Between The Lines

A Prelude, sort of
The past more often than we may want to admit, provides insights about the depredations of the present and clues to a tense future. Time is cyclical; a hundred years ago, the carnage of the Great War (a European War really) contained a terrible dialectical truth: modernity-as-progress was being born in the crucible of death by technology, the unbridled ambitions of Nation-States and the demise of community.

“Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade
How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood;
Blue with all malice, like a madman’s flash;
And thinly drawn with famishing for flesh

You would be forgiven for thinking these lines to be a poetic description of the violence-fetish among those eager to hit out at perceived enemies from among imagined ‘aliens’. But they are from Arms and the Boy penned by Wilfred Owen, poet-soldier who witnessed the  horrendous cruelties of that war; the metaphors of cold steel, malice and bloodthirstiness could just as well apply to our own times, our own geographies. The tragically violent causality of technology and human enslavement could be read as allegories of our own violent modernity built on the telos of Progress-in-technology.

Around the same time, and recoiling from those dawn-streaks of blood-soaked modernity:
“An automobile does not create freedom of movement because it is a mere machine. When I myself am free, I can use the automobile for the purpose of my freedom.”

Rabindranath Tagore’s cautionary resonates in our ears even more so given our unholy submission to technology’s latest avatars, from fast cars to the digital network. But he could not have foreseen the extent to which the desire for consumption, “gain and greed” would overwhelm our engagement with the idea of progress viewed with rose-tinted glasses ing as the apotheosis of development–not of humanity’s well-being but gross materiality as the ultimate signifier of national pride.

But we pay a price for that worship of material “progress:” It swallows our subjectivity and re-defines our sense of self-worth. We become acquiescent victims, much as the “Officer” does of his beloved torture machine and the penal system in Franz Kafka’s harrowing story, In the Penal Colony. Only now that ‘machine’ and its attendant discourse is what  Aseem Shrivastava in his meditation calls “digitized global totalitarianism”a phenomenon that has broken the boundaries of global capitalism (defined in terms of the domination of capital and goods); now we are the submissive subjects of a subversive networked society of wish-fulfilments that come with terms and conditions .

 Those T&Cs that most of us do not ‘read’ virtually hand over our agency to the Nation-State mediated through technologies such as Aadhaar. The digital order promises deep narcissism and self-absorption, a Huxleyan brave new world of endless pleasure. Since there is no defined goal or end, at which point one can say “We have arrived!” since all self-satiation is a process of ‘becoming-by- striving’  our narcissism is laced with despair. How many I-Phones can one have? Should have?

And the price of that narcissism ratchets up. Shrivastava reminds us that Margaret Thatcher kept warning her subjects that there is no such as “Society”. A nation consists of profit- and want-maximisers in the Market. We are all atomized ciphers, or rather numbers if Aadhaar is anything to go by, in thrall of a totalitarianism that exercises hegemony through ways that would have turned Orwell and Huxley cross-eyed. The ‘foot on the human face’, an Orwellian metaphor works just as well as Huxley’s ‘Soma’ spectacle and social media. 

And yet despair stalks the landscape of the “cultural barbarism” that Shrivastava thinks fashions our existence. The despair is born and nurtured by the constant reminder to prove oneself as an Individual with what the good doctor, ex-PM Manmohan Singh called “animal spirits.” The markers of one’s technology-driven modernism are stacked against success in a majority of cases however. Modernism thrives, contrary to its fabulist purveyors, as a pyramid of “prosperity” and there’s not much room at the top for all the seekers (suckers?) of endless pleasures. The sense of self-worth is stripped of humanity; of community, of belonging. ‘There is no society’”

 Is it any wonder that India has so many suicides? Not just among farmers witnessing the death of their way of life but by the young, those members of the “demographic dividend” fraternity caught in a degrading present an unremembered past and uncertain future. 

 And if self-extinction isn’t the way out of despair then revenge and retribution surely is? It’s tough negotiating the slippery slopes of a competitive race towards that hall of mirrors on the top when faced with the Other, those beards, skull caps; hearing the muezzin calls, gospels of love and brotherhood, among beef eaters, among people scribbling right to left, Hai Ram!!.  And who should forget 26/11??

 Terrorism! Not just from across the borders, to our left to our right but from within!     

 Despair, at failing the demands of the Spectacle, fear of the bearded and hijab-ed Other; Both are data feeds that help create the algorithms of the globally digitized totalitarianism that Shrivastava talks about, a totalizing force that strips us of our humanity.

 All of us stand naked before this totalitarianism. We who applaud digital efficiencies in welfare transmissions, we who tiptoe around the savagery meted out to the weak, the vulnerable just because they happen to be women, Dalits or Muslims or Christians or darkies and dissenters. And the infection of indifference spreads across the political spectrum; the liberal wants the beard cut, skull cap and hijab thrown away in favour of sartorial uniformity (which is in this context, a synonym for anonymity). The Left, which ought to know and do better doesn’t. Shrivatsava says about that side of the spectrum:    “Self-righteousness is a lot easier than a compassion which would make us love the wronged more than we hate the privileged”

 Politics in this scenario is not the refuge of the scoundrel as has been repeated vacuously: it is he says, that of a “parched heart,” and the ideologues, slake their thirst “through a digitised trolling system of mutually assured hatreds.”

 For Shrivastava, the consequences of this anomic scenario of self-love and loathing is …flight. But, what are they running away from? The realities are daunting to say the least. Shrivastava posits two forces at work to keep us running: one, the self-love that keeps us miles away from the “examined life” and second, the hegemonic powers that offer ‘solutions’ most of us are happy to accept.  

And they, one might add, only serve to heighten our sense of  a hollowing out, like Eliot’s hollow men; stuffed with what Shrivastava calls “bad faith.” We look for the purveyors of the most salacious Spectacle or the weakest minority-Other to cudgel, lynch, humiliate and assuage our fears, quench our thirst for revenge. The hollow men, the stuffed men:
“Shape without form, shade without colour,
paralysed force, gesture without motion”

 Years before Eliot, Tagore talked of the individual as a geometrical line, all length and no breadth. It may keep growing, “cross other lines, cause entanglements” but it will never achieve the “ideal of completeness in the thinness of isolation.” (On Nationaalism…)

Shrivastavas meditation on the darkling plain of the present seeks illumination in Tagore, taking seriously his advice spelt out in Creative Unity to look for them in the granary of the past. And through the cracks in this area of darkness the light creeps in. Growth has to be re-defined: the sense of community restored. To Tagore, the future of human freedom rested squarely on restoring the living capacity to experience life as an organic whole

For us, the hollowed-out men, attempting that future could help redeem our lost faith and perhaps discover divinity, in humanity-The Beacon


The Forgotten Call of Faith

Aseem Shrivastava

India is immortal if she persists in her search for God. But if she goes in for politics and social conflict, she will die.”

Swami Vivekananda  (from his death-bed, July 4, 1902)


or all the endless battles over religion and faith today, there is no gainsaying that we live in an utterly barren, faithless time. Everyone is busy impatiently defending gods they have themselves abandoned aeons ago. Not only do we have little trust in each other, we have even come to doubt if we have any true goodness in our own selves. With the vainglorious march of warring ideologies – secular, liberal, radical, communal, casteist, or fascist – our alienation from authentic religion is all but complete. Only the fake versions survive and thrive in the public arena, as the Spirit is obscured by the lurid drama and rituals of the State, an intoxicated polity adding its noise to the public cacophony. How can anything of value be heard above the deafening din of ceaseless political volleys, fueled by a communications technology whose efficiency is surpassed only by its vulgar glamour?

In a society organised by the global market, it is only to be expected that sensations, being the most readily marketable item, will be greedily hawked and devoured for high premiums. Who can resist falling victim? The right word for this state of affairs is cultural barbarism – and those in its grip are inevitably ignorant of the fact.

On the ever more bankrupt political spectrum there is a highly vocal narcissism of the Right, marked by a desperate, fake love of oneself, much in the manner of many of our media-hungry celebrities whose frequently imbecilic public speech indicates that we cannot expect them to ever grow up.

Matching this is a somewhat more disguised narcissism of the Left, wherein self-love of the wrong kind takes the form not only of a visceral hatred of political enemies (much like that of those they are battling) but often an exaggerated self-loathing, disguised as the guilt owed to the underprivileged, moral egos duly massaged and fortified in the bargain.

Self-righteousness is a lot easier than a compassion which would make us love the wronged more than we hate the privileged.

There is nothing inspiring, or even appetising, on this landscape of bad faith, masquerading as ideology. Politics today is the refuge of the parched of heart, the thirst of ideologues met through a digitised trolling system of mutually assured hatreds. If someone wishes to learn what digitised nihilism means, they merely need to glance through a few screens of what passes for politics today. Their vocabulary of expletives will expand handsomely as they confront the crudities of digital popularity contests.

Nobody wants to ask a simple, basic question. What is everyone running away from?

There are daunting realities all around us, laying siege to the hopes of hundreds of millions, prompting many to give up in despair and even put an end to their lives. Everyone’s ecological future is at stake. Amidst the numbing consumer carnivals, we show no real interest in facing such realities. Even less are we keen to understand the underlying causes, all of which are man-made in origin. People, as individuals, are impatiently made to look for ‘solutions’ – to problems that are structural in origin. In other words, they will inevitably fail. The system which commands their consciousness wants them to give up – so that it can proceed smoothly with its victory marches once it has neutered its critics.

This is the quiet secret of globally digitised totalitarianism. All politics today, at its root,  must ultimately subscribe to the cunning gospel of progress, development, modernity. This is the ideological essence of corpocracy, masquerading worldwide today as a democracy.


Rabindranaths faith

What might people of genuine faith say, if they were alive today?
One such man was Rabindranath Tagore, often mistaken for an unflinching modernist, when his critique of modernity is no less abundant than his dismissal of  obscurantist elements in moribund tradition. It would be a serious error to mistake Rabindranath as a votary against all tradition. On the contrary, he believed no genuine culture was possible if people chose to be “exclusively modern”, believing that the past was a “bankrupt time, leaving no assets for us, but only a legacy of debts.”

The great ages of renaissance in history were those when man suddenly discovered the seeds of thought in the granary of the past.”

Rabindranath pitied those who wished to dismiss the past in summary fashion in order to conform the better to the modern world which, in effect, means mimicking the (a)social norms of the West, howsoever wrong or perverse they may be.

Thus, “the unfortunate people who have lost the harvest of their past have lost their present age. They have missed their seed for cultivation, and go begging for their bare livelihood. We must not imagine that we are one of these disinherited peoples of the world. The time has come for us to break open the treasure-trove of our ancestors, and use it for our commerce of life. Let us, with its help, make our future our own, and not continue our existence as the eternal rag-pickers in other people’s dustbins.”

A clearer denunciation of the modern colonised mind – and a sounder proposal for the way out of it – is not easy to find.

The unrestrained savagery of the Great War (World War I) took with it the last flicker of hope Rabindranath had from Europe and the West. He published a series of writings in the years following the war which make this abundantly clear. In 1922, for instance, he published his important work Creative Unity in which he dwelled at length on what he referred to as ‘The Poet’s Religion’, thinking not merely of himself but also of other poets, like the Romantics of 18th and 19th century Europe. Herein he sheds light on the profound meaning that faith held for him.

Age after age there has come to us the call of faith, which said against all the evidence of fact: You are more than you appear to be, more than your circumstances seem to warrant. You are to attain the impossible, you are immortal.”

Tagore is not unmindful of modern skeptics who, lacking the heart for what is truly great, would scoff at the spiritual grandeur that inspires the faithful: “The unbelievers had laughed and tried to kill the faith. But faith grew stronger with the strength of martyrdom and at her bidding higher realities have been created over the strata of the lower. Has not a new age come today, borne by thunder-clouds, ushered in by a universal agony of suffering? Are we not waiting today for a great call of faith, which will say to us: “Come out of your present limitations. You are to attain the impossible, you are immortal”?”

Such spirited declamations would be futile froth to the ears of those supposed ‘rationalists’ who have somehow clung to the falsehood that faith and reason must necessarily work in opposite directions.

Their defeat by today’s communalists and fascists is in good measure to be explained by precisely such a flawed understanding of human consciousness – which, to be healthy and whole, needs judicious measures of both reason and faith, knowing when to make use of one and when to rely on the other, knowing in advance that there is infinitely more to faith than what modernity has in mind, inasmuch as there is also perhaps more to reason than what modernity regards as reason, the latter often being an unquestioned article of faith in itself.

It takes a healthy ecology of the heart to find this balance – the sort that modern political culture, with its inevitable addiction to simplistic binaries, and in its insatiable hunt for sensations and extremes, has rendered not merely unfashionable, but obsolete – the global media playing a tireless, salivating pedagogue in this ceaseless project.

Tagore points out that an undue reliance on ‘the system’ (which constitutes the reigning distillate of global modernity) will mean a failure to understand humanity in its wholeness. In our eagerness to conform to the system because of our fears and our greeds, we fail to heed the whispers that come from deep within, and surrender the opportunity for freedom. He warns the modern world: “The nations who are not prepared to accept it” (the call of faith), “who have all their trust in their present machines of system, and have no thought or space to spare to welcome the sudden guest who comes as the messenger of emancipation, are bound to court defeat whatever may be their present wealth and power.”

What else does ‘the call of faith’ mean to Tagore? It entails a quiet recognition of what he thinks of as a “universal personality,” something potentially accessible to everyone through their spirit, which alone can liberate humanity from the iron grip of technology and prevent the impoverishment of his heart.

Upon the loss of this sense of a universal personality, which is religion, the reign of the machine and of method has been firmly established, and man, humanly speaking, has been made a homeless tramp.

Such a nihilist emergence of technological dominance has not arisen coincidentally. It is a concerted project of colonisers over centuries, seeking to grow their power and extract their pounds of flesh from the earth and its peoples. “As nomads, ravenous and restless, the men from the West have come to us. They have exploited our Eastern humanity for sheer gain of power.” All this drama of history has been unfolding in the twilight of the Infinite, which is to say, in the darkening absence of the divinity in man. “This modern meeting of men has not yet received the blessing of God. For it has kept us apart, though railway lines are laid far and wide, and ships are plying from shore to shore to bring us together.”

In other words, nothing is a greater lie than globalisation. The myth stands upon abiding empires of consolidated global domination.

Humanity has to find the heart to face what it has been taught so successfully to repress for so long by the reigning global empire of modernity. Then alone, when it finds the courage to heed the “call of faith”, will it find its freedom, discovering with it what human life is for. “This great world, where it is a creation, an expression of the infinite–where its morning sings of joy to the newly awakened life, and its evening stars sing to the traveller, weary and worn, of the triumph of life in a new birth across death,–has its call for us. The call has ever roused the creator in man, and urged him to reveal the truth, to reveal the Infinite in himself. It is ever claiming from us, in our own creations, co-operation with God, reminding us of our divine nature, which finds itself in freedom of spirit.”

Such is authentic religion, without which humanity is little more than flesh and meat, conquered by its limitless appetites – no matter that modernity teaches us to aspire (but only materially) and pretend otherwise.

How is humanity to come closer to the recognition of the divinity that it inhabits (and that inhabits it in turn)? Tagore puts his faith in a creative social life:

For man, the best opportunity for such a realisation has been in men’s Society. It is a collective creation of his, through which his social being tries to find itself in its truth and beauty. Had that Society merely manifested its usefulness, it would be inarticulate like a dark star. But, unless it degenerates, it ever suggests in its concerted movements a living truth as its soul, which has personality. In this large life of social communion man feels the mystery of Unity, as he does in music. From the sense of that Unity, men came to the sense of their God. And therefore every religion began with its tribal God.”

The past therefore knew something of value which the present, with its commercially induced amnesia, prompting a global mania for privatisation, is in denial of. Not only is there such a thing as society, with its finely textured web of relationships, it is absolutely necessary to the creative happiness of humanity. If a famous British Prime Minister (Mrs. Thatcher) won three successive elections a generation ago on the slogan “there is no such thing as society”, it is the very idea of society which today has to be defended – against the invasive corporate privatisation which is otherwise going to lay permanent waste to the earth and its peoples.

To Tagore, the future of human freedom rested squarely on restoring the living capacity to experience life as an “organic whole” and this was predicated upon heeding the inner call of faith which would enable humanity to express authentically and create simple ceremonies of beauty in the process.

“The one question before all others that has to be answered by our civilisations is not what they have and in what quantity, but what they express and how. In a society, the production and circulation of materials, the amassing and spending of money, may go on, as in the interminable prolonging of a straight line, if its people forget to follow some spiritual design of life which curbs them and transforms them into an organic whole.”

Tagore condemns any merely quantitative notion of growth, for it multiplies “unmeaning”. Beginning with ugly incomplete entities, torn from an absent whole, and merely growing them in size and number will, in the end, leave “unfinished” things “unfinished”.

“Growth is not that enlargement which is merely adding to the dimensions of incompleteness. Growth is the movement of a whole towards a yet fuller wholeness. Living things start with this wholeness from the beginning of their career.

He elaborates: A child has its own perfection as a child; it would be ugly if it appeared as an unfinished man. Life is a continual process of synthesis, and not of additions. Our activities of production and enjoyment of wealth attain that spirit of wholeness when they are blended with a creative ideal. Otherwise they have the insane aspect of the eternally unfinished; they become like locomotive engines which have railway lines but no stations; which rush on towards a collision of uncontrolled forces or to a sudden breakdown of the overstrained machinery.”

It is the remarkable wholeness of Tagore’s vision that we must appreciate today. To him it was but obvious that human beings exist in order to realise themselves in a spiritual freedom, which can only come through the recognition of the divinity within and around us. Not without this!

This requires the cooperative participation of communities, an osmotic setting which inspires humanity to be fearlessly creative. There is no other way for us to regain the truth without which we will never find meaning and value, love and happiness. “Through creation man expresses his truth; through that expression he gains back his truth in its fullness. Human society is for the best expression of man, and that expression, according to its perfection, leads him to the full realisation of the divine in humanity.”

Tagore is particularly critical of modern notions of success, which are unable to distinguish between the creative and the constructive, thereby inhibiting the freedom of human expression. In a simple way, he likens the difference between the two to that between the ‘home’ and the ‘office’, something which enfeebles humanity spiritually. “When that expression is obscure, then his faith in the Infinite that is within him becomes weak; then his aspiration cannot go beyond the idea of success. His faith in the Infinite is creative; his desire for success is constructive; one is his home, and the other is his office. With the overwhelming growth of necessity, civilisation becomes a gigantic office to which the home is a mere appendix.”

The Internet has turned the whole world into one vast office!

With the help of an unusually subtle use of the term ‘shudra’ (derived from the Sanskrit ‘Chhudra’, meaning base), Tagore tries to demonstrate how modernity, with its mindless appetite for production, consumption, and success, is reducing all humanity to our lowest common denominator: matter and its companion, utility.

“The predominance of the pursuit of success gives to society the character of what we call Shudra in India. In fighting a battle, the Kshatriya, the noble knight, followed his honour for his ideal, which was greater than victory itself; but the mercenary Shudra has success for his object. The name Shudra symbolises a man who has no margin round him beyond his bare utility. The word denotes a classification which includes all naked machines that have lost their completeness of humanity, be their work manual or intellectual. They are like walking stomachs or brains, and we feel, in pity, urged to call on God and cry, “Cover them up for mercy’s sake with some veil of beauty and life!”

Tagore’s iconoclastic perspective provides refreshing insights into the social and psychological consequences of the standardisation and homogenisation engendered by modernity

Concerned about the health of the human heart, he is emphatic in putting not just material possessions, but the lying, corrupting intellect in its place:

Our society exists to remind us, through its various voices, that the ultimate truth in man is not in his intellect or his possessions; it is in his illumination of mind, in his extension of sympathy across all barriers of caste and colour; in his recognition of the world, not merely as a storehouse of power, but as a habitation of man’s spirit, with its eternal music of beauty and its inner light of the divine presence.

The question before us today therefore is quite simply this: do we have the courage of heart to know the Divine within and around us, and to let it guide our steps? For unless we rediscover this great truth, modernity will keep sliding by default towards an endless barbarism which can only terminate in an ecocide, an outcome for which we seem to possess limitless talent and collective appetite.

More than any politics on offer today, it is the call of the Infinite that must be heeded.

Notes for Prelude
Top Visual is screenshot from: The Hollow Men by TS Eliot read by Tom O’Bedlam.
Wilfred  Owen’s Arms and the Boy from:
Tagore quotes from On Nationalism: Read here:
Couplet from The Hollow Men in T.S.Eliot: Collected Poems 1909-1962. faber and faber.  1963. p89

Aseem Shrivastava is a Delhi-based writer, teacher and ecological thinker. He holds a Phd in Economics from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and currently teaches two different courses on Ecosophy every year at Ashoka University.
Since 2005, he has been researching, writing and lecturing nationally and internationally on issues associated with globalization and its multiple ecological and other impacts.
He is the author (with Ashish Kothari) of the books Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India (Penguin Viking, New Delhi, 2012), and Prithvi Manthan (Rajkamal Prakashan, New Delhi, 2016) which offer critiques of, and alternatives to, India’s development strategy since 1947.
He is presently at work on the ecological thought of Rabindranath Tagore  and an aphoristic, philosophical examination of power and greed.

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