Tuesday, September 4, 2012

What Divides Us

By Ashok Vohra
In the Mahabharata, when the Yaksha asks, ‘What is the greatest wonder of all?’ Yudhishthra replies, “Day after day countless creatures are going to the abode of Yama, yet those that remain behind believe themselves to be immortal. What can be more wonderful than this?” This narrative illustrates our attitude towards others in our workday life. We believe that what happens to others will not happen to us. We apply different standards to evaluate our own behaviour and that of others in all fields of activity.
The ‘other’, across cultures, has been seen variously as a friend – an extension of oneself – or as a foe posing a threat to one’s freedom. The other has been seen by some as deserving our concern or respect, by some as an opportunity for solidarity or mutual transformation, and by some typically as an unwelcome practical, political or cultural limitation. The other can be the ethnic other, the cultural other, the religious other, the national other or simply the other gender.
Sartre sees the other as obstruction to an individual’s freedom. So much so that he considers the other as hell.Some authors in the Indic tradition (Manu and Kautilaya, for example) prescribe different awards and punishments both in terms of quality and quantity for identical action to different classes. It is hard to see how such a differential treatment could be justified in the present day world, which lays great emphasis on equality.
The question of how far the demand for equality is justified without ensuring equity in resources distribution becomes equally significant. In the above context, the question whether preferential treatment to a part of the community can at all be justified also arises. Our hostile attitude towards other races and castes is based on the fear that they undeservedly take a part of what rightfully belongs to us.
Like the Buddha, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan believed that our attitude towards the other is the result of our ignorance of his ways of thinking and living. He argued that “When we do not know other, we become frightened, angry, even hysterical”.
To remove our ignorance of the other and to increase understanding of the other Radhakrishnan advocated “living together, working together” with them. By doing so, he felt that “we get to understand one another and bridge the gulf that separates us in feeling and imagination”. By living together we come to “know them, appreciate them, make allowance for their weaknesses (or strengths) and accept them”. We get rid of fear of the other. The other thus is amalgamated into ‘we’and becomes us.
The possibility of amalgamation is there in a bad person but not in an alien. Recognising this Radhakrishnan upheld that“A ‘bad’ citizen is all right because he belongs to our state; a good alien cannot be all right because he doesn’t (belong to our state)”. The other, however ‘bad’ he may be, has the inherent potential of becoming us because like us, he is Brahmn.
Radhakrishnan argued that we divide the world into us and them “due to persistent cussedness in human nature; a moral blindness, a spiritual affliction”. We can easily tame the beast in us by educating ourselves about our true nature. It can be done by inner spiritual development. Then we see the whole of human family as one.
Once the diversity of races, classes and castes are fused into one, we could together “strive for the great ideals of economic justice, social equality and political freedom”. This essential oneness of humankind ‘transcends human-made barriers.
The author is professor of Philosophy, Delhi University

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