The pursuit of happiness and other absurd ideas
By Ashis Nandy
Illustration: Samia Singh
if it cannot
money?’ - Attributed To Zsa Zsa Gabor
Every now and then — just as individuals do — nations too should take stock of their lives. We need to ask as a country, what is fuelling our run, what is charting our course? What are the big ideas of India that we hold dear?
Every generation produces its own, distinctive set of poisoned words or concepts, lovingly bequeathed to it by the earlier generations. One generation’s favourite visions and tools of a good society have a tendency to become the next generation’s nightmares. An inventory unfortunately makes clear that some of the ideas contemporary India takes for granted are either irrelevant or thoroughly dangerous. Our value systems, even in India, are increasingly based on reason. Which is why, perhaps, we constantly feel like we are a country sitting on a tinderbox — riots, terrorism, insurgency, discontent.
After running after reason for hundreds of years, it is time we returned to values based on compassion. But for that we will have to get rid of some our favourite ideas. From the enormous lexicon of poison I have picked three: the pursuit of happiness, progress and secularism.
The Pursuit Of Happiness
The idea of happiness has gradually transformed from a mental state to an objectified, measurable quality of life that can be attained. The global middle class pursues it the way an Olympic athlete, after training under the guidance of experts and going through a strict regimen of exercises and diet, gets a medal. In 2007, one of Britain’s leading schools, Wellington College at Crowthorne, announced it would offer classes on happiness to combat materialism and celebrity obsession. The following year, the magazine New Scientist summarised the results of a 65-country survey to show that the highest proportion of happy persons lived in Nigeria, followed by Mexico, Venezuela, El Salvador and Puerto Rico. Happiness surveys do differ in their findings. According to some surveys, happiness has to do with prosperity, development and healthcare; others say these don’t matter. The second set has produced countries like Vanuatu, a former happiness pageant winner that most have not heard of, and Bangladesh, this year’s world champion in happiness, which many believe could well qualify as one of the world’s unhappiest countries. In comparison, some of the richest nations languish near the bottom of the list.
The discovery of happiness as a teachable discipline suggests that in some places happiness is becoming a realm of training and expertise. The surveys reaffirm the ancient ‘self-consoling’, ‘naïve’ belief that you can’t always be happy just by being wealthy, secure or occupied. You have to learn to be happy.
In Lin Yutang’s interpretation of Confucius, to seek happiness you should find a good chair to sit on. The Panchatantra suggests finding a friend or two
Together they partly explain why the clenchedteeth pursuit of happiness has become a major feature of our times. Perhaps, the other explanations are the growing confidence in the power of human volition and the developing technology of human selfengineering, both by-products of the ideology of individualism. These changes push many to believe it is, up to them, individually, to do something about their own happiness, that happiness cannot happen, nor can it be given. It has to be earned or acquired.
Where does this pursuit of happiness come from? All societies deny the idea of death, but in successful capitalist societies — bereft of religion, afterlife, rebirth or any of the philosophies that transcend death — the panic is profound. These societies discover that despite their best efforts, they can’t cheat death, old age and many forms of illness and catastrophes. The reaction then is this: if you can’t avoid death and illness, you can at least live a happy life by forgetting them or by denying their existence.
Today, the determined pursuit of happiness is a response to a new disease called unhappiness. In the post-World War II world, unhappiness in some parts of the world has been systematically medicalised. It is now the domain of professionals. To acquire normal happiness one now requires therapy, counselling or expert guidance from a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst or professional counsellor or, alternatively, from a personal philosopher, wise man or woman, or a guru.
In the post-war era, there were a number of bestsellers by respected scholars such as Bertrand Russell that sought to guide us through this troublesome, unhealthy state called unhappiness and to help us ‘conquer happiness’, as Russell put it. The trend continues, only that the more recent guides to happiness are less magisterial. However, they are by no means less popular, whether written by such space-age sages like Deepak Chopra and Jack Canfield (the intrepid author of the Chicken Soup series), or by their less ambitious versions of agony aunts and weekend advisers in newspapers and tabloids.
Both the disease called unhappiness and the determined search for happiness afflict the more developed societies. One is tempted to guess that only after one’s basic needs have been met can one afford the luxury of worrying about vague, subjective states like happiness and unhappiness. Alternatively, one can hazard that only those who have lost their moorings in conviviality and community life can hope to learn to be happy from professionals.
Happiness, like school uniforms, has now become compulsory. Any claim of being unhappy becomes a confession of crime. If you say you are not happy in a utopia then you are criticising the utopia and you are a dastardly traitor. Such traitors have filled the psychiatric clinics and jails in many societies in the 20th century. The Soviet Union, for instance, was never secretive about this tacit component of its State ideology. Nazi Germany did even better — it liquidated such delinquents as State enemies.
Happiness of the kind we now associate with individualism has an uncertain status in the nonmodern world, more so because some major civilisations, such as the Chinese and the Indian, locate their utopias in the past. Do not confuse the new idea of happiness in the modernising West with the Buddhist concept of ananda, which later seeped into the Vedantic worldview, and the Christian concept of bliss. Before the 18th century, the predominant mode of seeking happiness in all cultures was intertwined with theories of transcendence.
For instance, in Lin Yutang’s interpretation of Confucius, if you seek happiness you should find a good chair to sit on. (The gifted Indian philosopher Ramchandra Gandhi discovered this independently. For the last 20 years of his life, he was known by his chair at the India International Centre in New Delhi, on which he spent long hours under the portico.) Panchatantra, the ancient Indian folk tales, are only slightly more ambitious. The way to happiness, they claim, is finding one or two good friends. Such modest prescriptions are possible only in societies where grander versions of happiness are usually seen as mostly outside the reach of individual effort and volition. In such societies, people are brought up to be happy with odd bits of happiness that come their way.
Appropriately, cultural anthropologist Tamotsu Aoki pleads that we give up the grand idea and opt for small ideas of happiness, the kinds that one finds strewn about in everyday life. The smallness itself ensures that the ideas of large, dramatic, organised, expert-guided happiness get a lesser run in our lives. They are also not allowed to overwhelm entire societies by democratic consent, manufactured or otherwise. Such small forms of happiness serve as oases within deserts of unhappiness. In the genocidal battle of Kurukshetra, conventions demanded battle begin at sunrise and stop at sunset. At sunset, the warriors visited each other’s camps, exchanged pleasantries and talked of happier days they’d spent together.
There survives another concept of happiness, more nuanced and yet more down-to-earth. It affirms that healthy happiness must have a place for unhappiness. Aoki talks about the struggle to acquire a language to discuss happiness. This is a radical thought for the happiness athletes to consider — the presence of the unpleasant does not necessarily mean the diminution of happiness. The unpleasant becomes part of a happy life that oscillates between the pleasant and the unpleasant, achievement and failure, being and becoming, work and play. In such a life, work becomes vocation and leisure need not be reinvented as the antithesis of work. Vocation includes leisure, exactly as a pleasurable pastime may comprise some work. The idea of perfect happiness is consigned to the domain of the momentary, the transient or the mythic. It can’t be achieved in life, but may be realised in exceptional moments.
According to philosopher KJ Shah, the strength of a human relationship should be measured not by the absence of quarrels, but by how much quarrelling the relationship can take. This argument, too, has a parallel definition of happiness built into it: a happy person should be able to bear larger doses of unhappiness. This is not oriental wisdom; to Freud, too, mentally healthy people show their sense of well-being by being able to live with some unhappiness and what is commonly seen as ill-health. This is probably what Freud meant in his famous letter to a patient’s mother, where he advised her to reconcile herself to the ‘normal’ unhappiness in her son’s life. We need to be practical and reconcile to live in this imperfect world with our normal unhappiness.
One of the dirtiest words in our poisonous lexicon
is ‘progress’. It survives with impunity in public
life. It is a major source of institutionalised or structural
violence globally, as every Adivasi in India will
attest to. By this time, we should have learnt to hang
our heads in shame when using it. But we don’t.
If you prefer political correctness, I can put it more agreeably and propose that ‘progress’ is one of the most double-edged ideas of our times. When we talk of progress we are not talking of the synonym for simple improvement or upgrading. Progress with a capital P is now a crucial part of many powerful public ideologies. This progress is linear, irreversible and serves as a benchmark when, for instance, we judge persons, institutions and ideologies as progressive or not. In this incarnation, progress has served as a major justification for some of the most obscene forms of violence and ethnocide from slavery and colonialism to Soviet and Maoist terror and developmental authoritarianism.
Oscar Wilde joked that when good Americans die, they go to Paris; it seems that today when educated Indian and Chinese die, they go to New York
Almost all environmental catastrophes have seen some group or other policy makers, scientists, bureaucrats giving progress as the reason for taking unconscionable risks or for inflicting “collateral damages” on citizens. From Chernobyl to Minamata to Bhopal, it has been the same story. Apart from this, the three states that struck an aggressively progressive pose — Soviet Union, China and Cambodia — accounted for about half of those who were victims of genocide in the 20th century. Concepts that might have been once emancipatory legitimise new forms of Satanism in the name of progress.
Let me put it more starkly. Much of the Southern hemisphere has now been redefined as a part of the past of Western Europe and North America, a part of their history. The future of countries such as China and India, in turn, is seen as nothing but an edited version of what the advanced or developed societies are today. Progress has come to mean a process through which human fate unfolds. It is a way of hijacking the diverse futures of cultures by flattening them into a single, monolithic vision. Oscar Wilde joked that when good Americans die, they go to Paris; it seems that today when educated Indians and Chinese die, they go to New York.
One axiom in the theory of progress was the belief in inescapable historical stages. It still constitutes the basis of many theoretical frames, such as those of just war, the clash of civilisations, economic growth, human rights and revolution. All these theories of historical stages assume that human societies are crawling up an inclined plane of history, perspiring and out of breath. Some societies have reached the top already; others are at different points on the plane. The ones at the top are advising the others on how to cross the stages more efficiently. The theory presumes that if a society is obedient and faithful to the textbooks that have been produced for its benefit, it will be a more successful climber than the rest.
In recent times, the level of development has become one of the main indices of progress. And it too has quickly developed its official and unofficial theories of stages. The official theories have turned out be less dangerous than the unofficial. The unofficial, which has produced an entire galaxy of political leaders in South America, Africa and Asia who would have been remembered as gifted comedians but for the sadism and paranoia that characterised their rule. It should be a consolation to the progressives that about two-thirds of the victims of genocide in the 20th century died at the hands of secular States, and a little more than half at the hands of States pursuing some theory or other of progress. It is poetic justice that, in the past two or three decades, expanding human awareness has taken a heavy toll of the theories of liberation themselves. Most of the theories are not only discredited, the few that survive have followers who are cynical and mostly exploit the rhetoric of liberation.
In recent times, there has grown in many societies a deep scepticism about the role and moral stature of the idea of progress. There were critics of progress earlier too — among conservatives, transcendentalists, critics of industrialisation and modernity, Luddites, ecologists and conservationists — not only in Asia but in Europe and North America too. They were ignored as impractical romantics. Perhaps the rediscovery and growing political stature of some of them, mostly environmentalists, has begun to change our intellectual ambience. Even many progressives in recent times have tried to disown their violent rhetoric of revolution and modernisation. Otherwise how could they reconcile their ideological frames with concerns for the environment and cultural survival?
I’m convinced that all visions of a desirable society in the future will have to bypass the idea of progress as essentially anti-democratic and anti-life, and avoid the ideological baggage that comes with the idea.
Does this sound impossible? It is not. The Dalai Lama supporting the Buddhist monks who protested the Burmese military junta; the Thai Buddhist monks fighting their military rulers by sometimes immolating themselves on the streets of Bangkok; the Pashtuns or Pathans fighting British imperialism in India non-violently — they all used categories not accessible to the dominant discourse on democracy. There are forms of dialogue that transcend our well-honed language of public life and our concept of dissent. Let us, in the absence of a better term, call them the untamed language of dissent in which some cultures and movements specialise.
It is my belief that the dialogues of cultures will remain incomplete unless we can at least partly access that untamed, slightly mysterious language of dissent in which the powerless often speak.
Let us turn to the third killer in our violent lexicon. What we need in our complicated world as we deal with violence, riots and terror is not the tolerance enshrined in the modern idea of secularism. (People forget that secularism was not always part of the Indian Constitution. Indira Gandhi introduced the terms secular and socialist in 1976.) What we need is the tolerance that is part of our faith, which our civilisation has shown for centuries. People are always talking of Ashoka and Akbar being secular — they had never heard of secularism! Ashoka was a Buddhist and he thought that was good enough for his tolerance. Akbar was a Muslim and he thought Islam was good enough for teaching tolerance.
Democracy not only means the right to vote, it also means right of people to exercise their choice in categories they find meaningful in life. You cannot banish them by government fiat, saying you must keep religion and politics separate. Gandhi had the perfect comeback for that — those who say you must not mix religion or politics understand neither religion nor politics. (In our anglicised, mechanically translated world we use the word ‘religion’ in place of the word Gandhi used — dharma. Dharma does not mean religion though, it means a code of conduct. No Indian language has an equivalent word for religion. The cascading incomprehension caused by mechanical translation is a conversation for another day. I use the word ‘faith’ because it more closely approximates what we experience. )
What we call religious violence is secular violence — it is the violence of people who have lost their faith. If you look at the data about communal violence in India in the past 50 years, you will find that of those killed by communal violence, only 3.5 percent were people in the villages. 96.4 percent killed were from the cities. Now, ask yourself which population is more immersed in tradition? It is obvious you have nothing to teach the rural population; they have something to teach you. We need courage to admit the need for faith. It is the anonymity and the loss of your culture that leads to disaffection.
All our faiths in India — Hinduism, Christianity and Islam — are local. It is a faith based on personal gods, ishta devatas, family gods, village goddesses. There has always been a tradition of being friendly with gods. You can bicker with a god. You can abuse him or her. You can make fun of her. Nobody is offended. Now everyone is offended by everything.
Who has read Vyasa’s Mahabharata or Valmiki’s Ramayana? Everyone has read their own local epics. Bengal alone has about half a dozen Ramayanas and they differ in crucial details. Today if you try to build a temple in a city for Duryodhan, people will try to break it, organise a demonstration and call it an insult to Hinduism. But there is a Duryodhan temple in Himachal Pradesh, Ravan worshippers in north Bengal, a Vibhishana temple in Sri Lanka. How did Vishnu — in his Tirupati incarnation, one of the most venerated shrines — get a Muslim son-in-law?
When you move away from home and your local gods, nothing is familiar anymore. That’s when you fall back on what I call the laptop version of Hinduism. Then you talk of Vedas and Upanishads as the approved texts of Hinduism. You begin to talk of Sanskrit as the mother of all Indian languages, as the language of gods. Never mind that all the Dravidian languages are older. So when AK Ramanujan’s essay on 300 Ramayans gets banned as it just did in Delhi University, we should know that this is an anti-Hindu act and it can happen only in cities.
Hindutva itself is a secular idea, as will become amply clear when you read what Veer Savarkar wrote. Savarkar was secular and so is his legacy. His vision of Hinduism was one of nationhood, not faith. Here is a man who accused Gandhi of not knowing political theory, who refused to give his wife a Hindu funeral despite a dharna by the women of the Hindu Mahasabha in front of his house. He wrote in his will that he did not want a religious funeral or his body to be carried on the shoulders of mourners. He willed he be taken by motorised vehicle instead. Unfortunately most people don’t have access to these stories. It is the same way Jinnah’s love for ham sandwiches and whiskey has been erased in Pakistan.
Instead of some idea of secularism, which is more about silence and sanitisation, what we need is the courage to talk of faith. We should recognise the fear Hindus have in a ‘secular’ country that only the BJP is their friend or Muslims have that only Jamaat-e-Islami is pro-Muslim. India’s capacity for diversity is best described in a phrase from Mexico’s Zapatista movement — hosting the otherness of others. I don’t tolerate you just according to my standards. I don’t tolerate you only according to the standards of modernity. I will love Muslims only if they are modern, I will love this person only if they have a drink with me — not that kind of thinking. Rather than celebrating your sameness, I accept your ‘otherness’.
We now tend to undervalue compassion and reverence for all forms of life, particularly when that compassion and reverence is backed by non-rational considerations such as religious beliefs, primordial social ties and the ethical commitments based on cultural traditions. So much of Indian traditions have been pushed outside our consciousness. We have to take on the usurpers who have acquired the right to dictate our lives because we don’t want to talk about it. The challenge of a global consciousness is in creating an intellectual climate where we can examine our lives without wearing blinkers. Let us begin by rejecting the old lexicon of poison.