These are emotionally charged times, with contentious political and social issues thrown up nearly every day. There is a lot of concern about the various scams and corruption cases raging through the country and there are calls for punitive action and bodies to oversee the functioning (especially) of government employees. These are necessary but probably insufficient. Insufficient, because the roots of social malaise lies not in the collective mass of society, but in the sum of individual pathology. Unfortunately, the individual psyche is dismissed with derision and no respect or importance is given to the factors that throw up corrupt individuals. We take refuge in the me-and-not-me dichotomy – they are corrupt, we are not. Can we really claim that all the people raising strident voices against corruption have never indulged in a corrupt act themselves? That may involve either acts of commission or omission, acts of giving or taking, all for convenience or profit. Is it merely by chance that we rank amongst the most corrupt countries in the world? Can we dare to say that nothing about the way we live and grow up is contributory to the disruption in society? The question begs deeper enquiry. If we take a gross look at our country and its demographics, we see that despite the abundance of natural resources, the resources available to the population are grossly inadequate and inequitable. A staggering proportion of assets are held by a miniscule percentage of the population. This is also true for the more developed nations like the US, but in a land 7 times our land mass with 1⁄4th of our population, and a vastly better GDP, the resources left over for the majority of the population far exceed that in our country. So we are left with a huge chunk of the population competing for very scarce resources. Will this lead to a cut-throat attitude as well? If the majority of the population does not even have the resources to feed themselves adequately, can we expect that honesty, integrity and neighborly love will prevail? And as if the only thing that humans aspire to is food. It is the most basic, but it is not by any means sufficient. For a huge, hungry population, higher human aspirations of security, warmth, love, sharing, altruism – they are very far away, and very difficult to attain. The miracle is that despite such deprivation, many if not most people still manage acts of magnanimity and kindness. Just one example is the spontaneous and selfless help offered by ordinary (and suffering) citizens to each other during the Mumbai floods. But such acts cannot be sustained, cannot be the defining aspect of any society, unless there is a general level of satisfaction of the very basic needs. Higher functions of honesty, integrity and altruism can flourish only when the basic needs are reasonably met for the majority of the people. But the roots are deeper still. No matter how much we sneer at and ignore the individual aspects of the development of the personality, we cannot wish it away.
Of course, it is not possible to generalize and extrapolate an individual- based hypothesis to the entire population with any accuracy. But having said that, a society is made up of individuals, and the individual psyche does have a role – an important role – is deciding which way the society is headed. It is acknowledged that having a huge and ever expanding population is an impediment to improving the quality of life for the said population. Not that every one shares that point of view – “children are a gift from God” is a cliché in our society. But even when that factor is acknowledged, it is to acknowledge that a larger population means a smaller share of resources – and we mostly limit it to material resources. We do not acknowledge that emotional resources are limited as well – limited by the amount that one can devote to the upbringing of children. “A large and happy family” is a common sentiment we like to profess, whether it has any truth in or not. We will not take in to account the strain on material resources here – considerable as that might be. Have we looked at the strain on the emotional resources when bringing up numerous children? Happy children make happy adults. Okay, that is an overstatement, but not fundamentally incorrect. More difficult to understand is the stance that no matter what efforts you put (or don’t) into bringing up children, the outcome will depend on the children and not on their growing-up environment. All parents who are involved in the lives of their children will acknowledge how complicated it is to raise children. The amount of time that is needed to live in, and understand, their world, is considerable. One or two children will stretch most parents if they are concerned also with the quality of the act of raising children – not merely with the quantity. It is quality of the interaction that we have with our children that makes them feel loved and secure, and therefore be able to love and provide security in their own right when such time comes in their lives. If we have the resources – not merely material, but also emotional – to instill in children happiness, self-confidence and a joyful outlook towards life, we will be able to lay the foundations of a morally strong and peaceful society for the future. But if we see large families, and often large, poor families, can we imagine that in the middle of the struggle for existence, they will have the resources to instill happiness and values in the children? If we are so busy trying to survive, and we complicate this by having large families, how are we going to find the time and strength to provide the carefree childhood so essential to strengthening the personality? The child, on the other hand, perhaps unintentionally, is exposed to a model of constant struggle for the meager resources. The model is not a healthy one. It is very much possible that we are instilling in the child not the belief that one can have a good life while being honest and preserving our integrity, but that in order to get a “good” life we need to compete, outdo, outsmart and trample other people. Constant comparison is a hall mark of growing up. To be able to have a gentle, caring, loving, relationship, one needs time as well as resources. The chores of life will eat into time and resources, more so if the chores are more and time, less. The focus is on getting more resources into the home, often at the cost of a stable and caring relationship with the child. So the prototype that we offer is likely to get translated and transcripted into another life, and another generation. What kind of people we will be, how much we value values, how we build and see relations are all very much dependant on, one, our genes, and two, the atmosphere in the first few years of our life. We can’t very well choose the genes we pass on to our children, but we can the environment. It is ironical that we first teach our children to compete, to fight for resources and positions, to think of getting ahead in life, to outdo others, to care for our own future more than anything else, and then lament that people are (!) selfish, greedy, squabbling and morally corrupt. In the way we live our lives, in the carelessness we demonstrate in the planning of our own lives, we have planted the seeds of the very future we criticize later. It would be delusional to assume that this unhappy scenario is the fate of the materialistically poor in the society. If we care to look around ourselves, we will see countless examples of doctors, lawyers, engineers, software professionals, IT and ITES executives, businessmen and so on, who are quite
intoxicated by the race to accrue more, and even more, to their lives. They are quite oblivious of, and often choose to ignore, the human cost of this quest. Long working hours, stress-filled lives, and performance–based assessment of success – are these the building blocks of healthy relationships? These people are by no means struggling to fulfill the basic necessities of life – unless Gucci is now a basic necessity – but they often prioritize individual achievement over emotionally fulfilling relationships. Have they been taught in childhood that success in measured by the footfalls at your clinic door rather that the quality of the work that you do? Or that it is far more valuable to achieve less honestly than achieve more dishonestly? Do we even care to look at these issues anymore? Is the BMW more valuable than the values we tom-tom but don’t seem to incorporate in our own lives? The same people who protest at the corruption in the society seem to be unaware that their own values and their own lives do not seem to be in sync. Rather the professed values and the lives they lead. For the true reflection of what we hold dear lies in not what we say, but how we do – and if the way we value money and power and comfort is any indication, we are no less greedy than anyone else as a society. And if the greed is the same and the resources are less – that is corruption, isn’t it? Another aspect to be looked at is the balance that we strike between pleasure and prudence. While we are quick to point out the depravity of the hedonistic “western” societies, we might want to look deeper into the success of our own approach. Are we tilted too much towards sacrifice and suffering,all the time holding out the carrot of redemption in another birth? After all it is we who seem to be falling over one another in our rush to settle in the “depraved” western countries, not the other way round. The drain is westward, not eastward. It is intriguing to think whether the focus on suffering and sacrifice rather than sinful pleasures is the result of poverty or the cause thereof.
In the guise of spirituality we often teach our children that it is or lot to suffer in this world. We teach entire generations that the salvation from deprived lives lies not in this world but in the never- een afterlife. If we justify and glorify suffering, are we really paving the way for building a better society? We may be – and that is open to question – earning brownie points for the presidential suite in the afterlife, but we are not making things much better here. If we don’t seek refuge in the kingdom of heaven, would we be keener to improve our lot here? This point comes to the fore because despite the richness and antiquity of our culture, we don’t seem to be a very content people. We certainly are not content enough to be able to make do with honest ways of leading our lives. We seem to want more than what we have, and nothing wrong with that, except that we are willing to cross the borders of integrity to get what we want. The sermons of values, culture and the rewards in the next life seem to be falling flat insofar our behavior is concerned. Unfortunately, this has bred hypocrisy of massive proportions – the country with arguably the richest history and culture in the world is today wallowing in poverty and corruption. So the question is upon us – in order to root out the corruption and poverty in our society, should we be content merely to have supervisory and punitive bodies to punish the corrupt? Is punishment going to transform society? Or ought we also examine whether the prudishness and deprivation which we extol are too extreme to build a happy society? Should we not strike a better balance between the strict and often harsh principles governing our society and move to a more balanced position between hedonism and prudence? What is the point of a constant suppression of basic human wants if all it leads to is a backdoor means to fulfill the same? Just as too much a tilt towards hedonism can lead to a chaotic society, too much restriction of expression of desires – universal desires – can lead to a discontented society where crooked means have to be resorted to in order to fulfill the desires. Rigid and authoritarian societies can lead to contentment of a few but frustration in the majority. Unfortunately, desires – like life itself – find a way of expressing themselves. If there are too many obstacles on the direct route, indirect ways will be resorted to. The solution may lie not in further tightening the screws but in a more balanced permission of expression of ordinary human desires. In too ardent a quest for an idealistic society, we seem to have moved far away from one.