Dharampal: Unravelling the Unknown India

June 2, 2017

(To be published in the Sarvodaya Talisman magazine.)

I

There are very few books that can completely challenge our beliefs, instilled by decades of modern education and colonial conditioning. The first encounter with the writings of Dharampal could do this to anyone. I definitely went through that transformative experience, when I first read The Beautiful Tree, a few years ago. It helped me understand the historical background to the disillusionment of Gandhi with the modern education system, which I share with him, and his subsequent conception of the Nai Talim system. Later, during my interactions with Ramasubramaniam of Samanvaya, who has worked closely with Dharampal during his last years, I heard a good deal about his work and his personality. Ever since, I’d been thirsting to read more of Dharampal, and was collecting and going through his books available online (primarily from the wonderful website of Arvind Gupta). That thirst has now been quenched to a fuller extent by the ‘Essential Writings of Dharampal’, compiled by his daughter, Gita Dharampal, and published by Publications Division of India (and at Rs.135, quite an appealing price).

The book covers many of the major works of Dharampal: The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteen Century (1983), Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century (1971), Civil Disobedience and Indian Tradition (1971), India’s Polity, its Characteristics and Current Problems (1992), Some Aspects of Earlier Indian Society and Polity and their Relevance to the Present (1986), The Madras Panchayat (1972), Bharatiya Chitta, Manas and Kala (1991), and Reconsidering Gandhiji (1984).

[Though I set out to write a review for this book, the essay has grown to be an overall introduction to Dharampal, covering texts outside this book too.]

Dharampal1

Poring through the archives, in India and Britain, of the various written accounts of the early British administrators of India, Dharampal vividly brings to life, the eighteen century India. This pre-colonial India of Dharampal is in complete contrast with the pre-colonial India of the history books, which is entrenched in popular imagination. Not many Indians doubt the glory of ancient India, its achievements in philosophy, literature and science. But most Indians also believe that the glory belonged to a distant past, and that when the British came, they met a civilisation in shambles, waiting to be pulled out of dark ages into the modern era: a region of famines, poverty, illiteracy, infighting, sati and untouchability. The eighteenth century India was, of course, a region deeply wounded by many centuries of foreign invasions; but despite those repeated invasions, Dharampal establishes that India was a ‘functioning and relatively prosperous society’ in the eighteenth century. It was not the British who pulled India out of destitution, but it was their colonial rule that pushed India deeper into destitution and decay.

II

A distant history is not difficult to come to terms with: it can be glorified or dismissed with ease. What we did or didn’t do during the Indus Valley period, or the Vedic ages or the Sangam age, may have no immediate implications on policy making. The distance of time allows us to view those with pragmatic detachment, though strongly tinged with nostalgic euphoria. But the history of our recent past is much more crucial, and ineluctable. The awareness about the efficacy of the social and political structures that existed just before the advent of the British could have huge ramifications on our present and future policies. It is this efficacy of the Indian system that the educated Indians question. Our colonised and corporatised minds are unable to comprehend the viability of any system that has not been tried and tested in the West. As Jayaprakash Narayan, wrote in his foreword (not part of this book) to Civil Disobedience and Indian Tradition,

“After the first few years of euphoria since Independence, a period of self-denigration set in during which educated Indians, particularly those educated in the West, took the lead. Whether in the name of modernisation, science or ideology, they ran down most, if not all, things Indian. We are not yet out of this period. I am not suggesting that what is wrong and evil in Indian society or history should be glossed over. But breast-beating and self- flagellation are not conducive to the development of those psychological drives that are so essential for nation-building, nor so is slavish imitation of others.”

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Seine at Govindanur

January 8, 2017

Writer Payon has been sharing many wonderful paintings of acclaimed painters on his Twitter account. I’ve been saving some of the paintings. I showed them, this week, to the children at our learning centre.

Haseen, who was upset with me till then, as I had inquired about the tussle he had with his brother and another boy on their way back from the class the previous day, was the first one to join. (“Appa, Haseen anna would become alright, if you offer to show some movie on the laptop,” my daughter had suggested.)

After going through most of the paintings, he himself chose one, (Gabriele Münter “On the Seine”, 1930) and started drawing. Sahana and Tamilselvi joined him as well and drew their own interpretations. Jumana, who had been troubling everyone with her naughtiness, lended them the crayons for colouring.

“Akka, do you have those Bangalore biscuits,” asked Jai. We had run out of them long back, and offered them other biscuits.

The learning centre took on a new hue. We started clicking some pictures. A joyous sensation gripped everyone. Unexpectedly, a celebration got staged.


Dhyanavanam – A unique experience

January 1, 2017

An entirely new experience was in store for us last week. We had gone for a training workshop, organised by Dr.Raja and Kalpana, the couple who work in Gandhigram University, and have become close family friends over the last few years. This time, the training was held outside the University campus, at Dhyana Vanam, an ashram nearby.

Dhyana Vanam is run by Father Korko Moses – a saffron-clad Jesuit Priest. He manages the ashram, spread over 6.5 acres, mostly alone and with the occasional help of priests who come for training. It has been 5 years since the area has received decent rains; the adjoining dam is dry; yet, there is a bit of greenery left. The mercy of the small showers that morning had added a glow to the green.

Father Korko lives a simple, monastic life. His bedroom offered a sight that I’ve never come across. In the room, built as a pyramidal structure, there was a cot, over 4 feet tall, and a thin mattress over it; there was a makeshift bathroom at one corner. There was nothing else in that room.

“For the first time, I am seeing a room with no material objects,” I commented.
“A few of my possessions are in the office,” he clarified.

The program started after four girls lighted a lamp, and Mahirl Malar sang a song from Thirumurai.

In the large hall, where the program was held, there were pictures of Dalai Lama, Vivekananda, Francis of Assisi, Rumi, Mahavira and other spiritual leaders. He shared with the children, an outline about each of them. There was a picture of Jesus, seated in Padmasana. He said he sees Jesus as a Siddha saint.

Father Korko considers Swami Sadhananda Giri to be his Guru, and has spent many years in Bengal, learning Yoga from him. This Catholic priest has also assumed another name – Swami Saranananda. He has written a book, Yesu Nama Japam in Bengali, and has translated it into English and Tamil.

There is a separate hall for meditation, set amidst serene surroundings. The wall facing the door, has in its middle, a picture which brings together symbols of 12 different religions. On top of it is, inscribed in bold fonts, the Tamil phrase from Thirmoolar, “There is but one religion, and one god.” In the middle of the picture, the figure of a meditating saint is seen.

Founders of all religions attained an enlightened state after deep meditation, says Father Korko.

In front of the picture, Gita, Bible and Koran, are placed open. On the book shelf in the room, several copies of these scriptures were present.

On the first day evening, the 30 children, aged between 10 and 15, quietly sat through a 1-hour session of bhakti songs, the multi-religious song of Vinoba Bhave, meditation, reading of a passage from Bible (related to the couplets from Thirukkural that we saw that day). Father Korko briefed the children about the 12 religions represented in the central picture. He told stories of Buddha.

The meditation ended with an ‘arati’ for the central picture.

We assembled again, at 6am the next morning. After a few physical exercises, we had another round of meditation and singing for an hour. This time, instead of Bible, Father Korko chose a few passages from Gita, and asked me to read aloud. Dr.Raja sang the song of peace, ‘Shanti nilva vendum.’

Later, when I cited Dharmananda Kosambi, who in his well researched and reverent work on Buddha, disputes some of the popular tales as improbable, Father Korko agreed, “Yes, they are myths. Myths are built around all prophets within a few years. These myths are useful to explain their philosophies.”

In between our training sessions, he taught the children Korean dance. They were thrilled.

When Nedya took a session on birds, the children could easily appreciate the connection between people and nature.

The task of taking classes based on Thirukkural was now simplified. In a way, it seemed redundant. When children could see righteousness and love personified by a simple man, right in front of them, what is there to express through words.

The children were split into small groups and sent into the village, to visit at least 5 houses, converse and mingle with the villagers. At some houses, dogs barked at them; at a couple of houses, people did the barking; but largely, people were friendly, invited them inside and offered them something to eat. Though the drought has robbed them of all revenues and jobs, there is moisture left in their hearts.

There is nobody willing or trained, yet, to take over the Dhyana Vanam from Father Korko, and, though he is not someone to be too fussed about future, his longing for a potential successor can be sensed. He feels that this place will be more ideal for seekers than devotees. Though there is no organisational resistance to his work, there doesn’t seem to be any great support either. He travels abroad every year to conduct meditation sessions, and also conducts retreats at the ashram. He raises sufficient funds for running the ashram through these activities. He also holds alcohol de-addiction camps.

He wanted to learn the song on Shiva (Oli valar vilakke) that Mahirl had sung. He asked her to sing again, and recorded it, and noted down the lyrics. He opined that the raga of the song must be Ananda Bhairavi. We didn’t know for sure, who the author was (Thirumaaligaithevar). He took us to his library. The library had the entire collection of Thirumurai in over 20 volumes. He also had the complete collection of Max Muller’s works on Eastern sacred texts. Having left for Bengal at the age of 18, and having spent 38 years of his life there, he felt that he couldn’t gain sufficient exposure to Tamil works.

At the end of the two days, during the feedback session, one young girl mentioned, “I asked the Father if Hindus can read Bible. He said yes. I liked it very much.”

That openness and appreciation for other thoughts is one of the key insights the children would have gained in those two days.


Subsidizing the digital rich

December 11, 2016

Will all those who crib about subsidies for the poor, now rally against the various digital subsidies for the rich?

It is requiring careful observation to distinguish between ads by the government and the corporates. Both appeal to our patriotism and the need to go cashless. And use the same Model.

I am beginning to believe that some credit card product manager is running this country. This is exactly how we used to sell credit cards – service charge waiver, additional insurance, etc. What next – Reward points? Cashback? Balance transfer? Modi-autographed mugs?


Language of War

December 11, 2016

Svetlana Alexievich writes in her book, Chernobyl Prayer, ‘Reports on Chernobyl in the newspapers are thick with the language of war: ‘nuclear’, ‘explosion’, ‘heroes’. And this makes it harder to appreciate that we now find ourselves on a new page of history. The history of disasters has begun.’

Going through all our posts and media reports, it is obvious that we have also slipped into the language of war. Surgical strike, carpet bombing, collateral damage, death, jawans, anti-national, rationing. And the history of surveillance has begun.


Reality and delusions

December 11, 2016

I went for a haircut today, ignoring my father’s warning that it would be crowded on a Sunday.

The barber wasn’t around when I went in. Two customers were waiting. One of them said that he had gone home and would be back soon. ‘Muthu’ was on TV. The flashback was starting. By the time (father) Rajinikanth was cheated out of his property and pauperised, the barber was back.

After I was done with my haircut, he asked for Rs.80.
“Has the rate gone up?” I asked.
“Only by 10 rupees,” he replied apologetically.
“How is your business doing?”
“You can see how bad things are – Sundays never used to be so sparsely crowded. Earlier, I couldn’t have gone home for lunch at 1pm. Nobody has money. People were giving me old 500 rupee notes. What would I do with that? I gave a free haircut to some of my customers. So few people come in now. “

I wasn’t enterprising enough to educate him about PayTM or a swiping machine.

“The person who was there when you came in – he is having a haircut after 3 months.” (Yeah, I know, it has been only one month since Nov 8 – but the math will work out if, like me, he cuts his hair once in 2 months.)

The cynical-me quipped, “By the time this is over, looks like we’ll have a lot of rishis with matted hair.”

“After 50 days, people may not be alive,” he was more cynical than me. “The big guys are able to get 100 crores and more. Only we struggle. At Annur, last week, somebody spread a rumour that Modi is going to credit 1 lakh into all our accounts. Many people waited outside the bank for a long time before being turned away. How can Modi give 1 lakh to all of us?”

It may seem as if I am beating a dead snake. But the snake is alive and hissing. (Figuratively speaking. I don’t recommend beating a real snake.)

The whole of last week, when I had to commute from Coimbatore, I saw long crowds at ATMs (especially government banks), or closed ATMs, early in the morning and late at night, all the way from Coimbatore to our village.

Our daughter’s music teacher was worried as her husband, who used to work as a goldsmith, is out of job. Her eyes lighted up, when my wife gave her the fees (in 100 rupee notes) for last month, though she had not held any classes then. Usually she would have refused but accepted this time without a protest.

Our neighbouring farmer has not received any money from the milkman this month. The milkman has not been paid by his cooperative. The farmer has no money for buying cattle feed. With no monsoons, his current crop will be a total failure, and the cows are his only hope till the next rains. He asked hesitantly if I’d allow him to graze the cattle on a fallow patch on our land, where there is any hardly greenery.

But a large landowner was able to hold a function at his newly constructed home, inviting 5 or 6 villages, and serving food for two days.

What we see needs to be recorded, in the hope that our delusions will be dispelled some day.


On standing in queues (or) How people die in queues

December 4, 2016

Indeed, queues are not new to Indians, especially the poor. It is only now, many of us who can talk about standing in queues are standing in queues, and therefore, we get to see and hear the plight of those standing in queues. Standing in the queue is an educative experience, in itself (for us, the so-called educated). The objective is irrelevant. Moreover, in today’s India, the more the time you spend on the queue, the more the points you garner for patriotism. I lose a lot of points writing such long, sob stories and shouldn’t miss a chance to gain some.

When I was on my third mission to get Aadhaar card, last Monday, there was again a long queue. After waiting for over an hour, they issued only 60 tokens at 10am. I was 70th on the queue.

There were a number of old people, who had come for the second, third, fourth times. Many of them had returned, even after registration, as their fingerprints had not been captured properly, and their cards were declined. One helpful staff member said that a new machine was expected to arrive in the next couple of weeks and that may be able to record their fingerprints. But most of the elderly decided to wait.

One old, illiterate woman, complained to the staff member that the people at the ration shop were insisting on her Aadhaar card. She showed him the acknowledgement for Aadhaar that she had received earlier. Her card may have been declined due to no fingerprints. He asked her to show that slip at the ration shop. She had done that already, and yet, they had refused to issue her the ration items. He, then, advised her to go to the Tahsildar, get his signature on the slip, and take it to the ration shop. The flabbergasted lady trudged away.

I keep asking my mother, who had been pressurizing us to get that Aadhaar, to tell the ration folks that there is a Supreme Court order against insisting on Aadhaar card. But she says all arguments are in vain. All that the staff at the ration shops know are verbal orders from above. And I am not sure, if this is a fight I wan’t to pick up seriously at this point. (Anyway, my objections to Aadhaar are not just about queues but I’ll keep them away from this post.)

Our next quest for Aadhaar was on Friday. My wife decided not to leave anything to chance and went to join the queue by 6.30 on a cold morning, chilled by the previous night’s rains. Surprisingly she was only the second person. I relieved her at 8.30. After a week of heavy rush, or due to the rains, the crowd was relatively lean that day. I kept hearing stories from those on the queue about their previous experiences. An old lady who was number 3 on the queue had gone for breakfast at some eatery nearby and was not back for over an hour. My wife had been worrying if she had fallen down somewhere. Another lady said the old woman came yesterday, couldn’t get a token and was in tears. She was coming from Periyanaicken Palayam, around 20 kms from that office. Everyone sighed with relief when she did rejoin the queue.

“I have had fractures on my leg, after a fall. My hip is broken. I had to go up and down to 4 offices, just to find out that I have to come to this office. Our ration has been stopped this month,” she told me later.

Person no.5 on the queue was an eighty-two year old man. His 6 sons and 1 daughter and their families had already taken their cards. At that time, he didn’t deem it necessary at his age. But now, some pension of Rs.1000 that he was getting from the government has been stopped, due to Aadhaar.

We kept hearing many more sob stories. Another old man was complaining that getting the right information was the most difficult task. If he sought some clarification on the documentation and such, he would be asked to refer to a poster with that information. He can’t read.
“Are they telling that the uneducated cannot live in this country anymore?”

There were also touts who had offered to take some of them to a private operator, nearby, for a cost of Rs.250-300. Without middlemen, I already had an appointment with the same private operator for the next week (but our conscience had pricked holes on our privilege and we decided not to go there). The cost quoted to us was Rs.150 per person. Even that was seen as unaffordable (or non-essential) by most of them.

After a combined wait of about 4 hours, we got the tokens. Some people from earlier queues, who, for some reason or other, were turned back after waiting a whole day despite having tokens, were given priority ahead of us. The operator and the machine struggled a bit to capture our young daughter’s fingerprints. Otherwise, our registration went off without much fuss. When we finished, I could see that the old lady (No.3) and the old man (No.5) were still standing, while the others were being attended to. I intervened, and heard the same story again, “Their fingerprints won’t get recorded easily. We will be making 60 others wait if we attend to them now.”

“I am eighty-two years old. I have been waiting since 6am and am starving to death. Should I collapse and die to get this Aadhaar? What is the need for a government that tortures its elders like this?”

“Why don’t you go, eat and come?” my wife asked.
“Will I not go, if I have money?”

We compelled him to come with us and bought him some bun, biscuits and tea. It must have been around noon. He refused the offer to eat lunch at a nearby mess, “At this age, if I eat food cooked badly outside, I’ll have diarrhoea for 3 days. I’ve learnt this after so many such experiences.”

So, yes, people dying in queues could have died anywhere. But why should they be forced to be on this queue at this point of time is a question that cannot be evaded.