Monday, August 31, 2009

Watching Ambedkar vs Gandhi and thoughts on nature of debates

I caught a play today down at SRC, Mandi House, called Ambedkar vs. Gandhi.

With an ensemble of over seventy, I guess, and a fultoo Congress, if not Gandhi-bashing, an ambitious and brave effort.

But despite the ensemble, only four characters – Ambedkar, Rama his wife, a middle aged associate of Ambedkar and Gandhi have any significant role, with Ambedkar’s slice of the pie looking like a PacMan gobbling a dot. And therein lay the biggest drawback of the play – that it was only built around one character and it would not have been too much of a stretch if the entire play had been one man Ambedkar act with soliloquies interspersing with debates with voices in the background. Even the actor playing Ambedkar towered over the pretty ordinary Gandhi, with the entire T-bone of the dialogues on his plate, and instead of a clash of cults, personalities and ideas, the play was just Ambedkar bulldozing over Gandhi. A notable exception was Rama, his wife, who in a brief scene with Ambedkar left her mark and gave the most surprising and warm moment of the play.

Nevertheless, the play was marked with brutal and bold honesty in Ambedkar’s pronouncements and the characters had to pause many times for the applause to die down. What overwhelmed me most was the discussion.

I usually despair that we Indians would rather sweep things under the wholesome carpet than have a brutally frank discussion on what ails our society. I was wrong. Affirmative action for the Dalits has generated the most real debate of our lifetime. The debate which ensued was no-holds barred, did not hide behind euphemisms and had that most definitive characteristic of a real debate – it worked from first principles up. The principle that every man is born equal.

All the religions in the world ultimately become tyrannies after they impose the cultural context they originated from to different contexts. I do not know what this tendency is called but I will call it literalism.

In Semitic religions, it translates into the words as written in a book some millennia ago. In Hinduism, it was the Varna system. As the play beautifully depicted, even Gandhi struggled to accept the idea of renouncing the Varna system. In a dialogue, he tells Ambedkar, in words to this effect, ‘What Muslim is a Muslim who does not believe in the whole sanctity of the Koran; what Christian is a Christian if he rejects even in part the Bible; what Hindu is a Hindu who renounces then the tenets of Varna?’


The turning point of Western free thought, even after the French revolution, was the acceptance of Darwinism. Whereas other scientific discoveries could be rationalised and assimilated into God’s words (much like Nostradamus’ predictions which are found to have predicted an event exactly – after it’s happened) as another evidence of man’s infinitesimal understanding of the true meaning of them, Darwin let no such room for post-hoc manoeuvres. The Bible said man was created by God on the seventh day, directly, in the present form, and Darwin said he evolved from fish to apes. There was no way of accepting one theory without rejecting the other. Christianity was never the same after Darwin won.

Hinduism is in the throes of that change and it would be reasonable to expect another few centuries for the evils of the caste system totally dissipate. (The problem of RSS is not of Hinduism but of regular Fascist tendencies – we are the majority hence we should have all the privileges.)

Islam still has to move away from the literalist mindset. I have seen even educated friends rationalise some ritual they follow by giving me some reason of hygiene and long-sighted eventual betterment of humanity. If that is the central concern, why not just work from the principles of hygiene and betterment of humanity and do whatever is best to attain that, whether it is ascribed in the book or not? That is why I used the word rationalise since it means – to ascribe (one's acts, opinions, etc.) to causes that superficially seem reasonable and valid but that actually are unrelated to the true, possibly unconscious and often less creditable or agreeable causes.

It is not surprising that all these literalist tendencies have been marked by the greatest violence humankind has seen. The centuries of violence against the untouchables, the reign of terror for a millennium in the Christian world and the violence which the literalist Wahabi sects have unleashed.

The questions were brutally to the point engaging, though always cut short because of time constraints. If only we can take this honesty to our everyday debates, we might still attain soon the greatness we feel we’ve always deserved.

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