing remains to be discovered?
These are some of the many deep contradictions in the RSS’ philosophical assumptions that have simply not been examined but are being shoved down our throats in the name of ancient wisdom.
I am not saying anything new. These contradictions have been debated for a millennium in Indian philosophy, and Adi Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta compounded the confusion [circa 8th Century CE] by virtually adopting the Buddhist view that the world around us was unreal. Only the Brahman was real, held Adi Shankara, and the sole purpose of life was discovering this truth. Once you did that, you could have moksha here and now, in this life, by possessing this knowledge.
The myth he created with his exegetical demagoguery was even more misleading than the original one he sought to rectify, namely the world is an illusion. He faced much criticism for this from his contemporaries, but nevertheless that doesn’t deter RSS from shoving the same formulation at us as gospel truth. If the world is not real, why bother about an ‘Atamnirbhar Bharat?’ Or a GDP of $5 trillion?
V.D. Savarkar in his book, ‘Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History’, claimed that the Buddhist concept of renunciation and non-violence destroyed the warlike zeitgeist of the Aryan race, making invasions possible. If that’s true, then we can also hold that RSS is now also disarming our intellects with its unexamined ancient dogmas, crippling our capacity to build a knowledge-based society.
This is not to say that such philosophical questions can be settled one way or the other. Rather it is to point out that since they can’t be settled, they underline the need to gather new knowledge, and that necessitates intellectual, economic, and political freedom for individuals, and not dogmas imposed on them by the herd, or its self-appointed priesthood.
The need for individuals to gather new facts, add to the episteme, and for the community to be responsive to new knowledge, and adapt it to its purpose, lies at the heart of the debate about who is central to the herd; individual, or the nominal collective we call the herd or nation or a religious faith.
Our Constitutional fathers were placing a great faith in our ability to rise above past dogmas and myths, to embark on a truly new journey of discovery. That is why “We the People…” gave ourselves this Constitution on 26th January, 1950.
It would be a pity to lose this unique gift to the forces of darkness again, and to flounder in the maze of old tribal rituals and dogmas, just because a selfish and self-serving priesthood wants to re-establish its intellectual hegemony over the laity, claiming a golden past that never was.
(Sonali Ranade is an independent writer on economy and political philosophy. Views are personal)
(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)