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Living in a material world

india Updated: Jun 21, 2007 11:41 IST
Mark Tully
material world

Schizophrenia is defined in my dictionary as “a medical condition marked by disconnection between thoughts, feelings, and actions.” There certainly seems to be a disconnection between India’s conversion to market capitalism and its hallowed commitment to socialism. Businessmen complain that this schizophrenia results in half-baked reforms and puts the brakes on the expansion of the economy to superpower status. Yet the same businessmen who advocate the stark materialism of market-capitalism sit at the feet of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. It’s a well-known fact that many young software engineers are also soft on God.

The apparent schizophrenia of government policies and corporate sector practices seem to have spread throughout the burgeoning middle class. How can one reconcile the rise and rise of shopping malls, the new found zeal for retail therapy, with the large audiences for the God channels on television purveying traditional Indian therapy. The fast growing number of domestic tourists somehow manage to reconcile the sacred and the secular, pilgrimage and pleasure. Last weekend, I was in Dalhousie where the streets were jammed with small family cars. I was told that many of the families were enjoying a secular break after their spiritual pilgrimage to Vaishno Devi. The head of one family from Kanpur said to me “we are mixing spiritual business with pleasure”.

The marriage practices of the more prosperous young Indians seem to be schizophrenic. Bars and nightclubs are now flourishing in an India which, except in the Mahatma’s home state of Gujarat, seems to have forgotten his abhorrence of alcohol. I am sure that the Mahatma would not approve of the young couples clutching each other on nightclub dance floors. But the Mahatma would also not approve of the contradiction that many of them eventually opt for arranged marriages. The matrimonial columns show that his condemnation of dowry and of caste marriages is widely ignored in middle-class circles.

This schizophrenia, these apparently irreconcilable opposites may well be exaggerated. Some would say there isn’t really any yearning for socialism, the brakes are put on reforms because politicians and bureaucrats never want to give up any control. Indians’ shopoholism may be a temporary affliction, a natural reaction to years of chrffonic shortages of consumer goods. I remember when I first came to India in the 1960s there was such a shortage of consumer goods that departing diplomats could find a market for used lipsticks and secondhand underwear.

Maybe we exaggerate the number of businessmen who are followers of Godmen. India’s young computer-crunchers are so competitive in their strictly this-worldly profession that Americans whose jobs have been outsourced say they have been Bangalored. Do we really know how serious the computer crunchers are about the other world?

Nevertheless I think there is a certain schizophrenia in the more prosperous sections of Indian society today and I wonder whether there isn’t something deeper going on beneath its surface. The search for balance has been one of the principles of Indian culture. The civil servant-turned-philosopher Chaturvedi Badrinath recently published a comprehensive commentary on the Mahabharata. He once told me the great question raised by the epic was, “how to find the true place of everything in the scheme of human life”. Badri, as he is always known, went on to say “to value too greatly or too little a particular human attribute in its relation to the rest is to disintegrate the natural wholeness of human personality. To value the spiritual over the material or the material over the spiritual is to create conflicts within ourselves and with the rest of the world.” The world we live in and the culture sweeping into India from the West, the relentless march of consumerism, clearly values the material over the spiritual. It often doesn’t seem to find any place for the spiritual. When I speak about balance in Britain, Indians in the audience often accuse me of trying to drag their country back into some spiritual golden age that never existed. They believe all India needs to do is to concentrate on material progress and whatever reforms are necessary to achieve it. So it may well be that I am valuing the spiritual over the material. But I hasten to add that many in the Indian, as well as the British audiences I speak to, do value the spiritual and support the search for balance.

If Badri is right in believing that the search for balance lies at the heart of Indian tradition then it becomes less surprising that businessmen and young number crunchers, whose working lives are so dominated by the material, should want to have a spiritual life too. The middleclass who now keep the tills ringing in the shopping malls may perhaps be putting the opposite balance right — restoring the material to lives which were starved of it. Yet many of them try to keep a balance in their lives by going on pilgrimages and watching godmen on television. Those who turn up their noses at anyone’s religious practices, or write off all god men as frauds, should perhaps look at their own lives, and wonder whether the spiritual and the material is balanced in them.

Of course the search for balance goes beyond the spiritual and the material. There is a crying need to find a balance between change and tradition. Far too many babies are being thrown out with the bathwater in modern societies, which I once heard described as ‘drunk on change’. So maybe the young who are individualistic in their choice of partners when going through the clubbing stage of life come to realise the value of traditional respect for their elders — a respect, I hasten to add, which also needs to be kept in balance. Elders can all too easily demand rather than earn respect, and the young can surrender too much of their individuality to their elders.

To return to where we started — the apparent schizophrenia of a government, which does not seem able to decide whether it is socialist or market capitalist. The PM has an answer to that, and again it is a question of balance. Manmohan Singh, whose economic credentials are impeccable, sees himself as trying to take the middle path between market capitalism and socialism, and he once told a journalist, “When you take the middle path you get hit from the left and the right”.

That is all too true. People find it so much easier to take extreme positions than to search for balance. And yet it is balance, which has the answer to the greatest threats we now face — environmental degradation and climate change. DH Lawrence had the answer to that threat when he wrote, “What we want is to destroy our false, inorganic connections, those related to money, and re-establish the living organic connections, with the cosmos, the sun, and earth.”

We need to restore our connections with nature, to stop treating it as a resource, and remember that we are its partner, not its proprietor. To do that, we have to put right the imbalance created by our tendency to know the monetary cost of everything and give no weight to the value of anything.

Mark Tully is former chief of bureau, BBC, New Delhi. His latest book is India’s Unending Journey