Sunday, July 17, 2005

Bunty and Babli’s fresh talk

Times of India, July 17, 2005

When VS Naipaul appealed earlier this year for a more contemporary discourse in India, he had obviously not seen Bunty aur Babli, Bollywood’s first film about liberalisation’s impact on small town India. Naipaul was referring to the stale quality of debate among Indian intellectuals whose minds are stuck in post-colonial rigidities at a time when young Indian minds are decolonised and India has moved on.

Despite this liberation I am still troubled by our moral discourse, which fails to distinguish between being ethical and religious. The frustrating word, dharma, adds to our confusion because it can mean both. Too many visit temples in the morning but commit perjury in the afternoon. Too many shrug at our massive governance failures with, “What can you do? We live in Kali Yuga”. True, every civilisation harks back to a Golden Age without moral flaws. It’s also true that Indians are deeply religious and God has always settled right and wrong. But I was deeply dismayed recently at my failed attempts to convince students at one of Delhi’s best colleges that dharma and moksha are separate projects and religion is often a distraction for morality. The students believed that truly spiritual persons had to be moral.

I gave the example of a god-fearing person who is about to betray someone’s trust. She might argue, “Well God won’t like it, but then he is forgiving, so I might still gain in the end.” All of us agreed that this is not how a moral person reasons. She simply says, “It is betrayal, so I wont do it.” A good person doesn’t do wrong because of fear of God but out of a sense of duty. Plato, in the Euthyphro, explains that religion gives mythical authority to a morality that is already there. Religion doesn’t create ethics but it captures moral ideas in a symbolic way that engages our imagination. Unhappily, religions have too often sanctioned bad moral ideas—the Hindu caste system, women’s inferiority among Muslims, or Catholic opposition to birth control. Thus, it is best to keep religious and moral spaces separate.

Our ancients did separate them when they said dharma is one of the four aims of life. “What counted was a person’s conduct not his belief”, Professor Radhakrishnan used to say. James Fitzgerald recently pointed out that the meaning of dharma changed during the writing of the Mahabharata. Earlier, it meant observing Vedic rituals and doing visible deeds endorsed by society. Gradually, it changed to mean a personal (and universal) sense of right and wrong in order to become a better and refined human being. This happened probably under pressure from the newer ethics of yoga and Buddhism. Much later did Dharma come to mean religion, as in sanatanadharma, in the 19th century, and this has caused the confusion.

The West too separated religion and morality only in the18th century Enlightenment. This led the Russian writer, Dostoyevsky, to ask, “If God is dead, isn’t everything permitted then?” Delhi University’s students also sensibly asked me, “If God doesn’t decide your duties, then who does?” My answer is that we have to learn to depend on ourselves, on our humanity, and our capacity for empathy. Neither do I despair like many Indians over declining moral standards because I see undeniable gains around me: in our increased sensitivity to the condition of women, the Dalits, and the environment. These have been hard fought victories, and we should feel proud of them. Like Bunty and Babli I don’t think it matters where you are born or your faith; what you make of your life is all that matters.


Medical Blog said...

True, every civilisation harks back to a Golden Age without moral flaws.

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