Ranjona Banerji: Cultivation of mind is necessary

Jun 07, 2017, 06:08 IST | Ranjona Banerji

When the allegorical lessons about human life in mythology are taken literally, you are reduced to parroting illogical mumbo-jumbo

The cow has been a religious symbol for Hindus and has always been a contentious issue in Indian politics. Pic/AFP
The cow has been a religious symbol for Hindus and has always been a contentious issue in Indian politics. Pic/AFP

At every moment, you feel that you are living in the theatre of the absurd. If it is not a retired high court judge holding forth on some ridiculous theory on peacock’s crying fertile tears that are swallowed by peahens, it is the president of the United States trolling the mayor of London while the city is grappling with the aftermath of one more terrible terror attack.

If it is not some excitable Congress Party workers gruesomely slaughtering a calf in public to prove a point that backfired, it is the far more dangerous actions of religious right-wing groups and even some government ministers putting their religious beliefs on cows over and above everything else; which includes largely ignoring people being killed over transporting cows.

If it is not ISIS claiming credit for every now frequent terrorist attack, it is the world’s top leaders smiling and dancing with the royalty of Saudi Arabia, regardless of the monarchy’s somewhat suspect relationship with the perpetrators of Islamist terrorism. If it is not the cynicism of the history of geopolitics, it is the cold-hearted cruel cynicism of the terrorist masquerading as religious zeal.

If it is not the United States pulling out of a long-fought, carefully crafted, globally agreed deal of crucial significance to save the planet from human devastation, it is North Korea continuing with its testing of missiles and threats of nuclear war to destroy the planet some other way.

In India, at the moment, we seem to have gone back a few centuries. ISRO might be sending powerful rockets into space but, when it comes to eating habits and cultural norms, we are harking back to mythical texts, mythology and WhatsApp forwards. The greatness about mythology is that it contains allegorical lessons about human life and behaviour. Take it literally and you are reduced to not only diminishing mythology but also parroting illogical mumbo-jumbo. This is true of any religion: take a look around you to see what happens when every pronouncement from centuries ago is taken literally.

It is one thing to truly believe that peacocks are celibate, procreating only when peahens drink their tears. It may be amusing and ridiculous but it is not as inherently dangerous as using ancient scriptures to justify social discrimination like caste as people have started to do full force once again in India recently. The fact that caste discrimination is illegal and that the Constitution gives us equality is wilfully ignored with greater impunity now it seems.

Between Donald Trump’s various social dislikes and prejudices, the incipient distrust of immigrants behind the Brexit vote and the current climate of open hatred of the “Other” in India, we seem to have decided to go backwards in all sorts of ways. The reason the debate over cow slaughter remains constant and even overblown and over-worn is that the cow is being used as the symbol of this battle in India.

Being part of India, for some, means swearing allegiance to the cow: like returning to the totem of the tribe. Yes, the cow has always been a religious symbol for Hindus, and has always been a contentious issue in Indian politics and polity even during the Constituent Assembly debates. But, never like this: lest we forget, this is the 21st century.

Meanwhile, across India, there are real signs of the problems caused by over-development, deforestation and human folly. At least in India, we realise this unlike the president of the United States. But realisation and action are not the same. The 21st century is clearly telling us that we have reached a limit. As we wait for the monsoon to break, half of India is reeling under extreme heat wave conditions. At the same time, what rain that has come to the subcontinent has wreaked havoc.

In all, this misery and idiocy and gloom, the only hope of the moment that I can find is in Dr BR Ambedkar, “The cultivation of the human mind should be the ultimate aim of human existence”.

The rider of course is that cultivation of the mind also means cutting loose from the unreasonable shackles of the past, including untenable beliefs and a propensity to violence. Otherwise...

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @ranjona. Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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