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Bridging the Great Divide

Modern Mythmaking 18 Comments

Published in Sunday Midday, Mumbai, 30 May 201o

Have you ever realized that the person who serves you from behind the counter at a Mall or a Mutliplex usually cannot afford the things he sells? Not the tickets of the theatre or the popcorn or the clothes in the boutique. India’s great divide is so common place that we have coped with it by rendering it invisible until it explodes on our television in the form of Maoist attacks and railway motormen strikes.

In Western mythologies, whether it is Greek or Biblical, all humans are considered equal. Inequality, say the Greeks, is a result of divine mischief to distract humans so that we do not threaten the Olympian gods. In the Bible, inequality becomes the work of the Devil. Capitalist and Communist thinking is greatly influenced by these Western mythological themes. Capitalism tries to make everyone rich by generating more wealth while Communism tries to make everyone rich by distributing whatever wealth is available.

In India, the Rig Veda states that in the beginning the primal being divided itself to create social strata – from the head came the intellectuals, from the arms the politicians, from the trunk the entrepreneurs and from the legs the laborers. This hymn known as the Purusha Sukta acknowledges social hierarchy. The British rulers of India pointed to this hymn as the root of the Indian caste system. Indian social reformers, embarrassed by the revelation, agreed and worked hard to break free from its legacy. In apology, some pointed out that the hymn was a ‘later interpolation’ and that originally, the Rig Veda also believed everyone in society was equal. Others defended the hymn saying that the varna system of the Veda was based on aptitude, hence was fluid, and was different from the later caste or jati system that was based on birth, hence rigid.

In all these debates surrounding caste and class in India, the wisdom called Vedanta, squeezed out of Vedic hymns, is forgotten. Vedanta states that every human being has two parts – the soul or Atma and the flesh or Deha. The soul is indifferent to social hierarchy – it has no varna or jati or gender. It is equal. In fact, it is essentially divine. The body by contrast is sensitive to social hierarchy – it is subjected to all kinds of social forces such as caste and class and economic divides. These social forces are the creations of man. Hence it can be perpetrated or destroyed, depending on the level of human wisdom. Since all humans will never have the same level of wisdom, there will never be social equality at any time.

The assumption, based on modern political theories, that we can bridge the great Mall & Multiplex divide by helping the poor become rich and the rich richer, seems rather fantastic. A place where all people have access to all resources equally is called Utopia. Utopia exists only in the human imagination. In reality, there is no such world. There will always be people who have more wealth than others.

Vedic thought considers the divide of society as eternal. In other words, material equality can never be achieved. Yet, it is possible to create harmony provided one acknowledges the needs of the soul. The soul yearns for fulfillment. This happens by experiencing wealth and then outgrowing it. So perhaps the need of the hour is to help the poor get out of poverty while helping the rich outgrow their attachment for wealth. One without the other will only lead to frustration and conflict.

  • parveen sibal

    You are Just amazing and Count me as your devoted Fan for ever. Enjoyed all of your posts. Thanks

  • Anand

    Devdutt Ji, another amazing piece of wisdom.
    I have a doubt, what does the vedic thought say on out growing wealth? Does it recommend philanthropy, takes a very generic approach or does it gives specific details on how and why to out grow wealth?

  • Sriharsha

    good opening. How does one take this to the end?. Yes we outgrow the need for materialist things, but we need to simultanously need to develop the need to help others. This is the most difficult part. We need a proper forum to help others.

  • cmpatnaik

    “Help the poor to become rich
    Help the rich to shun Greed”
    Is it possible
    if so I pray God to make it possible
    in my lifetime (I am 60)
    I just not able to think of a world
    without frustration and conflict.

    A good insight, cheers

  • Kalpesh

    Well said.

    If you look at history, we have examples where the poor people didn’t want wealth & were happy to be in service (of god). Tukaram, Mirabai are the names that come to my mind.

    And then there were kings who left everything in search of meaning.

    Like a monkey, our mind wanders from one end to the other. We accumulate wealth till we get tired of it & want to have some meaning. The poor guy on the street cannot be asked to do that cause he needs to feed himself & family. And yet, there were people (although poor) chose to be happy & compassionate.

    I think, it boils down to what each person wants/needs.

    Thanks!!

  • Vivek N

    great piece, as usual.
    agree with you completely.
    however, if the same person selling movie tickets at the mall even think of improving his knowledge, not very late will he see himself buying one. we humans easily luk upto the people who are in a better position and feel disappointed. but we seldom work towrds becoming better. if we do, one doesnt hav to wait for all the millionares to share their wealth.
    devduttji, an out of context question. can you write something about vaimanika shastra. did such advanced civilization exist? are our ancestors visiting us, whom we call aliens? just too curious to know.

  • G

    A quibble:

    “Since all humans will never have the same level of wisdom, there will never be social equality at any time.”

    – sounds like you’re saying that wisdom and social station correlate significantly. Surely not?

    Also, you might like this illustration by the Scottish artist Alasdair Gray:

    http://www.sorchadallas.com/images/00005412/large

  • Sanjay Gupta

    Right. All humans are equal but all minds and the knowledge in them is not equal. Therefore the “great divide”. With knowledge wisdom should come which alas is not coming. Greed, anger, ill will towards fellow human beings,hatred should automatically diminish with upward movement of mind and knowledge. There should be no problem in rich becoming more rich, but at the same time poor should also get some amount of their share of ‘richness’.

  • Shah Dharmik Nitin

    Correctly said.If one desires to fulfill the needs of the soul rather than material pleasures,the rich – poor divide in the world will cease.

  • D Balasubramaniam

    Highly insightful. In my inference, social equity can be achieved by addressing the needs of the soul rather than the body. The learning from the Vedas to be applied today calls for a change in the thought process – begin with not taking western philosophies as gospel truths. For example, worshiping the tree to me comes across as a great piece of effective mass communication to conserve trees, a practice shunned as superstitious by western ideas.

  • Anirban

    Probably this is the reason for failure of communism across the world which tried to force material equality – helping only in creation of some powerful people. Of course, it also quashed the ‘needs of the soul’ by impinging creativity, expression & alternate thinking.

    “There will always be people who have more wealth than others…In other words, material equality can never be achieved. Yet, it is possible to create harmony provided one acknowledges the needs of the soul. The soul yearns for fulfillment.”

  • Elizabeth

    Always enjoy your stories…pls write something on new generation women vs old generation women…something in very nicely explained in your small stories..which touches hearts

  • Gaurav

    “All men are are created equal” somebody said. This statement is politically correct in todays social atmosphere charged with egalitarin ways. Even man made things in facvtories are exactly same in all respects. What we really see around us is that ‘All men are created UNIQUE’.
    It is the difference that keeps the world working. The notion of inferiority and superiority is not found in inherently nature. It is the concoction of human’s arrogance. Everything is needed as part of whole – no inferiority and superiority. Coming to the ways in which one can attempt measuring equality I do not see ant explicit standard that is comprehensive to catch the totality each individual. Nature balances all its unique constituents – be it our physical body or the cosmic whole.

  • Gaurav

    Man made are NOT alike ..I meant. Sorry I missedout NOT in my previous post.

  • Gaurav

    “All men are are created equal” somebody said. This statement is politically correct in todays social atmosphere charged with egalitarin ways. Even man made things in factories are NOT exactly same in all respects. What we really see around us is that ‘All men are created UNIQUE’.
    It is the difference that keeps the world working. The notion of inferiority and superiority is not found in inherently nature. It is the concoction of human’s arrogance. Everything is needed as part of whole – no inferiority and superiority. Coming to the ways in which one can attempt measuring equality I do not see an explicit standard that is comprehensive enough to catch the totality of each individual. Nature balances all its unique constituents – be it our physical body or the cosmic whole.

  • Sunil

    I am sure all will not find this article true as like you said all are not equal.

    But I find this article true in every sense and thanks for enlightening.

  • Our caste system as pointed out by you, was never rigid, but when the system became divided, a sectarian attitude became necessary for the Ruling Class. Initially, the Shudra caste was comprised of the Prisoners Of War, after the king had won a war. Since the exact capabilities and loyalty of the POW was not assured they were asked to live outside the community and were also treated with great contempt. The problems arose when the children born amongst the POW had to be dealt with.
    To just give an analogy, every system has the class segregation. The Ruling class, The Traders or the businessmen, The Priest or the teaching community, and finally the Worker class. By regimenting the Class to Caste, there appeared some good results,but with many negative side effects.

  • arvind

    Why do you say the soul can find fulfillment “by experiencing it and then outgrowing it”?