June 22, 2016

Homi K. Bhabha, Ayesha Jalal, and Geevarghese Mar Osthathios

Saturday, July 09, 2005

The Quest for Beauty


A man cannot smell the difference between two perfumes and match two colours at the same time. Many people like to shut their eyes when listening to music. When carried away with a great emotion on the battlefield, the soldier does not feel his wounds; neither can he reason. Even though our body does things mechanically, yet any great emotion or intellectual effort will stop its habit. This is shown by the pipe of the smoker so often going out directly as he begins to think. The reader of an exciting tale does not hear when he is spoken to. It seems then that it is very difficult to use fully these seven senses at the same time. We do not use our senses enough.

The eye can be trained as well as the ear. Some people can magnify far better with the eye than can be done with any instrument. Some people hear music when others hear only a noise. The sense of touch has been developed in a most marvellous manner in Helen Keller. As for our moral and intellectual senses, we have only just started to use them. New habits are acquired, lived through, and at last thrown away as useless and worn out…The being would see that we are practically stationary, and wonder what it was that kept us fixed in the one place. There are two things that keep us at one spot, and those two things are: Habit and Shame. We are all chained to one spot by Habit. Professor William James, in his famous essay on Habit, says:

It keeps the fisherman and the deck-hand at sea through the winter; it holds the miner in his darkness, and nails the countryman to his log cabin and his lonely farm through all the months of snow; it protectsus from invasion by the natives of the desert and the frozen zone. It dooms us all to fight out the battle of life upon the lines of our nurture or our early choice, and to make the best of a pursuit that disagrees, because there is no other for which we are fitted, and it is too late to begin again. It keeps different social strata from mixing. Already at the age of twenty-five you see the professional mannerism settling down on the young commercial traveller, on the young doctor, on the young minister, on the young counsellor-at-law. You see the little lines of cleavage running through the character, the tricks of thought, the prejudices, from which the man can by and by no more escape than his coat sleeve can suddenly fall into a new set of folds. On the whole it is best that he should not escape. It is well for the world that in most of us, by the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again.

Thus habits are the chains that hold us to one spot, in one earth-life, on the path of Evolution; they prevent us falling back, and they prevent us going forward. We get so used to these chains, that we think we cannot live without them. If by any chance we throw a few of them off and leave the beaten track of our companions, then we get an unpleasant sensation. When we leave the moral atmosphere in which this host of souls is living, we get this unpleasant sensation; we have entered the atmosphere of shame. We may escape our habits and walk either up or down; if we walk downwards, then we feel a hot wave of shame; if we travel upwards, then we feel an unpleasant sensation of a cold, cutting wind; we miss the warm atmosphere of public approbation.

Every would-be pioneer has felt this unpleasant sensation, this atmosphere of shame. Sometimes he goes back to the spot where his companions are herded together. He becomes a .good. man, lives in comfort, never does anything wrong, anything different from his companions; he never does anything to feel ashamed about. Another pioneer, perhaps, does not go back; having thrown off his chains he stays in the atmosphere of shame and starts to climb the mountainside. He has left the warm atmosphere of public opinion, and the cold clean air blows on him. But after a little time he becomes acclimatized to the new position he has taken up and he no longer feels the unpleasant sensation, he does not feel the atmosphere of shame, he becomes a pioneer, he becomes impudent.
Beauty can be perceived by the seven senses and it can be defined as that which helps man forward on the path of evolution. Habit and shame tend to keep him to onespot, while beauty entices him upward...We are all at different stages in our path of evolution. It is said in Theosophical literature that there exist seven rays along which nature is evolving. If that is true, then we all differ, in addition to the above reasons, because we are on different rays: being so different one from another it is obvious that we cannot force a man to see a certain beauty or truth that may be quite visible to ourselves.

There is another way of looking at the quest for beauty. Because we do not see beauty in a thing, it does not therefore follow that the beauty is lacking: it may be our sense that is imperfect. In his essay The Realization of Beauty, Rabindranath Tagore explains that at one time in our evolution our acquaintance with beauty was in her dress of motley colours that affected us with their stripes and feathers. But as our acquaintance with beauty grew, we found it in a more subtle form, and now it has no need to excite us with loud noise; it has renounced violence, and appeals to our hearts .with the truth that it is meekness that inherits the earth.. We now find beauty more in the unassuming harmony of common objects, than in things startling in their singularity. We can see that it is our narrowness of perception that labels a thing ugly or beautiful. We begin to see things detached from our self-interest; we begin to realize that in time we shall see Beauty everywhere as the mystics do. Theosophy is the art of finding beauty in Everything.

The Theosophist
May 1916, April 2004 

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Swadheenata: Lost in translation

Sunday, October 16, 2005
Let us turn to Bipin Chandra Pal, one of the foremost political thinkers of modern India. He wrote, nearly a century ago, that unlike the European conception of freedom, the word swadheenata was not a negative but a positive ideal; it enjoined on Indians more than the task of attaining political independence from alien rule. The opposite of paradheenata (subjection by an external power), he argued, is not anadheenata (non-subjection). ‘‘Swadheenanta (self-subjection) does not mean absence of restraint or regulation or dependence, but self-restraint, self-regulation and self-dependence. Indeed, our understanding of swadheenata means a good deal more than what even the terms self-restraint, self-regulation and self-dependence would convey in English.’’ How?
This is where the root Sanskrit word ‘‘swa’’ (self) in India’s social and spiritual philosophy soars to nearly unsurpassable heights. Swa refers to multiple conjoined entities and identities. It is synonymous with the individual self, the family self, the community self, the national self, the self of humankind and ultimately the universal self. ‘‘Swadheenata,’’ Pal writes, ‘‘means, really and truly, subjection to the universal. The complete identification of the individual with the universal, in every conscious relation of his life, is, thus, with us an absolute condition-precedent of the attainment of swadheenata.’’ Therefore, individual, family, community, class, race, ethnicity, and nation can all relate harmoniously with each other by realising their common links to and common obligations towards all of humanity. Yet, each, including humanity itself, must submit itself willingly to the all powerful and all-empowering universal self.
(A pertinent thought here: Doesn’t Islam too mean ‘‘submission to God’’? Doesn’t Islam also talk about the sovereignty of Allah being superior to the sovereignty of humanity or its constituent nations? Eminent Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal’s masterly book Self and Sovereign has many ideas that resonate with those of great modern Indian seers like Bipin Chandra PalTagore and Gandhiji. Of course, there are significant divergences too.)

Tuesday, July 19, 2005


Book Review
The Hindu, July 6, 2004
authored by Dr. Geevarghese Mar Osthathios
The author is a well-known theologian and a former student of Reinhold Niebur and Paul Tillich. Understandably, he has been influenced by the liberal theology of his teachers and this is reflected in his works.

The reader gets introduced to the ideas of thinkers such as Paul Freire and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and also to Indian theologicans such as V. Chakkarai Chettiar and P. Chenchiah. He points out that in our times many of those who oppose oppression do not realise that they control the means of production and the mass media that help exploitative outfits. He mentions that some of the greatest Christian hymns were written by slave trading planters aboard the ships that transported the slaves to the U.S. He also says that in the last 2000 years the Church has supported slavery, feudalism and capitalism.

He argues, quoting Max Weber, that accumulation of wealth in a few hands arose from the protestant work ethics, from Luther and Calvin. Though the Bishop's ideology is progressive and liberal, his writings lack focus and force. If one were to trace the main emphasis of his writings it is on a classless society. He points out that capitalism has created an unbridgeable gulf between the employer and the workers and has led to the exploitation of natural resources unto a danger point. The path he shows to a classless society is through parliamentary democracy, legislative activism and through love. While talking about the possibility of a classless society, he says "any true Christian theology is a theology of a classless society." May be, but he fails to grapple with the issue of caste within the church.
Most Indian theologians have swept this issue under the carpet. In fact one of the failures of the Church in India is that it has failed to address this issue of caste within the church. He addresses his books to believers and assumes faith in a transcendental God on the part of the readers. To that extent the appeal of his writings will remain limited.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Thought process will evolve

The Hindu
Monday, Sep 26, 2005

Atal Bihari Vajpayee said that thinking was
An evolutionary process that could not be curbed
Our friends have made an attempt to limit
The thought process. It is not necessary that all of us
Accept it [ideology] in the same form as others.

There can be no restriction on thoughts,
Which is a constantly evolving process
There should be room for fresh thoughts and ideas
It was impractical to rein in
The thought process of any individual.

It is difficult to pinpoint the final principle
Of any ideology. It is, therefore
Not right to adopt an attitude
That what we have accepted as the final principle
Of our ideology, is the ultimate truth.

It is essential that our ideology stands the test
Of being beneficial for humankind as a whole
The thought process will evolve constantly
Exchange of ideas will also take place
The process will not come to a halt at any time.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Towards a global cultural citizenship

Homi K. Bhabha
The Hindu Literary Review [ 03.07.2005 ]
Semiotics, the theory and understanding of signs, suggests that a particular sign has a set of meanings, based on a systemic location and a discursive use of that sign. Every sign gains its meaning in a particular language system. Words have to be read in a given social context. Thus, for me, semiotics suggested that you could not ascribe universal values to literary texts. You had to understand the burden of interpretation and the burden of representation on those specific texts.

I am interested in the global context of the issue of global citizenship. Citizenship has largely been seen in its social, political and legal aspects. How does aesthetic and ethical experience form part of cultural citizenship? Sociologists and policy thinkers think of culture in the context of global governance and of culture as institutions. I believe cultural works ignite the issue of the cultural citizen.

In a world that is increasingly instrumentalist and consumerist, I think it is very important to set up against such a world the great aspirations of literature and poetry, of painting and music, because art and aesthetic experience adds ardour and passion to our principles and our beliefs. It should be seen as an essential part of our freedom and not an optional part of our lives.

Comments: Homi K. Bhaba pines for a global cultural citizenship, even as he avers that every sign gains its meaning in a particular language system and words have to be read in a given social context. Thus, you could not ascribe universal values to literary texts. Further, as regards using difficult words and complex formulations, he says that I use the language I need for my work. So, given the diversity of cultures and languages, can a global cultural citizenship crystalise? [TNM55]

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