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Snapshot
  • The wrong but fashionable idea that all nations desire Western-style democracy was one motivation for the American invasion of Iraq that, in turn, created ISIS with its untold attendant horrors.

    The West insists on using its categories and refuses to engage with the migrants on their own terms.

    Interaction between cultures without mutual understanding can lead to disaster.

Ideas have consequences. The wrong but fashionable idea that all nations desire Western-style democracy was one motivation for the American invasion of Iraq that, in turn, created ISIS with its untold attendant horrors.

It is also a politically correct but wrong idea that all cultures see the world the same way and that is preventing Europe from finding a solution to the problem of refugees streaming into it. To interact creatively with another culture requires understanding of the other. But the West insists on using its categories and refuses to engage with the migrants on their own terms.

Europe -the West-has pretensions that its culture is in some ways universal since modern science emerged there and American pop culture holds the entire world in thrall. In fact it is just one particular window on reality that is primarily based on a materialistic and consumerist approach to life.

Specifically, the embrace of the post-industrial West is contingent on the rejection of traditional practices and beliefs and acceptance of individual freedom that is unfettered by social custom. Those who wish to destroy the West hate this freedom as well as the West’s values, art, and mores, although they may love its comforts.

Interaction between cultures without mutual understanding can lead to disaster. The Aztecs and the Inca did not have an understanding of the categories of the Spaniards whereas the Spaniards had a good sense of their enemy.

This asymmetry of knowledge made it possible for Hernán Cortés with just a few hundred soldiers to defeat the Aztec Empire in 1521, and twelve years later Francisco Pizarro with a similarly small group conquered the Inca Empire. There is no absolute reality that is wholly a product of nature.

A culture is like a lens through which people construct their understanding. This happens both with the vocabulary of the language of the culture as well its myths, rituals, manners, and history. If a specific concept has no word in a particular language then that concept is unlikely to play an important role in the politics and social customs of that culture.

The arts are a good place to see the deeper influence of the collective mind of a people. The arts of the Chinese and the Japanese deal with nature both in painting and poetry and there are important traditions of landscape painting in both cultures.

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The Japanese haiku uses the simplest happenings in nature to communicate deep felt experience and insight as in these famous haiku (17-syllable poem) by Basho (1644-1694):

an ancient pond / a frog jumps in / the splash of water

now then, let’s go out / to enjoy the snow... until / I slip and fall!

The Indian arts are based on Puranic themes and abstractions removed from ordinary lived life, and much of Indian poetry is mystical and religious. When the Turks ruled India, the disenfranchised elite retreated into Tantra, esoteric philosophy, and epic poetry.

On the other hand, the educated Chinese, who were barred from high government jobs during the Mongol Yuan dynasty, had literary gatherings in their estates that were commemorated in natural paintings with the code that the prosperous house will be represented by a thatched hut.

Language and culture affects how we perceive and create our world. The simplest example of this is the experience of color. There are languages in which there are no separate words for green and blue, and the same word refers to either of the two, based on the context. When shown a set of several cards that are green with one exception that is blue, viewers are not able to pick out the one that stands apart.

William Gladstone, who was the prime minister of Great Britain four separate times in the 19th Century, was also a classicist who wrote a book on Homeric language. He noted that Homeric poetry hardly ever used the word for blue, using porphyreos, “purple” or “dark red,” to describe blood, a dark cloud, a wave, and a rainbow, and oinops (“wine-looking”) when speaking of the sea. Gladstone suggested that the ancient Greeks used colors mainly in terms of light/dark contrasts, rather than in terms of hue.


William Ewart Gladstone

William Ewart Gladstone

Sanskrit has a similar ambiguity, but between green and yellow-golden. The principal words used for green are harit, palāśa, śyāmavarṇa , whereas those for yellow-golden are hari, hiraṇya, pīta, gauraḥ, haridrābhāḥ. The same word hari represents both green and yellow (golden), and hari for golden in Sanskrit is like zari in Persian.

All this doesn’t mean that the ancients were either deficient in their usage of words or colorblind. The convention for the use of adjectives was different. Plants (and other objects) were associated with one color-name, which meant green initially but changed to yellow when ripe. The same object could be used to denote a variety of colors.

The transition from the complexity of meaning in the ancient world to a more definite one is one hallmark of our modern times. This transition parallels an emphasis away from contextual definition to one that is stand-alone. If in the ancient one derived comfort and happiness in family and community, in the modern one must find these in oneself.

The idea of sensate pleasure has to a large degree replaced happiness. But these pleasures often come with loneliness, which is made worse in the age of the Internet where personal social interactions have lessened.

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The migrant, who has left traditional society and entered the West, is soon dismayed by the isolation of the life. While he sees that the individual has freedom and possessions indicate success, he is frustrated by the complex web of rules that must be negotiated to move ahead in life.

It is not that only the migrant is disoriented. The unprecedented changes in society have also created dislocation in old communities which explains the current meth, heroin, and painkiller medicine epidemic sweeping the West.

Some argue that the demeaning of the West’s own spiritual tradition by the elites has much exacerbated the problem. Others argue that what is needed to deal with the uncertainty of modern life is a relationship with one’s own true self, and the cry for this explains the ever-growing popularity of yoga.

Not knowing the way to relate to a world that looks so orderly and beautiful on the surface but is frightening deeper down, it is easy for many to be swept off their feet by heroic stories of conquest and martyrdom.

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