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The Call of the Forest


Som Raj Gupta

The Greeks placed man between god and beast and the polis, his ontological place, between heaven, the place of the gods, and the desert, the place of beasts. Strange creature appeared this deinon, this wonder, to them, this creature of fierce contradictions, with the radiance of heaven shining in his head and the fury of a beast raging in his breast, heaven unattainable for him and the beast inescapable. So sinister was the real polis for Plato, so rotten, that he was forced to weave an unrealizable dream, an ideal state, where man could live meaningfully and with purpose. The first philosophical treatise on the polis is already a cry of despair, implicitly as little hopeful about man as was Homer. The latter had visualised, in the Iliad, man as a being not merely human but one with cosmotheandric dimensions. Yet even this being, with his identity fashioned by Hesphaestus, the divine smith, could be saved neither from bestiality nor from tragedy. What redeemed man from his sordidness and his meanness was his mortality, the realization and acceptance of that moira.

That man’s being as a mere human communality, as a zoon politikon was a distortion, a vikara, of his true being, the result of a false vision, is the central insight of Vedic wisdom. To live as a part of a human civilization cut off and isolated from the sky and the earth, from birds, beasts and gods and, most importantly, from Brahman the Absolute, was to live in sin and in pain. There could be no peace for such a being because there was no place of rest, no ontological mooring, for such a deviation. Accordingly, the Vedas never pray for the peace of man alone, as we in our blind narcissism dare to do. When the Vedas pray for peace they pray, first, for the peace of heaven, of the sky, of the earth, of all that lives on earth and all that grows on it and then for the peace of man. Even the peace of gods and of Brahman the Absolute has precedence in this prayer over the peace of man. They make this prayer because the self of man, his atman, is not merely a human self; it is the atman of all, the atman of all in each. Unless and until his self becomes expansive enough to become all and small enough to become each he cannot know what peace is, what santi is. For those who live alienated from themselves, their own native beings, can only be creatures of fear and of violence, not creatures of peace and bliss.

It was, I think, for this reason that the Upanisadic seers found the creative centre of a peaceful civilization in the forest and not in the grama, the village, or the nagara, the town. For man could, they believed, live in genuine peace only if he loved all that he beheld from the sky to the earth, from the birds of the air to the beasts of the jungle. Man could not have care and concern for his fellow beings unless he cared for all these, for all that moves and does not move. The forest was his purgatory, his tapovana, which redeemed his nagara, from a place of conflict to a place of harmony. The nagara that distanced itself from this purgatory would degenerate into a lustful hell as Valmiki was among the first to perceive, which precisely was what has happened to Ravana’s Lanka. Every nagarika must realize that it is in the forest alone that man truly opens out to earth and sky and lets the peace of the mute and insensate come to dwell in him. It is there alone that he truly comes to own up and accept all that the civilized man hates and would avoid: his death and mortality. The authentic life that thinkers like Heidegger get so eloquent about, the life that owns up our mortality, comes to be possible only in the forest, not in the halls of legislature or justice. It is there alone that man can realize, in concrete and immediate terms, that our only true moira is the moira to die.

What kind of being is the being of this man, what is his disposition, his self, his discourse, of him who lives owning up his mortal lot? What is there that sets him apart, differentiates him from the man of civilization? Civilizations, with all their differences, have one thing common about them: they are informed, each one of them, with a common pursuit vis-a-vis inanimate nature. Civilizations come to be civilizations to the extent they can control and tame the wild forces of nature, to the extent they come to evolve a common action in relation to nature, an action more or less systematic, communicative, criticizable and revisable. Most civilizations will count themselves successful if they are able to carry out this kind of action more or less successfully. This is as true of our modern civilization as of any other. Indeed, modernity is, in every truth, another name for communicative and criticizable action. There have been civilizations that, despite the fact that common action was their basis, never equated man’s being with that action. They recognized his being apart from social relationships too, in his spiritual depths, at least in his mortality that set him apart from others. Our civilization is probably unique in equating man with a zoon politikon, with Mitsein, a being with others. In this respect, we follow the Greeks only half-way, for we tend to sleep over our moira of mortality, which the Greeks never did, never dreamed of doing. For them, the polis was indeed the ontological place of man but of man the zoon politikon, not of man the mortal, that tragic being placed precariously between god and beast. For us modern man is only a man, related to nature through the bonds of exploitation, to fellow beings partly through ties of kinship but mostly through contracts and a cold system of give and take. A chilling account of our civilization do we find among artists and writers, even among some social writers. The Freudian account of civilization remains as true of our civilization as of any other. History, it appears, was created in vain and will be created in vain.

A bleak and unhealthy darkness seems to hover over this civilization. For men and women do not live here as men and women nor die as men and women. They do not live and do not die as men and women would do because they do not live as mortals but as concepts and categories, as functions and roles. These concepts and functions can speak and communicate through what may be called ready-made terms, terms that they pick up as they would a tool. They do not, cannot, speak words that are truly and genuinely their own because they never lie truly and genuinely as themselves. Public labels themselves, they speak and understand only public labels, not the words native to their soul, their self, their atman. And state things do they perceive, things that a concept can sum up and a common name can communicate. They cannot speak a name truly proper to a thing because they notice not its life and being, its self and its atman, only what is commonplace to it, something which it shares with other objects belonging to its class, not something which makes it alive and unique. They speak in terms of classes, perceive classes and live as classes. It is these that are relevant for functions in a common action, not the name proper to a thing, truly native to it, a name without which the thing in question will never become that thing, that unique thing, the name without which it simply cannot be a thing with an atman, with a self. The proper names which we ordinarily give ourselves and to things around us are more arbitrary, more of the nature of labels than even the common names, which can only classify things but not reveal their being. Our entire discourse is thus a violence against the atman, the self of things and persons, our knowledge a violation of their being and life. We think that our cognitive pursuit ends with classification; we do not realize what a sacrilege it is against the self of a person and the being of a thing, this thing before us.

Classification is relevant for communicative action, but not for the perception of a thing. When I perceive a thing it so deeply and intimately suffuses me with its presence that the concept in terms of which I classify and differentiate it, in terms of which, that is to say, I discourse about it, comes to be forgotten. Everything, every object that we behold is thus ineffable and incommunicable; it can only be classified and differentiated but not revealed by concepts and common names that we use in our cognitive discourses. The truth, the being, the self of a thing reveals itself to us only when we do not talk about it but pay heed to it, when we do not remember the name with which we identify it and communicate about it to others, when, that is to say, we are so intimately filled with its presence that we cannot but become it, become the thing we perceive. Only this sensuous participation in a thing, this dwelling in it, this becoming one with it will reveal the being, the atman of the thing before us, not the discourse that we carry on with our abstractions, our universals, our common names. When we have actually lived these moments of revelatory participation, the moments that reveal to us the life and being of a thing, then we truly come to realize how adventitious are the common names through which we carry on our discourse about them in our social or conceptual discourses. Neither commonsense can gauge the depth of this innocent participation nor can science, which too carries out its discourse in abstract terms and concepts.

When we perceive a thing, a redeeming invitation is extended to us, to each one of us, to dwell in it and as it, to participate in its life and in the harmony and peace that constitute that participation. This invitation we disregard because we in our blindness and confusion are more anxious to make of it a thing of use or of consumption than to see into its life and live that life. Such is the power of our theoretico-practical concerns that we would not hesitate to turn that living thing into an example of a category or a concept, the child of our theoretico-practical passion. A primordial blemish informs our being as zoon politikons, an original violence. This violence, this blemish does not allow us ever to live at peace with ourselves or with the world. We do not have the patience and the meekness to let the thing come to us, we do not have the required generosity, the openness to welcome it and to do what the ancients in our land called the upasana of it. Upasana in Sanskrit means to sit near an object, to be intimate with it, to contemplate it with passive and open disposition. This was the way to know the thing in question, this sitting near it, speaking to it and not about it, to dwell in it and as it. The word that revealed an object was this word of communion, the word with which you spoke to it, not the word with which you spoke about it.

All this we have all but forgotten, this upasana of things. Knowledge for us has come to mean relating a thing to a concept, a concept that we in our narcissistic passion have forged, and not paying heed to it. So obsessed are we with our concepts that we have all but forgotten the violence we do to things and ourselves through what we choose to call our knowledge. For it is not merely our percepts that become victims of our reductionist formulas but also the thoughts that occur to us, the words we spontaneously speak, even the air that we breathe. How many of us can really flow with the current of our breath, move out with it and die with it and move in with it and again die with it at the navel? Yet how many are there, how many yogins and how many poets, who tell us what it means to die with our breath, how when its motion is suspended, we are, in Wordsworth’s words, become a living soul and see into the life of things. Despite such revelations, there is nothing in the world that we insult more and ignore more than this our breath, this our very life and being. Such is the depth of our impoverishment that to flow with the current of breath is practically death for us; there is nothing more chilling for us than the prospect of being reduced to the act of ‘mere breathing’, the lifetime goal of a yogin. If to ‘breathe merely’ is death for us, to be an abstract category is life for us. Yet we have the presumptuousness to talk about peace, we who ever do violence to all that we are and all that we behold. We must remember that hollow men, bare abstractions, are not to talk about peace or shanti, it is only living men, those who live their breath, their thoughts, their words, who can legitimately talk about it and bring it about.

The same fate awaits our thoughts and words. As we pay no heed to a moment in the being of a thing, its passing appearance or the play of an ephemeral gleam upon it, so we do not pay attention to passing thoughts in us or the words we may chance to hear or speak. Thoughts are important for us, for those engaged in communicative action or discourse, only to the extent that they can help accomplish that action or carry on that discourse. An individual thought in and for itself is a distraction for us, a sign of our weakness, of our lack of character or personality. We must relate it to the system of thought we seek to fashion or the scheme of action we would turn into reality. The treatment we mete out to thoughts, we mete out to individual words too.

A man living in solitude has a different attitude towards objects around him, towards their passing miens and expressions, towards the words he may chance to hear and speak, even the syllables that may constitute those words. With no theoretico-practical axe to grind, he does not find himself a function or an example and illustration of a concept, nor the things around him. He lives a participant in the life of the earth as her true inmate. The same innocent disposition he has for what occurs within him, his thoughts, his feelings, the movement of his breath, the feel of his sensations. We must, of course, remember that only that man can live in this innocent way, free from desire and narcissism, who has passed through a hard period of probation in society. According to the ancient Indian tradition, only a man who can distinguish between the eternal and the non-eternal, who acts without any desire for the fruit of his actions, holy or secular, who is calm of mind and restrained in senses, who is kind to all and patient in suffering, and who, moreover, loves the creatures of the earth and is grateful even to water, air and fire, to earth and sky, only such a man can live as a genuine participant in the rita, in the harmonic law — he alone can become what he sees and perceives, only he can know what peace is, the peace that dwells alike in man and in the world, dwells in them as their inbeing, as their inmost self, as also their life and sustenance.

There have been artists who have had a remarkable gift of openness towards the things they perceive, with almost total allegiance to perception. A percept, an image, an impression win their fealty more than any theory or plan of action. There have also been some poets whose love for words is overwhelming, who would listen to them more intently than they would listen to a person, linger on them more fondly than they would on a beautiful image or a sight. They write not to express ideas but to sign the words they have heard in moods of intent stillness. The meaning that the contemplative artist finds in a gesture or an expression, or the poet in the rhythm and movement of a phrase or a line, is a useless thing for a technocrat or a social planner but it is profoundly significant for many a man and woman in every age and every civilization. The present occasion is not the right one to dwell on the wealth of meaning that a single gesture of a hand can convey to an artist or the appeal of a word to the poet. What I wish to emphasize is the element of withdrawal from our ordinary social concerns and personal ambitions involved in the portrayal of that gesture or the saying of that word. To contemplate the gesture that the artist has portrayed for us or to listen to the word he has heard also leads us, their contemplators and listeners, away from our daily concerns and interests, rendering us, for sometime at least, unfit for them. We value these moments of profound idleness because they enable us to cease to be mere functions or abstractions and to come, to an extent, to be ourselves. In such moments of emancipation we come to know what it is to breathe freely and live freely, what it is to feel our own sensations, to live our own thoughts and speak our own words.

In our ordinary social life, we coordinate our actions and thoughts when we study and control nature. When we come to enjoy the fruits of these acts and thoughts we become brutally narcissistic and self-oriented. Most of the conflicts that afflict societies spring from this contradiction between intersubjective action and subjective consumption. In the appreciation of art and literature this contradiction between the active intersubjectivity and the consuming subjectivity comes to be reconciled. When I appreciate a gesture or an expression depicted by an artist, I do contemplate it all alone, but this contemplation and the joy it gives rise to do not make me possessive or narcissistic. Other contemplators and other appreciators can participate in the given gesture without being competitors. The appreciative self in me can freely share the object of art with others but will enjoy the appreciation all alone. Redemptively sharing is this alone, this contemplatively appreciative self. This self never comes to be in conflict with others because its joy is its alone, uniquely and immediately its own. All peaceful can this self sit with others, with co-sharers of the wealth that an object or art is.

Art and literature thus reveal to us what co-sharing is and what solitude, joyous solitude is. The rift between the subjective and the intersubjective that we find in our ordinary civilized life is remarkably healed here. Yet the freedom they give us from our fretful life and conflicts is not a lasting freedom. We get only relief from our fever not a cure for it. For the vast schism that divides the enjoyer of fame and honour in an artist from the innocent creator in him is not easily bridged. The malady of the divide between the worker and the consumer afflicts the artist too. He too enjoys his fame like a Narcissus, giving rise to all the tensions that an ordinary consumer would generate. Artists can give us a taste of peace but only when we are in contemplative moods. They also in a way contribute to a culture of peace by making us live, for some moments at least, in the deep solitudes that lie hidden within us. But what the artist creates, the man in him often takes away. The latter contributes a lot to the decadence of art because of his temptations and weaknesses. The vanities he shares with common people are plentiful enough to render him, generally speaking, incapable of creating an endurable culture of peace.

If knowledge at the level of commonsense and science is divisive, knowledge at the level of art is fragile and, ultimately speaking, unredemptive. Does this mean, then, that all knowledge is a curse as the myth of Adam and Eve would assure us it is? Not really, for there is a knowledge which is not an antagonist of innocence but one with it. This knowledge they give the name shruti, a knowledge which is a gift but not an acquisition, a revelation that man can hear but not speak. It is not the privilege of man the Mitsein, of one whose being is constituted by others, to receive this knowledge. Man the Mitsein is too much of a speaker, too much of a communicator to have enough stillness in him to allow the shruti to resonate in that stillness. This knowledge is revealed to one who has no already forged terms ready at hand for communication, who has to find the word, the word that is his own word, the word that is native to his self and to the moment of its utterance and to the world where it is uttered. The speaker cannot precede this word nor the moment nor the world because they come into being with the coming into being of this word, cannot be without it. The speaker utters the word as the word, the world hears it as the word. There is nothing apart from this word, neither the speaker nor the hearer nor the world. The word is all, the word is each, it dwells in each as the all and in the all as each.

Not many can hear the shruti this way, those words of redemption. But many can self-submit to those words, submit to them with a passive disposition. Now, it is not a big problem to distinguish the word of revelation from the word of discourse. Discourse can and does replace one interpretation of reality with another interpretation but it does not give up interpretation as such, for reality is always an interpreted reality for it. Shruti is an interpretation that is oriented towards its own disownment, it is a knowledge that ends in innocence. When the hearer of shruti is purified of all interpretations, he, all innocent, self-submits to its word, gives himself up to its contemplation to become that word. When this happens, when man becomes the word, the syllable, there remains no other words for him to relate to. All language comes to reside in that single syllable, all the words and whatever they may refer to or interpret. The word becomes his self, and so does their interpretation, the world. This is what the contemplation of a single syllable brings about, the syllable called aum, which reveals itself, when so contemplated, as the dwelling place of all that is, has been and will be, as all that is immanent as well as transcendental.

When this knowledge dawns upon man, when he becomes the word to become all and more than all, only then does he come to have peace that no event can undo, no upheaval can destroy, no catastrophe can uproot. Men of the world, those inhabitants of the polis, find it hard to believe that a single syllable, with no propositional value, can become the all. A short paper is not the place wherein to dwell on this extremely complex theme. I have tried to explain the matter in details elsewhere. I would, however, emphasize the point that a very rigorous defence of the ‘position’ of the shruti in this regard can be made and has indeed been made in the philosophical tradition of India. If man, the shruti says, contemplates, with passive openness, the word aum, he, becoming one with it, will become the self, the atman, of all. The altar, the Vedas say, is the utmost bound of the earth and sacrifice, yajna, its centre and word of the Vedas, the akshara, the dwelling place of all the gods. Only that man, they continue, can sit in peaceful assemblies who knows the word as the home of all that is.

Men of the world, men who live as social beings, men who would claim for themselves only a human self, cannot live in peace with one another. They cannot live in peace because they ‘live’ as constituted by divisive categories, by linguistic and conceptual distinctions: in one word, by otherness. This divisive language we have to give up, this language of categories, of concepts, of distinctions. This we cannot do unless and until we cease to be conceptually interpreted beings. Instead of being determined in terms of distinctions and concepts, we have to find ourselves in harmony with all and all in harmony with us. We have to find the word that is one with all, the word that is our being, our self. If we wish to live in peace with one another, we should learn to contemplate words, meditate on them, give ourselves up to them. The moment we reify vak, speech, into a tool, we turn our life into an irredeemable tragedy. Modernity committed its greatest sin when it forgot the sacredness of vak, of the word. For men and women who find words only as interpretative or communicative tools live as creatures of love-hate relationships, more of hate than of love. That civilization, every civilization, should turn out to be a virtual hell for Freud and his followers should not come as a surprise to anyone who realizes the immensity of the fall of one who lives as a mere example of a concept.

The Freudian vision is perhaps the most damning indictment of humanism by a thought which itself is humanistic. Recent attempts to mellow down its sting have failed to be convincing. The theories woven by, for example, the followers of Merleau-Ponty about man as an opening out, as an orientation towards others sound, to say the least, is romantic in the bad sense of the term. The truth is that human self of man is a self-centred self, egoistic and violent, and human society is an unhappy and violent society. Our history, the history of civilization, provides enough evidence to bear out the truth of this statement. If earlier civilizations failed to be peaceful civilizations, our own civilization will be no exception. Indeed, if the truth be told, this civilization has a much more bleak future in store for it than earlier civilizations. Witness the systematic way it has reified living beings into things and tools, witness the appalling way it is turning itself into a consumeristic civilization. To be hopeful about the future of this through and through humanistic civilization is to indulge in schizophrenic reveries.

Peace can descend on man only when, to recall the Vedic vision, man realizes that there are more than human dimensions of his self, when he lives that self and as that self. And his civilization can become peaceful civilization only when he lives in harmony with all that is, from the sky to the earth, from the bird to the beast. That is the call a forest-dweller makes to civilization from his solitude; that it live in harmony with all creatures, be they moving or non-moving, be they two-footed or four-footed; let it not flourish in isolation from and with hostility towards them. For men and women must realize that if they cannot respond to the call that these beings make to them, they will fail to respond to the call they make to one another. Bereft of a sense of harmony with the life of things, with the vast expanse of the earth and the sky, they will live as mere acquisitive and possessive things, not beings that are open and sensitive to one another. Man has to be simple and self-restrained to be sensitive to the life of things, and he has to be sensitive to that life in order to be sensitive to the life of his fellow beings. Let us, therefore, try to live in harmony with all that is, let the Vedic prayer for the peace of all be our guide and let the forest-dwellers be our guardians. It is not the privilege of philosopher-kings to make the polis peaceful, only a humble rishi, a solitary seer, can show us the path. It is only he who can provide the transforming look, so indispensable for our safety from decadence. There are no institutions, no laws, no ethos and no mores that can escape decline and decadence, no human virtue that can withstand the might of vice. Every institution, every civilization sows the seeds of its own destruction. There is something suicidal about every human endeavour which no self-criticism can stall. Human self-criticism is itself too much influenced by suicidal narcissistic tendencies to save human institutions from these maladies. Only the other civilization, the life of solitude, the life that is harmony itself, the life that a serene forest-dweller embodies, can provide the cure, can provide the gaze that will redeem us from our meanness, from our acquisitiveness, from our smallness. It alone can open out the vast dimensions of our beings, dimensions deep and peaceful, which our cleverness cannot imagine, our thinking cannot conceive but which our simplicity, simplicity in our life and in our thought, can enable us to perceive, realize and be.


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