Learning From Covid Crisis: Let Our Lessons Come From Traditional Values, And Not From Entitlement-Based, Individualistic Ideologies 

Learning From Covid Crisis: Let Our Lessons Come From Traditional Values, And Not From Entitlement-Based, Individualistic Ideologies Hindu devotees gather before the second ‘Shahi Snan’ (grand bath) of Kumbh Mela in the Godavari river in 2015 in Nashik, India. (Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
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  • How does one maintain solidarity in a society that promotes egoism as a way of life?

    How does one think of others when he is told that the most important values under our Constitution are his rights and autonomy?

The news of a fruit-seller being robbed of his mangoes by a mob of passers-by provides us with the best indicator of where we stand as a society during this crisis.

Law can punish or change a few pathological bad apples. But incidents like this point to areas totally neglected by our political system.

They also expose the hollowness in claiming cultural credit for ancient ancestors who did large financial transactions on the strength of oral promise and villages with houses that were never locked. Today’s Indian has moved far away from that legacy.

Referring to the American slogan “we’re all in this together” during the Covid crisis, Harvard Philosopher Michael Sandel says:

Going it alone, with each of us fending for ourselves, versus hanging together, seeking solidarity. In a highly individualistic society like ours, we don’t do solidarity very well, except in moments of crisis, such as wartime. Our lack of preparedness for the pandemic reveals the lack of solidarity in our social and political life, especially in our inadequate system of public health and lack of universal access to health care and paid sick leave. This makes the sudden, ritualistic invocation of the slogan “we’re all in this together” ring hollow.

How does one maintain solidarity in a society that promotes egoism as a way of life? How does one think of others when he is told that the most important values under our Constitution are his rights and autonomy?

These are the hallmarks of our ‘liberal’ philosophy. In the judgment regarding entry of women into Sabarimala for instance, one very well-read and erudite Supreme Court judge says: “What vision of society does the Constitution envisage? The answer to these questions lies in the recognition of the individual as the basic unit of the Constitution. This view demands that existing structures and laws be viewed from the prism of individual dignity.”

This is parroting of the American approach, which Professor Sandel criticises.

Writing elsewhere, he says this self-centred idea of rights and justice has led to an American “public life, (where) we are more entangled, but less attached than ever before”.

Contrast this vision of our society with that of Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, a major contributory to our Constitution-making process.

While justifying estate abolition laws that required landlords to part with their property, he could have well used the same language of rights of the ordinary farmer, taking a confrontationist tone against the landowners.

Instead, he appeals to their Dharmic sense, saying: “Dharma and the duty which the individual owes to the society form the whole basis of our social frame-work. Dharma is the law of social well-being and varies from Yuga to Yuga. The sole end of property is Yagna and to serve a social purpose, an idea which forms the essential note of Mahatma Gandhi's life and teaching.”

In this vision, the landlord and the farmer are part of one Dharmic community.

The battle for the role of community in an individual’s life suffered a serious setback in India when our Constitution-makers rejected the Gandhian model of decentralised administration in favour of a Nehru-Ambedkarite vision.

Perhaps, that was the most practical thing to do at the time. However, the push in this direction has gone to such an extreme that we have learnt to look down upon community values as primitive and useless.

The reason why Ambedkarites saw no place for our own values in our constitutional scheme is because, in the words of JNU Scoiologist Avijit Pathak, “with sole concentration on the emancipation of the Dalits (they) refused to see beyond the oppressive doctrine of Manu in Hindu traditions.”

Coming from the same Dalit-centric viewpoint, Ambedkar famously called the Indian village “a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism”.

By expansion of these ideas to the entire political spectrum, community values became permanent enemies of individual rights.

The average Indian had his rights guaranteed under the Constitution with no need to cultivate respect for them or their communal roots.

To justify his positions, Ambedkar often quoted western philosophers and thinkers like the English utilitarian John Stuart Mill.

Dr S. Radhakrishnan diagnosed the fundamental problem in this inspiration — “almost all these English moralists (like Mill) held the nature of man to be purely egoistic.”

In his 1910 article Egoism and Altruism, Radhakrishnan finds solution in the “practical ethics of Vedanta”.

He says, “Vedanta explains by this spiritual oneness why we should love our neighbour as ourselves. If you injure your neighbour you injure yourself. The vedantic explanation is the practical recognition of a positive fact that we are all bound up together as sharers of the same eternal life.”

C. Rajagopalachari said, “the culture in India has been rooted in Vedanta. Whatever courage, heroism, self-sacrifice or greatness is to be found in our history or seen in the lives of our people has sprung from Vedanta, which is in our blood and tradition. For Vedanta is undoubtedly a living philosophy of life in India, which is part of the mental structure of our people.”

Does this spirit of self-sacrifice survive in our “blood and tradition” today?

For every individual or organisation working to alleviate this crisis, there were large groups displaying remarkable selfishness.

Be it in the form of non-adherence to quarantine guidelines or protests against burial of Covid victims in neighbourhoods, the Vedantic spirit of brotherhood and self-sacrifice remained alien to large sections of our society.

This is because we have naively come to accept the distinction between the secular and communal, except where the later subserves the former like in the case of yoga for health or temple-visits for prosperity.

Consequently we have forgotten Swami Vivekananda’s famous exhortation — “Conceptions of the Vedanta must come out, must remain not only in the forest, not only in the cave, but they must come out to work at the bar and the bench, in the pulpit, and in the cottage of the poor man, with the fishermen that are catching fish, and with the students that are studying.”

Regaining the path in this direction may be the key to dealing with any future crisis.

The Vedantic approach also belies a major premise of Western economists regarding ethical behaviour — that feelings of altruism, generosity and self-sacrifice are limited in human beings and, therefore, need to be used only when market-forces breakdown, such as during the present crisis.

The nobel laureate-economist Kenneth Arrow says, “I do not want to rely too heavily on substituting ethics for self-interest. I think it best on the whole that the requirement of ethical behaviour be confined to those circumstances where the price system breaks down. We do not wish to use up recklessly the scarce resources of altruistic motivation.”

Contrast this with Swami Vivekananda’s Dharmic prescription “the more you give, the more will come to you. A river is continually emptying itself into the ocean and is continually filling up again. Bar not the exit into the ocean. The moment you do that, death seizes you.”

So if one needs to look for lessons from the present crisis in India, she may have to search in corners left untouched by our ‘liberal’ political philosophy.

After the first phase of the Covid lockdown the Prime Minister said, “rural India has channelled our traditional values to combat the pandemic in a way that astounds those with fancy degrees from abroad.”

If this is true, may be it is from these ‘traditional values’ that we need to learn our lessons for a post-Covid world and not from Yuval Noah Harari’s individual-centric fears of surveillance or economic strategies to exploit weakened countries.

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