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Wednesday, January 19, 2022

How the past informs the present

Currently, Indian society is divided into those who feel that an insidious Western influence has turned us into stunted copycats and that we should carefully reexamine our glorious past to appreciate our uniqueness.

Written by Leher Kala |
Updated: January 10, 2022 2:55:20 pm
Cultural relativism can best be understood by example, like noting specifically, how differently Indians and Westerners view marriage.

Speaking at an event in Hyderabad recently, Supreme Court Justice S Abdul Nazeer lamented that despite India having a tradition of jurisprudence that can be traced to great sages like Manu, Kautilya and Brihaspati, a British-induced “colonial psyche” persists in the legal system today.

“In England, Western Europe and the US, judges and lawyers receive an education based on their civilisations. Russia’s judicial values stem from their Marxist past, but the Indian judge or lawyer learns about Roman law and the theories of Western jurists,” said Justice Nazeer, adding, “They learn nothing about the evolution of the law in their own land.” Ascribing the weaknesses in the judiciary to a lack of historical perspective, Justice Nazeer stressed that Indian jurisprudence must be included as a compulsory subject in law degree courses.

Currently, Indian society is divided into those who feel that an insidious Western influence has turned us into stunted copycats and that we should carefully reexamine our glorious past to appreciate our uniqueness. The others, a far smaller number, fear that a self-congratulatory ethnocentrism prevails, closing our minds to established facts from around the world. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between. Even in India, the winds of change are impossible to miss. The stories we have been told about ourselves, family diktats on how we should live, seem unconvincing, at odds with a global reality. Laws support LGBTQ rights, single working women are a potent force and you get the sense that the youth are impatiently shedding all inhibition. The ‘wise elder’ of Indian households commands respect but has lost the control he once exerted.

At the same time, if not in legal circles, modern interpretations of Kautilya’s 2,000-year-old Arthashastra are thriving. There are over 25 books by management gurus available on Amazon who have distilled Chanakya’s realist approach, applying age-old principles to everyday conundrums. At some point in our lives, we all seek to know thyself better, to cope. Indeed, there is great value in the ancient texts, expanding our views on existence, and nudging us to discover that whether B.C. or A.D, mankind’s travails remains the same: our goals, peace and prosperity, our frustrations, troubled relationships and financial insecurity. Within these broad truths, Justice Nazeer’s call that each society differs fundamentally and must be evaluated in terms of its own structures is crucial not just for courts to deliver justice but for people to escape the limitations of their environment, which colour their perceptions of the world.

Cultural relativism can best be understood by example, like noting specifically, how differently Indians and Westerners view marriage. A top US newspaper is carrying a piece that has gained a lot of traction online, ‘How I Demolished my Life’. The writer proudly asserts that she walked out of a marriage with three children because her “husband was blocking her view of the world”. Even the most urbane and emancipated Indian would baulk in alarm at such self-indulgence, perhaps because in India, we feel duty-bound to power through situations, disregarding personal costs. Self-absorption versus sacrifice, who is to say what’s the better method to finding one’s way to that ever-so-elusive happiness? It seems both sides have considerable pitfalls; one would benefit by toning down the impulsiveness, the other by occasionally upsetting the status quo.

It was news to me that the word adhikar, my right, does not occur even once in the Arthashastra. However, the word dharma, the obligation to one’s duty, is central to the text, as it is to the Bhagavad Gita. The opinions and ideas of scholars passed down over generations have profound effect on society, so the subconscious baggage of duty is hard to shake off. Perhaps, we need to philosophically agree that our choices are dictated by factors larger than ourselves. Maturity isn’t just taking responsibility for our actions but critically assessing the history that placed us there. The ultimate freedom is having the power to change it.

The writer is director, Hutkay Films

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