2nd Aug 2016 | By : Raghu Ananthanarayanan | Tags: -
Image courtesy: J Shankar

My work as a behavioural Scientist and a Yoga Mentor offers me a unique location from which to observe how people experience themselves and their communities. I mostly faciltate laboratory learning groups where very intimate conversations based on self disclosure is the basis of the learning. Let me take you through two anecdotes which represent a large trend.

First, the struggles of a person with low self–worth. Lets call the person S. S is a talented person, and when she shared her story, it was replete with instances of parental contempt for her dark skin. She had internalised a sense of stigma around her looks (by the way she had deep sensitives eyes that were charming). S had got into a cycle of seeking affirmation and acceptance from people, she would over compensate for her ‘stigma’ and use her talents to be accepted and praised. S could be manipulated easily, and was struggling with deep hurt at having been “used and discarded” by men. She was waking up to the fact that her need to be loved “inspite of her stigma” was getting her caught in a negative cycle where even a slight rejection (some thing that any one would face) was converted into a replay of stigmas and she would compensate by offering herself even more and in a ‘needy’ way. She was angry and in rage with the way people treated her, but this rage became self-hate, as she was unable to say to herself “I am beautiful and worthy”. It took a lot of ‘work’ from the group to help her locate herself in her inner qualities, her talents and recreate for herself a story that was meaningful. Interestingly, the more she was able to do this, the more her posture changed, her language changed and she was able assert herself when she felt her boundaries were not respected.

Second, the struggles of a person who has internalised a shame of belonging. Lets call this person R. R is a brahmin. R is bright, well read and successful, received the best education India can offer (IIT and IIM). In his presentation of himself one was struck by two things: firstly, a narrative that had very few references to context and family. We call this the “swayambhu” identity. “I am self-made, I have made it inspite of….”. This is very self reinforcing. R was competitive, suave and very conscious of managing his boundaries. Secondly, one would see him indulge in a peculiar variety of self-condemnation, he would deride things Indian, be very cynical of our country and so on. As the lab progressed, it became very clear that his primary angst was with his belonging to the Brahmin community. He was especially hostile to a co-participant who wore his “Iyengar Namam” proudly. At one point the group was dismayed by this discordant behaviour of R and confronted him with their assessment: many of the qualities R possessed were fine ‘brahmin’ qualities! Namely, a very deep commitment to knowledge and enquiry almost like a scientist, great self discipline, a dignified way of maintaining warmth and distance. R was very concerned with the underprivileged and engaged in a lot of work with the ‘unreached’ as he called them. But, the seemingly discordant reality baffled the group and R himself.

A lot of ‘work’ happens on the sidelines of the lab, late night ‘addas’ that swing between ‘jokes and song’ sessions, and intense debates and discussions. R became troubled when he found himself joining the group in its joking sessions one evening being particularly drawn to jokes about the “Bihari brahmins” and horrified at “Sardarji” jokes. He brought this observation back to the group during the lab session, and we discovered how deeply he has internalised meanings about his community and sanskritization and so on from others. He was sent to an elite school even though his parents were not very wealthy, he enjoyed music, learnt carnatic music but later switched to learning the guitar since it was more ‘modern’. His reading was leftist and so on. While listening to others in the group speak about their struggles with their parents and life events, it became clear to R that the very qualities he held in contempt were the ones his parents valued and therefore provided him with the ground on which he grew. As R explored further, others found resonances in his sharing of his reality, their own understanding of the communities they belong to was not based on how they had experienced it, but on the basis of how it was criticised by others. As we enquired further into this phenomenon it became clear that many of us have a very personal and often a warm experience of the way our communities come together, celebrate festivals and losses. We like the freedom that our parents have given us especially in matters of belief. We actually enjoyed the stories our grand mothers told us.

It turned out that in a subtle way R in particular and many of us in the group (to a lesser extent) try to be modern by actively removing aspects of behaviour or demeanour that we think are stereotypical of our community. Often as a reaction to being shamed as it turns out in R’s case, by the elite teachers and students of his school. We replace the ways of our culture by taking on the mask of the modern. And worse still, in order to scrub off all vestiges of our belonging we take on the “outside/ other” location and critique ourselves and our loved ones. This sets up a very peculiar dynamic. On the surface all is well, one is successful popular and so on. But deep inside, we are not only lonely, we start to hate many things that are part of us, part of what we enjoy, part of what makes us grow roots and nurture others. R in particular had married ‘out of his caste’ only to discover that it was an act of defiance and not a positive choice, one more attempt to distance himself from his belonging. R recognised the negative cycle he was perpetuating and in a sense building a “successful” but bleak and desolate future for himself: wanting to become the “other”, take on the masks of the other, be critical of ones roots based on the frame works of the “other”; feel inauthentic and hollow, feel lonely, attribute these lacunae to ones belonging and try harder to win the acceptance of the “other”. This often makes the R’s of the world ripe to be co-opted by forces inimical to our evolution and growth.

Through the exploration and the dialogue that ensued in the group, R and others experienced a catharsis and a breakthrough. They realised that their own concern with the negatives that had been internalized in their communities could be a great resource. Being contemporary and being modern are two very different things. It is not necessary to be self condemnatory, it behoves us to deploy our maturity and learning to engage with our context of belonging, bring in a realistic appraisal of the functional and dysfunctional aspects of it, reframe its values and strengths in a contemprary understanding and dignify it; enable all who belong to flower with pride, grow and evolve. When the group came to this point, it realised how wrong many of the criticism they parroted were and how their own intelligence directed them to other aspects of their community that need examination. The frames they were using drawn from western/ marxist thinkers were not only biased and motivated, they were coloured by the particular histories and beliefs and traditions of those people. The methods and tools may be valuabe in of themselves, but the meaning that was drawn was deeply flawed, the lens was conditioned by the particular communities/ traditions that the so called “experts” belonged to. And in some cases, the particular pathologies of the commentator.

The hate for ones belonging is more subtle to get in touch with than self-hate. However, it is probably just as corrosive. It makes one fragment oneself, and waste energy in a kind of vigilance against oneself “lest my brahminhood shows up” (in R’s case). It makes one act like a Don Quixote raging at windmills defined by “alien frames” as demons. R and the group concluded that this fragmenting of oneself is very depleting and will ultimately lead to illness since one is always in deep conflict and using all ones energy to become some thing one is not. Finally, will the ‘other’ ever accept one as their own? They are after all celebrating their belonging and their superiority. They will welcome ones willingness to fight for them, but it will be on their terms and for their motivations.

When I turn my eyes to the battles being fought today: “the Battle for Sanskrit”, the battle for an authentic history of India, a battle to define growth and development in our terms and engaged with through our genius, I start to wonder how much of the polarizations and fight that surrounds these laudable initiatives, the noise that drowns the signals comes from self hate and hate of ones belonging? The S’s and R’s of our world getting caught with the cacophony and missing the opportunity to work constructively. While the origins of the enquiry for each of these areas of concern comes from a well intentioned and often a well researched study, the media and vested interests crank up the shrill cacophony. One side will spew self-hate, and the other will defend through self glorification. A Barkha Dutt will write a cynical mail to Smriti Irani, as though she is a “swayambhu” and her family is not “patriarchal” or her claim to uniqueness is not a counter-location forever in opposition and therefore forever dependent upon the very “patriarchy” she rails against. A Shri Shri Ravishankar or Sadguru will be reviled by activists, as though rebellion is a creative act. The recent Magasaysay award, its citation and the fierce debates around it are another example of the frames of interpretation of our reality and the exploitation of the situation.

Dharma is established and a dharmic ground or dharmakshetra is nurtured with care and compassion. This process requires positives and negatives assessed from inner confidence, contextual relevance determined from ones own location, honest self-appraisal, self-reliance and valuing of ones subjectivity in the face of decision making, honest self-reflectivity and introspection which become the foundation of thinking, feeling and action i.e., healthy self worth and positive self regard. It becomes more and more important for us to engage in intense dialogues taking place today standing on a dharmakshetra, but the space for such dialogue is threatened by shrill polarised voices, the S’s and R’s who do not care to understand themselves.