Life and the meaning of living

Is like taking a ritual dip
In a dry riverbed.
– Nirmala Garg, Duniyadar

It was a sunny December morning in 2002 in Bangalore, and Professor Daya Krishna was speaking to an eclectic audience of rocket scientists, zoologists, biologists, poets, philosophers, writers, thinkers and mathematicians in the auditorium of the National Institute of Advance Studies. The seminar he was addressing had an ambitious theme, "Knowledge and East-West Transitions". But Daya Krishna had barely finished his introductions when the figure in the chair waved his hand, "Five minutes!" The speaker continued only after explaining to the chair, and the audience, that deliberations about knowledge take more time than discussions about the weather.

The meeting broke for lunch, and the participants rushed towards the dining hall. Daya Krishna was left behind. Recuperating from an illness, he began walking slowly towards the other building. A budding Southasian columnist slowed his pace, and tried to engage the man with questions about the definition of knowledge in the age of information technology. The two would have forgotten about the food had a volunteer not interrupted their conversation to say that the lunch break was almost over. "Bhukhe bhajan na hohi gopala", the scholar quipped. "Devotional songs can't be sung with a hungry stomach!" Then he headed for a quick meal in the company of one who had been a complete stranger to him until a few hours before.

There is no record of what Daya Krishna spoke about to that audience of one. But that was the greatness of the man: he was more of a thinker than a teacher, preacher or philosopher, and a crowd is not necessary to trigger thought. Almost anything can spur a sage to reflect over questions of life, living and death. Perhaps that is the reason Daya Krishna did not found a school, had no following outside academia, and seldom appeared in the mainstream media – and yet, had more impact on contemporary thinking about thought than any other Indian philosopher of the modern era. He edited the Journal of the Indian Council of Philosophical Research for more than three decades, but was more of a facilitator of the exchange of ideas than a master of a quixotic discipline. Emblematically, when he breathed his last in Jaipur, in October at the age of 84, he was surrounded by his students.

Southasians need to reflect upon the passing away of Daya Krishna for at least three reasons. First, despite the Ashoka insignia on his passport, he was a Southasian in demeanour, belief and behaviour. Second, his departure highlights the need to devise a crossborder exchange mechanism to ensure that people such as Daya Krishna are heard across national borders while still alive. And last, but perhaps the most important of all, we need to worry about whether it will be possible for philosophers of the future to lead lives of the mind, what with the invasion of McDonalds and MTV – to say nothing of the ubiquitous Maruti – in one of the poorest regions of the world.

Goal-oriented life
It is said that the Buddha was not the first to realise that the predetermined goal of one's life is to die, and that only 'right living' could lead to emancipation and thus immortality. But the reason his thoughts spread faster and wider than those of his predecessors had more to do with the invention of paper and mass copying with permanent ink – later named India ink – than either the originality or strength of his ideas. Technology does have a role in propagating knowledge and establishing its primacy. But it is doubtful whether science, let alone technology, can create knowledge all by itself. Poets and philosophers will still be necessary when mass-produced human clones begin to populate the planet. At that point, the importance of original thinking will undoubtedly become even more crucial.

Sadly, social investment in knowledge is currently decreasing in direct proportion to the increase in per-capita consumption. Universities are being asked by tight-fisted governments to raise resources on their own. What this means is that venerated professors are being forced to market themselves as efficiency experts, management consultants and social scientists. That may not be regarded as such a bad thing; it almost sounds glamorous. But that is precisely the risk. Anyone who can afford to let his teenage daughter drive a Mercedes is unlikely to devote his life to the pursuit of pure knowledge or the intricacies of grammar.

A false dichotomy has emerged between the necessity of universal primary schooling and more investment in higher education, the premise being that poor countries must choose one or the other. However, sustainability of the school system depends significantly upon the efficacy of universities. Without professors perched in ivory towers, with their gaze firmly fixed beyond the horizon, teachers will have less to teach. Students will become mere apprentices, mastering the skills of making a living. This is a worthwhile task by itself, of course, but there has to be more to life than writing codes for Chinese washing machines from the cubicles of office towers outside Bangalore.

Yajnavalka is believed to have propounded the theory of 'neti, neti' – literally, 'not this, not that', akin to the apophatic tradition of rejecting several reasons as to why a thing should or should not be done, and instead affirming a single one, considered most valid. By 320 BC, Vishnugupta emerged as Kautilya the Kingmaker, and compiled the authoritative treatise on statecraft in the form of Arthashastra, the handbook that transformed a humble Vaishya boy into Emperor Chandragupta Maurya of Pataliputra.

These days, what we have in the place of Yajnavalka and Kautilya are swamis pandering to Narendra Modi in Gujarat, mullahs clamouring for the head of Taslima Nasrin in Bengal, chauvinistic yogis doing callisthenics on television in support of caste politics in Uttar Pradesh, glamorous evangelists preaching feel-good philosophy to cyber coolies in Bangalore, and militant monks spreading ethnic hatred in Colombo. The 'here and now' consuming classes of Southasia have invented preachers that confirm rather than question their biases.

Investment in production of social values takes decades, if not centuries, to begin producing results. Philosopher Daya Krishna, Kathmandu's multilingual litterateur Dhuswa Sayami and Hindi poet Trilochan Shastri – three apparently contradictory Southasian titans who each passed away recently – were some of the last survivors of the 'neti, neti' tradition of simultaneously affirming and questioning every belief rediscovered for our times by Mohandas K Gandhi. In their places, court-philosophers of an enlightenment tradition that was inspired by Rabindranath Tagore have begun to assert their presence.

Living a life of pure pragmatism seems to have triumphed over the idealism of searching for more effective ways to become better human beings. Amidst such an evolution, the atrophy of living becomes a distinct possibility. Daya Krishna would probably have challenged that hypothesis with Socratic insistence: Tell me more. When everyone else wants to know less and learn more, the absence of Daya Krishna will be acutely felt by his admirers all over the globe.

— CK Lal is a columnist for this magazine and for the Nepali Times.

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