| by R. Chandrasoma
(January 04, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Many factors shape the historic evolution of nations and their peoples. It is commonly thought that wise political direction is the key ingredient in the mix of interventions needed to achieve stability and standing in a competitive world. There is no doubt that this is a necessary condition for benign and successful governance but it is not sufficient. The degree of empowerment of the underprivileged, the rules of social interaction and the ‘religious’ attitude to life’s tribulations all play a significant role as ‘parameters’ in shaping the historic transformation of human societies.
India and China present case studies in the determinative role played by these ‘extra-political factors’ in social evolution. These factors – the underlying sentiments that inform the beliefs, customs, or practices of a group or society – differ greatly between peoples and nations. India and China share significant commonalities – they have, both, embraced the capitalist model of management that has achieved such great success in the West. This approach embraces notions of work-efficiency and egalitarianism that are also copyings from the West. They are united in the belief that science and technology are of pivotal importance in the great task of relieving the pains and ills of the human condition. All this conceded, there exists a great separation between the two Asian giants that we cannot ignore if we are to be realistic in our assessment of their global role in the decades ahead.
The peoples of India – the common and the elite alike – are troubled by notions of the ephemerality of the world of mundane things and the providential nature of the unfolding of history. This Hindu-Buddhist cultural heritage blunts the drive to improve social conditions and sanctifies societal divisions as part of a higher scheme of things that must remain inviolate. Only the Gods can successfully intervene to set things right. Thus prayer is seen to be better than work. The wretchedness of the poor is viewed with stoic indifference and gross inequalities in society are accepted as irremedial structural features that must be patiently endured. The salutary notion that ‘Work is Worship’ is unknown in India. It is true that reformers and saints have striven valiantly to remedy matters but the social lethargy of India is such that these failings will remain a structural feature of Indian society for a very long time to come.
In contrast to what we have called the Hindu-Buddhist heritage of ‘denial’ there is the Confucian philosophy of work, public order and discipline as the key upholders of social health and stability. The dynamic core of this Confucian world-view is that society is fragile and that hard work, public discipline and commitment by all is a necessary foundation for the well-being of mankind. This enlightened approach has made the lowest in society participants in the unending struggle to keep alive and do well. It is undeniable, then, that this necessarily co-operative attitude to life and living is socially more robust than the static fatalism of traditional Indian societies.
The approach to human poverty in these two countries reveals starkly the philosophical disparity and its far-reaching and unfortunate consequence. The Indian poor are among the most wretched in the world despite the fact that India is an economic giant capable of producing all the fancy things prized in the West. Indeed, a very small fraction of Indian society enjoys the comforts and luxuries that pass as hallmarks of affluence in the West. Sadly, the poor of India – mostly workers belonging to the socially disadvantaged castes and peasants – present a very sorry picture indeed. They are not only starved and emaciated – they have the forlorn look of humans forsaken by society. The closest to them are the poor of Africa – but these Africans do not suffer the indignity of being despised by an elite of their own kind that parade their wealth and separateness.
China was – until very recently – a poor country. But the kind of depravity seen in rural India was never a feature of rural China. The peasants were adequately clothed and shod even if life was generally harsh and unforgiving. Their bearing was one of sturdy independence that bespeaks confidence – in contrast to the defeatism and apathy of the rural poor in India. The belief that honest work could mitigate if not defeat the ravages of fortune is a Confucian heritage while the defeatism of the Indian peasant is part of the spiritual baggage bequeathed to him by the dominant faiths of his country.
Poverty, corruption and indiscipline are the ‘three Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ so far as India is concerned. We have spoken of the deforming poverty of India. Corruption rides close behind. It may surprise most to learn that the malignant corruption that is so widespread in India has the same causal roots as poverty – they are both unhealthy weeds in the garden of Indian religion. Corruption is minimal when there is a strongly-developed sense of social obligation – remorse for those who lose when fortune favours the well-born and the lucky. If the poor and the weak are seen as an ill-begotten load carried by society, the prick of conscience is hardly felt by those win in life’s struggles. That practically all the political parties in India and their stalwarts are corrupt is a fact paraded by the Indians themselves. They do not refer to its ideological facilitator – the ancient religious paradigms that see the general lot of mankind as irremediably wretched.
Let us look at the last of the three failures referred to above – indiscipline. It is not individual moral failure that is implied. The social indiscipline that we fault is rooted in the lack of respect for the laws and practices that ensure healthy collective living and good citizenship. A deeply religious man (or woman) can be a poor citizen if his first care is to secure goals which are personal (and spiritual) while his otherworldliness makes him indifferent to the public good. One’s own garden can be clean and beautiful while waste and dereliction surrounds it. This metaphor sums up the state of Indian society – the existence of deep religiosity alongside a callous indifference to the iniquities all around that deform society at large. It is only in countries like India that hundreds die in a stampede to worship God.
The ideas expressed above will be misconstrued if they are seen as a blanket indictment of the Indian way of living. We in Sri Lanka are bound by the same ideological fetters that drag down our great neighbour – albeit in a less virulent form. In our country – just as in India – poverty, corruption and indiscipline ride high and mar the healthy cohesiveness that is the wellspring of social success. The withering political rancour that exists in our country is an example of social maladjustment stemming from the lack of a developed social conscience. This, in turn, hangs on religio-ethical inheritance from the past – the absence of what we have called the ‘Confusian ethos’ in our approach to life and living. The good news is that we are moving out of frames of understanding that commanded loyalty in the past. Our social evolution is headed the right way.