Saturday 15 August 2015

Freedom: What is it for?


Bharat Mata by Abanindranath Tagore

August 15 is Sri Aurobindo's birthday. It is also India's Independence Day. What better day than today to recall and meditate on following words of his:
Our first necessity, if India is to survive and do her appointed work in the world, is that the youth of India should learn to think,—to think on all subjects, to think independently, fruitfully, going to the heart of things, not stopped by their surface, free of prejudgments, shearing sophism and prejudice as under as with a sharp sword, smiting down obscurantism of all kinds....
....The old fixed foundations have been broken up, we are tossing in the waters of a great upheaval and change. It is no use clinging to the old ice-floes of the past, they will soon melt and leave their refugees struggling in perilous waters. It is no use landing ourselves in the infirm bog, neither sea nor good dry land, of a second hand Europeanism. We shall only die there a miserable and unclean death. No, we must learn to swim and use that power to reach the good vessel of unchanging truth; we must land again on the eternal rock of ages. 
Let us not, either, select at random, make a nameless hotchpotch and then triumphantly call it the assimilation of East and West. We must begin by accepting nothing on trust from any source whatsoever, by questioning everything and forming our own conclusions.... 
We must not begin by becoming partisans but know before we take our line. Our first business as original thinkers will be to accept nothing, to question everything. That means to get rid of all unexamined opinions old or new, all mere habitual sanskaras in the mind, to have no preconceived judgments.
~ CWSA, Vol. 12, pp. 40-41, emphasis added.
(All mentions of Europe may be understood to refer to the West).

These words were written for an essay titled "On Original Thinking", circa 1910-1913. More than a hundred years have gone by, but we still seem to be floating around, rather slavishly, in the decaying pool of the second-hand, borrowed understandings of Ourselves and the Life around us. Of what it means to be and become. Of freedom and liberty. Of unity and diversity. When will we start waking up to the truth that there is a deeper, much deeper meaning of all these?

We seem to have forgotten that the Indian cultural view considers Freedom as one of the many higher ideals of the spirit, the attributes of the soul, along with Equality, Unity, Harmony and Oneness. In this view, freedom and liberty are not merely meant as unrestricted expressions of our lower mental-vital nature which insists on its fulfilment, no matter what the cost to others' freedom to exist and be, no matter what the cost to the harmony and unity in the larger collective. We seem to be even lacking in the spirit of questioning our badly-borrowed second hand overly-rationalistic-modernity which emphasises only an outer and an absolute freedom.

Blinded by the extremely aggressive, outwardly focused and rationalistic individualism largely popularized via the contemporary representations of the West, we continue to practice being modern by aping this "marketed" version of the West. We confuse Freedom with merely an 'outer freedom to do whatever' with no regard to the complementary truth of Harmony. We mix-up Liberty with a 'license to do as one pleases' with no regard to its potential negative consequence, both for the individual and the collective.  
For the vice of individualism is that in insisting upon the free development and self-expression of the life and the mind or the life-soul in the individual, it tends to exaggerate the egoism of the mental and vital being and prevent the recognition of unity with others on which alone a complete self-development and a harmless freedom can be founded.
 ~Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 25, p. 215

Some of the recent socio-cultural discourses among Indian educated classes serve as good examples, if we want to examine the working of this exaggerated mental-vital egoism. Egoism that only seeks to fulfil its demands and preferences, no matter what the cost. Egoism that refuses to admit any new light once it has bought into one highly limited view of what it means to be free.  

Whether it was an attempt by one Indian state to regulate the cow-slaughter industry, or an idea being floated by another state regarding a possible alcohol prohibition, or a hasty and badly-executed Government ban (which was later revoked following the outrage) on some 800 pornographic websites (out of millions and millions of such sites), many of which also suggest child pornography, – almost all the "liberalist" opposition to such measures was raised under the garb of "freedom." 

Those opposing the beef ban exclusively championed the cause of "freedom of food choice" while refusing to admit the extremely high environmental costs of meat-industry, particularly beef (never mind the need to even consider any religious sensitivities of other groups in society). Those ridiculing any calls for prohibition, all in the name of a pseudo-modern "freedom to drink," never bother to find out how the uncontrolled disease of alcoholism among the poorer sections of the society completely destroys the lives of women and children (never mind the duplicity that the same champions also rally around the "cause" of poor women and children). Those who were opposing the porn ban went the furthest. 

Naturally, such knee-jerk opposition under the garb of "freedom" begs the question – freedom to do what? What are these champions of freedom really asking for?

Shiva Kumar, who is associated with the India Council for Integral Education, a unit of Sri Aurobindo Society, and has more than 15 years of experience working with teachers and youth, recently made a highly insightful comment in this regard. His words provoke us to reflect on the question – Freedom: What is it for? 

Knowingly or unknowingly, all of us seek freedom – but it is not the freedom that merely demands external freedom to stand up and say “it is my body, I will do what I want with it” (a popular actress said it recently); or à la the (in)famous AIB’s roaster where one says, “For us filth is also fun, if you don’t want it, don’t see it – you are an adult and you have the freedom to not see it, whereas we too are adults and it should be our freedom to do even what you might call nasty, indecent or even repulsive, so long as it is not illegal”; or the most recent one where a lot of freedom-celebrators are crying foul of the moral policing behind the Govt.’s banning of 800-odd websites—some of which were even carrying or suggesting child pornography. And I am sure that those who are against this ban are not in favour of any form of child pornography even in the name of the holy word ‘freedom’.
So, what should we be demanding in the name of Freedom? If we do not have clarity on what we seek for, we might end up getting it and then harming things rather than bettering things! When we seek for freedom, should it be for the expression of what is baser, vulgur and repulsive in us?
For those in the habit of looking within and searching within for answers, they can find, with a little effort, that deep within every one of us, there is a Light that shines, a Beauty that revels, a Power that wants to gush out, a harmony that wants to manifest through all these. If at all we seek for freedom, should it not be to express these in our lives -- collective & individual -- in an uninhibited, unfettered, bold and creative way.
Freedom to express the best in us, the deepest and the highest in us—the LIGHT and the BEAUTY that is within us all...

As India celebrates her 69th Independence Day, it is an appropriate time to reflect upon the idea of freedom. Let us each take some time to look within and uncover any mental prisons we may still be living in. 

Let us ask ourselves -- are we working toward gaining a true freedom in our minds and hearts, freedom to express the best in us, the deepest and the highest in us? Have we freed ourselves from the prisons of second hand, colonial mental structures (all in the name of modernity, individualism, rationalism) that actually prevent us from digging deeper into any and all ideas and ideals that we must be pursuing, including the ideal of Freedom? 

Freedom from such a colonized mental and intellectual prison must be the cornerstone of all real and effective work each one of us needs to do to safeguard our political, social, economic and cultural freedom. Every attempt to break the chains of that intellectual prison we carry within; prisons that we may not even be aware of, thanks to our "modern" education which has produced generations of culturally uprooted Indians, is a step toward greater and truer freedom. 

I am reminded today of some words I wrote in the Introduction of my e-book "The Thinking Indian: Essays on Indian Socio-Cultural Matters in the Light of Sri Aurobindo".
Decolonization or un-colonization of mind is not about “going native.” It is also not about purifying oneself of the “foreign elements.” It is essential because it prevents the colonized from becoming colonizers. It is a step toward intellectual liberation of sorts.
This decolonization is not something that happens instantly, it is an ongoing, experiential, lived process at individual and collective levels. It is a part of the ongoing journey of my self – obviously only the apparent, outer self because the real Self will be above and beyond any such national or cultural identity. But the inner knowing of my real Self can’t be unaccompanied by the outer knowing of my apparent self, the individuality that I hold on to in this present manifestation of my true inner Self. 
All sincere attempts to de-colonize and "free" our ways of thinking, seeing, and being are steps toward seeking a true intellectual Swaraj, toward a self-rule or rule of one's inner consciousness. 

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother are my guides, my teachers, companions and inspiration on my journey of such seeking. Understanding or trying to understand the various outer socio-cultural phenomena in the light of Sri Aurobindo’s profound social-political-cultural thought and writings is part of my journey at present. Such an intellectual attempt, I find, guides me tremendously as I continue to integrate my inner and outer journeys. 

On this special occasion of Sri Aurobindo's Birthday and India's Independence Day, it will be worth our while to recall with our deepest gratitude Sri Aurobindo's role in the freedom movement. There are no better words than the following to conclude this post. Words that were said more than a hundred years ago, but their spirit still serves as a perfect reminder for all Indians. 
There are times in a nation’s history when Providence places before it one work, one aim, to which everything else, however high and noble in itself, has to be sacrificed. Such a time has now arrived for our motherland when nothing is dearer than her service, when everything else is to be directed to that end. If you will study, study for her sake; train yourselves body and mind and soul for her service. You will earn your living that you may live for her sake. You will go abroad to foreign lands that you may bring back knowledge with which you may do service to her. Work that she may prosper. Suffer that she may rejoice. All is contained in that one single advice.
Sri Aurobindo, Talk given at the Bengal National College on August 23, 1907.

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