Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Group Identity

I have just stepped out of an academic presentation of some serious research on the link between memory and self-identity. When I saw the notice for this presentation, I felt that it would not interest me at all, couched as it was in social science jargon. I gave in to a gentle nudge to 'waste my time' over it only to realise that it gave me well-researched answers to questions that have been plaguing me for over a week now.

Before all of you who have no interest in academia or academic debates stop reading, let me clarify, this is not a blog championing the cause of academia or an appeal to intelligent young people to consider academic careers. This is one more post adding to my corpus of such posts, on the need for young people to spend some time thinking: thinking about issues around them, issues that affect their lives and their choices. It is easy to take the "beaten path" and reach one's goal within the time-frame set by oneself but can one live with that kind of success if it involves trampling upon family and friends? Old question, I know. Most Indians would immediately think of Arjuna, Krishna and the Bhagvad Gita and various interpretations of Krishna's legendary advice to Arjuna. So, here is my version of that famous dialogue, it went somewhat like this:

Arjuna: How can I wage a war with my elders for a kingdom?
Krishna: Kingdom, you are not fighting for something as paltry as a bit of land, I created a kingdom for you, remember, that can always be taken care of; you are fighting for your right.
Arjuna: But is my right greater than peace?
Krishna: Well, your right might not be greater than peace but your duty of fighting the evil in the world is. These people you see in front of you are perpetrators and / or supporters of evil. Fighting them equals fighting evil. Now that, as you very well know, is a good thing. So, while you seem to be doing an evil thing you are actually doing a good thing. Go ahead, fight your family, teachers, cousins, nephews, childhood mates for this will lead to ushering a better world.

I know many of you will tell me that is an extremely simplistic interpretation of an important part of the great song. Yes, I know that. It was deliberate. Simplistic never means incorrect. Let us start with simple stuff first. Anyway, this is not an exposition on the Gita; I am using my interpretation of this famous conversation to illustrate my point.

In this famous instance, the warrior was convinced by his political advisor that he should identify the group he belongs to and act accordingly. The legendary warrior is not the only one who learnt his lesson well enough to lead his group to a Pyrrhic victory, most Indians learn this lesson rather well. We pick the groups we belong to and live by the rules of the group. Sooner than later, we learn to identify with some social groups and accept its rules. We then internalise those rules and develop our persona. People we interact with regularly can usually predict our behaviour and our reactions to social situations. That is possible because they learn to recognise the groups we belong to. The problems and discomfort begin when we shift allegiances from one group to another. Say, Arjuna decided that his allegiance lay with peace and not with helping in destroying some people identified as evil. What could Krishna have done then? What advice would he have given to Arjuna? That would have changed the Mahabharata significantly. It would probably have changed the Indian mindset also quite a bit, for we are a nation that takes our legends very seriously. Unfortunately, asking such questions borders on blasphemy. My intention, though, is to ask such questions and ask them of people whose behaviour affects the lives of millions in this nation.
Watch this space for on how group identities killed Nirupama Pathak and many more young girls in the recent past.


Anu said...

very interesting... never thought of things this way..... but aren't u diverging from the topic u began with?????? would love to hear what brought on these thoughts!

memories said...

Hmmm... it's the Mahabharata again! The perpetrators of evil and the destroyers of those evil-doers are all part of the great epic. But yes, I'd definitely like to hear your views on Nirupama Pathak and other 'innocent' kids... BTW, I loved the way you simplified the entire philosophy behind the Gita :).

Sushmita said...

Two things-
1. 'Peace' is a very advanced concept. If one's survival and sustenance is threatened, then there is no alternative but to fight. One can start talking about peace when groups reach agreements to not attack each other, when society collectively reaches the understanding that they stand to gain more by not fighting than by fighting. Peace can be ensured when people think about ensuring 'justice' for each other.
2. About the Bhagawat Gita, one can say that the authors hadn't realized the importance of peace. But that doesn't make the philosophy of the text irrelevant. It can be read in an allegorical way, and then it is a thoughtful discourse on how to approach one's duties, detachment etc.
And finally, I have a small complaint with the tone you take in the post. There is an assumption that the Gita is ready to falter as soon as you raise the smallest of questions. 'Say, Arjuna decided that his allegiance lay with peace ... What could Krishna have done then?' One shouldn't approach a text probing to find a crack. On the other hand, you should try and stretch your mind to understand and draw lessons out of it.
And ofcourse, it is very shallow when people read the Gita as an incitement to war.

Usha said...

Thanks for the feedback, ppl!
@Anu: Yes, that is coming soon; I had hoped to have written it by now but sadly haven't had the time to write.
@Shanti: I like the single quotes around innocent, tho I didn't use that word anywhere if you'd noticed
@Sushmita: Gita is just as much a sophisticated text as peace is an "advanced" concept. And, I had stated upfront that my interpretation was very simplistic and that too of one sloka of the long poem. I don't read the text as an enticement for war but interpret that sloka as a justification for imminent violence.

Sushmita said...

Unfortunately, a lot of today's problems are caused by interpreting old texts literally, or worse, misinterpreting them to squeeze out the message you want to hear. And ofcourse, people are not recognizing changes in contexts - they were written at a time when peace wasn't an important issue, when women's lib hadn't been thought of, when science hadn't advanced so much, when nation states didn't exist etc.
While reading the Gita, I would interpret 'fight the battle' as 'discharge your duty', where one has to figure out what one's duty is based on current ideas.
And in all this misinterpretation, the problem doesn't lie with the texts or with the religious teachings, fundamentalists are often fired up by more local and recent causes.
The final point I make is very hotly contested, and we can make peace even if our opinions differ here :)

Ratty said...

On tweaking the interpretation of Gita's message, you might find the first chapter of Amartya Sen's -The Argumentative Indian - interesting. He raises the same questions you raise, and with a leaning to be sympathetic to Arjuna's concern for consequences as opposed to just duties, with a concern for peace being the foremost consideration that prompts Amartya's re-opening of the historical argument. Recently read the book's intro. He's a liberal ideologue, and your aruguments seem to fall back on a liberal ideological framework too.
The main thing he proposes is that there has always been encouragement for heterodoxy (as opposed to orthodoxy leading to blasphemy) of opinions - the argumentative tradition as he calls it - in India. A lot of his book claims to do social history, but most of it is assertions that are of a familiar liberal strain. Some of the details are interesting.

My reading of the message in Gita also differs from both yours and Amartya's. In fact, if anything, Krishna seems to goad Arjuna to act without caring for consequences, in a place beyond attachments to any group or individuals. He preaches the creed of action beyond all mortal considerations of life and death, for the cause of justice. Thats why the superhuman effort. In my interpretation, the message also shows Arjuna that the scope of such action goes beyond all good and evil, while still retaining what can perhaps be called a kind of morality that is born out of action - the warrior's dharma. The identity of the true warrior is not different from his dharma. This is not to say that the message has not been interpreted either to justify or to recall the terror caused by destructive acts. Amartya Sen quotes Robert J. Oppenheimer, the scientist who invented the nuclear bomb quoting from the Gita to describe the terror unleashed by the bomb on Hiroshima, all in support of a "just cause." US government routinely plays the game of good cop vs. bad cop with rougue states of its invention. Good versus Evil - another simplistic interpretation. Peace/Good was not realistically a choice for Arjuna. The war was forced upon him along with the rest of the Pandavas. What was left to him was to follow the warrior's course of action, in a place beyond good and evil (it does not mean that his actions were morally exempt, but that his actions were guided by the virtue of action itself when faced with unjust and oppressive circumstances). That definition or interpretation of Arjuna's role as the warrior who acts is free of ideological confines precisely because it does not serve any ideology primarily, but seeks to be manifested through action. Karma Yoga. Arjuna was no mere follower. In fact, he was the main actor. Action is thus always better than words, in the truest and best sense. krishna's words prevented Arjuna from wallowing in depression or co(a)g(o)nizing over something he had no real control over and brought him to play a part in shaping the consequences, by raising the status of action to a "dharma."