By Valson Thampu
An insight from the Indian view of life, or what the West calls the worldview, that should guide all Indians, if that’s indeed who we are, is that of maya. This key word is customarily rendered as ‘illusion.’ Hence, the idea that the world is a mere panorama illusion, which it certainly is not. So, it is fairly obvious that this is not what the doctrine of maya means.
The fact that we are confronted by a world of material things is a reality. How we relate to such a world is a question of central significance in all systems of thought, especially in the Indian spiritual-philosophical system. If the world were indeed no more than a breeze of illusion, such a question would not matter at all.
The western worldview, and the culture that pertains to it, are governed by moha, or desire. Culture progresses, the engine of development, is powered- by desire. Desire, when delinked from need, becomes greed, driven by covetousness. It needs to be noted in this connection that this creates a polytheism, so to speak, of commodities. Exalting material goods to the level of gods, which are, with a touch of unwitting irony, packaged as ‘objects of desire.’ Those who lead us into their mysteries parade themselves a ‘gadget gurus’!
Modern life flows between these two terminals: godmen on the one hand and gadget gurus, on the other. We stand transfixed between a theology of enchantment (religion) and the technology of disenchantment (science).
The doctrine of maya implies a warning that material goods and objects should not be valued, especially as ends-in-themselves. If otherwise, we end up absolutizing them. The worst punishment that an American teenager can be given, we are told, is to suspend his driving license. The insufferable cruelty we can inflict on our children is to shut them out of TVs and Internet sites, and so on.
As against this, our ancient seers evolved the idea of maya, which insists that things have their true value only insofar as they are linked to the Brahman, or ultimate reality. It is from the ultimate that the proximate and the immediate must derive their worth. This is akin to the biblical insight that the key to human worth rests in the Being of God.
Being right in our relationship with God, or Brahman, or Allah, or whatever, is a necessary condition for our personal worth. That relationship should not be academic or nominal. It must be the shaping force of our life on earth.
The western model of development -which we are imitating with indiscriminate eagerness – is situated in the post-Christian worldview. Speaking more generally, the influence of the spiritual worldview on Europe declined proportionately as industrial-scientific culture, and its progeny of materialism, gained ascendancy. It is a logical necessity that God is sidelined in dialectical materialism of the Marxian variety.
But it is a myth that only Marxian materialism is atheistic. The fact is that the modern developmental paradigm is inherently and inevitably atheistic. It may use the name of God, as the Christian Right does in the US. All manifestations of the “Right” (not Rights) movement are marked by the contradictory features of being extremely pietistic and essentially atheistic.
Today we are sleep-walking through the glaring contradiction we live. Hindu majoritarian triumphalism is being equated presumably with the core spiritual and philosophical heritage of India. The truth is that they are mutually contradictory.
All majoritarian movements are, inevitably, materialistic. They have nothing to do with spiritual values or orientations they invoke. They don the garb and hue of religion, but violate its spirit. They insist on the antagonism of religions and conflict of cultures. And thrive on violence and brutality; whereas the spiritual vision, being universal, insists on universal brotherhood and peaceful co-existence.
There is a simple reason why the western paradigm of development -greed-driven, technology-powered, and environmentally-predatory – necessarily breeds discord and violence. Material objects cannot be glorified through covetousness and indulgence without devaluing the human. To absolute ‘means’ is to relativize ‘ends.’ Governance, for example, can only be the means: the means to promote the welfare of all citizens. When it is absolutized, it becomes Statism, which breeds the cult of ‘power.’
Government is all about power-wielding, which is preceded by power-brokering. Governance is about prioritizing people’s welfare and development. When Modi promised a shift from Government to Governance, he was promising, unwittingly, a radical re-orientation of national life, which he has not even begun.
It is time we realized why Modi cannot undertake this historic task. The model of development he has embraced – in abject conformity to the west- is akin to government, not governance. Basic to this model is the neglect of human development and excessive and exclusive preoccupation with material development.
There is, therefore, an inherent incompatibility between education and the model of development we pursue. Of course, we continue to parrot that education is the foremost resource for national development! In practice, we are more honest. We neglect education completely, which is consistent with the model of development we pursue.
There is no philosophical or spiritual system in the world that does not insist that moha is inimical to human development. Moha, in Buddhist thought, is the source of our dukkha, or restlessness. A whole nation infected with moha will be sick with restlessness. This restlessness can be, through propaganda and misinformation, sold to a gullible public as dynamism or developmental energy. This is maya in the most negative, and unphilosophical, sense of the term. The merchants of development thus become the peddlers of moha and the cheapening of the soul of a nation.
Whether a temple is built in site A or a mosque stands on site B is not an issue relevant to our character and destiny as a people. The proliferation of places of worship has nothing to do with godliness. It has to do only with human pride, or group-egoism. The more places of worship we have, and more magnificent they are made to look, the less godly and humane we tend to become. That is because it is an insult to God, who is omnipresent, to confine him/her to a tiny man-made structure.
In point of fact, we build the so-called places of worship, not to honor God, but to exclude God from our social and personal life. It seems desirable that God is made to stay confined to churches, temples, mosques…. Man can, then, claim the rest of the earth as his free-hold.
Yet issues pertaining to places of worship have immense propagandist and emotive value. They are irresistible in their usefulness for mass mobilization. But what is overlooked in this process is that human beings, through mass mobilization, are reduced to objects. They are mere objects to be used by their ventriloquists.
This is true not only of the political mobilization of religious communities, but also of their religious organization. Barring exceptions, human persons do not matter to the managers of religious establishments. They use the gullibility and wealth of the ‘believers’ to inflate their own importance and enlarge their interests.
Till a quarter century ago, we used to have men and women of stature. This species is now becoming extinct. Their place is being usurped by demagogues and wheeler-dealers. Human stature is dwindling. Our sense of fellow feeling is wasting. Our collective anatomy is changing. India is at danger of becoming one vast, oceanic stomach. The heart and mind are at peril of going the way of vermiform appendix!
No one talks about this, though. Any thought in this direction is perceived as tantamount to shifting a car, racing full-throttle, being shifted to the reverse gear!
Of course, religion will be used. Unprecedented fervor will be unleashed. But all this — as mere background music to the theater of atheistic development that crafts a cold, callous, subhuman culture where the distinction between man and inanimate objects — could remain notional.