The “Hope” of Traditions for Human Future
My article likes to be a small contribution to the dialogue of cultures which indeed has become a contemporary fact as well as a necessity.I focus on the notion of “cultural innovation” which every tradition is invited and even expected to explore, especially in our contemporary cross-cultural human situation, in a spirit of mutual criticism and dialogue.
It is in the backdrop of this cultural innovation, I try to explore and examine, very briefly, the value of “hope” as embodied in human traditions by focusing, in a spirit of dialogue, on two myths belonging to two different traditions: the Myth of Development – which is very peculiar and important to the modern-western-technological world-view and the myth of Ūzh or destiny which is deeply rooted in the Tamil (Indian) psyche, and which has also been portrayed in the aphorisms of the Tamil classical text Thirukkural. As I would elucidate, the myth of Development is based on a particular western understanding of hope, that is, a hope of the future, and an Indian understanding represents a hope in the invisible. While acknowledging greatly their positive and vital contributions to humanity of the past and for human future, my aim is to show, how in our times, both myths need a revision in the face and light of one another, in mutual criticism and dialogue, in the backdrop of a hope in the rhythm of reality.
This article would like to be a small contribution to the dialogue of cultures which indeed has become a contemporary fact as well as a necessity.
Scholars tell us that we presently live in a ‘second mutation period’ –an age in which cultures, religions, world-views, disciplines and people are meeting and mingling on a scale which we have never witnessed before. The boundaries and barriers are breaking and a cross-cultural wind is blowing.
In this new contemporary cross-cultural human situation, I submit, cultures are invited and even expected to perform a double task: to universalize their truth experiences; and to overcome their blind spots in mutual criticism and dialogue.
Universalizing truth experience does not mean proclaiming one’s truth to be universally valid or absolute. But it implies making an effort to present one’s heritage and wealth to a wider universe in such a way that a person belonging to another clime, time and tradition might be able to have some kind of resonance of what is being presented, in his or her own tradition.
On the other hand, overcoming the blind spots basically boils down to realizing that no tradition, however ancient, modern, glorious and divine it may claim itself to be, is sufficient in constructing the entire picture of reality all by itself, with a growing conviction that no single culture, tradition, religion, discipline or person is sufficient even to face – let alone solve – any of our human predicaments single handedly. It ultimately boils down to a humbling belief and fact that nobody can claim to possess a 360 degree view of the world. The perspectives of our tradition, therefore, need to be stimulated, provoked, corrected, relativized, and complemented by a tradition other than our own.
I may perhaps introduce here the notion of “cultural innovation” which every tradition is invited and even expected to explore, especially in our contemporary cross-cultural human situation.
By cultural innovation, I understand the following: Each tradition, inasmuch as it is not stagnant, has to innovate, transform and regenerate itself not only from within but also from without, i.e. by accepting inspiration, provocation and even correction from outside. But this external stimulus will become effective, however, only when a tradition is able to find resonance and acceptance in its very heart.
It is in the backdrop of this cultural innovation, I would like to explore and examine, very briefly, the value of “hope” as embodied in human traditions by focusing, in a spirit of dialogue, on two myths belonging to two different traditions: the Myth of Development – which is very peculiar and important to the modern-western-technological world-view and the myth of Ūzh or destiny which is deeply rooted in the Tamil (Indian) psyche, and which has also been portrayed in the aphorisms of the Thirukkural.
As it will be elucidated, the myth of Development is based on a particular western understanding of hope, that is, a hope of the future, and an Indian understanding represents a hope in the invisible. While acknowledging greatly their positive contributions to humanity and for human future, my aim is to show, how in our times, both myths need a revision in the face and light of one another, in mutual criticism and dialogue, in the backdrop of a hope in the rhythm of reality.
1. A Western Understanding of Hope: “Hope of the Future”
Let us begin our considerations on the dominant and contemporary idea of development which seems to signal, promise and promote a hope for an ideal future for humanity.
After an initial enthusiasm regarding development, we also now begin to wonder whether it is not a continuation, in disguise, of the previous western colonial attitude and mentality.
The essence of colonialism, as we know, is the belief in the monomorphism of culture. It considers everything only in terms of one culture. Not too long ago, this meant one king, one God, one religion, one empire. Now this is passé – but we go on – one World Bank, one world democracy, one development, one science, one technology, one world market, and one network of everything.
We discern a particular kind of anthropology that seems to operate behind the myth of development.
It has an underlying anthropology, which sees Man as a bundle of potential needs, which require only development in order to make life happy and meaningful. Development, in this sense, seems to be the anthropological counterpart to the biological theory of evolution. Man develops in the same manner as the universe is set on evolution. It vouches for an unquestioned validity and superiority of a single culture involving a kind of “noetic Darwinism” – an ideology of evolutionism in which other cultures and perspectives can be placed on a single evolutionary scale and absorbed within the last, most “progressive” item on that scale. No wonder, development leads to a ruthless competition for the survival of the ‘fittest.’
No wonder, too, death is such a tragedy for those who believe in development, because one can never be sufficiently developed. We are “on the way to development,” then, death comes so suddenly, shattering all our dreams and ideals. We are almost there, then, it comes like a blow… Can we ever rest and even kiss our child or beloved without getting a guilt complex, because we are not as yet developed, and very incomplete in all that we are and in all that we do? Fulfillment while we have not yet developed, joy while we are struggling – will not be possible. There is always a mirage to go towards – further and farther.
More basically, behind the myth of progress and development there seems to be a particular understanding of time at work. Here, time is extrinsic to Man which serves as a measure and consequently as an arrow impelling him always to go “somewhere.” This can be easily discerned in our “modern” culture in which time has been externalized and simply been put outside our selves. We are made to believe that our life consists simply in running on the highway, climbing the mountain, or going somewhere – to heaven, nirvana, earthly paradise, development, riches, progress, absurdity, or whatever. In other words, one has to be always on the run to achieve something or reaching somewhere. And till one reaches the desired goal, one’s life will be ‘unachieved’ and ‘useless.’ Consequently, time becomes a scarcity and even a commodity, which ultimately leads to a sense of alienation and fragmentation.
The modern science is an important dimension of western culture and the whole advancement of modern science can be seen in terms of acceleration, that is, modification of time. What the machine ultimately does is to modify time, speed a particle and accelerate. The machine is useful, powerful, and meaningful only because it saves and condenses time, realizes in “less” time something that otherwise would require “more” time. Of course this conception of time is important to Man and even essential to science or western culture, but it is not universal.
At this juncture, we may ask, why at all should science and technology place so much emphasis and importance on acceleration and its attendant repetition? A probable answer to this may lead us to reflect on the quantitative and pan-economic vision of life. Once again we may detect here the fragmented notion of time playing a leading role. For the quantitative world-view, the more we have of a thing the better and cheaper it is. Hence the need for acceleration and repetition which would “save” time and also ensure more production so that the “future” will be secure. The hope of the future seems to be the essential characteristic of “modern” Man. He works under the mirage and hope of an historical future to be achieved, a great empire to be built, and so on. Panikkar notes thus:
And this historical time, called “human” time, is mainly understood as the thrust toward the future – in which the fullness of existence or definitive welfare, be this of the individual, the tribe, the nation or all humankind, will be achieved. This human time implies the conviction that we are in bondage, not yet completed, and for that reason we must struggle against Nature, against Fate, against the Earth or Matter. It is a struggle for freedom against anything supposedly antagonistic to Man. Our destiny is (in) the Future.
In a word, the presuppositions behind the hope of the future are: time as an arrow, life as progress, development as goal, etc. “Fulfillment” in life is seen in some future time to come, and not in intensely living out every moment here and now.
2. An Indian Understanding of Hope: “Hope in the Invisible”
Seen cross-culturally, the above vision of life with an ideal of development appears to be monocultural and is only a particular vision, with a particular meaning. This vision may even be right and beneficial, but is not the only one. The archetype underlying the idea of development implies an anthropology and a cosmology that seem to be not shared universally by all cultures and also proves inadequate for three quarters of the world population.
And we may well affirm that not all cultures operate with a sense of future paradigm and have seen life as a “progression,” where the goal or destiny is kept outside of life, to be reached somewhere else. For them, life is not a development – but a constant creation, a constant surprise, which does not go through a highway. Again, not all cultures have the idea that the human being is on a kind of instrumental wheel going towards the New Jerusalem or Heaven or whatever… the quicker, the better with a sense of mastery over destiny. The humans do not project themselves primarily as actors, but they find themselves as spectators and partakers of life that has been given or allotted to them.
It is here, I would like to situate my reflections on the typical religiosity of the Tamil tradition, embodied in beliefs such as ūlz and ūlzvinai, which indicate, among other things, that we are ultimately spectators in life, despite all our desires, decisions, efforts and actions. Nobody in life can really be held responsible, since what happens is beyond any one’s supervision and control.
I shall confine myself to the portrayal and interpretation of this belief as represented in the Tirukkural which is also widely diffused in the general mentality of the Tamil (Indian) psyche. Valluvar has devoted an entire chapter to Ūlz (371-380) — which I prefer to translate as destiny (more in the sense of fate).
Valluvar, in the last analysis, seems to believe in the ultimacy of providence and Man’s helplessness in its presence.
When he says,
தெய்வத்தான் ஆகா தெனினும் முயற்சிதன்
மெய்வருத்தக் கூலி தரும்.
ஊழையும் உப்பக்கங் காண்பர் உலைவின்றித்
தாழா துஞற்று பவர்.
Valluvar implies that human effort can circumvent the inexorability of fate and the so-called destiny could be thwarted by constant vigil and tireless effort. But who knows that even these efforts could be part of this overshadowing fate or destiny? The inexorable nature of ūlz and its inevitability are supreme; Valluvar recognizes it like Kaniyan Pūnkundranar (an influential Tamil philosopher from the Sangam age) who bemoans the inexorability of fate and likens the hapless soul, operated by destiny, to a tiny boat in a mighty current which rolls away huge rocks.
நீர் வழிப் படூஉம் புணை போல ஆருயிர்
முறைவழிப் படூஉம் என்பது திறவோர்.
Are human beings then victims of an unescapable fate, or do they really have the power to create their own destiny? This is the age-old question that has plagued philosophers, theologians, and even the common person on the street. Valluvar responds to this question thus:
ஊழிற் பெருவலி யாவுள மற்றொன்று
சூழினுந் தான்முந் துறும்.
நல்லவை யெல்லாஅந் தீயவாந் தீயவும்
நல்லவாஞ் செல்வஞ் செயற்கு.
ஆகூழால் தோன்றும் அசைவின்மை கைப்பொருள்
போகூழால் தோன்று மடி.
To be sure, there seems to be a kind of ambivalence in Valluvar’s thinking on the operation of fate: it can be thwarted as well as it is invincible. What is it then really? The usual compromise is to suggest areas in which fate is unalterable and in which it can be outwitted. But what are these areas? If once it is imagined that fate has been circumvented, who knows if the circumvention itself had not been predestined?
Valluvar constantly falls back on two sources of correction and iniquity: one, a kindly fate and two, a providentially kind hearted source of authority (a king etc.). The role of fate again is implied in the latter: Whatever is destined to happen, will happen, do what we may to stop it. Whatever happens is due to prārabdha, to borrow a word from another tradition, a man’s balance-sheet of destiny acting rigorously according to a law of cause and effect.
Hence the acceptance of the given order with changes suggested by an essentially good conscience, plus a sense of urgent need to stick to it, plus a prayerful hope and an ardent wish that nothing will or shall wreck it. This seems to be the attitude of mind and recommendation for life that we may discern from the aphorisms on Ūlz.
In an interesting verse, Valluvar advises the individual distracted by misery to have an inward laugh at it and suggests that there is no better remedy against it:
இடுக்கண் வருங்கால் நகுக அதனை
அடுத்தூர்வ தஃதொப்ப தில்.
There is no advice to face or confront misery but one is asked to ignore it or laugh it away. In fact, adjustment, accommodation and acquiescence are recommended and not efforts to face the challenge. The point is, ūlz is not a challenge which calls for a countervailing response. The humans have to put up with it as gracefully as possible.
Interestingly, the attitude of the Greek Hellenistic philosophers, particularly the stoics, seems to echo Valluvar’s stand on this question: Stoicism earns its reputation as a stern way of life with recommendations that we accept whatever destiny brings us without complaint, concern, or feeling of any kind. The stoics show how we should live when circumstances beyond our control seem to render pointless everything we try to accomplish. For Epictetus, for instance, the key is to understand how little of what happens is within our control and since family, friends and material goods are all perishable, he held, we ought never to become attached to them. Instead, we treat everything and everyone we encounter in life as a temporary blessing or curse, knowing that they will all pass away from us one day naturally.
3. An Intercultural Understanding of Hope: “Hope in the Rhythm of Reality”
The above considerations are adduced not to justify any sense of helplessness/resignment in life or to uphold the concept of ūlz, as represented by an Indian tradition. I have only indicated its functional/performative role in society – which in our cross-cultural human situation, however, seems to be exploding and breaking. It remains for us to explore how the myths of development and ūlz need to be revised, corrected and complemented in the face of one another in mutual criticism and dialogue. And it is here I like to discern and explore the intercultural synergy of hope in the rhythm of reality which has indeed become an important cross-cultural value for our times.
From a cross-cultural point of view, if history, progress and development are the measurements of human life and experience, then obviously a greater part of humanity would not be able to fit into this scheme. And yet, for millennia years, cultures do have nourished millions of people, even when they could not “make it” according to the dominant economic, political and developmental paradigm.
We may wonder, what is the meaning of life for that immense majority – the aboriginals, the slaves, the outcastes, the starving, the sick, the hungry, the oppressed, the women – who have not “made it?” Even in the hardest times and in face of greatest survival struggles, people could face life with joy and dignity precisely because they have been sustained by some kind of hope. This hope, however, is not merely of the future, but perhaps in the invisible dimension of life and reality.
Of course, as Panikkar reminds us, “to make out of the necessity a virtue may not be sociologically advisable, but for the oppressed and disadvantaged, it seems to be the only way of upholding and sustaining their human dignity. It is certainly not a vice.”
In this context, Panikkar points to a kind of transcendental attitude, which does not necessarily mean an explicit belief in transcendence. It implies an awareness accompanying every action, that life on earth, is only a kind of “comedy” – divine or not – a sort of play, a re-enactment of something bigger than ourselves and yet taking place within ourselves. Karma, rebirth, ūlz or ūlzvinai, transmigration, heaven, moral responsibility and so on, whatever religious or cultural underpinnings they may have, entail a firm sentiment that we are not private proprietors of our life, but actors and spectators of it. Perhaps it is this sort of, what he calls, “cosmic confidence” that does not allow people to be totally crushed by circumstances, however inhuman they may be.
In a word, the myth of destiny points to a dimension of hope which is not merely of the future, but in the invisible. It is this hope that allows Man to go beyond the perceptible dimension of reality to what we may call the depth-dimension of reality. It is this depth-dimension that can help face life and life’s vicissitudes, especially when Man stands helpless in the face of inexplicable tragedies and sorrows. It is this dimension that could form the basis of optimism that everything has a meaning, though everything need not be perfect and alright in the future.
On the other hand, the myth of development with its thrust and orientation towards future has an important correcting and complimenting value to the myth of destiny. As an external stimulus, it could inspire, intensify and promote the effort of the traditional cultures to revitalize themselves as they face the new situation of humanity. This inspiration may be seen in the effort of the traditional cultures to take history and progress seriously and to identify and overcome all the traditional notions and elements which have not been so very helpful to a fuller flowering and flourishing of authentic human life.
More concretely, this would mean paying a greater attention to the questions of human right, poverty, appalling conditions of women, a degeneration that has come about in the caste structure and all the conditions that deny a normal human living to millions of people. Pressing problems such as lack of food, housing, healthcare and education would need an immediate attention. In other words, the traditional cultures should do a re-assessment of their traditional values in the light of human welfare, particularly of the oppressed and downtrodden. This re-assessment would be greatly stimulated, complemented and enhanced by the dominant modern culture with its focus on the human dimension.
If the myth of development stands for a human confidence, and the myth of destiny for a cosmic confidence, then the meeting and synergy between these two experiences indeed signal a rhythmic confidence. A hope of the future and a hope in the invisible perhaps can meet in a hope in the rhythm of reality with a sense of carefreeness. Synergising the careful mentality of human confidence (development) and a kind of careless attitude of cosmic confidence (destiny), the rhythmic confidence evokes a carefree awakening to the dynamism of life. A participation in the dynamism, freedom or rhythm of being/reality surely would include a striving and even an expectation for a “better world,” but surely not a “foreseeing.” “Rhythm has an ‘ever more,’ but it does not have, properly speaking, a future.” Human life, in other words, is not to be seen as a linear progression towards God or some known or unknown future, but it embodies a rhythm in which every moment is filled with a kind of eternal/escaping moment in the very temporal moment. Reality is tempiternal, that is, temporal and eternal in one and the same time in a non-dualistic relation. Human life, in this sense, implies a striving where the latter is “neither the dream of an earthly paradise nor the inner self (antar ātman) alone,” but it is an urge to discover and live in the present the fullness of life with a struggle for “a world with less hatred and more love, with less violence and more justice.”
Further, the encounter of the myth of destiny and the myth of development in our cross-cultural human situation indeed signal a transformative process. As Panikkar notes: “This task of transforming the cosmos is not achieved by a merely passive attitude nor by sheer activism… The world does not ‘go’ independently from us. We are active factors in the destiny of the cosmos. Otherwise, discourse about the dignity of Man, his ‘divinization’ or divine character is an illusion.” “What is needed is a ‘synergy’ in which human beings are seen neither as designing engineers of development nor victims” of destiny. They are creative and active participants in the adventure, dynamism and rhythm of reality.
To share in that rhythm is our destiny and our responsibility. For this we need purity of heart which will allow us to be attentive to the real rhythms of Being, detectable, first, in the revelation that comes to us from the others, the joys as much as the sufferings of humanity and Nature. It is a dance that is as much ethical as it is metaphysical and cosmic… We are players and chorus, actors, spectators, and co-authors in the rhythm of the real. Paradoxically enough, this openness to the other and the exterior requires a concentration on our interiority.
It’s here, Panikkar’s concept of the metapolitical assumes a significance. The experience of the metapolitical allows us to touch the depths of the human being without however being alienated from reality. It does not deny transcendence but only awakens our consciousness by making us see that to be fully human we must surely insert ourselves into political or developmental activity, but must neither drown in it nor escape to some beyond or even interiority. It is by protesting, rebelling, transforming, failing and even dying to better our situation and that of our own fellow men and the oppressed of the earth, that we shall reach this fullness.
Basically, the hope in the rhythm of being or reality is therefore an affirmation, celebration and flourishing of “Life.” As Panikkar pleads, “plenitude, happiness, creativity, freedom, well-being, achievement etc., should not be given up but, on the contrary, should be enhanced by this transformative passage from historical to transhistorical Man.” This transformative passage would surely include and take into account life’s contingencies and hardships, but it is important to realize that the uniqueness of a human life has meaning, even under the weight of tragedy. And it is into this life that a synergy of hope in the rhythm of realty inserts itself in order to help discover the fleeting, poor but joyous, meaning of naked existence. It is this hope that can constantly remind us that the meaning of Life is Life itself, lived in all its fullness, intensity and depth.
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Dr. L. Anthony Savari Raj
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Faculty of Arts and Law,
Manipal University Jaipur, Rajasthan
2010, Ecosophical Justice: Ecology, Justice and Raimon Panikkar (Capuchin Publication Trust, Darshan Research Series, Bangalore)
1998, A New Hermeneutic of Reality: Raimon Panikkar’s Cosmotheandric Vision (Frankfurt, Berlin, New York, Bern, Paris, Wien: Peter Lang AG. ISBN 3-906760-31-6 (European Academic Publisher)