To win the civilizational narrative, we must revive our gods.
Pritam Choudhury is from Agartala, Tripura. He studied electrical engineering at IIT Roorkee, after which, he graduated in Computer Science from the University of Cambridge. Currently, he is pursuing doctoral studies in programming languages at the University of Pennsylvania. He is deeply interested in Dharmic studies and exploring the wisdom of ancient India.
Ideals in life
Human beings cannot live without ideals. Amidst the chaos surrounding us, it is ideals that give life meaning. It is ideals that motivate us to get up from our beds every morning even though we would have liked to sleep for an hour more. It is ideals that inspire us to keep on moving even though we have every reason to just give up. Without ideals, we are left at the mercy of time and external circumstances which then dictate our lives. Such a life is at best miserable, if not outright contemptible. Because when we give up our ideals, we also give up our self-respect and dignity along with it. And living without self-respect is worse than death.
Trans-personal nature of ideals
Ideals manifest themselves in many forms. But the key quality of ideals is that they are trans-personal. And this in turn is a deep observation about the human psyche. The observation stems from the realization that my fear is no different from your fear; my happiness is no different from your happiness and so on for all other human emotions. So we can look at these emotions as abstract, disembodied entities. We can imagine that ‘fear’ is a ‘thing’ by itself and that when we experience fear, we are ‘possessed’ by it.
Let us take an example to understand this better. Suppose, we see an object and realize that it has a rectangular shape. Now the idea of rectangularity is an abstract one and is independent of that object. What we mean when we say that the object has a rectangular shape is that the abstract idea of rectangularity has manifested in that object. Similarly, what we mean when we say that we are in fear is that the abstract idea of fear has now manifested in our mind.
If the fear is no longer in our control, the manifestation turns into a possession. And in that possessive state, certain physiological and behavioural changes occur, like our heart-beat goes up, we look for safe places, etc. These changes happen to anyone whosoever is possessed by fear. So we can say that fear is that abstract entity which, on possession, brings about such and such changes. It now seems that this abstract entity has a nature or personality of its own, independent of the personalities of the people whom it possesses. So ‘fear’ has a trans-personal personality. This is true of happiness, anger and all other human emotions. Now, what do our ideals look like? Maybe our ideal is conquest of fear. Since fear is transpersonal, so also is the ideal of the conquest of fear.
Ideals as gods
Now how do we represent trans-personal personalities? One way of doing that would be to use symbols. Symbols act as a bridge between our conscious world and the world of abstractions. So, in general, a symbol should be easy to comprehend for our conscious mind and at the same time, it should also bear resemblance to the abstract entity it symbolizes. The easiest way to represent personalities is in the form of persons. And an abstract symbol for a human emotion can bear resemblance to that by simply invoking the emotion. So fear is symbolized by a person who invokes fear. And thus, we have a symbol for fear --- Yama (Kala), the harbinger of death, the most fearful of events. Now suppose our ideal is conquest of fear. We can represent this by a person who has conquered fear so that fear itself is afraid of him. And thus, we have a symbol for this ideal --- Kala-Bhairava, the slayer of death.
So we see that our gods are the embodiments of our ideals. Not just that, they also hold the keys to the realisation of those ideals. For example, Kala-Bhairava is not just the personification of the slayer of death but also the path by which we can conquer the fear of death. The paths for attaining the ideals or the gods are encoded in our texts. For example, the path for conquering death is described in the saga of Markandeya and Kalantaka Mahadeva. And this is why, we follow and worship our gods and goddesses and celebrate their gathas.
Revival of gods
So if we want to rise up again as a culture, we must revive our gods. A culture without gods is a culture without ideals. Such a culture is easily destroyed by external agencies. Put differently, we can only be as powerful as our gods. This is so because gods are the ideals of our imagination and we can only be as much powerful as we are willing and are able to imagine. Once revived, our gods shall live within us. They will inspire us to work and strive at our full potential. And with this, we shall surely accomplish our ideals.
How do we revive our gods? The first step towards that would be to revive our schools of thought along with their teachers. We should bring the old texts back to life by trying to understand them and then by initiating discussions on them and finally by writing commentaries on them. Alongside, we must also bring the great teachers back to our daily lives; the teachers who understood and realized the nature of our gods. On our journey, the teachers are the beacons of hope; for sometimes if we doubt our potential and become demotivated, their words will invigorate us.
The civilizational narrative
But isn’t everything going well for us? For example, many of our schools like Advaita Vedanta, Gaudiya Vaishnavism, etc are doing very well. Many of the teachers of our current times are also very actively nourishing our culture. So do we really need to be worried? I would say yes. In spite of the flourishing schools and the active teachers, it seems to me that we are losing the debate on the civilizational narrative at both the national and the global scale. The young Indian growing up in a metropolitan city hardly knows much about his or her culture. Tomorrow if he or she shows up in a protest demanding destruction of ‘patriarchal Hindu culture’, then who should we blame? In fact, presently, many of the modern Indian elite circles have a despising attitude towards our culture and they think that their attitude is very scientific and hence justified. This wouldn’t have been that much of a problem unless they had a dominant say in deciding the narratives of our time and civilization. If we lose the narrative, we lose our culture.
So we must not lose the narrative. And the only way to ensure that is that we build a strong narrative, one that can withstand all sorts of attacks and emerge victorious. Such a narrative needs a solid foundation, a foundation built up on our ideals, ideals for which we live and die. And these ideals are the gods we have known for so long. So the way to save our culture is through the revival of our gods. May we become aware of our gods once again. May our gods guide us on our journey towards fulfilment. May our gods bless us.