Indian Naturalism: An Emic View
The naturalistic bent of contemporary Indian thought is a product of the materialistic philosophy of Lokāyatas or Carvākas from the Nāstika School, and, it is also, as is claimed by the movement, in contiguity with the ethos of European Enlightenment (Quack, J., 2011, p. 9). The Lokāyata is described, traditionally, with its origins being in heretical opposition to Vedic thought, as a technique of critique which did not propose a negation as logical refutation; its modus operandi, being the generation of inevitable absurdities [nigraha-sthāna] in an “…argument by adopting false and puzzling analogies [jāti]…”, is vitandā which can be translated into an oxymoronic appellation, in its substantive form, as illogical logic (Dasgupta, S., 2007, p.512).
There is here an ambivalence lieu of the oppositional tendency of the epistemic systems between the Hindus and the Buddhists as it can aid a more holistic comprehension of the metaphysical chasm between the two religions, as for the latter there is no distinction between tricky argumentation and correct argumentation. Although Buddhists do not accept distinction between modes of argumentation the do distinguish between arguments that provoke virtue and those that abet vice, yet what is illogical logic for rationalistic Hindus [upholders of Lokāyata, in terms of soteriological historiography] may be called logical in the Buddhist view (Ibid 2007). May one not say, then in the heretical and solemn timbre of the Lokāyata, an argument is an argument is an argument?
“All is impure; all is not impure; the crow is white, the crane is black; and for this reason or for that” says the Lokāyata, or the book of unbelievers (Ibid 2007, p. 515).
The popularity of this vein of sophistry was associated in public consciousness with science, and there was an entire discipline which concerned itself with the study of this modality of argumentation (Ibid 2007). This, contrarianism at the heart of Hindu hermeneutics, is sometimes taken as reason to propose that the truth of idealist Hindu philosophy can be attained sola scriptura (Ibid 2007) — by definition, cutting off the role of the hermeneutic subject, or interpreting authority as extraneous and even a priori nihilistic. The distinction “…between the natural and the supernatural…”, says Quack (2011), “is…extremely complex and treacherous” (p. 10); contemporary Hinduism would, however, by and large, treat of the naturalistic materialist position as atheism (Ibid 2011). This blanket term of atheist would also be used to describe rationalists who try to broach the question by adopting a syncretic view, inclusive of humanism, scepticism, ethical attitudes (Ibid 2011).
This blog-post is a continuation of an ongoing series on Indian Aesthetics…
Dasgupta, Surendranath (2007) A History of Indian Philosophy: Volume III. India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Quack, Johannes (2011) Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India. USA: Oxford University Press.
A Series of explorations in the Indian Aesthetic Universe
The aesthetic object, in Indian consciousness, is mediated by a syncretism which owes its rubric to the friction between ancient religious philosophy, colonialism, nationalist revivalism and post-globalised cultural invasion. To talk of indigenous artistic vision is to invoke a large tradition of self-assertions that hark back to the constructed unity of fragmentary social strata, it is to evoke the mythic idea of a unified Bharatavarsha, in so far as personal identities find their definition in relation to the traditionally delineated mythic structures of cultural memory. In short, the unity of non-dualist religion is not responsible for the Indian aesthetic, which seeks to combine sensate and supra-sensory experience in the aesthetic event. It is more a product of a burgeoning nationalist revivalism in the event of the Hindu encounter with religious Others.
Beauty, a western concept, is a transition of Western historical self-narratives corresponding to sates of social evolution in the reflected light of Occidental cultural vestiges (Eco, 2004; Eco, 2007). An analogue to this Western concept for India’s aesthetic domain is to be found in the notion of saundarya. This theoretical distinction attains laudable weight when it is used to cleave at the excessive nature of constructed formalisation of aesthetic attitudes in Indian society which is not to be subsumed by the theistic schema of Advaita Hinduism in isolation. One may contend that the non-duality of Advaita Hinduism, which enjoys numerical predominance, is not responsible for the Indian aesthetic vision, where artifice must produce affect to insinuate beauty is more in line with the materialistic naturalism of post-colonial India.
Saundarya means the whole gamut of aesthetic experiences, as enunciated by Indian aesthetic traditions, and is, therefore, the formal localisation of beauty. Saundarya is the product of that which arouses rasa. Rasas are, as concepts quite selcouth and polyvalent, determinate states of affect engendered as sensuous experience through the instrumental provenance of artifice. Artifice, in its turn, is defined by Jagannatha as the collocation of circumstances of cause, effect and comprehension that produce a sensation that bespeaks an affect which belongs to the “…super-mundane [lokottara] (Prasad, G., 1994, p. 132)”. The beauty of painting is said to emerge from harnessing the representative faculty of mimetic gestures, which draw on the skill of “…abhinaya [acting], an integral part of dancing” as a repertoire of stylistic gestures and postures that elicit, or produce, “…rasa and saundarya” (Dehejia & Paranjape, 2003, p.55).
Bharatas’ Natyashastra enunciates the inherent aesthetic values of dance while evading their qualia, and instead alluding to the means of their genesis (Dehejia & Paranjape, 2003, p.54). Traditional exegesis of aesthetic characteristics of dance has often involved the study of analogical hierarchies, such as the one found in Vishnudharmottara-Purana (Ibid 2003). The analogy offered here is revelatory in relation to the experiential provenance of aesthetic creation and criticism: a gradation from sculpture to music is implicit in traditional accounts- since, according to the allegory offered here, sculpture captures an image which is vital to the art of painting, but painting needs dance since it implicates the conscious interpellation of images and mental states that “…imitate the world”, and mastering dance demands an understanding of music and musical instruments (Ibid 2003, p.54-55). The implicit definition of beauty is, thereby, “…imitation”, which is the forte of dance (Ibid 2003, p. 55).
Traditionally, the inadequacy of painting in relation to dance consisted in its failure to represent, through mimicry, the flux of objects at home in the world of experience (Dehejia & Paranjape, 2003). Thus, the operational distinctions between the arts were always taken to impute a hierarchy of the faculty of reproducing material reminders of the mythic cultural homology of the Hindu universe. Housden, pithily, illuminates the uniquely Indian production of a notional monad from the dualistic stuff of cultural memory and communal memory: “The sacrality of the land of India, not any political vision, is what, still today, gives a sense of unity to this country of so many religions, cultures, races and factions” (Paranjape, M., R., 2012, p.97). This reassessment of ancient thought in aesthetics represents the reassessment of cultural memory in relation to historical experience.
Since the body is the frontier where dance must invoke its mimetic lines of production it is apposite to define the codifications of body language as they have come to be embodied in filmic representations as a product of colonial influence. The side effect of Western education which led to self-consciousness of victim-hood among Indians under British rule was a simultaneous revulsion towards the dislodging of the Indian subject from local culture into foreign mores, and thereby a reinvigoration of the same by reclaiming the cultural narratives which defined contemporaneous disillusionment (Clark-Deces, 2011, Ch. 6). The most popular form of dance in India today is Bollywood film music oriented, and despite film music’s syncretic character, by its nature of inclusion in films, is in keeping with the spontaneous trappings of the of the nautanki tradition (Richmond, Swann & Zarrilli, 1993, p. 272; Stange, Oyster & Sloan, 2011, p. 175).
This blog-post will be continued as a series of posts about Indian Aesthetics at later dates catagorised under Art.
Clark-Deces, Isabelle (2011) A Companion to the Anthropology of India. USA: John Wiley & Sons.
Dehejia, Harsha, V. & Paranjape, Makarand (2003) Saundarya: The Perception and Practice of Beauty in India. India: Samvad India Foundation.
Eco, Umberto. Ed. (2004) History of Beauty. Italy: Rizzoli.
Eco, Umberto. Ed. (2007) On Ugliness. Italy: Rizzoli.
Paranjape, Makarand, A. (2012) Acts of Faith: Journeys to Sacred India. India: Hay House.
Prasad, Gupteshwar (1994) I.A. Richards and Indian Theory of Rasa. India: Sarup & Sons.
Richmond, Farley, P.; Swann, Darius, L. & Zarrilli, Phillip, B. (1993) Indian Theatre: Traditions of Performance. India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Stange, Mary, Z.; Oyster, Carol, K. & Sloane, Jane, E. (2011) Encyclopedia of Women in Today’s World, Volume 1. USA: Sage Publications.
What Salman Khan can teach you about Indian Masculinity
What does our preferred entertainment say about us? In the lowest estimation, it, still, enumerates for us the preoccupations that mediate, influence and abet our sense of well-being. To be sure, the movies we watch offer us the spectacles which we’d rather normalise in our native utopian fantasies. They offer us not a literal language, with morphemes of filmic elements that correspond to our material conditions by their representative value, but a subliminal idiom which structures our imaginal worlds. By that token to treat of our entertainment lightly is to treat of our aspirational worlds lightly. To dismiss our cherished fantasies is to refuse to acknowledge our putative better selves.
Is there a reason Bollywood movies seem ludicrous to the point of being unwatchable to a Western audience? Does Bollywood film fandom speak about the rationality of Indians per se? The answer to these questions is two fold: the ideological prism which illuminates judgement is different for the Oriental and Occidental worlds; rationality is a structure that demands a premium from the realm of sense, which is determined by its own nuanced inertia in each culture.
The highest box office grossing Bollywood film of 2012, and one which shattered old benchmarks, is Ek Tha Tiger [translated: There was once a Tiger]. It is, by its sheer economic brisance, an icon of India’s imaginal world, its projected self-image under the ideal ligature of imagined identity. The movie, as other successful movies, capitulates the essential dimension of shared cultural impression, the communal dream logic of the Indian people. (Kakar 2011, p.101) “The context of [a] dream exemplifies not only that certain dreams are associated with known intersubjective interpretation, but that their emergence is tied to something more complex than cultural interpretative habits”.
The casting of the movie, appropriately enough, establishes the symbolic horizon of each role. Salman Khan, known for his chiselled masculinity and overt aggression both on and off screen[i], plays a Research & Analysis Wing officer. He embodies the embattled hyper-masculine hero who struggles to temper his toughness with empathic vitality. One must not fail to understand the mythic resonance of such a character in Indian consciousness. Talking in psychoanalytic terms, the type of hero that is fully self-realised and is yet seeking integration with others, viz. Salman’s role, falls into thematic unity with the archetypal story of Skanda.
The gritty and fast paced action sequences do nothing to mitigate the tender, romantic longing that Salman feels for his filmic paramour[ii]. To quote a review that captures the sentiments that are elicited by the film: SIC:“There’s a reason why people queue up as early as 9am to watch a Salman outing wherein the basic purpose is whistling till one’s mouth hurts. As it happens, a deafening amount takes over the hall’s space when Salman’s Tiger makes a thundering entry into the frame that juggles an imagery of a swaggering silhouette standing at a vantage point of a remote corner in the Middle East, a vigorous kick landing straight into a trembling jaw, a slowmo drizzle of cigarettes and ashes and a Super Salman baritone shooting his first fine words, ‘Kutton ki tarah haanf raha hai. Kitni cigarette peeta hai?’” [translated: Panting like a dog. Why do you smoke so much?]
What we have, here is a tableau that places beside each other the diametrically opposed vestiges of metal-fisted masculinity and saccharine sentimentality, poppycock slapstick sensibilities and cutting edge action. The unity between emotional pliability, that develops as the romance between Salman and his heroine progresses, and the ruthlessness of legally sanctioned violence suggests a psychic currency that any homebred Indian would readily [or, clandestinely] buy. This kind of absurd combination would not work in a Hollywood production, and even if it did it would not nearly make as much money or hoopla about itself. This is because the resonance of this seemingly odd combination between extreme opposites is a mythologically informed and culturally accepted mode of being masculine in India. Indian men, ideally, must not only be burly, independent and invincible, but also have the humility to respect their mother’s advice on things personal and sundry, even conjugal advice. Arranged marriage anyone?
The upshot is that Indian masculinity indubitably involves the conflict between the cultural collective, crystallised in the advice of parents and significant others, and the burgeoning independence of bicep driven, hormonal maturity. The need for coming-of-age assertion through violence, not being looked at as acceptable in the forms of adolescent rebellion that characterise youth in the Western world, can be symbolically sated by accepting other licenses to violence, which are culturally legitimated. This is how a tacit culture of honour legitimates the killing of young girls who step out of line by dating, or women who transgress ethnic judicatures[iii].
Skanda, in Hindu mythology, was the son of Shiva, and is a valorous warrior, in one incident defeating a demon to protect the realm of deities. On achieving this feat he was offered any reward he pleased, but abusing the thankful gesture of the deities Skanda cuckolded each one of them. The husbands complained to his mother, the wife of Shiva, Parvati, about her sons’ excesses. Parvati’s stratagem was to present her form in whichever woman Skanda sought to possess, thereby deflating his errant libido. This symbolic castration rendered Skanda celibate.
The motif that underlies this mythological story is that of the individuating hero: struggling with the “…powerful push for independence and autonomous functioning, and an equally strong pull toward surrender and reimmersion in the enveloping maternal fusion from which he has just emerged” (Kakar, 1996, p.117). What it undergirds is the inversion of the standard Oedipal model of the individual. Someone who must assert his selfhood in dire opposition to the parental figures of the psyche, and come to dominate the Occident as the predominant mode of individuational rationality.
Rather than an abrogation of pre-personal interventions of cultural morality, distilled and imparted by parental figures, the Indian individual in his coming of age is called to integrate himself into the whorl of the primordial collective. Individualism which is often touted to be the chief achievement of Western civilization is not the summum bonum of human existence in the Indian mythic space, and, in that measure, Indian consciousness. In this scheme of things, the tittering hero, who dances about merrily with his paramour after a fierce conflict between his call to duty and romantic aspirations is no more ludicrous than the hyper-acquisitive, philandering James Bond.
Thus the ludicrousness of Indian cinema is moot when perorated by Western critics. The implicit dimension of sense that allows an edifice of rationality to be constructed as a bulwark for indigenous communities invariably differs in each cultural sangfroid. Barring an understanding of these extra-rational bases of cultural logics any pronouncement of artistic or intellectual value judgements are at least offensively vain and at the most frightfully irrelevant. Individualism, with all its vaunted universal baggage and wherewithal, is ultimately an insular value. It demands cultural currency that can liquidate the deficit of shared fantasies, its myriad repressions.
Kakar, Sudhir. (1996). Indian Identity. India: Penguin. P. 117.
Kakar, Sudhir. Ed. Deslauriers, Daniel. (2011). “Dreams at the Boundary of the Self and Others: Intersubjective Fields, Emotions and Culture”. On Dreams and Dreaming: Boundaries of Consciousness. India: Penguin. P.88-108.
[ii] “In a nicely done opening, with enough slo-mo shots for the fans to whistle at, we’re introduced to RAW agent Tiger (Salman Khan), who, in a gritty Jason Bourne-ish action sequence, swiftly dispenses with a turncoat agent, then dodges armed assassins through the cobbled streets and dingy alleyways of a busy town in Iraq. Back home unscathed, Tiger, who we discover is just as comfortable with a ladle as he is with a gun, bribes his boss with homemade daal before begging for a new assignment…The romantic portions in ‘Ek Tha Tiger’ are warm and fuzzy, the humor thankfully clean and light-hearted, but as a thriller set in the world of espionage, it’s ironic that the people least intelligent here are the intelligence officers themselves”(Masand 2012). IBN Live Website. Movies. Updated on August 16, 2012. Accessed on September 2, 2012. <http://ibnlive.in.com/news/masand-ek-tha-tiger-is-far-from-unwatchable/282601-47-84.html>.