Learning and Happiness: Sketches for an Alternative Theorization of Indian Sociality

Learning and Happiness: Sketches for an Alternative Theorization of Indian Sociality

Responsiveness and the assimilation of truth

To say India has become indistinct is to say that the actional frame has become dormant, that it has, as I put it, become dispositional. We are no longer able to learn/teach what Tagore calls the “assimilation of truth.” To become distinct again or make India more one’s own is to understand how to assimilate truth as one goes about in different domains. The fact is that the actional frame which has made possible the kind of example Tagore gives illustrating the rhythm of life, dharma, has so completely fractured that it does not organize the saliences of our sociality anymore, nor does it have the resources to create new practitional matrices. But, of course, it is present in some form since, if it were not, the task would be nearly as impossible as making the quasi-cognitive evaluative frame our own. Tagore’s (and Gandhi’s) conviction was that the practices are still intact enough for them to take the route of re-articulation or re-elaboration rather than learning a new system like the one colonialism brought in: the quasi cognitive-evaluative frame. The central insight of their reflection may well be that the latter, and the concepts and baggage that come with, it are not learnable in the sense of “assimilation of truth.” Far from allowing for our responsiveness, they insulate our experience from our reflection. So Tagore’s (and Gandhi’s) demand that the intellectual centre and economic centre should not be separated. What about politics? Gandhi is clear there can be no separation there either. But Tagore? Tagore, as I have shown, should agree, but he insists on the autonomy of economics (and by implication politics too?). He seems not to understand what satyagraha is all about—that it is a way to resist that very separation. Tagore’s concern that India had become indistinct is therefore related to the frame argument; and he too sees it that way and yet succumbs to the framing effect himself in his argument with Gandhi. He is the one who forcefully shows how Indian sociality must be regarded from the actional frame, how the Indian past should not be regarded through the conception of history, how the liberty that anchors the western institutions is not the freedom emerging through minutely regulated practices – that which the actional frame makes possible.

I have developed the matrix idea as a framework that presents what is deeply convergent in the thinking of Gandhi and Tagore. The convergent frame enables us to situate the very frame that has generated the problem. It does so by showing how the conceptuality that comes with the quasi-cognitive-evaluative frame – whether it is political concepts or caste-system and other such “entities” – blocks our responsiveness to the conceptual world that was/is ours[12]. We can begin to understand what goes wrong when that responsiveness is missing or when we suffer from a loss of concepts and conceptual capacities.

It is not only that we had “hit upon the device” of getting things cheap “by proudly conducting our beggary in threatening tone,” not only that we were “ecstatic” because “everything worth having in the political market was ticketed at half-price,” [13]the indifference to the quality of what we were getting, to the nature of the pursuit – scientific, artistic or political – that we were only imitating, was concealed by the assumption of the quasi-cognitive-evaluative frame. Parasitism therefore did not involve only rent-seeking, or creaming off, or brokerage of Western agencies (as Gandhi put it), it had to block off the reflection on ends that was part of the actional frame. It’s only when the language of modern economics or politics comes in that it becomes justifiable to say let “the language of economic science” decide what we produce, or the language of politics – of political liberty – decide what institutional arrangement we should have. The reinforcement of the one by the other, the dependence of the one on the other could only be interrupted and functioning of the parasitic structure fully revealed only if the actional frame could be activated. As Tagore remarks, where we do not understand we cannot be just and where truth is imperfect love can never have its full sway. But if we are not able to resist and break the link between the structure of parasitism and the quasi-cognitive-evaluative frame, we will only be imitating the western pursuits, whether in the sciences, the arts, or in other domains, becoming more obscure to itself, and will gradually lose the cognitive ability to perceive this state of affairs too. Gandhi’s satyagraha, the attempt to set up sites of ethical learning was a concerted attempt to break that link and reveal the structure of parasitism. Tagore had seen that too:

But before Asia is in a position to co-operate with the culture of Europe, she must base her own structure on a synthesis of all the different cultures which she has. When taking her stand on such a culture, she turns toward the West, she will take with a confident sense of mental freedom, her own view of truth, from own vantage-ground, and open a new vista of thought to the world. Otherwise, she will allow her priceless inheritance to crumble into dust, and, trying to replace it clumsily with feeble imitations of the West, make herself superfluous, cheap and ludicrous. If she loses her individuality and her specific power to exist, will it in the least help the rest of the world? Will not her terrible bankruptcy involve also the Western mind? If the whole world grows at last into an exaggerated West, then such an illimitable parody of modern age will die, crushed beneath its own absurdity.[14]

Unfortunately, the feeble imitation of the West has come to stay, whichever domain we take, no longer feeble in the drive to be western-like, becoming more ludicrous by the day. Or so it appears. Gandhi was the more consistent thinker who had no doubt that unless the actional frame and the experiential truth it make possible provides the matrix to assimilate the pursuits we want to learn from the West by grasping and rethinking its deepest insights and discoveries, we will only be parasites and this parasitism, linked as it is to cognitive enslavement (indeed made possible by it), will in the end leave the actional frame without any nourishment[15]. So Gandhi’s charkha whose underlying truth, he said, the educated India still has not assimilated is not a fact, not just avidya; nor for that matter non-cooperation and swadeshi just facts. They were attempts to render India distinct so as to gain her in truth. It is difficult then to see how Tagore could have disagreed with Gandhi, but disagree he does, even at the cost of inconsistency, which he does not see because of the framing effect of colonialism. Once the insulation of the frames kicks in, there can no more be any responsiveness to the conceptual world of practical life. And the conceptuality that comes through the quasi-cognitive-evaluative frame is only capable of being deployed or used for manipulation. Tagore does not pause to examine his desire to see reason reinstated; reason is evidently in the service of holding in place the quasi-cognitive-evaluative frame, and from that frame the kind of reasoning/reflection involved in the actional frame, in the reflective shaping of the practitional matrix that unites persons and ends, the assimilation of truth into the rhythm of life and relationship, is not even recognizable as reason/reflection. That’s the point Gandhi is making when he says that the educated Indian mind has not assimilated the truth of charkha (so it cannot be said to be truly educated, as Tagore had pointed out in his discussion of the villagers’ dharma).

Reflection and practical form of life

How to rediscover or how to reinvent the deepest rhythms of the practical life is the common question facing both these thinkers. Whether it is to learn to act again, relearn the conceptual surrounds of the actional frame, or whether it is to relearn how to train desire and re-elaborate sociality – festivals of seasons, of places, ancestors, gods, and Tagore’s attempt to sing their significance into being again, the issue cannot be reinstating reason. The kind of reflection needed to sustain the goings about that makes possible experiential knowledge, and truth has no bearing on whether something is scientific or not (in some scientistic sense of the term). It’s strange, then, why Tagore takes objection to Gandhi’s remark about the earthquake as unscientific. If there was anyone who could appreciate that Gandhi was not making a causal statement about the world, but engaging in reflection about a particular kind of world and the problem it was facing, it would be Tagore. Rather than trying to validate or endorse Gandhi’s remark, I simply want to undermine the impulse to call it “unscientific.” When Tagore contrasts the obscene pursuit of wealth in New York City with the wealth that Lakshmi transmutes into well-being, it would be sheer scientistic crudity to criticize him for being unscientific. Whether we feel we are able to endorse his judgement or not, we certainly cannot be thinking that there is some science that will help us decide. That has to do with the world that the actional frame brings into being. We know this graceful goddess, we know the stories about her, and we have the practice of offering puja to her. May be she helps to regard wealth in certain way, as Tagore so insightfully brings out when, elsewhere, he contrasts Lakshmi with Kubera, induces the kind of reflection on ends that practical life requires. In any case, it is to miss the point to call that remark unscientific or superstitious[16].

On all the issues that divide them, Tagore, as we have seen, is consistently inconsistent. It is because of this consistency that the two frames idea had to be invoked. That idea has a greater generality going some way toward locating, if not explaining, the predicament that Indian thought finds itself in. Sometimes, however, Tagore seems to shift the problem onto the followers of Gandhi, as though they will not see what Gandhi sees. He admits that Gandhi is truth itself rather than a walking quotation (like other intellectuals and his own compatriots), someone who has been able to speak the language of the people. Nonetheless, the people, he fears might be misled by Gandhi’s own idiom, whether that involves charkha, superstitious talk, and ascetic negativity. What he doesn’t see is that only because of such a common language that Gandhi could achieve responsiveness to the conceptual world he was certain they still accessed. For Gandhi thinking with concepts evolved from Indian thought was continuous with the effort to break with cognitive enslavement; these concepts once developed would not be simply Indian, they could be employed by anyone. The rejection of the division between economics and ethics, politics and ethics would be based on developing concepts that would show why economics and politics as they are today leads to the violence of separating persons and ends. Therefore, when I say Tagore succumbs to the framing effect of colonialism, it is to imply that somewhere Tagore is unable to sustain his effort to think with Indian concepts. The default language he reaches for is the language that saturates the colonial present (and our present too), the language that conceals the parasitic social structure which he is so critical of. Tagore’s switching between frames is instructive for us because that is our predicament too, except that Tagore, when he was in the actional frame, did create resources to both imagine and access the practical form of life whereas our recourse to it now is almost dispositional, and our view of it is from the distorting lens of the other frame[17]. Domains like economics and politics repulse reflection of the kind Gandhi and Tagore were trying to bring into being. We would rather ask if the charkha makes economic sense[18]; we do not wish to undertake an inquiry into experiential truth, like Gandhi did, and ask if economics makes sense. Utilitarian consequentialism, which has given the philosophical basis to economics, has made it perfectly natural for moral philosophy to ask if it is rational to be moral, whereas both Gandhi and Tagore would have sought to reflect if it is ethical to be rational if that means the violent separation of person and end. Such reflection will not be an alternative Gandhian economics or politics in some doctrinal sense, but it will honour non-violence as a way of discovering experiential truth.

Practical form of life makes it possible for those living in to discover experiential truth. The practical form of life that was able to structure multiple ways for people to learn to live with desire or learn to be happy or learn to train desire without residue. Those multiple ways involved sites of learning and teachers who implicitly or explicitly instructed one how to use them. The learner was conceptually (which does not necessarily mean propositionally) equipped to assess where one is, what is the appropriate way to pursue wealth such that Lakshmi “transmutes it into well-being,” or power such that one discovers dharma. Do I pursue a path of erotic learning or do I practice abstinence as way of learning about desire? That form, as I say, enables one or equips one to assess one’s life. The reflective pursuit is helped along by many things: stories, elders, the elaborate kinship system, the temples, the festivals. In a way these are props or devices that help lead that life, take a learning attitude to living, but in principle it could be done in another surrounding, with some other props that get set up. The question that Gandhi and Tagore asked and debated, then, needs to be asked again with some urgency because the parasitical and experience-occluding structures are smothering the pursuit of a happy, learning or inquiring life that makes everything new because it connects with the real (sat).

There is one question that may seem inescapable at this stage: if Tagore hadn’t succumbed to the framing effect and had fully shared in the Gandhian attempt not only to seek a cultural explanation of our present from the actional perspective, but also to engage with that present to discover experiential truth, could he still have disagreed with Gandhi on the very same issues? What form would or could that difference have taken? I am not sure if this counterfactual question can really be answered. However, it might make some kind of speculative sense to argue that such a disagreement would have made the debate fully a part of the Indian conceptual world, in the way, for example, the debate between Budhhists and Vedantins, or Advaitins and Dvaitins was part of that world. This is simply another way of putting the more obvious consequence of my attempt to reframe the debate between Gandhi and Tagore: we need to reengage with the conceptual resources of Indian intellectual traditions to develop knowledge that helps overcome the violence of separation (maya) everywhere in the world, but beginning at home makes sense because the resources are in some form still available and because Gandhi and Tagore have illustrated both the possibilities and pitfalls of that attempt. But the task is to make such a resource intellectually available to everyone, such that experiential knowledge begins to reshape the human sciences.

For Gandhi, practical form of life and experiential truth go together; their separation generates violence. The “genius of Indian civilization,” he thought consisted in integrating the two. Through the discovery of experiential truth he wanted to write new things on what he called the Indian slate. Tagore showed how for Indian thought there can be no justice or love without understanding permeating all areas of life; his attempt was to revitalize that thought. We need to expand that area of understanding, because the practical form of life makes us realize that there is happiness in understanding. There are areas in contemporary life bereft of reflection; perhaps all of us need to rethink the old in a new language even as we look for new culturality (new socializing resources or devices) to deepen our reflections and extend it to new areas. That way we will better understand how the old practical form of life arranged its culturality to aid inquiry and reflection. Gandhi and Tagore were part of a movement that was largely political; though they did see the intellectual dimension of the movement, pragmatically politics took priority since they were battling the colonial power. By reframing their debate I am hoping their reflections will become part of a movement that will now be primarily intellectual (rather than social or political) because to extend reflection and understanding to new areas involves freeing ourselves from the language that insulates those areas from reflection.

We cannot do so unless we are able to break the quasi-evaluative/cognitive frame that seems to have entrenched itself.

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