This blog is written during the Corona virus epidemic that is sweeping through the world. I was hoping that such a common threat to humanity would unite the world. Perhaps I should not be surprised. It appears to have led to sharper divisions than before. We have great human beings as health care and essential service providers who are helping save lives often risking their own lives. We also have a large number of people writing and forwarding blatant lies and misinformation spreading them just to advance their own way of life or for just plain personal benefit. This has been given a new word recently!
If you have been reading print/online/social media, you would have read that word ‘post truth‘. Oxford Dictionaries chose this as the word of the year in 2016. (1) According to this, Post-truth is an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. It goes on to claim that this concept has been in existence for the past decade! Though I had a general feeling about what this term meant, I could never accept that the humanity needed a new adjective in this new millennium. Emotion and personal belief may have played a more significant role in the past than in this millennium, though for people living now, this decade does sound like ‘post-truth‘ decade. ‘Sapiens’ author Yual Noah Harari (2) has already busted this myth by calling us a ‘post truth species’ who are happy to have ‘Shared fictions — in the form of news, religions, novels, sports, money, even brands — fill our lives”. Hindu philosophy has this concept of ‘Maya’, which may be loosely translated as magic or illusion. It is interpreted differently and one interpretation is that everything that we experience is an illusion. I am going to limit myself to honesty and poverty and highlight a few things that show that lies, deceit and poverty have been there forever, everywhere. So are honesty and wealth. To the best of my knowledge, Scandinavian countries seems to have produced a society in which disparity has been removed to a large extent. Corona has not spared these countries.
In 1994, there was a Hollywood movie titled True Lies, two decades before ‘post truth‘ became widely used. As we grow up, we are all taught to speak the truth and be honest. Most every human would have lied some time or other. As Warren Buffet says, “honesty is an expensive gift”. One might then expect that poor might lie to make a living. My experience shows that honesty does not depend on material possession. Some are honest no matter what. Some would lie to get anything and everything, irrespective of how much they already have. I am reminded of an excellent Tamil film, titled ‘Yaarukkaga Azhudhaan’ (யாருக்காக அழுதான்), which translates to ‘for whom did he cry’? I may have mentioned about this movie in another blog. It is based on a novel with the same title by Jeyakanthan. The whole movie is about a rich lady losing her gold ornament in a hotel. The room boy (excellent performance by Nagesh) is the obvious suspect. He says he did not take it and everyone else believes he did. He keeps smiling and says ‘I did not’ every time someone asks/accuses/threatens him. Finally, the lady finds it somewhere and everyone realizes that she did not lose it at all. When he finds this out, he breaks down and starts crying.
Perhaps the best Tamil poet in 20th Century, Subramaniaya Bharathiyaar writes in one of his popular songs in anticipation of and in celebration of Independence (he died young much before India got independence)
எல்லோரும் ஒன்றென்னும் காலம் வந்ததே-பொய்யும்
ஏமாற்றும் தொலைகின்ற காலம் வந்ததே-இனி
நல்லோர் பெரிய ரென் னும் காலம் வந்ததே-கெட்ட
நயவஞ்சக் காரருக்கு நாசம் வந்ததே
In this song, Bharathiyaar imagines an independent India in which all Indians are treated equally, lies and deceits have disappeared, the good people are revered and the deceitful have been punished. It was just about a century ago and clearly it has become his wishful thinking. Just after the independence, we did have this widespread optimism and also partition in which millions died.
I have mentioned Thiruvalluvar several times and his Thirukkural, written more than two millennia ago has a chapter on honesty (வாய்மை) and it has 10 couplets. The most popular one is perhaps the following:
பொய்மையும் வாய்மையிடத்த புரைதீர்ந்த நன்மை பயக்குமெனின்
According to this Kural, even a lie could be considered a truth, if that can lead to a flawless good. What is ‘flawless good’ was perhaps left to individuals by Valluvar and humans have convinced themselves that lying to advance oneself is acceptable. I am mentioning about this Chapter just to highlight the fact that Valluvar found it necessary to write a chapter on this. Another chapter is titled ‘புறங்கூறாமை’ (Purangooraamai), ‘refrain from slandering’. Anytime I point out such things, I have friends who would point fingers and conclude that Tamils were having these problems and Hindu Sanatana Dharma was all great. Of course, one has to read what Kautilya said in Arthasastra about corruption in Government. A weblink in Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis has a good summary written by Tarun Kumar (3). That Kautilya wrote this clearly implies that we had all forms of corruptions in those days.
Some time ago, in our Department we organized a lecture by one of our UG students about Sanskrit. That student had learned Sanskrit well and his talk was about the language and its construction. He recited some great poems and pointed out some poems which uses only one sound. For example ‘Ka’. I like to look at various languages and words and have come to some conclusions myself and from my discussion, I could not find anyone who had come to similar conclusions. For example, ‘chi’ (kai may be useful for a commoner) is a Greek letter and all the book discussing ‘chirality’ point out that it is derived from the Greek word ‘chier’ for hand. Though I have read this from college days, only a few years ago, while attending a seminar, I realized ‘kai’ itself is the word for hand in Tamil and in Sanskrit it is ‘kar’. I realized ‘kalki’ will never come as it is always ‘kal ki’ (tomorrow’s in Hindi) bagwan. I told the student about a poem in Tamil which uses only the ‘Ta’ sound. I am digressing. He mentioned about clever poets who hid their names in the poems. For example, first letter in the first line, second letter in the second line, and so on, will reveal the name of the poet. It seems like it was needed to prove that the poem was written by the poet as someone else could claim credit. The fact that it was needed clearly indicates that there were people who would lie. And of course, we have the Varna system dependent on birth and many still believe it. Science be damned. I had written about reservation and merit in another blog. (4)
Every Tamil reads about Thiruvalluvar and Avvayaar, the lady saint who has written extensively in Tamil. In one of her poems, she describes the things that are rare (arithu, அரிது) bad (kodithu, கொடிது), sweet (inithu, இனிது ) and these have beautiful lyrics and good messages for all time. According to her, what is bad is poverty. And she says, what is worse is poverty during youth. (கொடியது கேட்கின் நேரிவடு வேலோய், கொடிது கொடிது வறுமை கொடிது, அதனினும் கொடிது இளமையில் வறுமை). Again the fact that she wrote it clearly implies that we had poverty in her time.
Sapiens describes how every country and society had been cruel to some of its members, women, under-privileged, colored and so on. We did have dishonest people and we also had people like Thiruvalluvar and Avvayaar who wrote about them and advised against dishonesty. We have of course had reformers in India starting from Buddha, Basava, Savitri Phule, Gandhi, Ambedkar and Periyar. Mahatma Gandhi said “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” I am no longer surprised that there are many who hate Gandhi in India today. For them painting a glorious picture is more important and they would not let facts come in the way.
There have been discussion about the potential of Corona virus in the Science literature for more than a decade. Clearly it spreads from animals to human and then between humans. I see a section of people who blame communism and non-vegetarianism as the main cause for this and for them post-truth seems but natural. I knew a significant majority in India is non-vegetarian. I thought Rajasthan is one state where the majority is vegetarian. However, when I went to Udaipur in late February, before the travel became dangerous, I heard from the local people that the majority there is non-vegetarian too. In closing, let me point out what a section of our society does in one particular instance. Owls are considered to be the ‘vehicle’ for Laxmi (Goddess of wealth) and sacrifising them on Deepavali/Diwali day is considered auspicious. You do some prayer and get Laxmi in and kill the owl so that Laxmi is trapped in your home (5). It seems this practice is there in north India. How easy it could be to remain wealthy for a year. Next year, find one more owl. Of course, ” Owls in India are protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act that prohibits hunting, trade or any other form of utilization of the species or their body parts.” (5) In Wuhan, China, animal trade is a legal practice and it appears that China and Vietnam are finally banning animal trade after the Corona virus (6).
Humanity learns and corrects its ways. In the past, religious texts provided guidelines. Today it is our constitution. Thirukkural is not a religious text nor is Arthasastra. I am confident that the humanity will survive Corona virus or the next one that may come in another 100 years. Maybe I should not take the apparent division too seriously. We go in cycles.
- https://languages.oup.com/word-of-the-year/2016/ (Accessed on 29 March 2020).
- https://ideas.ted.com/are-we-living-in-a-post-truth-era-yes-but-thats-because-were-a-post-truth-species/ (Accessed on 29 March 2020).
- https://idsa.in/issuebrief/CorruptioninAdministrationEvaluatingtheKautilyanAntecedents_TarunKumar_121012 (Accessed on 30 March 2020)
- https://nypost.com/2020/03/28/china-and-vietnam-finally-ban-wildlife-trade-due-to-coronavirus/ (Accessed 30 March 2020)