pp. 70-73 in Bioethics in Asia

Editors: Norio Fujiki and Darryl R. J. Macer, Ph.D.
Eubios Ethics Institute

Copyright 2000, Eubios Ethics Institute All commercial rights reserved. This publication may be reproduced for limited educational or academic use, however please enquire with the author.

2.2. Asian/Indian Man: An Agonizing Appraisal

R.N. Sharma.

National Chemical Laboratory, Pune 411008, India

Serious and extensive debate coupled with results from recent field investigations (e.g. the discovery of modern skull fossils dating back some 350,000 years) may have almost settled the vexing problem of origin of our unitary human species. The single Eve hypothesis of our descent from an ancestral African woman has been abandoned by many and it is now believed that the human species have marched towards modernization as at least 3 (possibly more) regional populations. These initially disparate `races' of man have coalesced into one species due to extensive interaction and interbreeding in Space and Time. However, as in external characteristics such as anatomy, physiognomy etc., this multiregional evolution of man is probably also responsible for the rather distinctive psychological, emotional and intellectual traits in some of the more distinct modern races/ethnic groupings of man. These have persisted, perhaps with subtle (or even gross in some cases) changes with the progress of civilization. But certain basic or root, underlying propensities are very often all too evident. With the overtaking of biological evolution by cultural evolution in case of the Homo sapiens, it is important that these landmarks of the noosphere (in Chardin de Teilhard's terminology), are accorded the attention they deserve for understanding sometimes puzzling, contradictory, stupid, inane, even suicidal behaviours exhibited by different kinds of the human animal. In this article we shall confine ourselves to certain selected, very distinctive traits and definitive ethos of modern man in Asia, particularly India. First, let us straight-away dispense with any misgivings about racist bogeys of the Nazi, Fascist or Apartheid vintage being raised here. This dissertation seeks to analyze our (Asian, particularly Indian) streaks which have made us what we are, good or bad, rich or poor, intelligent or stupid etc. It may be argued that characteristics determining the social, intellectual or political status of regional populations are likely to be consequences of the march (or arrest) of the civilization process, as well as socioeconomic and historical and political forces. The thesis I wish to present here is that whereas these very earthy and mundane factors may shape or hone the final product, the basic mould remains an epiphenomenon of intrinsic biological singularities specific to given (regional) populations, manifested unmistakably in particulate propensities despite the greater intercourse and consequent contraction of the modern world. There is, of course the problem of defining `Asian'. For the definitive scope of this article, the mega, and monolithic Chinese, and the patently more Western Japanese societies, and perhaps some others, must be excluded. The observations here embrace mainly the Southeast Asian region, more prominently the Indian sub-continent. The Asian (in the boundaries prescribed above), and/or Indian biological (noospherical) mould projects certain unique psychosocial and attitudinal manifestations which not only seem to distinguish us from the rest of our kind but have also possibly shaped our history, fashioned our personality, and will chart our future.

The first of these Asian/Indian singularities is our preoccupation with the `spiritual'. Be it mere ostensible trappings, fraudulent deception, or even the real thing ‚ the genuine article - we are obsessed with spirituality. Superciliously we dub the Western `savage', tending to look down upon him as culturally and intellectually inferior. The Western man himself contributes to his own down-gradation by oblique references to `Oriental" mystiques and inscrutabilities. How very false, indeed mythical these precepts are becomes transparently obvious on just a little reflection. The sad truth is that the ground realities are almost the exact reverse of these `popular ' beliefs. Reminiscences of historical greatness and glorious antiquities of the great Eastern civilizations notwithstanding, Western civilization has been for the last two millennia and very definitely today, more powerful, progressive, ebullient and resurgent. And if `spirituality' is denotative of obeisance to `higher' or humanistic values and aspirations, including social and intellectual freedom, justice and objectivity, our record is dismal. We are today the abject, unabashed materialists. Let us be very clear that the Western man, his history, institutions, culture, philosophy and society are no more idealized paragons of blemishless virtue than we are devils incarnate or atavistic freaks. Nazism, Fascism, Apartheid and even Communism were also foisted on a hapless and unsuspecting humanity by our unpigmented brethren. Other equally cosmic but modern and persisting profanities such as especially the military and monetary imbalances are again almost exclusively Western obduracies inflicted on the weaker East. These past and continuing inequities demand that we analyze and identify our limitations and foibles which have rendered us vulnerable to unmitigated exploitation in the past and cast long shadows of gloom on our future also.

We shall confine ourselves here to a few of the more prominent and vital traits. We have already mentioned our essentially false pretensions about spirituality. In terms of espiritual' epiphenomena like concern for life, empathy with human/social needs, even narrow nationalistic chauvanisms, and the higher intellectual and moral aspirations, we project a very poor image. Spiritual propensities may be lofty and impractical philosophical attributes. So let us come down to earth, and dwell on a few failings which keep pulling us down into quagmires of retrogression. First, nepotism. Then, the feudal Dynasty fixation. Comparisons are odious, but yardsticks have their value. The word Nepotism is at grave risk of becoming obsolete in the West. Butithas has become routine parlance in Asia. Whether its the acceptance and return of the Imelda shoe in the Philippines, or the triumph of the widows in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, or the continuing obsession with two well known political dynasties in India and Pakistan..... Not to mention the perennially ascendant esons', brothers, sisters, wives, nephews, in-laws et. al of lesser fame in smaller backyards. Contrast this with the hullaboo which would result on the slightest whisper of kin placement upbooting in any modern Western state. Social and political norms would doom any such upstart progenitors to a very quick professional grave in the West. Birthrights may have been abolished in political polemics in the East, but the abolition seems to be more pontifical than practical, for they continue undiminished and unrestricted in practice. Not only in venal politics, but in the various state appendages the bureaucracy, education, and of late, woe and alas, even in those highest of human callings ‚ the Arts and the Sciences. Most regrettably, even these have also become saddled with Old Man `Relation' at every level. The Asian, and Indian ethos bubbles over with relations, and relations. Perchance if there is no relation, many other ever-ready substitutes have emerged, apart from the eternal Acquaintances and Contacts. Today there are clearly defined affiliations of region, language and religion which become veritable gopen sesamesh to doors which would remain permanently shut otherwise. The nadir of this, our very special degradation is its spill-over into the highest fields of human endeavour - the creative arts (Writers, actors!)and the sciences (Scientists).We shall not expand more on this theme here since these unique phenomena and their consequences deserve separate whole theses by themselves.

Our next diagnostic identification is the `stifling bureaucracy' which leaves all with a bitter taste and a cold sweat. Those who can, of course, simply wash their hands of Asia due to it. Some intrepid entrepreneurs, mostly of the uninitiated exotic hues, dare to sample it, but the contest is too uneven, the outcome predictable. The wise ones don't even try. Meanwhile the doddering army of clerks and their peacock feathered friends, the immovable ranks of the bureaucrats, continue merrily not doing nothing (that would be an unwarranted injustice; after all they also have a reputation to maintain), but doing everything to obstruct, delay, frustrate, destroy, demean and demoralize individuals and endeavours. I am reminded of an archeological puzzle of Mohenja Daro/Harappa. The `cities' at these sites have massive agglomerations of singularly drab and dismal cells like catacombs which send shivers of inexplicable fear on the speculation that they were dehumanized ghettoes probably meant to house workers or slaves. The Aryan invaders presumably brought their own unique cheer and openness, and after the usual destructive mayhem of those times, exiled many of the original population but assimilated some of them too, with the result that what eventually emerged in India was a distinct Indian population of integrated stock. Perhaps, then, in India at least we do not have to search far and wide for the primitive streak of regimentation, insularity, authoritarianism, inane obstructionism etc. manifested in its notorious and unparalleled `stifling bureaucracy'.

Tongue in cheek we sometimes blame the `Shopkeepers' (English) who kept us enslaved for three centuries. But 300 years is not even a drop in the bucket in biological or geological time. And the shopkeepers were, on the whole, rather benign, given to mild brainwashing of the natives about such inconsequential things as chota pegs and burra sahibs. No, our painful (and shameful) dilemma must go deeper. Much, much deeper. It must be in the genes .....the age old Mohenjo Daro/Harappa residuum which comes to the fore all too readily. Live not, and let not live. Or, in these days of brazen opportunism, live, but never let live. To translate that dictum into practice just use the magic words: Rules; Regulations; Procedure; Proper Channel...

Finally, the inability to face realities of the modern world. The need for nationalism combined with futuristic objectivity, as also probity and integrity in personal as well as public conduct. The eschewment of political gain, at the cost of honour, history, even geography and the very future survival. The lethal consequences of such tendencies have been more than apparent. I recently read a few reviews of some books on Science and Philosophy, written by Western savants, and published in those citadels of materialism, New York, London, Toronto, Sydney...And yet they talked of the past, the present and the future of man as an ethical being; humanism; of soaring intellectual aspirations and emerging interfaces of Science and Spirituality. Of human destiny and cosmic forces. Or the geometries and symmetries of biological time; of corporeal probabilities and intellectual possibilities of the fragile flagship of Life in the Universe as we know it; of Golden Gods and timeless eternities ,all revolving round a central though minuscule Homo sapiens..... And after imbibing the heady flavour of one of these ethreal brews, I remember the reviewer ending with the agonized, plaintive query, gWhy, Oh why are not such books written in India ?" Why indeed ? Why do we not win a Nobel ? Or even an Olympic Gold ? A recent Nature write-up on 50 years of Indian Independence puzzles likewise.

The queries are timely and demand answer. A civilization which could produce Ved Vyas (Mahabaharat), Valmik (Ramayana), Krishna (Geeta), the Buddha, Kalidas (Shakuntala, Meghdoot etc) of towering spiritual and literary moulds in its infancy. Tulsidas, Tagore, Premchand, Raman,Ramanuja, Bose, of Nobel vintage in both Arts and Sciences, and modern apostles like Ramakrishna,Viveknanda, Aurobindo, Gandhi while in colonial subjugation, and in midst of socio-political upheavals and acute economic deprivation, why today, after 50 years of self-rule and indubitable socioeconomic progress does it present a picture of decadence, veering towards disintegration. Other civilizations also went through periods of undiminished oppression by various human and natural forces, but came out the more vigorous and dynamic. What is destroying the ancient spark of the East?

The Asian/Indian polity today uses but does not seem to really comprehend words such as integrity, honesty, humanism, self-respect, even nationalism. Though voluble lip service is paid to them in public, putting such propensities to practice is considered archaic and stupid. Meritocracy is in its death throes, mobocracy and the mafia flaunt their ugly Hydras with impunity. Constitutional conformism is blandly paraded as a cloak for deviations of the conscience. These are the home truths, the roots of the unfolding tragedy, the sources of the rot. History is replete with examples of traitors. But the latter only betrayed small, erstwhile political entities of not much consequence. Today, en masse, not only nations and societies, but the very species of the human animal is being bartered away for personal pecuniary or fanatical ideological gain. The pity of it is that the enormity of the crime is still not quite understood by the bartering hordes. The malaise is worst in the so called developing societies, including the ones under focus here.

Many critics are often accused of indulging in self-flagellation when they write about the ills of their own societies in this fashion. c have not dwelt on some of the unequaled virtues of the Indian polity; to mention just one a unique record of extending without fore or after thought cordial asylum and cosy haven to all seekers. The centuries old Zorastrians still live in peace in India. No one has ever tormented them despite their high vulnerability of very small numbers, different social and religious codes etc. Likewise, in modern times, the same can be said of Tibetan exiles, despite the displeasure of their overbearing Chinese neighbours. Even invaders and tyrants were absorbed in the great Indian Chimeria, and continue to enjoy its ambivalent hospitality without fear, despite their pastas well as continuing calumnies and assaults. Contrast this with the intolerance and bigotry almost everywhere else, even right across the borders. These are universal truths, which no amount of partisan geopolitical potshots on so called human right violations can diminish. Indeed, if some of the Nordic nations stand out today as islands of neutrality in a world of continuous internecine strife, India stands out alone as the one warm and comforting beacon to safety and security, without fear or favour, to all those who seek its unambiguous, unlimited and yet self-deprecatory generosity. Yet, the time has come for honest self-evaluation. Retrospection and introspection. This article attempts to do that, and build a premise for getting some answers.

Genetic Engineering has come of age but is still confined to gross and superficial manipulations. The day when we can engineer out of our systems the little (!) frailties which have so crippled us is still far in the future. But we can still hope that willful edifying nurture may yet prevail over the tyranny of Nature. But the nurture must begin, and in the now and the heretofore. Tomorrow may be too late.


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