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Creative, Hence a Peaceful Society


Devi Prasad

The kind of sadness and destructiveness we are experiencing all over the world is due to the increasing power of man’s distorted intellect and selfish attitude. Economic or political steps may seem to bring change, but they are temporary. Change will be permanent only if steps other than those leading to physical indulgence and self interest, can be taken and practised.

Music, literature and art provide those kinds of possibilities. Healthy human attitudes are built by them. Rhythm and harmony between the specific and the whole — one and many — is their gift to humankind.

Nandalal Bose1

While travelling in Sweden in 1966, I met in a training camp for conscientious objectors nearly a hundred draft-age men who had declared themselves against military service on grounds of conscience and opted for alternative civilian work. That year nearly six hundred draftees had declared themselves conscientious objectors. Towards the end of the meeting I asked the group if they knew the total number of conscripts that year. ‘Over twenty-five thousand’, one of them answered. Then I asked if they could explain why on earth only six hundred out of twenty-five thousand had opted for C.O. status, specially as life for a C.O. in Sweden was easier than that of a conscripted soldier: they could go home every week and their girl-friends and relatives could visit them every now and then.

The answer to my question came after the meeting, when ten or twelve of them suggested that we continue the discussion in the bar. What came out of this discussion was, as one of them said: ‘The fact is that they are afraid of making their own decisions’. Another said: ‘Most young men dislike military service, yet to write "No" on the form is difficult. After a period of dilemma they just sign "Yes" on the form, designed precisely in a manner that will put the draftee in that particular dilemma.’

In most countries with military conscription, draft-age men receive orders to personally report for registration, a constitutional requirement. A man who would like to be a C.O. has to submit a special application for obtaining that status. The mechanism for obtaining C.O. status is such a deterrent that most young men decide to go in for military service. It is the easiest way to escape the unpleasant experience of going through the exercise — filling up forms, producing proof of their pacifist convictions and facings tribunals, etc. They console themselves by thinking that after all life in the military, specially in peacetime, is not too bad, and it is four months shorter than alternative service. The essence of all this is that in one case the decision is made for you and in the other you have to make it yourself.

I have described only one situation, i.e., in regard to compulsory military service in some countries. However, in nearly all the countries of the world there are traditions, laws and practices which train and condition the individual not to be able to make his or her own decision on many issues that he or she faces in day-to-day life. The crux of the matter is that in spite of the claims of modern upbringing and education that they prepare the individual for facing life sensibly and courageously, men and women are the least prepared to confront the challenges and dilemmas of life intelligently and with courage. Similar to the young men who put ‘yes’ on their draft forms, most people do not know what actually they want and must do.

There is a beautiful anecdote from the seventh-century philosopher Azid ibn Muhammad al Nasafi. When Ali asked Mohammad, "What am I to do that I may not waste my time?" the Prophet answered, "learn to know thyself".’2 The tragedy is that modern education spends most of its time and resources in teaching facts about the universe and going into space, etc., but totally ignores the need for self-knowledge, which alone can help in resolving the dilemmas that are presented at every step. Those who opted for military service remained victims of the situation created by the State using the narrow concept of nationalism and lack of a sound educational system. If they had learnt and practised the art of knowing oneself, many more from among the twenty-five thousand conscripts would have refused military service. The same applies to many other aspects of life in most regions of the world.

The awareness of the need for self-knowledge is further scuttled by the introduction of fear in several ways from the beginning of one’s life as a child. Educational principles such as reward and punishment and the emphasis on performance rather than on creativity do more harm than good to the growing individual. They create fear in several forms: fear of failure, fear of losing position, status, property, fear of death, etc. It need not be so always. Fear sometimes may have an important role to play in one’s life. I remember the Greenham Common Protest Camp initiated by a small group of British women who felt desperate about the prospects of the U.S. cruise missiles being sited in their country. These women acknowledged their fear of nuclear weapons and tried to gain the confidence to take action against them. They said, ‘Fear is the starting point’ and succeeded in overcoming it and undertook creative action. For them their action was ‘for building a life worth living’. However, the role of fear is of little importance in the present context: we are dealing with the role of fear in destroying spontaneity and the freedom of the individual to act courageously and for doing good.

It has been experienced time and again that fear is not a reliable factor in motivating people to act. I shall give two examples to illustrate this. I am reminded of Bernard Shaw’s play The Black Woman in Search of God. There is a description of a man sitting under a tree talking to the black woman. He tells the woman that he does not know how to climb trees. Suddenly the black woman tells him in a panicky voice that he is sitting on a crocodile. The log of wood on which he was sitting looked like a crocodile. He jumped up and found himself on the tree. Now he could not climb down, even after being convinced that the log on which he had been sitting was not a crocodile. He had to be frightened again, this time of a poisonous snake hanging over his head, so that he would jump down in desperation. Fear worked wonderfully, but the responses of the man were reflex actions. In short, extreme behaviour has no use for consciousness or conscious processes.

The other example is from my own experience. Bengal suffered from very severe floods in 1943. As student volunteers some of us went to a nearby village for relief work. Two of us reached a house of which the courtyard was already under two feet of water, which was rising very rapidly. A young couple — handsome and strong looking — were standing in the courtyard, and a cart and two bullocks were also there. The whole place looked like a huge lake. Two small children were eating the last remaining grains of rice, sitting in the verandah with their grandfather. The verandah floor too would be under water in no time. Like most of the families of the village, this too could have loaded its possessions on the bullock cart in less than fifteen minutes and left for a safer place, but they had done nothing of the kind. They were standing like two pieces of sculpture with totally blank expressions on their faces. They did not utter a word in response to any of our questions.

At first I thought that they looked so stunned because they were worried about their possessions. They probably could not cope with the fact that they would lose everything if they left the house. We entered the house and saw twenty or so largish earthenware containers (gharas). I thought that these containers must be full of clothes, pots and pans, etc. But to my great surprise and sadness, I found that there was nothing, literally nothing, in those containers, not even a grain of rice. Their inaction could not have been a result of the fear of losing possessions or property. We tried to persuade them to come with us to a safer place. There was still no response from the young and hardy man and wife, used to poverty and deprivation. Their children and the old grandfather did not grasp what was happening. The grandfather and the couple remained nearly lifeless. The couple stood completely stunned and with no wish left to move. Fear of death for them had reached such a height that all the motivation to save even their innocent children from drowning in the deadly flood had disappeared. We had to actually drag them away, which was easy enough because they had no resistance and energy left in them. I must say that this was not an isolated phenomenon: it was a result of the social structure that was created by circumstances.

Why is it so? It occurs to me that there must be a borderline somewhere in the middle of the scale of fear which kills motivation, and beyond which there develops a mechanism against any thought of fear. At that point one loses all initiative. I can, though, understand making use of fear for therapy, in which case it will be a matter of deciding the maximum degree of fear that can be used to motivate those patients who have lost initiative or hope due to some neurological or other reason. In such cases, which will be relatively few, it is a matter of discovering and deciding the position of that borderline. But the fact is that for the majority of people there is some force different from fear which is more positive and lasting and which comes from within one’s self. The case of the Greenham Common women’s anti-nuclear campaign is an example.

I am convinced that the most crucial role in the present context is that of education. What is education, after all? Before dealing with this question I would like to put before you a problem. For many years scientists and so-called enlightened people have been talking about the question of environmental pollution. Take for example the degree of pollution in Delhi. In the last five years or so the environment has become more and more polluted. It is difficult to see even an object like a tree clearly in late afternoon. A large number of people have started suffering from throat diseases and lung problems. But neither the administration nor the public has been able to do anything to overcome the problem. I am extremely impressed by the qualitative and quantitative information that scientists are providing to show the dangerous aspects of the situation. And yet, when it comes to taking drastic action against the dangers that hang over our heads, most of us lack the inclination and courage as individuals to say: ‘I shall not allow it to happen’.

Why isn’t all that information, indisputably true and efficiently conveyed, making the impact that its gatherers and disseminators aim at? The answer lies somewhere in the inner layers of the human personality and its developmental processes. It seems quite obvious that more information need not necessarily create motivation. Information can be of different types, quality and importance. For instance, if A has no particular thing to do and is lazing in the evening and B drops in with the information that a good film is being shown on TV or at the local cinema theatre, A may be tempted to say: let us go. Here, the given information may provide motivation to A for overcoming laziness. It will depend, of course, on many other factors, e.g. whether A is fond of films in general or only a particular type of film and whether A likes the judgement and the company of B, etc.

If the information received should involve a major decision-making process its impact might be different. Moreover, if action upon the information received means risk — to life, money or image, etc. — the result may be entirely different. What would determine A’s response would be his predisposition to act (or react) in a given situation. The degree of this predisposition would depend upon the level of cognitive development of A, and his or her capacity to make judgements as well as the capacity to take social responsibility, the urge to exercise one’s power and the preparedness to face suffering or punishment if taking a particular kind of action is considered illegal in a court of law or socially unacceptable.

To put it briefly: a person may have the knowledge of how to act in a given situation but be unable to control his or her impulses and desires. Knowledge, which is understood today as the accumulation of information and self-discipline, is therefore two different virtues. The point is that most individuals are unable to internalize the information which they find intellectually sensible and useful. Why is that so? The answer lies in the modern system of upbringing and education. Most educational systems begin and end with the pursuit of intellectual growth of the individual, and knowingly or unknowingly distort the emotional side of the personality. Education today stresses the development of logical faculties, which are functions of the part of our psychic apparatus which is called the ego and which represents reason and common sense. The emphasis is on rationality, forgetting that human behaviour is not always inspired by rationality. There are other supra-rational factors that play an equally or more important role in building a good and liberated personality.

I would like to give the old-fashioned simile of the human mind being like an iceberg of which only a tenth is visible and nine-tenths remain submerged under water: The one-tenth being the conscious mind and the nine-tenths the unconscious mind. Present-day education handles the conscious and totally ignores the unconscious, the id, which contains the passion and the source of all energy. ‘The id contains everything that is present at birth, that is fixed in the constitution — above all, therefore, the instincts, which originate from the somatic organization and which find a first psychical expression (in the id) in forms unknown to us.’ According to Freud,3 ‘the id is unorganized, the ego organized; the id observes the pleasure principle, the ego the reality principle; the id is emotional, the ego rational; the id conforms to the primary processes which ignore differences and are oblivious of contradiction and of space and time, the ego conforms to the secondary processes which are analytical and respect the principle of contradiction and categories of space and time’. Under the impact of present-day educational practices and also due to upbringing, the id, the unconscious, does not only remain unlived, it is also repressed and regressed. Education slows down and distorts the process by which precepts are converted into images forming part of our mental furniture and structure.

Herbert Read explains it very well:

The whole ideal of education is intellectual. It tends to become even narrower than that: the ideal . . . is scientific. Even in subjects which used to be described as ‘liberal’ — philosophy, literature and history — the spirit of teaching becomes increasingly ‘objective’ or ‘positive’ and all questions of ‘value’ are rigidly excluded. . . .

I do not deplore the time given to games in our schools — on the contrary, it is often the only time well spent. But the moral discipline thus inculcated is of very limited duration — it has no depth, it does not involve the imagination or the emotional life in any profound sense. Games morality, the team spirit, has become indeed just one more social convention, though to be ‘a good sport’ generally means to behave like a human being rather than a conventional citizen — in other words to disregard ‘morality’. But ‘morality’, in the sense of a code of right and wrong, has to be distinguished from the moral values of good and evil. Morality itself has been intellectualized, codified, and made a matter of rational judgement instead of spontaneous action. Moral education in the ancient world, when Plato and Aristotle handled the theme, meant the learning of something like good manners or good form, good doing and good making; it was a dynamic concept, a concept of mobility, of wisdom, of courage . . . but I am quite sure that our existing systems of education lead right away from social union, and dissolve the subtle bonds of love and fellowship, and leave us a nerve-ridden aggressive herd.4

The present system of education is partitive. Instead of uniting, its tendency is to divide. Instead of fostering mutual aims and love, it generates competition and hatred. It is based on a caste system and hierarchical divisions, not only in age and professional groups, but by deciding that certain tests should determine the right of an individual child to proceed beyond a particular stage. Within each group, similar tests and examinations determine the place of the individual child. The procedure has the effect of pitting child against child in an unhealthy struggle for places. This process accentuates the sense of social disunity.

An education which accentuates disunity cannot foster a sense of community, and where there is no such sense, no sense of belonging, it cannot be expected to give any importance to social responsibility or to those values which recognize the needs of human beings living with one another in a community based on sharing and mutual help. Fullness of life cannot be realized in a disunited society, and where there is no evidence of fullness of life there cannot be real knowledge, that is, of the integrated self.

I do not need to elaborate the development of the individual’s personality during the first three or four years of life. Freud and his followers and many psychologists have convincingly pointed out some facts about the existence of aggressive and destructive instincts in human beings. We are not born with these instincts, but they are an inevitable consequence of the infant’s adaptation to external reality. The strength of these instincts depends upon the degree of severity of experience beginning from that of birth and the early months and years of one’s life. These experiences of infancy get buried in the unconscious and are ‘forgotten’. But they find their way out in disguised forms in adult life. Unless these instincts have the right outlets at the right time they turn inwards, with destructive effects. The period of infancy is a difficult one in the relationship of the infant with its parents, which again can result in problems of adjustment with the world around. But I shall not go further into that discussion here.

The problem is twofold. One aspect is concerned with the need to liberate the personality from those fears and complexes which have accumulated during infancy and the early years of life. The other aspect is related to the orientation of the personality in the direction of social integrity. One demands healthy outlets for the energy which has regressed into destructivity and the other requires growing in the direction of creativity and social good. Again, it is the task of education and educators — I do not leave out parents from this category — to see that in the process of growing up and in the environment, the individual develops all his or her faculties that make the life-journey fulfilling and socially constructive.

Rabindranath Tagore once wrote: ‘We have come to this world to accept it, not merely to know it. We may become powerful by knowledge, but we attain fullness by sympathy with all existence.’ Tagore is asking for a programme of education which is based on unity and harmonious relationship with nature, and in which intellectual understanding and rationality will naturally be by-products. He insists that one can reach truth only through sympathy. ‘The world of senses in which animals live is limited. Our reason has opened the gate for our mind into the heart of the infinite. Yet this freedom of reason is but a freedom in the outer courtyard of existence. Objects of knowledge maintain an infinite distance from us who are the knowers. For knowledge is not union. Therefore the further world of freedom awaits us there where we reach truth, not through feeling it by senses or knowing it by reason, but through union of perfect sympathy. . . .’5

The human individual is by nature an artist, a creator. Whatever he/she receives is not with passivity and in the mind it is not an accurate physical representation of the objects around. In the subconscious we go on adapting it, transforming it into human imagery, tinged with the values we hold to be part of our sentiments and imagination. Plato writes: ‘For rhythm and harmony penetrate deeply into the mind and take a most powerful hold on it, and if education is good, bring and impart grace and beauty, if bad, the reverse. And moreover, the proper training we propose to give will make a man quick to perceive the shortcomings of works of art or nature, whose ugliness he will rightly dislike; anything beautiful he will welcome gladly, will make it his own and so grow in true goodness of character; anything ugly he will rightly condemn and dislike, even when he is still young and cannot understand the reason for so doing, while when reason comes he will recognize and welcome her as a familiar friend because of his upbringing.’6

As a teacher I observed that children who engaged in spontaneous creative activities were happier than those who did well in their intellectual performance but who did not take part in either sports or creative activities such as growing plants, craft work, painting and music. I have also found that children’s drawings which are the results of spontaneous activities, are direct evidence of their physiological and psychological disposition. These spontaneous activities of self-expression create a great deal of self-confidence, a healthy self-image, in children. After all, self-expression is self-improvement and self-realization.

Self-realization does not mean merely the discovery of one’s intellectual capacities and other skills. It is a process of discovering oneself as a free and fearless individual at peace with oneself on the one hand and on the other an integral part of and in harmony with the larger reality, social as well as universal. This harmony is developed in the individual not by the imposition of law from the top but by that discipline to which the senses naturally submit. Creative activities are that discipline in which the senses quite intuitively seek harmony, proportion and wholeness of any experience. The use of media and tools such as clay, cotton, wool, leather, wood, stone, brushes, potter’s wheel, saws, impose this discipline by their very nature. Moreover, it draws us closer to nature, which alone is the supreme example of harmony, sympathy and union. These are the same laws on which the human community depends for its own unity and integrity.

Freedom to be close to nature — to be one with it — is to gain one’s own freedom, to grow in fullness. Child art not only allows but also encourages the artist to enter the world of freedom, to the fruition of all his gifts and talents, to his true and stable happiness in adult life. Art leads the child out of himself and helps him in becoming an integral part of not only the community but also of the larger unity between nature and human society. From my own experience in the field of child art and education7 I have seen that art activities in general also have a therapeutic quality which liberates individuals, to a great extent, of their aggression and other repressed instincts accumulated from childhood onwards. I shall give here two simple examples from my own experience.

In the Sevagram school we had a boy from a tribal area. His father was a nationalist rebel during the Quit India struggle of 1942 and was waiting for trial in solitary confinement. The Gonds are a hardy and warring people. The boy, ten-year-old, was not only endowed with his Gond characteristics, he was also emotionally highly tense, mainly on account of the suffering caused by his father’s being imprisoned as a freedom-fighter. He used to get violent with other children. I took him in my class and gave him the freedom to spend as much time as he liked in art and craft activities. He liked it. Interestingly, he often drew pictures of historical heroes. He was also encouraged to join in doing hard physical work, such as chopping firewood for the community kitchen. To cut the story short, in a year or so he was a different person, responsible and active in a constructive sense, and he became a popular child artist in the community. What worked to bring about these changes in him? His need was not only to give vent to the extra energy, frustration and anger he had accumulated during months and years, but also to sublimate them, which creativity generates.

The other case was of a girl of fourteen who had not grown mentally beyond eight or nine. She always sat in a corner in every class and did or said nothing. Her teacher considered her socially useless and ineducable. In my art class also she did nothing for months, although when she came to the class I greeted her as I did the other children, and often asked her if she would also like to make some pictures or clay models or do anything that she liked. One day a piece of paper reached my desk from behind. I turned back and saw that it was the same girl — Malati was her name. This piece of paper had a bright cadmium yellow figure which looked like a man. This was her first attempt to say something, probably a thank you to the teacher for having treated her like any other child in his class. Later she told me that it was my portrait. In the next class I requested her to make a picture for me to keep. The result was a drawing of an elephant in the folk style, the style of work she must have seen in her village. I was astonished at the imagery and aesthetic sense of this girl. At last she discovered herself. It is a long and interesting story. Here I shall only say that in a year or so she became a popular child artist and one of the best in the community. She was now a self-confident, active and responsible member of the community.

My experience with our rural population has also convinced me that people who live on the land, farming and gardening, people who earn their livelihood through art and handicrafts, making things of daily use for themselves and their communities, are, by and large, more peaceful and disinclined towards war and warlike activities than those who do only intellectual work in both rural and urban areas. This disinclination towards war in peasants and artisans can be attributed to two factors. The work that they do provides them with healthy outlets for their emotions and violent urges, probably because it sublimates their aggressive instincts. It may sound simplistic, but it is true that after doing hard work in weeding out unwanted growth in the field one may feel liberated from the violence accumulated within on account of other factors.

Another important aspect is that their activities make them one with nature and the natural material they handle. However, it has to be admitted that this phenomenon is no longer as powerful as it was before society was as materialistic as it has become today. Today’s artists have become as self-centred and competitive as people in other professions. Yet the truth of the matter is still relevant, as can be observed through children.

I can give endless examples of children’s capacity to get totally absorbed not only in the act of painting or doing any other art activity, but in the drama that is the subject- matter of the picture or model. A child of ten years once made a picture of a landscape with a bullock tied to a tree across a brook and a boy trying to cross the brook to go and bring the animal to the shed, as it had started raining. He was holding an umbrella. The boy slipped and fell and the umbrella flew out of his hand. Just before the young artist was going to give finishing touches to his painting he put it at a distance so that he could have a good look at it from the other end of the room. I was quietly watching his movements from the window. After placing the picture against the wall he started moving backwards. His right hand was in a position as if he was holding an umbrella. All of a sudden he acted as the falling boy and moved as if to catch the umbrella which, as in his painting, had flown away. As an artist myself, and having known many serious artists, I was able to fully understand the need of this child to feel that what he was representing in his painting was his own reality.

The crucial point here is that unless we as individuals feel ourselves parts of the whole we cannot experience the whole, which is the ultimate aim of humanity. And without that personal experience we cannot be happy and feel fulfilled. Art assists the individual in creating the desired unity with the universe. Let us see how the dynamic works.

According to Indian and Chinese aesthetics it is of supreme importance that the maker should identify completely with the object that he or she makes. Writing on Chinese painting, Ananda Coomaraswami states: ‘The Chinese artist does not merely observe but identifies with the landscape or whatever it may be that he will represent. The story is told of a famous painter of horses who was found one day in his studio rolling on his back like a horse: reminded that he might really become a horse, he ever afterwards painted only Buddhas. An icon is made to be imitated, not admired. In just the same way in India the imager is required to identify himself in detail with the form to be represented. Such an identification, indeed, is the final goal of any contemplation reached only when the original distinction of subject breaks down and there remains only the knowing, in which the knower and the known are merged. . . .’

‘If’, Coomaraswami continues, ‘what seems at all strange to us (the Western and the Westernized), whose concept of knowledge is always objective, let us at least remember that an identification was also presupposed in medieval European procedure; in Dante’s words, "he who would paint a figure, if he cannot be it, cannot draw it".’8

At this juncture I must make a point which I think is of some special importance. Art here does not mean what it is often understood to mean. ‘Art today’, wrote Herbert Read, ‘is too often a wayward, partial, even perverse expression of universal harmony. It is too often but an expression of personal fantasies, of egoistic and aggressive impulses. It is prostituted to purposes which destroy aesthetic nature’.9

The idea here is to experience and develop the unity in which we are born, by learning from nature; in the process of creation all the necessary information and knowledge is gathered. After all, creative activities are related to the external world. To make an efficient table, pot or house, or to make music, it is necessary to know arithmetic, history, geography, science and what not. The natural way to acquire that knowledge is through the unconscious discipline that is possible by way of aesthetic activities. It is this procedure that makes education an unconscious process, therefore natural.

What I am trying to convey here is that to be able to experience and act, and act creatively and constructively, one has to be predisposed to taking such steps in one’s life. These steps are not just occasional ad hoc acts in the life of the individual. The whole of life itself is a series of these steps. I am asking no more than what Maria Montessori suggested in her message to the international congress against war and militarism in Paris in August 1937. ‘If at some time the Child were to receive proper consideration and his immense possibilities were to be developed, then a Man might arise for whom there would be no need of encouragement to disarmament and resistance to war because his nature would be such that he could not endure the state of degradation and of extreme moral corruption which makes possible any participation in war.’

I am only asking for an educational programme that would teach and motivate the individual to make constant efforts to know himself or herself and to act and behave fearlessly. I am actually pleading for a lifestyle and educational programme that would make individuals predisposed to a beautiful and peaceful society — a society made up of fearless and liberated individuals. It is exactly what Nandalal Bose says in the quotation given at the beginning of this paper. ‘Music, literature and art provide those possibilities which build healthy human attitudes. Rhythm and harmony between the specific and the whole — one and many — is their gift to human kind.’ I interpret the term art in the sense that classical India did, and which Nandalal Bose himself propagated, without making any distinction between fine and applied arts. In today’s situation and mental make-up one may call it a utopia. But let us not forget that every time in history a revolutionary idea was born, it was first labelled a utopia. Haven’t we seen that only utopias have succeeded?


1. Nandalal Bose, ‘Shilpa Katha’ (Bengali), in Drishti Au Shrishti, Viswa Bharati Publications, Calcutta.

2. Quoted by E.F. Schumacher in A Guide for the Perplexed, p.78.

3. Sigmund Freud, 1940.

4. Herbert Read, Education For Peace, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1950, p. 49.

5. Amiya Chakravarty, ed., A Tagore Reader, Beacon Press, Boston, 1971, pp.218-19.

6. Plato, The Republic, trans. Sesmond Lee, Penguin Books, 1980, p.163.

7. Devi Prasad, Child Art and Education (Hindi), 1959); Art — The Basis of Education, in press, National Book Trust, India, New Delhi.

8. Ananda Coomaraswami, quoted by Roger Lipsey in Coomaraswami: Selected Papers, Vol 1, Princeton University Press, 1977, p. 309.

9. Herbert Read, Education For Peace, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1950, p. 49.


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