Thursday, October 6, 2011

VASUDAIVA KUTUMBAM

“ Vasudaiva Kutumbam”   is a beautiful Sanskrit phrase which  means – “The whole world is my family”.  It refers to the concept of inclusion.  In fact when I did a small research on the internet about the ancient Hindu philosophy and its thoughts on inclusion I found that the Hitopadesha says in  verse 1.3.71 that  it is only a very narrow minded person who thinks “ This is my relative and that is a stranger” ! But it is sad that despite the fact that our ancient texts speak about community living and inclusion, we are repeatedly guilty of exclusion.

 So, what is it that excludes a person from a sense of community? Yes, caste and religion are important exclusionary factors which tells you who is accepted and who is not. But what about factors that integrate-  a shared language or culture? Does that work for us?

I have tried to analyze this using the examples from two states in India that I am reasonably familiar with – Bengal and Tamil Nadu. It does not in any way indicate a bias either positive or negative. It is just because I have had personal experiences of inclusion and exclusion within these two cultures that I am using them as illustrations.
I grew up in Bengal spending the first fifteen years of my life there. I try to recollect whether I was in any way excluded by the fact that I was not a Bengali. I don’t think so. In fact, people used to take every effort to include me in everything.  I  found something very unique about Bengal- the pride in the language was so strong that it really succeeded in bringing people together. You can see this by the way Bengalis across the world celebrate Durga Puja- every Bengali ( and some others like me.. ) comes together to celebrate this festival in the true spirit of community living. It is very interesting but the festival is probably more cultural than religious . Though I guess only Hindus celebrate it, I have never sensed a feeling of caste based exclusion in any of this ( though I guess the rich poor division may be there to some extent) in all the forty odd years that I have seen this festival being celebrated. Language is used so strongly to build the sense of  identity  as a community it is to be seen and experienced to be believed! Bengalis probably are the only people who have not taken yet to speaking in English at home. With language being the common denominator that binds them, it is only natural that people take pride in  what is accepted as a common culture.  As far as I understand there is no system of mainstream of subaltern cultures. Infact language and culture extends across boundaries with Tagore and Nazrul being accepted by Bengalis on both sides of the border. Food, again is fairly homogenous- there is no concept of caste based vegetarianism – every body eats “ Machh Bhat” ( rice and fish)  “ The state has had a history of social movements” say some of my friends with whom I have discussed this. True but social movements alone cannot build inclusion !

Let us look at Tamil Nadu. It is very strange but this state is probably more pluralistic than we think it is. For example- there is a strong caste based divide – Brahmin vs Non Brahmin. Then I guess there are religious divisions too. It is funny but even Tamil as a language is caste specific. The Tamil that a Tam Brahm speaks is completely different from what the rest of the state speaks ( this .. even after discounting for regional dialects which are only but natural).  This therefore becomes the first layer of exclusion.  If you speak the Tam Brahm lingo and you are in a non Brahmin setting you are marked as someone different and if you do not speak this lingo in a Brahmin setting you are seen as a “not one of us” ! Culture therefore becomes very fragmented. You have Carnatic music which is largely patronized by the Brahmins unlike Rabindrasangeet or Nazrul Geet which is sung by all Bengalis- Hindu or Muslim – Indian or Bangladeshi! In fact I have seen some Carnatic music teachers hesitate to take as their students people belonging to other castes and  religions!

There are no festivals which are celebrated as a community.   Pongal is a harvest festival but really, it is more an individual celebration and again the importance varies depending on whether you belong to a caste that has strong agrarian roots or not. Of course if you are a Christian or Muslim your festivals are defined by your religion- but what amazes me is that even among Hindus within the state there is nothing that passes for a common festival that can be celebrated together as a community!

It is surprising but this state which also had a social movement in the 1960s did not actually succeed in doing away with caste based divisions and issues that social movements are generally expected to. If anything it only succeeded in accentuating caste divides. It tried to bring about what it called a “ Dravidian” identity but sadly.. this identity continues to perpetuate caste. The movement targeted a particular caste which migrated out into other states and now other countries . In terms of numbers this so called upper caste is  probably a very small minority in the state now. They continue to practice caste based discrimination but their decision to opt out from the power hierarchy  has just diminished this sense of the “ other” that was being attacked. They are just too insignificant now..! But has this stopped caste atrocities in this state? No- Scheduled castes continue to be terrorized and denied temple entry in districts like Sivagangai. The “ oppressor” caste has only been replaced by another.

There is this concept that we hear of in sociology which says “ self exclusion” . This comes as a reaction to “ forced inclusion” which the Central Government sought to do through introduction ( it is often referred to as “ imposition” )of Hindi. In its efforts to fight  “ Hindi” the state became very jingoistic about its language and its culture- the concept of what is called the “ radical left becoming like the radical right” So what we have now is a completely closed mind to accepting anything that is not Tamil. Even FM radio in Tamil Nadu does not play Hindi songs..!! How is this state going to survive in a market economy which calls for dealing with people from different places and cultures?

Now coming back to this thing about the whole world being my family how is it possible if we are not able to come together using what are considered relatively neutral variables like language and culture? From a lived experience I can say that though I am a Tamilian by birth ,the kind of discrimination that I have experienced in this state as a so called native is something I never experienced in Bengal.  So I guess I am a stranger here! I have been trying for ages to understand what constitutes a Tamil identity and I am still struggling..!

While I am not saying that all is hunky dory with Bengal.. but at least I can say with confidence that some of these  parameters of exclusion are not practiced so publicly and there are therefore lesser divides! I know that wearing a Jamdani sari would not make someone Bengali just as putting jasmines on one’s hair makes a person Tamil.. And what is more worrying is that if we are not able to come together in terms of a shared identity even within one sub culture then what are our chances of accepting a person who is not part of it? So, obviously the whole world is not going to be my family! We are constantly going to define ourselves by defining the other!

The concept of inclusion defines a society as broad minded.  If we are proud of our culture we should try to include as many as possible within it. What is so special about it that it has to be kept away and protected by Iron gates from that  “stranger” ?


16 comments:

Rahul said...

Hmmmm.....but Meera,like it or not,people will always form groups.Cultural differences is not the only basis for people banding together and excluding others.There are several other reasons.The main thing is a group of people usually come together and exclude others when it serves some benefit for them.That's all.It's human nature.

anilkurup said...

A very interesting analysis of a topic ignored by many. Please note my observations on the subject. First the question of inclusiveness in social thinking and practises. This is not going to happen. It is not a endemic disease confined to the sub continent, in fact it is a universal scourge. You can see it everywhere in many countries and in many societies. With the scores of caste, sub castes, tribes, languages, dialects and of course above all religions it is only a maverick piece of good luck that India survives politically. There has never been a political India in the present form. Whatever that has been patched up before has been the outcome of wars, conquests and coercion.

Take the question of the former West and East Pakistan. The reason for the federation failing was despite of religious bond - language and culture that was outside religion.

Language policy in Tamilnad is myopic. Though at a point the Central government touted the wrong policy of forcing an alien language on the State, the State must have taken the wise policy followed by a tiny country like the Netherlands .Where people understood that with a miniscule of the world population Dutch lingo alone will get them nowhere. They teach besides the mother tongue, English and one other language which is optional like Spanish, French or German and even Russian. The Dravidian politicians were scoring cheap brownie points by throwing out Hindi or relegating it.

As for the castes in Tamilnad and its influence – the matter is politically kept alive. I lived in Tamilnad for twenty years and being someone from Kerala and a non Bhramin I did not feel the rough side of casteism or of Dravidian narrow minded .And again parochial ideas did exist mostly cultivated by political interests, the distinction between a Tamil and a Keralite or other.

All said and done the problems you mentioned are here to stay and unfortunately so. It has been existing elsewhere in the developing and undeveloped world. The former Baltic states is a cruel example. African tribal societies too. Why even in the USA all is not glowing even though the Kul Klux Clan is gone.

Tomz said...

A very thoughtful read. It is very curious to see that the inclusion-exclusion parameters mentioned in this post exist in almost everywhere. If the sages had asked us to consider everyone into a single family through the sukta 'vasudaiva kudumbakam', that was because they knew it was not an easy task..

indianhomemaker said...

Brilliant post!! Nothing to add, I completely agree.
Will be following the discussion in the comments.

KParthasarathi said...

A brilliant analysis.

Vasudaiva kutumbakam-the world is my country,all mankind my bretheren et al is balderdash-we deceive ourselves with such cliches when every country in the world is highly self centred protecting its own nterests and aggrandising to have control over the scarce natural resources and world economy.What applies to countries applies at smaller level to our states each making its claim.

India with 1.2 billion population, unlike other countries is divided on the basis of religion , language, caste and subcaste, culture,dress modes,colour of the skin and pronounced differences in facial and physical characteristics as between a Southerner and Northerner.These provide ready reasons to distinguish one from the other.Despite such wide differences and diversity how is it we are still pulling along together as a country ?Why the clamour for a Dravidasthan or a Khalistahn in the past have never found favour amongst the larger sections.What is it that binds this disparate groups? Let bus see.

No doubt there is always the comfort and security in numbers and little wonder people of same identity join together much like the trade unions to safeguard the employees interests..It could be caste, clan religion or language but can also extend to the native place like Tanjoreans or Tirunelvellites
The sense of belonging within each such group can be strong ,though there can be conflicts within the group much like we Pandavas are five against 100 Kauravas but 105 against common enemy.. The individual self-interest may be relegated to the larger interests of the group.

Much of the problem of divisiveness has its origin in the political system we have adopted for a largely illiterate country.People have realised that political power vests control over the system and that to achieve this power the votes have to be garnered from vote banks split on the basis of individual identity based on religion,caste,area.The parties have mushroomed on such separate identities spewing venom on others even where there is no cause like north/South or Aryan/Dravidian or marathi /non marathi.

To wield influence over their vote base Hindus need the scare of muslims and vice versa,dalits the scare of upper classes,the havenots the fear of the haves,non Hindi the hegemony of Hindi,Telengana of the non Telengana region and so on for each group to define itself and to reatain its own identity.To retain the power of the groups and to remain relevant they need the 'Other" to fight.The 'other' provides the raison d'etre for their existence.So no group would like to destroy the 'other' but need them to remain relevant to their vote banks

May be if illiteracy is banished and the voters are educated with discerning powers, the tricks of the politicos to divide and rule may lose their power.But I am not sanguine about such an outcome not atleast in my life time.

I took time to make this long comment.Pl bear with me

kpartha12@gmail.com

Cloud Nine said...

Wonderful analysis. You brought out what i have been pondering for a long time. "Inclusion" is something that Tamils never do...if you travel down South, you will understand how the caste divide is widening even these days...Sad state. Bengalis sure win here!

Meera Sundararajan said...

Dear All,
When I wrote this post I was a little unsure about how it would be perceived. But I am glad that all of you feel similarly. I specially thank Anil Kurup and Partha for the long comment because it has brought out your views of the subject really well. I agree that the political system needs to keep alive the idea of divisiveness to survive. I try to think whether decades of Communist rule in Bengal had anything to do with limiting the importance of caste ( as the party per se is based on the ideology of equality) but I am not sure because the same party influence cannot be seen in Kerala.

Juxtaposition said...

This is a really powerful post. Its my first time here. I was nodding my head while I was reading this. Honestly, I have never lived long enough in India to see this inclusion and exclusion. But I have seen how various communities group separately here to celebrate their festivals. Even among the communities, there is a caste and religion divide, here too. But honestly I haven't been in a typical Bengali crowd or typical Tamilian crowd to know whether they have these divides too. But I think they do, we just don't know about it much.

vaidegi j said...

very well thought out and presented post, as always. Makes us feel very frivolous and depth-less! :)

Well, one part of me, as a Tamilian wants to defend, but then I have never been really a part of Tamil society, as an adult. So my points cannot be valid. Was in Maharashtra for 14 years, and now in Kuwait. So have always been subjected to thoughts of 'alienation'. Sometimes yearn for the feeling of 'namma / sondha ooru'. But your post sort of upsets all those (mebe preconceived) notions! You have seen both the worlds, a contrast sorts, where you expected to be alienated and you were not, and where you expected to be accepted, you were not.

But again I feel, mebe when in a 'foreign' land, even small gestures of acceptance, is acknowledged and treasured, as I find myself doing sometimes. I am not sure about this, just airing my thoughts.

Enjoy the analysis and your view points, and the ensuing comments too.

Meera Sundararajan said...

@ Juxtaposition, welcome to my blog. Hope to see you here more often :) I am glad that you echo what I feel. @ Vaidegi,, I dont know about you, but as they say home is where the heart is. So our sondha ooru is where our heart takes us.. the whole world should ideally be my family! I have never lived abroad but I hear from my friends who live abroad that Indians pe se do not come together just like that - there are north indian and south indian divides even in the USA !!!!

Destination Infinity said...

Nice, detailed and clear analysis. But I do see a certain commonality among all that sub-division - The strong identity of being a Tamilian and the pride they have for their language.

I do see people in TN being agitated as a whole about issues concerning injustice to Tamilians in Sri Lanka / Other parts of the world/ India. There are certain Tamil dominated areas that are present in Bangalore / Mumbai, etc. Yes, they do tend to stick together at least outside Tamil Nadu. Even within TN, they have demonstrated a strong sense of unity when it comes to certain issues like Hindi domination, etc. Even during elections, they tend to take a unanimous stance on which party needs to come to power. Its rare to see a 50-50% vote share, which happens in states like Kerala.

There maybe differences wrt each community/ caste, but on the whole they tend to be united.

(www)DestinationInfinity(org)

Indrani said...

Well, I grew up in Kerala and Onam is celebrated by all three religions there. Sometimes I am known more as a Malayali than a Bengali. :) I know fluent Tamil too and am easily taken as a south Indian.
All these groupism stuffs exist everywhere, not just state wise or castewise. I have seen it profession wise too. It doesn't bother me much. I guess it is a part of life and it is perfectly okay with me. :)

U.V. Ajoykumar said...

Past:
Hindu Veda and Upanishads say “Tat tvam asi” (you are that-God) and “Aham Brahmasmi” (I am God). They teach equality and self realization and not hatred.

Our ancestors also made ‘varnashrama’ (classification of caste on the basis of the work they do) according to the social set up prevailed at that time. They have done it for the betterment of society and not with a narrow mind. We cannot evaluate their acts according to the parameters and indicators now we have. They might have expected one would excel in a particular skill by doing so. But the successors and the so called upper community used it for their own benefits and wrongly secluded the lower castes. The results we know.

Moreover if you see the human history, the power for possession and lust for dominance is always there. If we see their side sympathetically, it could be termed as a struggle for existence. That’s all we can argue for them.

Present:
It still continues in the form of struggle for language, race, religion and state.

Future:
You have touched the subject which is the nucleus of the Vedas. Appreciate your clarity in thought. It is nicely conveyed in your lucid language. Congrats.

And it is the desire of all of us to have a world free from seclusion in the name of community, gender, caste, religion, language and country.

Tariq Mian said...

Meera! so nice of you to share with us such a historical piece of social/societal importance.

Feeling that we the human beings are actually one family and a dream of classless society are all dream yet to come true.

We being the civilised creature, should behave as such-- otherwise animals are better than us, because they, at least, stay within their own herd of the same specie.

Seclusion of or classifying the less fortunate in the lower category are troubling realities.

I love to go for an environment, where there is no discrimination on the basis of creed , color and gender.
The disabled or the elderly deserve to be treated with respect too.

This is only possible, when we are sincere enough to implement or help promote such a wonderful "thinking" where equality to all, love for all, respect for all becomes a common availability.

Nothing is impossible, all we need is WILL.


Meera thanks again for your thought provoking post.
Keep up the inspirational work.
We are all one family.

Gayu said...

What an analysis....and I loved the way you wrote without hurting anyone's emotions.

People form groups and this happens everywhere. When I got married to a Maharashtrian, my dad and mom were tensed 'cos it was against the Pallakad Iyer community. There were many who stopped talking to me...it was a big shock for me.

There are many Iyer Mami's who don't call me for Navarathri Golu. Many start talking to me in Marathi, as they feel that I must have forgotten my Mother tongue.

Strange...isn't it??? Sometimes it hurts...but then we have to live with it.

Gayu

KParthasarathi said...

Meera,It is more than a week since you wrote.I hope all is fine

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