Volume - 6 : Issue - 4

Published : Oct. - Dec. 2007

Group : We The Sindhis

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By Dr. Motilal Jotwani

Ever since I was a Visiting Scholar at the Centre for the Study of World Religions, Harvard, USA (1979-80) and a Member of the Faculty pertaining to the Course in Saint/Sufi Indian Literature, thanks to Professor Annemarie Schimmel (1922-2003), Head of the Indo-Islamic Studies Department, Harvard and also an interpreter of Sindhi literature to the West, I have been invited umpteen times in the subsequent years to give lectures on the Indo-Islamic subjects here and abroad. In a way, Professor Schimmel opened for me a window to the outside world. The first Conference I came by was held in Hawaii, 1980, where I spoke on God from the Indian perspective. Thereafter there was no looking back. In this column, I dwell on some such conferences and seminars.

Absolute Values in Peace, Prosperity and Politics

On a dark, cold, wintry afternoon of December 1983, I received a cable from the International Cultural Foundation (ICF), New York, inviting me to attend the First International Congress of Professors World Peace Academy, December 16-23, 1983 in Seoul. I was beholden to the ICF for having given me the opportunity, and also to Mr. Khushwant Singh, historian, journalist and then Member of Parliament, who had earlier declined the invitation owing to a certain pre-occupation, allowing the choice to fall on me.

As I sat through the inaugural session of the Congress, listening to the winged words of PWPA President Morton Kaplan that he was not against the communist governments in the world, but only opposed to communism as an approach to world peace, for communism tended to deify the heads of governments under its shadow and stifled expression, I wondered at the political use of the term “peace”: I had known its religious connotation only.

The term in the religious sense means “peace that passeth understanding”: it is like the shantih of the Vedic-Upanishadic dharma, or the shoonya of the Buddhist dhamma, in that it does not admit, in its transcendence, of any worldly violent act. But in the political sense, it means many things to many nations. There is the peace effort of the rightist bloc and that of the leftist one. Besides these two meanings of the term, there is the third economic one, representing the peace effort of the Third World at securing two peaceful meals a day for its part of humankind.

During my sporadic talks to the fellow-delegates from over 70 countries, I was reminded of an Upanishadic symbol of da, the rumbling sound of Thunder in the heavens. As the story goes, the Thunder roared thrice in the skies…da…da…da…which the gods, the asuras (they were not known as the “demons” at that time, as they are called now) and the humans understood in their own ways-- their own ways, keeping in view their essential nature. As T.S. Eliot alludes to this Upanishadic Fable of the Thunder in his great poem The Wasteland (1922), the thrice da in the Prajapati`s interpretation stood for datta (give) for the gods, damyata (control) for the asuras and dayadhvam (sympathy) for the humans. These represent, in a way, the absolute values in peace, prosperity and politics

Having had the lunch of poulet frit aux noix de cajou, riz a l`orientale (fried chicken with cashew nuts, oriental fried rice), with hors-d` oeuveres before, and coffee after, in the peace of the Royal Executive Class of a Thai Airlines plane from Bangkok to Delhi on December 23, I ruminated over the message of the Peace Congress held in Seoul. It is hightime, we paid heed to its sane message. If we do not, we would commit global suicide. And, then, we would not stay here on this planet to hum the immortal line of the poet, “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” For, about three thousand warheads of three hundred megaton yield would be more than enough to plunge the earth into a long, dark nuclear winter.

Assembly of the World’s Religions

Swami Vivekanand addressed the Conference of World Religions on September 11, 1893 in Chicago, USA, with the opening words of “Brothers and Sisters of America”, instead of the usual “Ladies and Gentlemen”, and he was given a thunderous applause, which lasted for a full three minutes, for there was that noble man who established fraternal feelings with everybody in the world through the thousands of delegates in the above-said Conference. Almost a century later, Assembly of the World`s Religions was held on November 15-21, 1985 in New Jersey, USA, where several delegates from India, including me, were invited. At the Assembly, I presented a paper in the Theme Group 11A on “The Encounter with Secularity: Who Is Afraid of Kabir, the Weaver?”, later on the main thrust of which my preface to the first edition of Sufis of Sindh (Publications Division, Govt. of India, 1986) was based. It shall be worthwhile to give excerpts from the above-said book:

Among other things, Kabir (1399-1518) says in one of his padas:

main kahtaa hoon aankhee dekhee,
too  kahtaa  hai  kaagad kee lekhee.

Kabir says, “Whatever I say is based on my life-experience with the people around, whereas what you say is written in the sacred books.”

A weaver by profession, Kabir saw in his day-to-day life-world, which some philosophers have called the lebenswelt and within which we carry on our “normal' activities in collaboration with other people, warp and woof coming together to become one harmonious life-fibre. A great integrator, he represented in his blood and bone the races which have inhabited India over the centuries and in his life-patterns and thought constructs their composite culture.

He was a great secularist: he presented the Indian subcontinental view of secularity, which is not the state or quality of being non-religious as understood in the Western tradition, but that of being variously religious, as followed here in India. Deep spirituality that attends this kind of secularity makes one rise above the narrow confines of one`s own religion and respect all religions of the world. And this kind of secularity, evolved as it is by the Indian mind over the centuries, suits the Indian multi-religious society the most. It is different from the one obtaining in the uni-religious societies of the West.

When the common people love Kabir so much and chant his padas and dohas  devotedly, who then is afraid of Kabir, the weaver? Obviously, the one who shuts one`s eyes to the process of weaving, or of warp and woof coming together. One who does not appropriate the Indian mind—the great baffling Indian mind, which is known for its perception of basic unity at the bottom of worldly forms—fears him. The so-called learned Pandits and Moulvis (religious leaders), the hide-bound narrow experts and specialists were afraid of him in his day, as they are today.

Mass-Media and National Development

We held a Professors World Peace Academy-India (PWPA-India) Conference in New Delhi on November 30, 1986, in which Prof. B.B. Mohanty of Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi; Mr. Khushwant Singh, a renowned journalist, New Delhi; Dr. R.N. Vyas, Director, Academy of Social Thought, Indore and myself presented papers. That the mass-media play a vital role in national development is saying almost nothing, for the question we should really address is whether they play an honest and just role or not.

The Ashwatthama episode in the Mahabharata epic is a metaphor for the present-day situation, in which we see Heralds and Tribunes, Posts and Times (for that matter, also the electronic media) can play mischief with us by spreading lies and falsehoods. As the story goes, Krishna, the leader of the Pandava forces, realized that in order to win the great war it was necessary to have Dronacharya from the opposite Kaurava camp killed. But the invincible Dronacharya would not be killed in an ordinary way. Krishna devised a way which would give Dronacharya a shock of his life and make him demoralized. There were two Ashwatthamas in the war—the one, Dronacharya`s only son; and the other, an elephant. The elephant was killed and the news was spread through the war heralds and tribunes that Ashwatthama had been killed. The poor Dronacharya heard this to his utter dismay. But before he lent his credence to it, he approached the truthful Yuddhishtra, the eldest brother of the five Pandavas, for confirmation. Yuddhishtra said, “Ashwatthama hato, naro va kunjaro va” (Ashwatthama is killed; I do not know whether it was a man or an elephant). Dronacharya heard the first part and could not hear the second vital one, for it was manipulated to be accompanied by a beating of drums and voicing of bugles. The second vital part was drowned in the din and Dronacharya laid his arms and was killed. Though his death helped out the good cause the Pandavas stood for, the means adopted for it would hardly justify the end.

The sane truthful voice was stifled in the Mahabharata war to the detriment of an individual. And the sane truthful voices are lost in the din of the mass-media today to the damage of the whole nation.

And today, what passes off under the fair name of national development could mean sinister for the masses. We may realize the fast-eroding justification of development, if we see through the game that ultimately debases human beings and disturbs the natural environment. In the name of the widely-advertised development, baby food is given preference over breast-feeding at the cost of health of children, and raw materials are exported in order to import heavy machinery at the cost of employment of people. We can guide or misguide the whole nation. We have travelled very far into the times when we can manipulate people and programme them.

As a character in the Domino Principle, an American film, says, “Whether we know it or not, we are all manipulated. It is almost impossible to think, or even act for ourselves anymore. We are manipulated, programmed and brain-washed, right from the start…by press, by Radio, by Television. And more and more we know, less and less we know of who `they` are. Who could `they` be?”

… …The real role of mass-media knows who is playing what game against whom, and recognizes the dangers behind a smiling politician, national or international. We have to know that there could be sane truthful voices of those who do not belong to any government of the day or any coterie of intellectuals favoured by the age. We have to take into cognition harms behind a glittering product boosted up by big money in advertisements. It is not enough to have money for inserting ads in the print media and/or for buying time on the audio-visual ones. All this has to be dictated by a sense of social responsibility. The real role of mass-media in the national development helps uplift the masses, not only in urban areas, but also in rural ones. It helps grow the quality of human resources—men, women and children.

Indian Society in the 21st Century : Opportunities and Dangers

Not very long ago, we—S. Z. Qasim, then Member of the Planning Commision, New Delhi; Prof. M. R. Bhiday, a distinguished educationist from Pune; Prof. Kamalakar Mishra of Banaras Hindu University; Dr. A. K. Tharian of the Christian Fellowship Hospital, Oddanchatram and myself-- were locked into conversations on Indian Society in the 21st Century: Opportunities and Dangers. What I had to state in the matter, I share with the Sindhishaan readers.

In some quarters, it is felt that what man has done in the field of science and technology will very soon undo him, meaning man is on the verge of suicide. But I belong to the category of those who are optimists, the cautious optimists. Despite whatever the prophets of doom say in this regard, I believe man will devise ways and means to defuse the explosive situation he has created for himself.

As a student of Indian literature and culture, I cannot but think in terms of Indian myths and archetypes. In this context, a Puranic myth comes to my mind: As it is His wont to be easily pleased by the people asking for His favours, Lord Shiva feels pleasure over the worshipful penance of Vrkasura and grants him a boon that on whosoever`s head he raises his hand like an umbrella, the destructive umbrella in this case, he will turn into ashes. Vrkasura, now called Bhasmasura (the asura of ashes), arrogantly wishes to try the boon on Shiva Himself and makes no secret of it. Shiva gets perturbed over the development, He Himself has brought about and makes a flight to the gods for His safety. It is the collective wisdom of gods as represented in Lord Vishnu that saves Shiva and the heavenly community from a great disaster. Vishnu talks to Bhasmasura and brings about a situation in which he (Bhasmasura) raises his hand on his own head and is burnt to death.

Likewise, the arsenals will also get themselves extinct in the deep sea. The process has already begun.

The prophets of doom see the white fire hanging on man`s neck today. They tell us that the computers –thinking machines—created by him will work for him in all the work-places, including the one of nuclear war-heads. If it is so, we need not feel threatened. By way of computers, man has duplicated himself. And this duplication may serve the useful purpose of check and balance. Here I am reminded of Bhavabhuti, the 8th century Sanskrit poet who wrote Uttara Rama Charitam. In one of its scenes, Rama, the subject of the Charitam, watches a play about himself, about what he himself is doing in the society he is working for. Today, if some MAD person, or institution, or government – MAD, that is, Mutually Assured Destruction, wishes to pull the trigger of the nuclear war-heads, there would be somebody to stop it. The duplicate man—the thinking machine—beside the war-heads will objectively be watched by man himself, as the protagonist Rama of Bhavabhuti`s play is watched by Rama himself. The real will call a halt to the duplicate at the appropriate time: the sanity of man will call a stop to his own insanity.

In the opinion of the pessimists, ours are still safe, sane times to live in, but the dark future is round the corner. I guess, it is their temporal chauvinism that they show pride for their present and prejudice against the future. Instead, we have to have faith in the new brave generations of humankind and look forward to the safe, sane future ahead. The collective intelligence of humans will make it possible for them (humans) to survive, survive with dignity and fellow-feeling.

Tradition and Modernity

The PWPA-India Conference on Tradition and Modernity, a subject of perennial importance, was held on October 26, 1989 in New Delhi in which Dr Kapila Vatsyayan, then Member-Secretary of Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi delivered the key-note address. From among the speakers of the day, I said, inter alia:

Though basically temporal, modernity is not restricted to the present or the present-ness, as it has a meaningful, coherent relationship with the past and the future. The value-oriented elements of modernism which become modernity, partake of the acceptable and modified parts of tradition. Thus, tradition and modernity fertilize each other for delivery of the common good. Great seers like Valmiki, Vyasa, Buddha, Mahavir, Muhammad, Kabir, Nanak and Rabindranath Thakur and great stetesmen like Rama, Krishna, Ashoka, Akbar, Gandhi and Nehru combined in themselves both tradition and modernity. What looks like a problem of time, or of change and continuity, in the use of two terms of `tradition` and `modernity`, it has never been a problem for us, dwelling as we do at once in time and timelessness, in janma and janmaantara.  In this context, I am reminded of T.S. Eliot`s work Burnt Norton. It talks of time, at once chronological and psychological, physical and spiritual, and begins with the words which are quite familiar to we people in India:

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future

And time future contained in time past.

We only wish Mr. Eliot were not less sure about the true nature of time and did not use the adverb “perhaps” in the above-mentioned second line.

Education and Culture in India Today

The Conference on Education and Culture in India was held under the same banner as elsewhere above, on November 28-29, 1992, in which Sri Man Mohan Singh, an Indo-English poet and active worker in the twin fields of education and culture; Dr. Meenakshi Gopinath, Principal, Lady Sri Ram College, New Delhi; Professor M.R. Bhiday of Pune Vidyapeeth; Sri K.K. Khullar of the Ministry of Education, New Delhi; Professor B.B. Mohanty of Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi; Professor Pramod Talgeri of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi took part in its deliberations. In my presidential address, I said, amongst other things:

It is really lamentable that the ancient Indian land which has been playing the role of jagatguru, or the teacher of the world, is itself faced with the problems of education and culture today. Our lofty ideals of prema (love) and ahimsa (non-violence), advaita (unity of existence) and saha-astitva (co-existence) have been time and again tested by the world community and we have successfully stood these tests. For, we lay stress on knowing ourselves, individually and collectively; on knowing the elements and also the structures created on them. The Gita says : tadviddhi pranipatena pariprasnena seaya upadekshyanti te jnanam jnaninastattavadarisinah. (4/34) that is, “Go and seek that knowledge from the knowers of the elements after dedicating yourself to them, serving them, their needs, and making queries to them, the queries made without mischief in mind.”

It enshrines the great lesson that teachers are the knowers of the elements and students are the devoted seekers of that knowledge. What the Gita says here is a great lesson in education and what we are as the people saying it is a great manifestation in culture. But we seem to have forgotten what the Gita says. And it explains why we are beset with the problems. We have to remember the Guru-shishya parampara (Preceptor-disciple tradition), live it, and build the modern structures on it.