Saturday, 13 March 2010

The mayavadi nightmare of the British Raj

At first glance, nothing could seem more pragmatic and orderly than the British Raj in India. Yet, it seems to me, this great Empire, too, like its predecessors on Indian soil, came to be haunted by the fear that the world it had created, the panoply it had erected, was as but a bubble, an illusion, a vanity and that at any moment, for a reason no Western mind could grasp, the native population seized as it were by a Panic, a convulsion produced by a Great God whose very name was unknown to the Orientalist scholar, might simply forget the British, cease to see the railways and roads and courts and offices they had created and thus render British rule a nullity.
What then? Well, for a while, things might go on with a semblance of 'normalcy'. Perhaps the army would be called in from the cantonment to guard the civil lines. Morale might be kept up with polo matches. But, for how long? Sooner of later, the 'women and children' question would be mooted. Safer to evacuate them to the ports, surely? But. perhaps, the men had better accompany the women. A skeleton staff could be left behind. Except that word 'skeleton' somehow strikes the wrong note. Let no more be said about it.
Thus begins the great evacuation. The British have all to themselves- the roads they have built, the bridges they have constructed, even an occasional train on the tracks they have laid- in the distance can be seen great crowds of natives marching to some unknown purpose along routes long lost to the memory of man.
Ultimately the British have to evacuate because the Western mind can not live with what it can not understand, what would destroy it if understood.
The great Civilizations of the past, on Indian soil, had concluded that the Universe was an illusion, more empty than a dream. True, it was a world where hard work paid off, rationality paid off,  character building and integrity paid off- but since the fruit- be it wealth, or honor or sensual pleasure- was empty perhaps the tree, nay the forest!, too was unreal.
True, there was another tree, an upside down tree whose roots were in Heaven and whose leaves were the Vedas. But that tree, too, Lord Krishna says, must be cut down with the axe of non-attachment.
For the British, however, it was not the fruit which was unreal, but the entire rationalist project of understanding the East, of schooling it to emulate the West, which lacked roots in Indian soil.
 The Olympian, or Himalayan, heights from which the Viceroy ruled were as clouds that could, by a strong wind, be utterly swept away. Great Pan might again rule the people and of Pan's purposes nothing can be known save by the contagion of panic- which destroys all knowledge, all painstakingly garnered wisdom- everything wiped clean.
Churchill and Kipling and Saki, all of whom left India, never to return, while still young, could believe in the solidity and permanence of what the British had achieved. True, for Kipling, it was the Indian Gods who had grudgingly granted this permission. But it was a different story for older men- E.M Foster in Passage to India- or Viceroy Wavell telling Churchill that there was now nothing for it but a general evacuation- there were no 'ring-leaders' to be hunted down, no secret societies to be disrupted, India had simply become ungovernable.
Was the British Raj's mayavadi nightmare a nightmare and nothing more? Surely, they built better than they knew? Solid Nineteenth virtues characterize the administration of Dr. Manmohan Singh. In the year 2010, Parliament looks set to pass a bill granting 33% reservation of seats for Women. It seems the 'Oriental mind' has, indeed, changed.
But does no danger still lurk? We have gotten used to being patted down and having our briefcase X rayed getting on the Metro, entering Government offices, and- even more intrusive checks going to see 'My name is Khan' at the Cinema.
Jihadis and Naxals we know about. But is there something bigger, as yet nameless, out there against which even x rays and metal detectors are powerless?
Might everything, even now, be suddenly swept away?
Or has it already happened? And how would we come to know? Which channel would carry the news sandwiched between advertisements for Kaspersky internet security and the cute lass from the Madhya Pradesh tourist board?
The older mayavadi philosophy still pointed to a Reality that was not illusion- a Reality to be found in the forest, on the mountain peak, in the desert. But, British mayavaad points to no alternative buy evacuation, emigration, abandonment and oblivion.
Once again, the question arises- has it already happened? Is ours a virtual reality bubble whose magic irridescence is a manic protest against its own impermanence?
Sustainability was the mantra of the handloom clad eco-feminist of a decade ago- but that rhetoric proved unsustainable.
Reality, perhaps should be the new watchword- "Is it real? Can it be real? If so, how?"
Mayavaadi philosophy points to a Reality freer of contradictions than that within which effort yields futility- British mayaavad, on the other hand, offers no such consolation.
This Panic then we must abide, that rational organization building its paths into the darkness, prods into fretful wakefulness a God whose nature is nightmare.


Sanjay K said...

Mayavadi philosophy refers to Non-Dual (Advaita) philosophy which holds phenomenal reality to be purely an illusion with no real existence- for e.g. a rope mistaken for a snake.
Such philosophy is concerned with Moksha- that is salvation- rather than Politics or other subjects of practical interest to the ruler.
To speak of the British Raj as subscribing to Mayavadi philosophy is not accurate. It was a system of government which at times emphasized Utilitarianism (greatest good of greatest number) and Reformist policies while, at other times, proclaiming the doctrine of Racial superiority by which it became the duty and obligation of the White Race to rule over darker skinned.
Christian Evangelism was also a factor from time to time. However, in the main, British Raj was not concerned with propounding a philosophical path to Moksha (Liberation). Thus there is no connection with Mayavadi philosophy.
British may have feared that the country would rise against them and the events of the Mutiny would be repeated. It is correct to say that Britain could not have greatly prolonged its rule in India against the wishes of Indian political leaders.
Since the British may well have felt uneasy or homesick in India- it may be that your use of emotive language about 'Panic' (from the Greek- Pan- meaning 'all') and 'a God whose nature is nightmare' etc. is justified in a narrow sense.
However, you are no longer discussing the British- who left sixty odd years ago. India is ruled by Indians- they do not fear their own Religion or Beliefs because they know them thoroughly since childhood.
Hence, your comments are wide off the mark.

windwheel said...

Dear Sanjay Bhai,
My point is that the tools we use to analyse Society arise out of a rationalist, Utilitarian, research program.
Yet, we are aware that this is an inadequate tool and that we are perpetually going to be taken by surprise by cataclysmic changes which our concepts can't capture.

There is nothing irreligious in the contention that Time (Kala)can bring about the destruction of niti and nyaya of an earlier period. Consider the manner in which Lord Krishna's people met their end.
We do not, of course, have the self conscious and fully illuminated stature of the great teachers. So, my comments are in that context merely.

Sanjay K said...

Sorry, I don't see what point you are making.
The issue of Kala, Pralaya and other such cosmological concepts has been dealt with authoritatively by different sampradayas (scholarly lineages).

Briefly, the present age is Kali Yuga when Bhakti devotion is the straight and recommended path. God of Bhakti has no negative qualities. Such God is not 'nightmare' but Pure Bliss and Enlightenment.

During present age, rather than seeking to test men's faith, or put obstacles, God enters heart to save directly.

If there is a 'rationalist, Utiltarian, research program' being used to analyse Society- I am sorry it is news to me. I have been following politics for more than forty years and have published articles on the subject since last thirty.

I think your mistake is to consider British sole architect of modern India. However, British took over pre-existing administrative machinery, legal codes, revenue arrangements etc.
Innovations came from both sides- British and Indian.
You may be surprised to know that the technique of fingerprinting analysis was started in India and then copied by Scotland Yard.
To conclude, the idea that you are putting forward- viz. British created 'rational' India but left fearing that rationality could not take root in the soil and that this remains still the case today- is without basis.
Your concluding line- 'This Panic then we must abide, that rational organization building its paths into the darkness, prods into fretful wakefulness a God whose nature is nightmare.'- simply does not square with the facts at any level- Historical, Cultural or Religious.

windwheel said...

You don't see the point I'm making? I'll spell it out.
The phenomenal world appears to be structured in a manner such that increasing mastery over it can be attained by systematic, rational, organized effort.
Mayavaad is the doctrine that this phenomenal world that we perceive is not real but an illusion.
Indian mayavaad philosophy invites us to sublate phenomenal reality in favor of an underlying Reality that is free of certain contradictions which engender suffering and render effort ultimately futile.
Thus Indian mayavadi philosophy- which far from being the enemy of Bhakti, is in fact its crest-jewel- is not pessimistic or anti-rational. It points to no great inevitable collapse of Order into Chaos. There is no 'Twilight of the Gods' here.
Nineteenth Century Britain, however, was moving in the opposite direction. Between Blake and Shelley and (with Clough and Arnold occupying the turning ground) and Housman and Hardy we see a great change in eschatological expectation.
Reason and Order come to be seen as but a taper briefly lit against the gales of Chaotic Night.
Writers as different as Saki and Forster become obsessed with the theme of Panic- a rebellion of Nature against Order.
There were solid reasons for this change. The old ideology was, indeed, bankrupt.
"We are between two worlds' says Arnold (later Gramsci would utter the same sentiment) 'one dead, one powerless to be born' In that intereggnum, that twilight sleep of reason, monsters stalked the land.
Solidly Victorian though our present administration surely is- vindicating the vision of Hume and Wedderburn and Cotton- it is a 'dominance without hegemony' a joogard rather than an efficient piece of machinery, a pragmatics rather than a poesis.
There is no fundamental moral support for the panoply of government. If erased by some exogenous shock, no force on earth could resurrect its semblance.
This was not the case of polities founded on Dharma. Extinguished, they would reappear bearing essentially the same structural features- or at least exhibiting the ability, at propitious times, to rapidly develop towards that level.
Imagine a Mayavad philosophy which holds nothing to be real, nothing true, save that thought itself is futile- would that not be a nightmare?
Yet that is the philosophy underpinning the present administration.
That's my point.
No one is saying the British were the sole architect. They did a joogard- nothing more.What was inherited was joogard. What is still on the road is joogard. Every component may have been swopped more than a dozen times- but the vehicle is joogard and bears no relation to what the tutelary genius of the soil would have inspired.