Saturday, September 15, 2007

This Above all
The other side of Rousseau

I often wonder why Indians never produced intellectuals who radically changed people’s way of thinking and brought about changes in society. We produced dreamers and visionaries like Gandhi, Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose, who caused political upheavals that changed the course of our country’s history.

However, the only one of the trio who ushered in a social change which had a lasting effect was Nehru because he had freed his mind of cobwebs of religiosity. We did have a few intellectuals like M.N. Roy and Nirad Chaudhary, but their impact on our way of thinking was minimal.
French thinker Jean Jacques Rousseau
French thinker Jean Jacques Rousseau

In Europe it was different. By the middle of the 18th century the church had lost its monopoly of being the sole mentor of society. The spoken word was replaced by the printed word. The upper echelons of society were literate and began to turn to tracts, treatise and books written by scholars, most of whom did not accept teachings of the Bible or the apostles as gospel truth. The educated elite led the way to social reform; the masses followed their lead. This did not happen in India. Only a miniscule section of our aristocracy was enlightened. It knew how to give orders but not convince people that they were right.

The western educated elite expressed its views in English known to barely 2 per cent of our population. As a result, preachers of religion continued to remain guardians of social morals. The written word did not replace the spoken word. It has not done so to this day. That is why intellectuals made no impact on Indian society. 
Another factor which put Indian thinkers at a disadvantage was our attitude towards our gurus. They had to be of an impeccable character, saintly, almost God-like. If they were known to drink, fornicate, be homosexual, liars, cheaters, they were put out of reckoning. This never bothered Europeans. Most of their intellectuals were hard drinkers, womanisers, spongers and self-promoters. Nevertheless, they were held in respect because of what they wrote.

What I have said can be illustrated by the teachings and personal life of one regarded by scholars as the pioneer of intellectualism in Europe, Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-78). He was unknown till he won an essay competition organised by a little known provincial French academy on “Whether the rebirth of the sciences and the arts has contributed to the improvement of morals”. This was in 1750 when Rousseau was 39. Almost overnight this non-entity was catapulted to celebrity status.

Rich aristocrats put their chateaus at his disposal; they arranged saloons and invited their friends to listen to what he had to say because he roused their feelings of guilt for being rich and privileged.

The novels and essays he wrote thereafter were gobbled up by avid readers. He wanted the citizens and the state to redraw the contract of their relationship, giving citizens a much bigger role in the government and freedom of expression and behaviour. His aphorisms were on peoples’ lips and are remembered to this day: “The fruits of the earth belong to us all, the earth itself to none. Man is born free and is everywhere in chains. Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”. And many others.

To look for an Indian parallel to Rousseau will be futile. What was Rousseau like as a man? He was the second son of a not too prosperous Swiss watchmaker. He lost his mother when he was still a child and was brought up by his father. His elder brother ran away from home. He was 15 when his father died. He grabbed all the family’s assets without bothering to look for his brother. He was brought up as a Calvinist. He converted to Roman Catholic to gain favours of a rich French woman with whom he lived for many years.

He had a crooked penis and had trouble holding back his urine. Nevertheless, he persuaded the young Therese who laundered his clothes to become his mistress. She bore him five children, all of whom he deposited at the doorstep of an orphanage soon after they were born.

He had other mistresses from time to time. While on a visit to England, where he was lionised by the English aristocracy, James Boswell diarist Dr Johnson, who was escorting Therese, had no problem taking her to bed. Rousseau was forever complaining of ill-health and insomnia. This was largely to gain sympathy because he was rarely ill and was known to snore lustily throughout the night. He was a shameless sponger and free-loader; later he reviled people he had lived off publicly. He wore garish clothes entirely to attract attention to himself.

In India a man like Rousseau would have been spat upon as a clever badmash. In France his body rests in the pantheon among the greatest of the great of the nation.

Unanswered questions

How is that while we celebrate Janmashtami and Ram Navami every year, we know the exact times and places when Shri Krishna and Shri Rama were born but we do not know the years they were born in? I hope some scholar of Hinduism would enlighten us on the subject.

Another question to which I have hitherto failed to get a satisfactory answer is the significance of number 108. Why have Hindu rosaries exactly 108 beads (mankas), never more or less? Christian, Muslims and Sikhs also use rosaries as aids to prayers or while meditating, but they attach no significance to the number of beads on them. There is no mention of 108 in the vedas or Upanishads. When did 108 come to be regarded as of special significance? By whom? And why? I am sure our readers would like to know.

One-letter truth

For bridegrooms who demand dowry as a pre-condition, all you have to do is to substitute the letter ‘D’ with a ‘B’ to get at the truth — ‘Bribegrooms’

(Contributed by KJS Ahluwalia, Amritsar)