Tuesday, November 1, 2011

An Indian Morality Tale

There was an interesting little morality tale in The New Sunday Express on 30 October.

Shampa Dhar-Kamath in her column Unfaithfully Yours told about Ram Singh, a family servitor in Delhi’s Safdarjang Enclave who was “aghast” at receiving an air gun with instructions to shoot pigeons disturbing the sleep of his aged and ailing “master.”

“Wracked by superstition at the best of times,” wrote Dhar-Kamath, the old servant said he “would be sinning, and his soul would be cursed forever for taking lives.” However, he proceeded gingerly with the task, at first trying to scare the birds away from the window, then, reluctantly, killing a few. His attitude changed after workers at an adjacent building site offered to buy his kills, “Many lives have been lost in the last one month,” the column concluded: “Commerce versus conscience; it’s a one-sided battle.”

That little tale is ponderous with significance, especially Dhar-Kamath’s use of the term “wracked with superstition” to describe the context of Ram Singh’s stricken conscience. It relegated belief in karma to the level of magical thinking. That she should express this view so casually, without feeling the need to explain or justify, indicated the expectation that her readers would receive it without challenge.

That is truly mindboggling. Yet, it is very likely to be true. If it were not we would not be so neck deep in elite corruption. If we ask why this has happened, the unavoidable answer is that it is the result of Western contagion: “education” in India has meant acceptance of a view of “modernity” that is the enemy of the best in our tradition.

That sad truth flashes at us from every aspect of “shining India,” most explicitly in commercial advertising. “Greed is good” declared the moronic ad for a mobile phone company that nestled at the bottom of the Doordarshan screen during much of its coverage of the recent ODI series against Britain. Greed is not good. The Bhagavad Gita places it among the triumvirate of tamasic delusions at the root of evil (the other two being fear and anger). If we stop to consider the value-content of commercial advertising, much of it is negative by traditional Indian standards.

That brings us to the other staggeringly casual assumption in Dhar-Kamath’s column: that the struggle between conscience and commerce is unequally weighted. There is, of course, much evidence that this is true. In the case of poor Ram Singh, conscience was silenced with a mere Rs.15 per bird. Yet, it could be argued that a kindly providence was washing his sin of negative karmic content: he was no longer killing to please his “master” but so others could eat.

There is no such comfort for Kiran Bedi who cheated petty cash from those who admired her and now stands exposed as a hypocrite; nor are there any extenuating circumstances for the celebrity residents of Tihar Jail caught in the web of their own egregious greed.

In that lineup, only Ram Singh is on record as expressing fear for his immortal soul, and it points to a larger difference between him and the others. For belief in karma is only one element of a larger dynamic worldview, of the universe as a moral construct. In the Indian scheme of things all things have dharmic content, even Time; it is moral quality that determines the passing of the great Yugas.

The individual soul progresses towards self-realization through that moral matrix, and it was Ram Singh’s primary concern. Not to believe in that concept is to deny the existence of the Param Atman, the Universal Soul, God in common parlance.

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