"The fact is there is nothing that you can trust; and that is a terrible fact, whether you like it or not. Psychologically there is nothing in the world, that you can put your faith, your trust, or your belief in. Neither your gods, nor your science can save you, can bring you psychological certainty; and you have to accept that you can trust in absolutely nothing. That is a scientific fact, as well as a psychological fact. Because, your leaders – religious and political – and your books – sacred and profane – have all failed, and you are still confused, in misery, in conflict. So, that is an absolute, undeniable fact."
"Do not think about yourself, but be aware of the thought, emotion, or action that makes you think of yourself."
Violence is part of our humanity. Where there is "me" and "mine" there is inevitably violence. We have a funny way of celebrating this. Watch a movie from Hollywood or Bollywood or Kollywood and there are often guns blasting bloody holes in human beings. There is a long tradition of celebrating violence in the movies. From the old Westerns to "Seven" to "Fight Club." We seem to like gangsters and blood and gore. The battle between good and evil is one thing. But violence for its own sake is something twisted and peculiarly human. Animals never kill for pleasure and they certainly don't make killing into a form of entertainment. Humans do. The Romans were perhaps the original perpetuators of such inhuman "sport." Rarely, do we question the role of violence in our lives... As long as it is distant and part of a filmic story it's ok. But is it?
If you fill a room with rats to bursting point - biological nature in the form of the survival instinct will decree that a pregnant female rat that gives birth to rat babies will immediately eat the babies. A lack of biological space breeds a peculiar form of violence.
Congestion breeds violence. Greed and selfishness breed violence. Vanity is a form of violence. Violence has many shades.... just as silence does. There is psychological violence and there is the violence/indignity of sheer survival as in the case of the overcrowded rats. What can it teach us?
Gandhi believed in a life based on the principle of "ahimsa" - non-violence. It is a nice belief; but to live up to it is very challenging. Human beings are conflicted inwardly in so many ways and this has manifested a world of divisions and fear. How can there be real change? It is a very profound and difficult question to approach.
If we approach this question with any seriousness it becomes clear that understanding anger and violence is critical to the evolution of a society. Religion offers forgiveness and there is great wisdom in real forgiveness...but is it enough for society as a whole?
When Mandela came to power he set up court hearings where no verdict was given. Rather, accused and victim were brought together to air the grievances of the past, with the ultimate aim of securing some level of healing – this was an absolutely critical process for a country that had lived in the shadow of racial divisions for decades. The alternative was the rule of hatred and the bloody self-destruction of a nation. It was a unique exercise in humanism. Such deep-seated hatred is hard to change. The Chinese and Koreans to this day are angry with the Japanese. The Japanese may have left their shores...but they have never apologized for the atrocities they committed in their colonial period.
A few months ago I moved to India. One morning, miraculously, I woke up with a name in my head. The name was not one I knew anything about. “John Ruskin.” I mentioned the name to my mother in a telephone conversation. She knew quite a bit about Ruskin and admired him a great deal. Before we ended our conversation, she said that there was somewhere she had to take me when I came home. When I visited England a couple of months later, we drove me up to the Lake District. It was early spring.
The lambs were playing in the meadows and the daffodils were coming into bloom as we drove through that immortal countryside where Wordsworth had once often strolled. We came upon the shores of Lake Coniston and there, perched on a hillside overlooking the perfect rustic beauty of a million post cards, was Brantwood - Ruskin’s home for some 27 years. Ruskin was one of the foremost thinkers and writers of Victorian times, a Professor of Art at Oxford University, and a noted art critic. He retired to Brantwood in Coniston in 1872.
The house is filled with Ruskin's drawings, paintings and watercolors. It is a still, quiet place. And to me, it had something unique to share: the perfume of an inspired life – a life that lives on today – a life rich in passion and conviction…undaunted by death or time.
In 1878, Ruskin wrote of the view of Coniston from his study:
"I raise my eyes to these Coniston Fells (hills), and see them, at this moment imaged in their lake, in quietly reversed and perfect similitude, the sky cloudless above them, cloudless beneath, and two level lines of blue vapour drawn across their sunlighted and russet moorlands, like an azure fesse across a golden shield."
As I walked around the house…taking in the old wooden stair case, the exquisite art and the view from his study…I began to glimpse something of the refined beauty of its hidden occupant and his glorious mind….I wondered why his name had been given to me…and why in India…
This essay is the beginning of an answer to those questions. Questions which came to my mind on that wild, windswept hillside - a place as far removed from where I have recently come to call home as I can possibly imagine. Somehow, those questions have woven these two disparate corners of the earth together and the resulting tapestry demands answers; it demands action.
John Ruskin was a remarkable human being who was born at a time of great transition in the history of Britain and the world. He was born into the first generation of an industrialized world. Britain, more than any country, was the progenitor of the industrialized society and although, technologically speaking, Brunel was its greatest hero...perhaps the greatest social champion of the age was Ruskin.
The Industrial Revolution was the major technological, socioeconomic and cultural change in the late 18th and early 19th century. It replaced an economy based on manual labor with one dominated by industry and machine manufacture. Ruskin's thinking on art and architecture became the thinking of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Upon the death of his father (a wealthy wine merchant), Ruskin declared that it was impossible to be a rich socialist and he promptly gave away most of his inheritance.
His later works influenced many Trade Union leaders of the Victorian era. He was the inspiration for the Arts and Crafts Movement, the founding of the National Trust, the National Art Collections Fund and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. In fact, he did so much that, at one point, he went mad. He plain overdid it and, consequently his mind and body got sick.
Socrates was brought to trial by the powerful intelligentsia of his day. Socrates represented the pinnacle of the Greek civilization. He never settled for what someone else reported. He had to find out for himself. He lived by divine laws.
At his trial, he listened as the arguments were stacked against him. You know what he said in response? He consented that the cleverness of his prosecutors’ words was undoubted - hell, even he almost fell for what they were saying - but, in the end, not one word they said was true. The intellect is very cunning and most of us fall for its meaningless justifications in one way or another.
In every age, beings like Socrates and Ruskin are born. But to say that their work in this world is simple is grossly unfair. The phenomenal world of manifest consciousness is complex and the mind that navigates through it is prone to all kinds of pitfalls. The external world persecuted Socrates. He rose above it. In Ruskin's case, he came face to face with madness on the inside. History is full of mad geniuses. One moment they are the embodiment of sanity and light - the next moment...well it is never really sure.
The mind is a powerful instrument, but, like any instrument, it can be exhausted and abused. The challenge, for each one of us, is to go into the depths of ourselves, amidst all the sorrow and pressures, amidst all the temptations and beauty... and find sanity. Sometimes the world nails us to a cross or we find ourselves fighting so hard for a better world or a clearer view of what could be that we come to the edges of the known. Then we must go within to find our strength. No matter how noble and earnest we are, there are so many factors that must be rightly appreciated for balance to prevail. Ruskin, in many ways, exemplifies just how perilous this inner journey is.
He was a true renaissance man. He was perhaps extra remarkable in that he left no school and no followers to perpetuate or corrupt what he had propounded. In many ways, this was a wonderful blessing.
Somehow the really great men stand alone. Jiddu Krishnamurti was an unparalleled religious teacher (who was ‘discovered’ in Madras at the turn of last century by the Theosophical society) who knew, more than any other, the danger of followers. He made sure he died outside of India (so India's claim on him as a son of their soil was even less tenable) and he forcibly spoke against followers of any kind, with regard to the search for truth.
‘No one can give you truth’ he famously chastised all would-be disciples. No church or temple or book can bring you intimacy with yourself. Rare teachers might meet you as real mirrors of the human condition. But the only real teacher is he or she who comes to another without motivation or self-interest interfering with the natural life course of the seeds of beauty that are hidden within us. How right he was! How rare such individuals are! Ruskin was one such teacher. And, as with all great teachers, the example of his life is a great lesson for all who have the eyes and ears to perceive its unique value.
The values that Ruskin brought inspired many. Amongst them, there was Gandhi. He read Ruskin's essay "Unto the Last" and was deeply moved. Who could not be inspired by words such as these?:
"There is no wealth but life. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others."
But, for all the amazing things that Gandhi did, he was perhaps deluded in some ways. On the issue of how a modern post-industrial society might function I feel that Ruskin was far less deluded than Gandhi. Certainly, I feel that this is the case in terms of the application of sociological principles to the modern era. Perhaps the awesome challenges of the size of India makes that statement unfair. Bringing the welfare state to a newly mechanized Britain, in many ways, is a hugely easier task than bringing it to a society of a billion people that has taken much, much longer to industrialize.
Gandhi championed the poorest of the poor as the "Children of God." This is a nice idea, and perhaps as true as any other title in the absolute sense. But in actuality the poorest of the poor are the children of misery and their children, in turn, are the children of further misery… and so on and so on. Nehru came along and said that the new temples of India were the hydroelectric dams and elite "MIT"-styled training colleges that he founded across the new nation. Gandhi with his spinning wheel and his philosophical conjectures somehow looked outdated by comparison. To be fair - both had their place in a society with such disparity of extremes. Yet, in many ways, the loom that Gandhi so fervently championed has come to represent something nostalgic and outdated.
A young documentary filmmaker of Indian descent came from America to India a few years ago. He made a short film that has a powerful beginning statement. In the film he hired a helicopter in the city of Hydrabad. He films the city from the air and then zeros in on the statue of Gandhi in the central square. Then we see a bomb fall and the statue of Gandhi is obliterated into a fog of ash and smoke.
He was trying to point out that Gandhi does not really live on in India today. And sadly, as a direct consequence perhaps - nor does Ruskin. But Ruskin's vision is needed more than ever. Gandhi's vision is perhaps, by comparison, a little isolated and behind the times. But the needs of the people that Ruskin saw emerge as a consequence of industrialized society - needs that were met with the founding of the National Trust and the beginnings of the welfare society - are very much the needs of the Indian people today. Leo Tolstoy described Ruskin as "one of those rare men who think with their heart."
But where is the heart in modern India? Sadly, you won't find it in politics. Most politicians in India are individuals who can be bought. Their differences lie not in substance but in the price that it takes to buy them. So politics has failed to bring what India most needs to the fore. Ruskin remains the symbol of all that is most needed.
Jesus of Nazareth stormed into the temple and threw the moneychangers stalls to the ground. Lord Acton's warning that "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts
absolutely" was alive as much then as it is today. Jesus went to the temple perhaps a handful of times in his life. He went either to debate and question or - as in the case of his confrontation with the moneychangers - to deal a terrible blow to the unquestioned and corrupted authority of the priesthood.
Krishnamurti echoed the wisdom of Jesus’ actions with the wonderful line: "Love is the most dangerous thing, because when we love somebody, we are vulnerable." When you really love, your actions are inspired by conviction in another plane of reality. Most people that call themselves religious have no relationship with that plane. All they really have is faith in some "sacred" images… that and a lot of attachments to material things, to people and to shallow doctrines.
In the early 1960s President Kennedy gave America the challenge to put a man on the moon. 50, 000 scientists, civil servants and technicians rallied behind the challenge, as well as millions of dollars of tax payer’s money. Ten years later Neil Armstrong was taking his "giant leap for mankind." The impossible was made possible...because there was the collective heart to bring it about.
Come to India today and you see the poorest of the poor living in over congested cities. You have a bureaucratic and overburdened, corrupt government and a police force and a judiciary that is in the pockets of whoever bribes them the most. In many parts of the country there is an ugly class war going on between the lower classes and the Brahmins (and believe it or not - such issues have become the mainstay of political lobbying during elections). Infighting is everywhere you go in this world - but it is always petty and pitiful. How we waste our lives getting all puffed up over prejudices! How ridiculous agreeing and disagreeing is! When will we learn to really cooperate and look sternly at the facts?! When will we be human - rather than some demeaning label that inevitably divides and separates us?
The architecture in modern India, by and large, has no beauty. The streets are dirty and poorly maintained. Overcrowded housing block slums, with inadequate water and electricity supplies, live side by side the opulent houses of the rich - many of whom live in such decadence that, if one is at all sensitive, one is sickened by the contrasts. The majority live for what they can scrape from the tough realities of today and the vision of a redeemed tomorrow is lost in powerless, empty political slogans. The poor piss and defecate in the street.
If you are the father of a girl child in India... on her wedding day you have to spend ridiculous amounts of money to fund a wedding that is all about show and the upholding of an ugly and unfair tradition. Rather than having a small, humble wedding ceremony and inviting both families to contribute money to a fund for the education and upbringing of the children that will follow, society prefers to go on with the outdated practice of these lavish, ostentatious events. The cost of such heartless weddings - weddings that, often, last for days and which cost thousands and thousands of dollars – cripples many poor families here.
I was reflecting the other day on how, in many ways, prisoners in the First World have it good by comparison to some "free" Indians. Even the cows often have a better life here than many humans!
Where is Ruskin's hope for humanity? Not here. The man who championed the arts and architecture and the virtues of the civil society is buried under rubble and tears. When will the phoenix rise up and bring sanity to all this pollution and fallacy?
Of course, there are government bodies that are doing good work and NGOs who have come and settled and who do wonderful things. But where is the synthesis - where is a people mobilized and dedicated to the eradication of poverty? America can put its man on the moon. But India cannot put itself to rights. Please do not interpret that to mean that I am championing America. I am not. The public health system in America is no less a tragedy of our modern world's inhumane political "solutions". But that is what happens when a society makes "money" its god.
Of course, a culture is a complicated thing. Generally, one cannot separate religion from politics. But one must separate party politics from political progress, if there is to be clarity and insight. For me, Ruskin will always be the greatest champion of such wisdom. The American constitution has such wisdom written into it too, in the form of the Electoral College system (though, in recent years, sadly even it has been corrupted). Then there was Lincoln. He warned that prosperity breed tyrants. Individuals like Ruskin and Lincoln stand out as beacons of light in a world weighed down and made sluggish by the violence of vested interests.
A good friend of mine said recently that Ruskin cannot be brought to India. He might be right. But one thing I know is that Ruskin MUST be brought here - for the sake of dignity and a world of tomorrow worth living in. An Indian engineer recently tried to explain an aspect of Indian culture and economics to me. He started by saying "You see labor is very cheap here. So that is not an issue for us." This is true. But it is, sadly, also false. It is very much an issue; an issue, in the sense that it comes at a terrible price.
Spindly women (from the lowest class – the dalits or untouchables) with hods loaded with sand and grit populate all road and building work efforts in India. People are cheaper than machines and if they break down they are more easily replaceable. As an employer you need not provide insurance plans and if laws are brought in that say you must - there is always a way round it. When you are desperate to work to feed yourself and your family...how can you fight for a pension? The simple answer is - you can't.
What is the cost of all this? The cost is a cycle of a misery that just won't go away. Pensions exist for government workers here. There are payment plans that banks and insurance companies offer. But to the poor man in the street, the only substitute for a pension is to have children; children that are born into misery and pain... raised without the space for love to flower...and who, by blind allegiance to a sick and ailing tradition, are destined to take care of you in your dying days. And woe besides you if you are an orphan or a poor woman whose husband dies young! Things can be very tough indeed.
I am not saying that the West has it good. I am not saying that at all. But at least, there is a system in many western countries, which is somewhat of a safety net for those individuals in society who need help. It may be imperfect, and it may be far behind what Ruskin himself envisaged for the world of tomorrow. But that which is in place is an important difference between the vast divide of what the West offers its citizens and what the miserable masses in India struggles to deal with day-to-day. Such a system is essential for the evolution of a country, and it needs to be a system that cannot be overthrown by the power of governments; a system outside of the double-edged sword of the charity that missionaries offer. I consent that such a task in a country like India is a formidable one. But I also contend that in the industrialized global society that is now emerging, if one man's vision is up to that task - then it is Ruskin's.
I am not offering solutions – certainly not fully fleshed out ones anyway. I AM raising questions and pointing to necessary changes. How those changes might be brought about, is the subject of a vital debate. Affluence without wisdom is self-destructive. Equally, poverty is permanent and equally destructive to a society devoid of compassionate and intelligent action.
Edmund Burke said a whole lot in the following line, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” The question it raises, in the context of this essay...is what is the right action for humanity to take on the issue of poverty that one witnesses in India?
Corrupt and sluggish governments are not equal to the task. Nor are the NGOs. The educational system is under funded and grossly limited. So where do you begin to plant the seeds of meaningful change? And how can the socio-economic saving graces of the visionary actions of men like Ruskin be implemented with any force and thunder in a country as vast and as complicated as India?
Many people have voiced their opinions on how to move India out of poverty. Forced sterilizations are perhaps the most mechanical and shallow solution. Clearly, it is not a solution with any love behind it. Equally, leaving it up to the intellectuals or the uneducated masses is not going to bring forth any long-term meaningful transformations. Fear and desperation have brought us to where we are today. Nationalism won't solve the problem. Governmental policies will only scratch the surface.
India's future lies in the hands of architects. If it is to be a bright future...those architects must be architects of economic policies that empower the poor (and the rich must be the driving force of such change); there must be architects of education that bring an end to bribery and corruption… and architects of the halls of justice that somehow prevent criminals in positions of power from slipping through the cracks. There must be architects that build cities that are no longer based on lack and the desperation of short-term self-centered solutions.
It is said in the Vedic writings of Vaastu - India's ancient science of placement and architecture - that when you bring four walls together to form an indoor space...you create a kind of living entity. It can either be a living hell or a living heaven...It all depends on how you shape and populate those inner walls.
Nehru said that India's problems with poverty were not an Indian issue, but rather, they were a concern for all humanity. With India representing a significant percentage of the population of the planet, clearly he had a point. The people of the world need to recognize this. At the same time the people of India need to be humble enough to welcome all who would join forces with them in facing the challenge it brings us. And we all, as responsible individuals, need to reconcile our inner conflicts and the terrible violence of our present world. The alternative is more entertainment and misery. Distraction, distraction, distraction.
I have heard it said, many times, that India is behind China in so many ways. China has plenty of problems too (e.g. poverty, a centralized government that sanctions what is allowed and what isn't, and a brainwashed populace) - but, industrially speaking, it is much more reliable than India (they have roughly the same population and though China is a bigger country...they are both giants). There is a bureaucratic government there too...but in China what you pay for you usually get and you get it on time. India lags woefully behind in comparison. Together, they represent a third of the population of the planet.
China must somehow come to democracy before it can mature into the powerhouse of possibility that it will inevitably be. India has "democracy"...but it needs to eradicate corruption, establish a welfare system and diversify the educational and training base that it offers the poorer members of its society. Otherwise, the women laborers will go on digging up roads and 12-year-old bus boys will remain a common feature of restaurants. And when technology finally replaces them, as it must...their offspring will still be sweeping the streets and serving the fat and the rich. They will still be living in squalor without any hope and, perhaps worst of all, without the feeling that anyone cares. If that happens who will take responsibility?
We prosecute men like Milosovec and Saddam Hussein for crimes against humanity – but who will stand in the dock if we allow this heartless madness to continue? Surely, it should be every one of us who stands mutely by.
Some say that a welfare society in India is impossible. But they who say this are the metaphorical offspring of the temple priests and money exchangers of Jesus’ day. For them life has nothing truly sacred to offer. They don't know what passion or conviction is. They don't see the realities of industrial change. Their only "wealth" is founded on things that will never nourish. Things such as implacable doctrines and metal coins that, in the final analysis, don't amount to anything...except more suffering and the blood money necessary to uphold a blind tradition that has lost its heart; a deadly tradition...a tradition without vital questions.
Perhaps it this which we all, as individuals, must fight above all. After all, is that not what Krishna and Jesus and Buddha and Ramanuja and Ruskin - and anyone else worth his salt - stood for - i.e. standing up to traditions devoid of vital questions? Reaction to the old corrupt regime only breeds a new corrupt regime. That is a cold, hard fact. There is never any dignity in reaction.
Sensitive attention to the root of our inhumanity is the only thing that promises meaningful change. Someone asked me what made me write this essay. Without thinking, the answer came. It was a scream. A primal, silent scream that came from a heart that is really alive to what it witnesses. The time for half truths is over.
"There is no wealth but life" and "without vision, the people perish." Things to contemplate...
"You never look without a reaction. You look at a sunset and merely say how lovely it is or that it is not as beautiful as it was yesterday. So you have never looked at it. Your memory of yesterday destroys the perception of what is, today. How extraordinarily difficult it is for us to look at something clearly, openly, simply!"
See also these posts (they are related to what is discussed herein):
Friday, August 05, 2005
- Further reflections on Ruskin....and Lord Siva
- Doubts....doubts, they will come...
- ► 2008 (31)
- ► 2006 (147)
- The Indian Blockbuster of the Summer:
- The World of Tomorrow - Lessons From the Life of a...
- A love not of this world
- Ah beautiful!
- The heart is a lonely hunter
- To what degree can another human being affect us
- Condoleeza Rice and the future of the World
- Illogical India
- A plumber in India
- The Indian trains website
- Gandhi the Mahatma
- Don't waste anything.
- Death comes quickly
- Dreams and Good luck a la Beethoven
- Can you place a value on the best of yourself?
- On Nikos Kazantzakis
- Keep the bowl empty of the yesterday.
- What is comedy?
- Beyond Separation
- A few worthy aphorisms
- Seeing differently
- Love will find you
- Guidance in meditation
- I would do anything for love
- The Poet in us
- Can wrong perception bring happniness?
- Tribute to Nick Drake - Air Heavy with a Memory
- ▼ July (33)