Towards A Non-Devotional Non-Ideological Approach To Epics

September 20, 2015 at 9:15 AMSep (Activism, Literature, Media, Musings, Slice Of Life, Soliloquy)

On 19 Sep 2015 media reported one Institute for Scientific Research’s claim to have established that Lord Rama was born on 5114 BC January 10 at 12:05 hours and that Mahabharata war began on 13 Oct, 3139 BC. On the same day media reported Kalai Selvi making a statement in Bengalooru that “Mahabharata has resulted in increase of child abuse.”

Sharing the same stage with Kalai Selvi was K.S. Bhagwan who couple of months ago was in news for making his statement critiquing Bhagawad-Geeta and his call to burn Ramayana and Mahabharata. Following this the seer of Pejawara Mutt, Udupi had called K.S. Bhagwan for an open debate in Mysore which got cancelled in the last minute as the police did not grant permission for the event.

kurukshetra - hussain

Recollecting D.D. Kosamb’s argument that Bhagwad-Geeta was inserted into Mahabharata at a later stage of history and in real is not a part of the Mahabharata text one must make note the observation made by U.R. Ananthamurthy at a seminar held in Mangalore on Art vis a vis Violence. U.R. Ananthamurthy said, “… If you read the Bhagawad-Geeta in Mahabharta, as a part of Mahabharata, it shows that wisdom is possible, it can be taught, it can be analyzed; like Krishna does, it can be even shown how futile it is. Yet, man will go through the same futility, as if it is inevitable. That is frightening in Mahabharata. That even after Vishwaroopadarshana the war doesn’t stop. The war goes on…”

While the take of Ananthamurthy can be critiqued what is actually important to note is that Ananthamurthy instead of looking at the Bhgawad-Geeta in a devotional manner or suspiciously through an ideological/ rational lens as a conspiracy, looks at it to decipher it in a way to understand human nature and human life. That is significant because it shows a pathway to read mythologies which refuses to be devotional or get caught in ideological or an extreme rational framework.

While a devotional approach to epics can result in hilarious claims and statements, for which we have innumerable examples in the recent past, and distant past too, the approach to epics which look at them from an ideological or extreme rational framework also end up taking us away from the purpose of epics, the only difference being the latter approach can never be as hilarious as the earlier one.

Epics, as I see them, are the attempts made by humans in a state of anxiety and awe regarding life, to understand human life, human world, human mind, human nature and human relationships while swimming and crossing the tumultuous ocean of life.

Ramyana Kalpavruksham (Ramayana, A wish-fulfilling divine tree) was written in Telugu by Vishwanath Satyanarayana. As a response to this book Ranganayakamma wrote the book Ramayana Vishavruksham (Ramayana, a poisonous tree). Both the titles suggest the approach taken by the authors to decipher Ramayana. While one takes the devotional path the other takes an extremely ideological and rational path. Both, as I see, are traps.

ramayana - mf hussain

Ramayana scholar Arshia Sattar in her collection of essays titled Lost Loves speaks of how over the years of reading and studying Ramayana she was pulled towards the character of Rama making her empathize more and more with him. She says the character of Rama, because of his vulnerability, the pressures on him, his helplessness and his turmoil, made her heart ache for Rama. In her attempt to understand the character of Rama and his actions, without trying to justify him or his actions or accusing him for his actions, Arshia Sattar provides us with a picture of Rama which speaks of human vulnerability and the human conflict with himself and the world while being a part of the world at large.

Arshia Sattar in her reading of Rama draws our attention to what he hears from the people of Ayodhya when Dasharatha in order to keep his word to Kaikeyi agreed to crown Bharata and not Rama. The people of Ayodhya, who were celebrating the return of Rama to Ayodhya and looking forward to his crowning ceremony, angered by the move by Dasharata speak of him quite lowly as a person whose weakness was women and who for something very personal put his public/ social responsibility at stake. This accusation targeted at Dasharatha gets etched in the mind of Rama who sees the same pattern, of women becoming the weakness and for which people putting their public life and public responsibility at stake, repeating itself in Rama and also in the case of Vali and Sugreeva. This constant reminder of a ‘mistake’ makes him utter to Sita, at the end of war, that he waged war against Ravana to save the honour of Ayodhya, fearing if he doesn’t put Ayodhya over Sita he too will be accused of someone for whom matters personal is more important.

Demonstrating how the shadow of our fathers burdens us with their weight Arshia explores the human in Rama by dissecting how Rama got caught between his personal and public life and as a result of which lost Sita and also his peace of mind. Rama, in the reading of Arshia, comes across as a fallible and failed, like anyone of us and spells out the inner and outer conflict which makes Rama fall and break.

By reading Rama neither as a ‘maryada purushottama’ (man of noble qualities) nor as a ‘conspirator’ Arshia, through Rama, throws rare insights at human life, human nature, struggle of human beings and human relationships.

Similarly in reading of Mahabharata a devotional or ideological/ rational reading can actually dissuade from an understanding of life, humans and society. It was Anandavardhana who studied the entire text of Mahabharata for the first time as a whole. It was he who first said that Mahabharata is not just  kavya but also shastra.

hussain mahabharat

But a non-devotional and non-ideological reading of Mahabharata tells us that it is neither a text preaching righteousness. What the text of Mahabharata finally says is that whether you live a life of righteousness or not, on the path of truth or not, you are bound to suffer. It speaks of how one oath of Bhishma can unleash an entire Mahabharata to happen leading to collapse and at once and at the same time also speaks how the river of life continues to flow even when individual characters die, disappear and decay. It speaks of the significance and insignificance of humans and their actions at the same time.

The revolutionary Kannada theater artist C.G. Krishnamoorthy in his autobiography Kattaaley Beladingalolagey mentions of an episode from his student life. As a student CGK was active in politics and Marxist study circles. He, as he records, hardly attended classes. One day when he got back to his room in the hostel his roommate mentioned about the exam on the following day about which CGK was unaware. CGK asked his roommate what the portion for the exam was and the roommate said, “Udyoga Parva.” CGK, says in his autobiography, listening to the word Udyoga (employment), because of his ideological frame of mind of those days, told himself that he knows quite enough about employment, class, capital, surplus etc thanks to the study circle. Its only on the following day when CGK went to the exam hall that he realized that Udyoga Parva is a chapter in Mahabharata. He says he had walked out of the exam hall leaving the answer sheet empty.

Human life and world are extremely complicated, complex and chaotic which pushes humans to understand life in various ways, in his helplessness and his will to sail through. While devotion is a method to deal with the chaotic life and ideology is a method to decipher and set things right, epics are a humanistic way of understanding human life in its complexities within its context. But this approach is metaphoric where metaphors are shot into the void of life causing multiple echoes and making way for multiple meanings which fill the gap which neither a devotional reading nor an ideological reading of epics fail to fill.

While it can be understood as to what prompts people to take into a devotional and ideological frameworks to read epics and mythologies, the texts actually demand a different approach to read and decipher them.

(Paintings: Maqbool Fida Husain)

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The Poetics of FTII Protest

September 18, 2015 at 9:15 PMSep (Activism, Cinema, Friends, Musings, Slice Of Life, Soliloquy)

The strike at the Film and Television Institute of India enters its 100th day today i.e. 19 Sep 2015.

The strike has continued though met with extreme the indifference of the Government and heavy accusations from a good portion of civil society as being an “elitist”, “casteist” space which is just a “waste of tax payers’ money,”

The strike invented and reinvented itself over the hundred days incorporating different methods to continue the protest and make its point. The indifference of the State finally has pushed the students to take the drastic step of hunger strike.

***

ftii- entrance
What is hunger strike to a nation where involuntary hunger is met with indifference? Hunger strike, obviously, is a statement, a performance, a spectacle made out of body to draw the attention of the people concerned. But it is also a point of desperation reached by the protestors, at the face of state’s indifference, where all other methods and means have been exhausted and the only option available to continue the protest is by exhausting the body.

As much as it looks voluntary, in dark times hunger strikes become involuntary.

When the voice remains unheard, when slogans remain unheard, when songs remain unheard, when letters remain unheard, when pleas remain unheard, when memorandums remain unseen, when films remain unseen, the protestor takes to the last resort of turning the human body into a weapon of protest, making human body the message to the world, turning human body as the site of protest.

When all that life can give wings to have failed the life finally puts itself on stake for the sake of justice.

The choice of hunger strike underlines how the matter in hand is a gut-wrenching matter for the protestors and how it has become a matter of ‘justice or death’ for them. It is also a way of saying the absence of justice with regard to the matter in hand is as crucial as the absence of something as basic as food and water.

It speaks of the absence of and need for nourishment and turns the protest, above a mere event, into a philosophy where life is equated with justice and a just world is the prerequisite for life.

***

The hunger strike at FTII began with FTII alumni sitting on hunger strike, not the current students. This makes way for the question why even the alumni of FTII, along with current students, are fighting for the institute with such passion.

When this author joined FTII at the orientation the Director of the Institute soon after welcoming everyone in one sentence asked, “How many of rebelled at home to come to FTII?” and not surprisingly over half of the hall raised its hand.

FTII, since its inception in 1960, has seen students who were orphaned because of their love for cinema. Arun Khopkar in his obituary to Satish Bahadur, who taught in FTII between 1963 and 1983, mentions that the “unwritten duties” of a good teacher at FTII was provide emotional and practical support to these students who had left behind their home with the pure passion to make cinema.

ftii-rolling since 1960

Though over the years cinema as a career option for individuals has become quite acceptable than before, it still lacks the support and encouragement of not just family but also schools, where young minds are nurtured, and banks, which could have been a support system through education loans.

In such a scenario, for the students coming to FTII, the teachers at FTII became foster parents, FTII became a foster home and fellow FTIIians became foster family.

So when Kamal Swaroop, the maverick filmmaker, when put up a status on Facebook during one of the initial days of the ongoing strike, saying he went to FTII to find his mother tongue, he was not just being witty. It was a loaded statement.

The FTII students’ body, year after year, discusses in its endless General Body Meetings, the issues of a fellow student not being able to pay the tuition fees for the lack of support from family and banks. The students’ body tries to negotiate and find out ways in which a fellow student whose hunger for knowledge, hunger for intellect can be met.

But there is always a physical hunger too which has to be faced and met.

These students who rebel against their parents while joining the Institute once they are done with the course go work outside and return to the foster home that is FTII for holidays. When they return the students make space in the hostel for these alumni knowing quite well that what brings the alumni back to the campus is not just a nostalgic love for space, but the absence of a home which was left behind years ago to fulfill the dream of making cinema.

These alumni, who return to the campus, having earned some money for their work, treat the students with good food and some alcohol too since the memories of hungry days and the reason for remaining hungry at the institute hasn’t evaporated from their minds and are also aware of the economical condition of the studying students who have no family support.

Situations like this where the quest to learn quest to make cinema are challenged by economical social forces, students in all these years have gotten into deep depression. At such times the students and faculties have stood by each other and made sure they do not fail in putting the required efforts to embrace the person in need.

There have been instances of alumni who for various reasons reached a point where they had to be taken care of and had no one to take care of them have been sheltered by the students in the hostel at their own expenses amidst their own struggle for survival and sustenance.

The students of FTII who have fought against conventions, against parents, against fate, against themselves to keep their love for cinema alive and the space of FTII lively are now fighting a political battle and are fighting with great passion and great honesty.

The fight is an extremely personal battle for FTIIians as much as it is political.

mohd zoris

The unspoken side of FTII history and ethos had to be invoked because FTII needs not just a Chairperson, an administrator, a decision maker but someone more than that who can make the institute not just academically and technically sophisticated and equipped but also make it personal, intimate, warm and homely. Because running FTII is not like running any other space/ institution. It requires a sensibility and sensitivity which can understand such dynamics of FTII and resonate with the mundane, but not trivial, struggles as this and create a space, a homely atmosphere, where art and artists can breathe and also be creatively active when on a daily and continuous battle against convention, against world and also against themselves.

So when FTIIians are battling for FTII it is not just against saffronization, privatization and fascism. It is also for an unconventional education, unconventional educational space and unconventional pedagogy.

Hence it is also a battle against mono-culture and monopoly along with a battle against mechanized way of administration.

When students at FTII are battling so much for the sake of cinema it is only just that they are provided with a passionate team to lead,guide and shape them whose commitment to cinema and life matches or exceeds theirs.

***

With the beginning of hunger strike, this battle has moved from sloganeering to a monologue, a soliloquy.

Three FTIIians started the hunger strike following a faculty who started his hunger strike on 5 Sep and was forced to withdraw since his health collapsed. The students continued and when some students had to be rushed to hospital other students replaced them.

The significance of FTII protest can be seen in one the first three FTIIans to go on hunger strike, who this author refuses to name here. This author has known this friend and fellow FTIIian through heated debates in the FTII mess over dinner, as a hardcore right wing supporter. But now him turning his body into a message, for nearly 200 hrs, a weapon against the same politics same philosophy which he was once in favor of, signals a strong political message which should get the right wing worried and should give hope to all those in solidarity with FTII as a part of the larger battle against privatization, saffronization and fascism in this country.

On day 100 I hug and salute all fellow FTIIians who are battling this battle of the right against the might.

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Suicides as Social Commentary

September 11, 2015 at 9:15 PMSep (Activism, Musings, Slice Of Life, Soliloquy)

One of the most important Hindi plays of the 20th century is Andha Yug by Dharamvir Bharti. Suicide is a recurring element in the play and Vidura, in the play, predicts that in the kingdom of Yudhishtira, suicide will flourish. The play looks at suicide as an indicator of despair and grief over social and ethical collapse and the dehumanization of individuals and the society as a whole.

painting by Kikyz

painting by Kikyz

The shastras do not approve of suicide. The only suicide- stretched as self willed death- is permissible only to kings who have completed their duties and have handed over their responsibilities and to the ascetics who have renounced the world. But there has always been the practice of sallekha, sati and fatal pilgrimage which were self-willed deaths.

But these are in a way different from suicides as we look at it. To understand this let us look at suicides or the threat of suicides in not a play based on Mahabharata but in Mahabharata itself.

Duryodhana threatens to kill himself when he feels ashamed of his lesser attainments once and later once when he is being saved by his enemy Arjuna in the war-field. When Duryodhana threatens to kill himself Karna also threatens to kill himself because to him life without Duryodhana is unimaginable and unlivable. Once a Brahmin comes to Karna asking for his armour and earrings. Though Karna knows that taking out his armour and earrings can shorten his life he gives it because he has given a word to the Brahmin that his wishes will be fulfilled. Karna known for sticking to his words preferred death over the infamy of breaking vow. Amba kills herself only to take rebirth and fulfill a task which has taken upon herself. Pandu knows that making love will end his life yet he goes ahead with the act of making love which kills him. In a way it can be seen as Pandu’s decision to end a life since death is more preferable that a life where pleasure is denied.

Unlike the ascetics who have renounced the world or the kings who are done with their duties or the acts of fatal pilgrimage or sallekha, the above mentioned examples show that the threat to suicides and the acts of suicides are not driven by any kind of detachment but attachment, not any kind of indifference but a deep sense of connect and involvement with life. Suicides are a way of expressing the deep connect and attachment with life and world at the gut level.

Vincent Van Gogh, says Alexandra Timmer, “used to eat yellow paint because he thought it would get the happiness inside him.” The fact that yellow paint and happiness are not correlated is ignorable to the fact that the paint was toxic and could kill. But as Timmer says, “If you are so unhappy that even the maddest ideas could possibly work, like painting the walls of your internal organs yellow, then you are going to do it. Its really no different than falling in love or taking drugs. There is a greater risk of getting your heart broken or overdosing, but people still do it every day because there was always that chance it could make things better.” And as Timmer rightly says, “Everyone has their yellow paints.”

Vincent Van Gogh finally committed suicide. While yellow pain by its toxic nature itself was suicidal, by the narration of Timmer we are forced to think if suicide was a yellow paint! And what drives Vinct Van Gogh to consume yellow paint is the need to feel better. Was it the same with his suicide too? Interestingly the biography of Vincent Van Gogh penned by Irving Stone is titled ‘Lust for Life.’

Painting by Stuyvesant Van Veen

Painting by Stuyvesant Van Veen

While speaking of suicide- condemning it or in attempts to understand it- people generally use a lot of images and analogies. One analogy which appealed to me the most is that of the person jumping off the high-rise which has caught fire. In such a situation the person is not desiring the fall but is fearing the fire. Similarly a person committing or attempting suicide is not fancying death or finds death appealing but the terror of some fire is consuming her/him and has reached an unendurable level. The terror of falling is as same as us, but its that window which is the only hope to escape from the fire.

Death is not a problem. Dying is. So, it’s not true that people who commit suicide or attempt suicide are weak. Suicide is not a sign of weakness. Quite contrary to the common belief, suicide a step taken in desperation, needs courage, needs strength.

Lest I be mistaken for saying that suicide, or the attempt of it, is an indicator of love for life and strength and courage I must say that I am stressing on these at the very beginning not to romanticize suicide. I am stressing on them because the very fact that suicide is an indicator of love for life and a symbol of strength and courage is the biggest hope for suicide prevention. Without this hope, which stems from the heart of suicide and attempts of suicide, we cannot begin to speak of suicide prevention because as the protagonist of the Oscar winning film ‘The Sea Inside’ says, “Living is a right. Not an obligation.” Collectively we have the responsibility on all of us to make this world a place where everyone would enjoy their right to live.

I say that we all have this responsibility because every suicide in a way is a social murder. And every time “when the bell tolls”, to use an expression of the English poet John Donne wrote, “it tolls for the” since “no man is an island” and “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

Let me elaborate on this but before that I urge that we all add pressure on the Government to revoke IPC 309 which criminalizes suicide attempts. Not just because it creates a stigma which we need to fight about suicide attempts and because the one attempting suicide needs help and not the wrath of legalities. It has to be revoked also because the person herself/ himself is not solely responsible for the attempt.

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In the past one year, as per records which is likely to have missed some numbers, around 1,500 farmers have committed suicide in the state. With such a depressing number before us we had our central minister say the cause for these suicides were, “love failures, impotency, dowry and illness,” which was not just insensitive and inhuman but also insane and cruel. In saying so the minister blamed the victim and held them responsible for their suicides. But one of the farmers named Rajendra in the district of Mandya clearly mentioned in his suicide note that the negligence of Government was the cause for his death. It, in a way, is true of every famer suicide. Its when the Government doesn’t want to take responsibility that it makes a statement as this blaming the victim, like we all generally do when someone commits suicide or attempts one. The Government doesn’t want to see what its role was in the suicide of farmers like in any suicide we do not want to see what our role, as a part of the society, was.

artist unknown

artist unknown

It should shame us that the Maharashtra government wants to do some mind mapping in the districts of Yavatmal ad Osmanabad to prevent farmer suicides. On this occasion of World Suicide Prevention Day, in Mangalore the District Legal Services Authority and the Health Department are jointly holding a programme for over 100 farmers who will be address by two psychiatrists. The intention of this programme is to, as reported in the newspapers, dissuade farmers from suicide. This is ridiculous and embarrassing and shameful because we do not want to see the larger economic and policy matters which are actually pushing these farmers to the edge and off the edge and are living, happily, in this illusion that farmer suicides are triggered by some mental illness and it can be treated.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau of the recorded suicides in the year 2014 only 4.3% were farmer suicides while 18% were suicides committed by house wives! Journalist P. Sainath who has extensively reported on farmer suicides says that the definition of a farmer for officials does not include women agricultural laborers. They are all just housewives and not farmers. This could be one of the reason for the statistics of house wives suicide shooting the sky. But within this we can actually see the gender insensitivity of our administration and society at large too.

The main causes for the suicides of house wives are said to be: dowry, child marriage and domestic violence. All these causes are actually an off shoot of a patriarchal system which is masculine by nature and high on sperm. Its this patriarchal system which is actually pushing so many women and girls off the edge.

While speaking of patriarchy we shouldn’t forget about the pressure of patriarchy on men. The reasons that Duryodhana gives in Mahabharata while threatening to end his life are a reflection of the pressure of patriarchy on men. All psychiatrists and psychologist are witnessed to the gender difference among their patients. Men do not seek help easily. The reason for this again can be traced back to the patriarchal system which doesn’t allow men to be weak or accept that they are weak. Many do get crushed under this pressure, like many women do. It is not the individual weakness which causes or pushes the individuals to commit or attempt suicide but the patriarchal system.

In the month of April a Delhi based doctor named Priya Vedi committed suicide and in her suicide note kind of accused Kamal Vedi for her decision to commit suicide. Kamal Vedi was married to Priya Vedi though he was a gay and hadn’t spoken about it to her before wedding. She also spoke of her husband being physically violent to her. While it was wrong on the part of Kamal Vedi to have not spoken about his sexuality to Priya Vedi and even the more wrong to go ahead with the marriage being sure of his sexuality, what we cannot overlook is the hegemony of heterosexual and homophobic society which doesn’t have the required atmosphere for homosexuals to openly speak of their sexuality leave alone practicing it without being secretive about it. To my mind the its not the hands of Kamal Vedi which the Neptune’s ocean cannot clean but the hands of a homophobic society.

In the year 2010 one Pramod committed suicide in Delhi because he couldn’t arrange the money required get his daughter admitted in a playschool. The disturbing economic inequality that prevails and not to forget how wealth flaunts itself and in a mocking way seduces the poor is evident in the case of Pramod for whom getting an admission for his daughter in a play school was also a hope to get out of poverty in some distant future. The economic inequality of this society pushed Parmod off the edge, as I look at it.

The infamous Mangalore pub attack is etched in the public memory. But what did not get registered in the public memory is an incident which took place in a town named Moodbidri just few days after the pub attack in Mangalore. A school going girl- Ashwini- travelled by bus to her school daily. One day she was attacked by the Hindutva fringe group for being friendly with a guy of another religion. Later the group took the girl to the police station. Her parents were summoned and the girl was made to write a letter of apology. That night Ashwini, aged 15, committed suicide. A control-freak regressive group wanting to dictate norms and values of a society made a girl still opening up to life and world commit suicide and all the perfume of Arabia cannot make their hand smell sweet since there are blood stains on them, the blood of Ashwini.

painting by John Everett Milliais

painting by John Everett Milliais

Two deaths were reported from the University of Hyderabad in the year 2013. Venkatesh and Pulayal Raju. Venkatesh was a first generation educated PhD scholar in the University who for two years did not get the lab for his research even when entitled for it and when the remaining of his batch did get the lab. It is not a coincidence that Venkatesh and Pulayal Raju were Dalits and so was Senthil another student at University of Hyderabad who committed suicide in the year 2008. Nobody would see suicides of Dalits as Dalit atrocity while it actually is. The highly discriminatory and cruel system of caste makes life difficult and also impossible for those at the bottom subjecting them to powerlessness, humiliation, discrimination, poverty and several other forms of oppression turning them into an intersection of several oppressions.

An under-reported issue of every country is the suicide in the defense/ military. The state always likes to hush the suicides or suicide attempts which take place as a part of the political and social movements as a mark of protest against the state. But every country speaks in the loudest voice possible about suicide bombers, the terrorists. Jasson Manning, a professor at West Virgina University, hits the bull’s eye while saying, “A state that increases its domination of citizens provokes suicide protests, while state that increases its domination on foreigners provokes terrorist attacks.”

A farmer set himself on fire in Assam right in front of the state secretariat office last year. Such attempts are made across the world at different points of history. For years now the indefinite fast of Irom Sharmila has been punctuated by several arrests for “attempting suicide.” For a moment lets consider the protest method of Irom Sharmila as attempted suicide. Such protest through suicides hints at suicides, in general, being a protest.

Probably suicide is a language where the person is speaking at the cost of life. Probably suicide is, as we have seen through some examples, is not because of any mental disorder but because of a certain kind of social-political-economical order and suicide is a protest against it. These suicides speak not of mental illness but of an illness in our socio-political-economical system which needs to be attended to.

If the history of the world is to be written by joining the dots of suicides then probably we will get a clear picture of what exactly is wrong with the world and what needs to be attended to immediately.

***

painting by Edvard Munch

painting by Edvard Munch

Obviously the question would come that if the entire system is so flawed then why only those who committed suicide did so and the rest did not. I agree that there are psychological reasons which also play a role in pushing an individual to commit or attempt suicide. There are different kind of relationship that we form which, if I am not wrong, in psychological terms are called as thick relationship and thin relationships. So at times with one particular incident or speech we form such thick relationship that the slightest disturbances with that external factor causes immense internal disturbance. But as it has been discussed, by many, what if the external object itself is so strong that a thick relationship is formed? Let us also agree that some people are weak and vulnerable than the rest. But isn’t the human society expected to be more caring about such people than blame them for being weak? Plus are human beings formed in vacuum? No. Human beings are products of circumstances. It’s the larger world in which human beings get formed either as weak or strong.

***

Agree that there are mental health issues which push people to commit suicide. According to a website dedicated to suicide prevention i.e. suicide.org the most common mental illness which pushes people to suicide is depression. So without touching upon other kind of mental illness I will just stick to the mental illness called depression and try understanding it, while having my own doubts on whether depression is an illness or not.

There are four major theories to the understanding of depression. One is the existentialist theory which says that humans feel a sense of meaninglessness and also lack of purpose along with lack of control in life which leads to depression. The cognitive theory places conscious thought in the centre and sees it as the determining factor in human behavior, emotion and change. According to Albert Ellis people’s emotional disturbances are caused by idiosyncratic philosophies and constructed beliefs that lead to unhappiness and pain. At the surface these two theories actually hold the victims responsible for their actions. But, as discussed, neither emotions nor thoughts of humans are entirely independent. They are an outcome of the interaction the mind has with world and life.

Medical science took an important turn when the Italian physician Bernardino Ramazzini started asking his patients, “What work do you do?” He saw a correlation between the kind of occupation people are involved in and their health condition. It should hold good for mental health too.

The third theory for the understanding of depression is the Marxist theory which believes that capitalism shifted the nature of work from being creative to productive and thus made the worker isolated from herself/ himself by making work a means to an end. This estrangement and disengagement, according to Marxist theory of depression, creates alienation. Extending the understanding from capitalism to a technology driven society Neil Postman says that new technologies and our relationship to them affect the way we feel about our lives, others and ourselves. Technological world, not surprisingly, has made way for more depression and more people being victims of depression.

potato eaters by Vincent Van Gogh

potato eaters by Vincent Van Gogh

The last of the four theories is the oppression theory which believes that depression is one of the main impacts of oppression. G.A. Allport observed that oppressed people internalize beliefs about themselves as propagated by the dominant groups and that leads to them feeling extremely and intensely insecure, guilty and ashamed. Farnz Fanon elaborated on how racism and colonialism is responsible for many types of mental health disorders including depression. According to him oppression leads to negation of self and it strips the oppressed of humaneness and leads to despair.

While oppression can affect the cognitive content and structure of humans, a condition of alienation can lead to sense of helplessness and lack of control along with meaninglessness. All these are interconnected and interrelated having multidimensional movement and cumulative movement too which push people off the edge.

***

Very often we get to hear people saying, while either speaking of depression or creativity, that creative people are prone to depression. But it appears to be the other way round- depressed people have the strength and energy in them to be creative. Anthony Storr is of the opinion that, “The creative process can be a way of protecting the individual against being overwhelmed by depression, a means of regaining a sense of mastery in those who have lost it, and, to a varying extent, a way of repairing the self damaged by bereavement or by the loss of confidence in human relationships which accompanies depression by whatever cause.”

Agreeing with Storr I wonder why creativity is not included in the long list of defense mechanism while it appears to be like one. It does have the quality of defending. It also has the quality of being therapeutic. So involving in creative process can actually be therapeutic to depression and suicidal tendencies.

painting by Pablo Picasso

painting by Pablo Picasso

A strange case in English where the word which is negative of its root word has become more popular than words which are not negative of its root-words is that of the word anesthesia. The root word is aisthesis meaning sense perception. The word anesthesia means absence of sensation. Aisthesis is also the root word for aesthetics which referred to art and art as enjoyed by the senses. The word anesthesia came into existence and entered common vocabulary with advances in medical science. While anesthesia is advancement in medical science and required too, I am invoking the word, its root word and its distant cousin to say that like anesthesia is required to do surgery, aesthetics can be used for therapy and should be used for healing.

Gabrielle Roth, a contemporary dancer, says, “In many shamanic societies, if you came to a medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask one of four questions: “When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop being comforted by the sweet territory of silence?” Such creative processes are a sign of health and the absence of them is a state of dis-ease. So probably engaging in such activities can revive mental and emotional health.

It is said that suicide is prevalent among some animals too. The ostrich, it is said, commits suicide if left alone, when devoid of company. Reading about the experiences of Viktor Frankle in the concentration camps, Slavomir Rawicz’s experience at the labour camp and his escape from there and also the experience of people in prisons show us the importance of human company to survive through tough depressive phases and times when things are closing down upon humans and suicide seems the only way out.

The autobiographical work of Mary Taylor titled ‘My Years in an India Prison’ speaks of how singing, human company was necessary to keep oneself sane it also speaks of how identifying with a larger cause which focuses on the greater larger good is also a way out of depression and a way one can make way for meaning in life out of life. Rich Furman and Kimberly Bender from the School of Social Work, Colorado State University propose social activism as a type of clinical intervention.

Since we have been seeing how the existing order of things in the world is depressive probably an active participation in changing it and changing it fundamentally can be liberating for oneself and the world in total, it appears.

***

The reason I invoke the thought proposed by Rich Furman and Kimberly Bender is because psychiatry as a field is quite controversial. While the existence of mental health issues/ disorder/ illness is undisputed, what is actually debatable and problematic is what becomes to be considered as an “illness” needing “treatment” and what kind of treatment shows how psychiatry plays into the maintaining of status-quo.

Michelle Foucault observes how the madman in the plays of Shakespeare is a genius in disguise and how primitive societies did not see it as an illness and made space for the mad within the society. But, he argues, at a later stage of history madness became an “illness” and asylums came into existence. Behind this he says is the mindset which sees people not employable and productive in the economic sense as abnormal people and hence the treatments in asylums involve vocational training.

soldiers and students (1962) by Jacob Lawrence

soldiers and students (1962) by Jacob Lawrence

In 1960s-70s black protestors during American civil rights protest were diagnosed as schizophrenic and institutionalized for violent behavior. Dissent is smashed by making the rebel and demand for rights by terming them as abnormal behavior.

Interestingly in the year 1980 the American Psychiatric Association added to their Manual of Mental Disorders a new “illness”. Shyness. Thus a new disease was invented in a capitalistic society where the workers are required to be more communicative, outgoing and assertive. So the shy people suddenly became people who needed treatment and correction.

While its true that mental illness/ disorders do exist and need medical help it is also true that psychiatry as a field of study and a discipline of medicine becomes a tool in the hands of establishment and pharmaceutical industry to maintain status-quo and increase medical consumerism.

The fight against suicide is also the battle against forces as these which wants to maintain the status quo and thus not allow us to change the world into a more egalitarian and human friendly one. Its sad that the establishment, at times, uses psychiatry and medicine fields to restrict and reduce the idea of treatment and healing only to individuals and not a social political and economical level.

***

Let me come back to where I started i.e. the Mahabharata. When Yudhishtira starts ruling the kingdom he is saddened and suggests that the Pandavas take to ascetic life which indicates his love for life had started eroding. That is when Bhima tells him that it is only by ruling the kingdom that war which was fought becomes meaningful. Similarly in this fight between the desire to live and the inability to stay alive the only way this fight can be made meaningful is by fighting not just the suicidal thought but triumphing over the conditions- medical and nonmedical- which pushes people to the edge and off the edge.

For this our notions of suicide and our approach towards combating suicide should, like Amba, commit suicide only to take rebirth in a different form and battle against the force that brought about the depressive tragic condition.

This battle is not a battle of the so called suicidal and mental ill. But it’s a battle of and for all of us because we all inhabit this world and we all are part of each others lives. Which means the healing of one means the healing of all and the healing of that one is connected to the healing of all. It’s a battle not just to prevent suicides but a battle to ensure that the world is not a suicidal place. It’s a complete liberation which the battle against suicides should envision.

Let me end on this note by quoting the Australian aboriginal artist and thinker Lilla Watson who beautifully said, “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

[Lecture delivered to PG students of Social Work and Psychology in and around Udupi on the occasion of World Suicide Prevention Day – 10 Sep 2015- at Dr. A.V. Baliga Memorial Hospital, Udupi]

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A Conversation Around Krishna

September 6, 2015 at 9:15 AMSep (Friends, Literature, Musings, Slice Of Life)

On 5 Sep 2015, which happened to be Krishna Janmashtami, a facebook page (Indian Quotes) shared an image of Krishna stealing the clothes of Gopikas with the text that read, “What if you were one of these women?”. The image was accompanied by a note which read:

“Many educated women while celebrating the story of Lord Krishna promote a playful notion of Lord Krishna’s act of stealing the clothes of young women taking bath in a river.

Now imagine you are a woman. Will you still call it ‘Krishna-Leela’ if someone steals your clothes when you are taking bath, make you stand naked in a field and make you beg him for the clothes to be returned ?

We are what we teach our children. Teach ‘Krishna Leela’ from the women’s point of view and tell your children that stripping a woman without her consent is equivalent to sexual harassment. Our children will grow up to be better than what we worship.”

My friend Priyanka Sharma had shared this image-text from the Indian Quotes page on her timeline. Here I am reproducing a slice of the conversation that took place between Priyanka and me after she shared the image-text.

krishna- indian quotes

Samvartha ‘Sahil’: As a non-believer let me respond to you sharing a photo/ post from ‘Indian Quotes’ about Krishna and his act of stealing clothes. Mahabharata, Ramayana are oral tales and they were constructed much before they were written down under the name of Vyasa and Valmiki. The chances of these texts having tribal origin is high. In tribal communities nudity is not seen as ‘shame’ and men and women bathe in the same river and are not ashamed to take their clothes off in the presence of each other. In such a scenario ‘stealing’ of clothes becomes ‘playfulness’ and not ‘sexual harassment’ it appears to me. Or am I giving too much margin? Correct me if I am wrong to believe that texts of a different age and whose origins are from a different culture (way of life) cannot be looked through the modern lens which is ideologically heavy. Mahabharata sees the act of Draupadi being stripped as ‘wrong’. But is not seeing this as ‘wrong’. It is not as simplistic as we would like to believe that Draupadi is being disrobed by a Kaurava where as this is Krishna. The texts are more complicated than we read them through our modern lens. I may be wrong Priyanka. But this is what I felt.

Priyanka Sharma: Thanks for sharing this. Certainly adds to my knowledge. You might be very right here, but the thing is these myths and tales get too decide our morality till now. I mean, if this is playfulness, which is fine by me, then what about Krishna having 16000( or a similar big number) wives is disturbing. The explanation that i have heard was that, since he was the biggest, powerful( for lack of better words) of Vishnu than Rama and he got 16000 women hence, does not leave me with any respect for these stories and their men.

Samvartha ‘Sahil’: Mythologies mostly operate on metaphors, as I see. At least my reading of mythologies says so. It demands a different framework to read, it appears to me. And come on, 16,000 women as wives is practically impossible. It is said that the entire of Mathura was in love with him and considered heart in heart that they were wives of Krishna. To this day in some of the tribes in Karnataka (mysore region) the women wear two mangal-sootras (obviously not the brahminical ones) and even when their husband dies they take off only one of those mangal-sootras. The other is for Krishna. They believe they are married to Krishna and the husband of the world is only a mortal husband but the immortal husband is Krishna and so even when their husband die they do not consider themselves as widows. Krishna is alive and they are wives of Krishna

Priyanka Sharma: It is a mythical creature we are talking about, everything is possible. We did have some 16000 wives, some principle wives, Rohini, Rukamini were few of them 🙂

Samvartha ‘Sahil’: If the tribal women who consider themselves to be married to Krishna are counted then the count will be more than 16,000. What if such a community has written the life of Krishna? Then obviously it will said, by them, that Krishna had/s 16,000 wives where 16,000 is a round figure and not a solid count of census.

Priyanka Sharma: Apart from these women, Krishna himself married so many women four to eight, I am not sure. How good is that? Also, if women considered themselves married to Krishna then, the number 16000 why just this? They could have just said women considered him as a husband…where does this number come from?

Samvartha ‘Sahil’: Its just a random number. Like Gulzar says, “ek sau solah chaand ki raatein.” What is important to him is not the number but the fact that someone kept a count of that. Similarly what could have been the case with Krishna is that they wanted to say he had many wives and came up with a random number 16000. They could have said “many consider themselves as their wives” but we have to understand that they are CONSIDERING themselves as his wife is looking from outside. To them they ARE his wives. I am not even trying to say that mythologies are egalitarian by nature. There are objectionable things in mythologies too. But in my reading, as a skeptic, I have never felt that mythology endorses anything. It is like a ‘mirror’ and ‘light’ which reflects what is happening in the world and throws light on the unseen aspects of human nature. For mythology (to me mythologies are not at all religious) human nature is more important and the possibilities of it (good or bad) and mythologies are not all texts of ‘dharma’ (in terms of how to lead a good life and what is right and what is wrong).

Priyanka Sharma: I agree to almost everything you just said. As far my knowledge goes, the gods brahma, vishnu and mahesh, shiva is the one with tribal attributes.

Samvartha ‘Sahil’: Read Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya’s magnum-opus Lokayata. There is a chapter on Ganesha. On how its a symbol of a tribal group with an elephant totem’s victory over a tribal group having mice as its totem smile

Priyanka Sharma: Will do. But Ganesha is shiva’s son, hence the tribal lineage. But Vishnu, of whom Krishna is an incarnation has not been associated with tribal culture.

Samvartha ‘Sahil’: Of the first five avataars of Vishnu four avataarsmatsya, koorma, varaaha, narasimha– are animistic. Does that say something? Buddha is not an avataar but has been incorporated into the dashaavataar. Could the first four also have been the same? To be honest Rama and Krishna do not even come across as some divine creatures ya Rama is such a weak and trrible person in Ramayana unlike the way these people picture him with broad chest and like a warrior with bow and arrow!!

Priyanka Sharma: Anyway, all these stories, tribal or not, don’t have the women’s perspective I think. So perhaps we’ll never know what Krishna did was right or wrong, maybe.

[Special thanks to Priyanka Sharma]

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Age of Intolerance

September 1, 2015 at 9:15 AMSep (Activism, Literature, Musings, Slice Of Life, Soliloquy)

Anatomy of Murder by Anna Wojtczak

Anatomy of Murder by Anna Wojtczak

At the early hours of 30 Aug 2015, in the city of Dharwad the former Vice-Chancellor of Hampi Kannada University, a renowned academician, researcher and writer M.M. Kalburgi was shot dead at his residence by unidentified miscreants.

The exact reason for the murder of M.M. Kalburgi is yet to be known but an attempt to understand our time through the prism of Kalburgi’s murder gives us a dark and disturbing picture.

The murder of an academician, researcher and writer in Dharwad is alarming because Dharwad happens to be a place which has churned out words and ideas like no other place in Karnataka. A place with such a heritage and legacy becoming the spot of murder that too of a writer, academician and researcher speaks of the shift in the history of the society in total.

While most of the radical and liberal intellectuals of Karnataka are suspecting the hands of the right wing Hindutva forces behind the murder of M.M. Kalburgi, the Hindutva fringe celebrating the murder of M.M. Kalburgi substantiates and strengthens the certainty of the radicals and liberals.

What irked the right-wing Hindutva people was the strong opposition M.M. Kalburgi posed to superstition, idol worship and importantly his stance on Hinduism not being a religion at all.

Amidst all the fingers pointing at Hindutva politics, thinker Prof. Marulasiddappa is of the opinion that Lingayat caste politics, more than Hindutva politics, could be the reason behind the murder of M.M. Kalburgi. This is something that cannot be ruled out.

The community of Lingayats have had disagreements with M.M. Kalburgi since late 1980’s. His research on Basavanna, his wife Neelambika and his nephew Channa Basavanna angered the Lingayat community and he received death threats which forced him to make a few changes in his published work. This editing, he said with great pain, was an “intellectual suicide.” He faced the wrath of the Lingayat community in the following years for his claim that Lingayats are not a part of Hindu religion. He also would point out at the differences between Lingayats and Veershaivas which again pricked the people of the community.

The views of Prof. Marulasiddappa are similar to that of Prof. H.S.Shivaprakash who rightly points out that M.M. Kalburgi’s brush with Hindutva politics is recent in comparison to his friction with the Lingayats.

But what cannot be ignored is also the nexus between Lingayats and the Bharateeya Janata Party in Karnataka. The role of Lingayats in forming the first ever BJP government in Karnataka nearly a decade ago was immense. What needs to seen is also the politics of Hindutva to bring all communities under the Hindutva fold and its attempts to have “Hindu” as a single unit without giving any scope for multiplicity and diversity within. The position of M.M. Kalburgi about Hindu not being a religion and Lingayats (a huge vote bank for BJP) not being Hindus, without doubt, caused trouble and posed threat to the politics of Hindutva. We must also see the socio-political developments in the last two decades where every community has become communalized and has started to perform to this single definition of Hinduism as defined by Hindutva.

Freedom of Speech by Aolpho Mexiac

Freedom of Speech by Aolpho Mexiac

One of the areas of expertise of M.M. Kalburgi was the world of Vachana literature which was produced as a part of the social movement of 12th century in Karnataka with Basavanna as its key figure. What we need to also look at is the attempt being made in the realm of Kannada literature and academia, in the recent times, to spiritualize Vachanas and de-contextualizing it from its social-political history. The reason this politics around Vachanas needs to be remembered and invoked at this point is because the ‘spirtualizing’ (in a very religious sense) of Vachanas and de-contextualizing them from their socio-political history is also an attempt of colonizing the voices (of dissent) of communities and thus bringing communities under the single banner of one religion for political reasons.

It is also an attempt to iron out the sub-cultures, syncretic cultures and counter-cultures to homogenize cultures for the benefit of a fundamentalist and fascist politics which does not encourage or appreciate multiplicity and diversity, leave alone harmony among diversified communities and cultures, and is extremely intolerant of them.

Had the historian Eric Hobsbawm been alive and was writing about this phase of history he probably would have called this the AGE OF INTOLERANCE.

Since the actual reason for the murder of M.M. Kalburgi is not known yet and since the chances of the reason being personal cannot be ignored yet, nothing can be said specifically. But amidst all the voices coming in – of celebration, of accusation, of assumption- what one understand of our the times is that we are living in extreme intolerant times and the not just voice of dissent but any voice that does pose challenge to the homogenized ideas of fundamentalists and fascists is never tolerated. And in the celebration of M.M. Kalburgi’s murder we also see, again in history, that the genocide quotient of the right-wing Hindutva politics is high.

Post-Script: May be, the real threat to fascism, fundamentalism (and also capitalism) is the celebration of sub-cultures, syncretic cultures and counter-cultures which will refuse to come under the hegemony of any homogenization. M.M. Kalburgi did celebrate them and his research unearthed many facts and truths about the non-mainstream cultures and their contribution to society and life.

[An edited version of the same was published in The News Minute]

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