Round Up: 2011

Written by  //  December 31, 2011  //  Philosophy, Religion, Culture  //  5 Comments

1. Ramanujan, Ramayana and Censorship

In his essay, Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translations, A K Ramanujan pointed out the astonishing number of tellings of the Indian epic, Ramayana  over the past 2,500 years in different languages, regions and mediums. For instance, in some versions Sita is Ravana’s daughter; some versions portray Ravana as a great savant rather than the asura that the Valmiki version makes him out to be; some versions portray Hanuman as a ladies’ man rather than a celibate Brahmachari. For over two decades, this essay was in the prescribed reading for the Ancient History course ( B.A) of Delhi University. However, in October this year, the essay was dropped by the academic council of Delhi University in the face of pressure from some fringe right wing groups, who complained that the essay was blasphemous. Oxford University Press, the publisher of the essay, had initially decided to discontinue its publication but later rescinded that decision. Unlike OUP however, Delhi University has not rescinded its decision.

2. Gita ‘as it is’ and extremism

Authorities in Siberia sought to ban the translation of the Bhagavad Gita written by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) founder A.C.Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada titled ‘Bhagavad Gita as it is’ (to be sure, it  still is an interpretation though labelled ‘as it is’) on the ground that it was extremist literature which could incite violence and bring about social discord. While many sections of the Indian media portrayed this as a purported ban on the Gita tout court, the truth was that it was a purported ban on Swami Prabhupada’s translation alone. Finally, the court dismissed the arguments of the authorities and struck down the ban.

It is very easy to read the Gita as exhorting violence; after all the plain language of the text does seem to show Krishna asking Arjuna to ‘kill’. However, to literally take this as a prescription from Krishna to Arjuna to resort to violence and kill would be to miss the point completely. Bhagavad Gita is not a deontological text, specifying any do’s and don’ts. This is beautifully explained by Aldous Huxley in his introduction to the Bhagad Gita by Christopher Isherwood and Swami Prabhavananda ( in my opinion, this is the best translation available in English). He argues that the Bhagavad Gita properly understood exhorts neither action nor inaction but points out that there is no actor who does any action; the very point of the Gita is to lead one to that realization.

3. Georg Simmel Returns : The Philosophy of Money

Philosophy and Money are thought to be mutually dissonant. Philosophers are thought of as abstract thinkers who have little time for anything practical and the one interested in commerce and business (the one making money, in other words) has a tin ear for philosophy. Occasionally philosophers like Berkley have turned their philosophical gaze towards money. In April 2011 Routledge  brought out an affordable edition of the hitherto rare and prohibitively expensive Philosophy of Money by the German philosopher and sociologist ,Georg Simmel. First published in 1904 , Philosophy of Money is a great analysis and meditation on the concept of value and money. While reading this classic, one cannot resist the feeling that we exert ourselves so much for money all our lives but think so little about what it is and why it matters to us. Some of the central arguments of the book may sound provocatively paradoxical. For instance, Simmel argues that when we desire a thing, it occupies our minds and the satisfaction of the desire on acquisition of the desired thing puts that occupation of mind to rest: we stop thinking about it. He argues that if we look closely we pursue a thing just because we want to stop thinking about it. The most counterintuitive of results! This implies one can achieve that state by not only achieving the thing in question but by not desiring it at all in the first place. All this may sound very Buddhist; and Simmel’s book does seem to borrow a lot from Buddhist philosophy.  A fascinating read not just for philosophers but for anyone interested in understanding the one thing that takes up so much of our lives.

4. The Man without Money

Sticking to the themes of money and philosophy, how would it be to live your life without any money at all? Henry David Thoreau experimented with the idea and put down his results in his classic Walden.  When one Irish Businessman, Mark Boyle, saw the film Gandhi it changed his life. He decided to act on his long held conviction that money causes a disconnect between us and our actions. The result: he gave up money completely and began to lead a money free life. He not only survived without money but claims to be healthier and happier without it. His experiences are chronicled in his book The Moneyless man: a year of freeconomics ( btw he doesn’t receive any royalty for this book).

P.S:Incidentally Mahatma’s Gandhi’s inspiration for civil disobedience came from some of Thoreau’s writings.

5. A Mighty loss for Indian art and culture

This year saw the passing away of some of the giants of Indian art and culture: M.F.Hussain, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Bhupen Hazarika. Among the many accomplishments of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi was the setting up of the Savai Gandharva music festival in Pune in the 1950’s. The Savai Gandharva festival typically takes place in the second week of December and showcases some of India’s best musicians and upcoming talents. After Pandit Joshi’s death the festival was rechristened Savai Gandharva Bhimsen festival. Ashutosh wrote a stirring obituary for Pandit Joshi on criticial twenties which can be found here.

5 Comments on "Round Up: 2011"

  1. neha January 9, 2012 at 7:49 am ·

    Lovely, thought-provoking post, Shiv! Can I now exhort you to write your take on Anna’s philosophy? (vis-a-vis money, civil disobedience, and ‘neki kar dariya me daal’, often quoted as Gita philosophy)
    The question I want to pose is not whether he is Gandhian, rather I want to ask if you feel he (the man, not the core team) allies himself to any philosophy or not. Is asking for rent-free land for public discourse/ protest a move towards a money-less society? Do you see it as part of any philosophy at all?

  2. Shivprasad January 19, 2012 at 1:10 pm ·


    Thank you very much! That is an interesting question. I have been thinking about that myself.. and it needs some more thought. Take for instance the revelation that Anna Hazare used violence against those in his village who didn’t submit to his moral reformation voluntarily. How can this be placed within a Gandhian world view? Can violence ever make sense in a Gandhian philosophy? Barack Obama in his Nobel acceptance speech sought to uphold Gandhian ideals and also justify going to wars. His defence- the opponent here ( religious fundamentalists) won’t listen to reason.

    Many have questioned whether Gandhi’s movement would have been possible at all had our imperial masters been the Nazis rather than the British, astride the high horse of Victorian morality? Perhaps Anna would be tempted to say the same thing here.

    The same thing could be said about many other Gandhian ideals- that they made sense in his time and day but have to be adapted with suitable modifications in our times. May be that is the defence that Anna ( like Obama did) would want to come up with. Whether the defence is a good one is another matter.

    These are just some initial thoughts. Will come back to these later.

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