The Charlie Hebdo incident raises the issue of how competing philosophies of life can coexist
When President Hollande addressed the million or so citizens assembled in the centre of Paris recently, he stressed France’s values like democracy and freedom, but gave pride of place to the concept of individualism.
The French prize “individualism” like no other Western nation. I saw this in practice when I lived there for two years working towards my doctorate. Anyone presenting a thesis is presenting his own ideas and needs to defend them.
To study individualism, academics generally turn to the great 19th century American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson who abhorred consistency and applauded individuality. He saw consistency as being the “foolish” (“hobgoblin”) outcome of “little minds”. Emerson believed in self-reliance. Unfortunately, in today’s context, matters have turned upside down because there are many who believe that the Nation is responsible for paying for their welfare.
Emerson believed that society has a bad effect on human beings because it can contaminate the creative genius of the individual. Rather, he believed that individuals must “trust” themselves to understand their own abilities to think, and should not trust the conclusions of society. No one can deny that our newspapers, and the media in general, strongly influence society.
India is a land where freedom of speech is a cherished concept. It has been so even prior to Independence. British writers had properly gauged India’s hidden talents in its classics. They interacted with Indian scholars to bring these works to the world, including the Samkhya doctrine which is the foundation of later works like the Bhagwad Gita.
French society rallied around the Charlie Hebdo newssheet to proclaim its adherence to free speech. However, Pope Francis has issued a cautionary note; he says there have to be limits to what one can say. He points out that freedom of speech does not imply being offensive to other people’s faith. He notes that he himself would react strongly if his own faith were to be abused by anyone.
Can two groups with incompatible ideas not live together harmoniously? France has done this for a long time. It has had relatively peaceful relations with its Arab citizens and the Arab nations of North Africa and the Middle East.
If one group of persons in a country like France continually marginalise another group, then the danger of anarchy could arise.
Those who seek to break an existing societal structure down, are, by definition, anarchists. The well-known anarchists of 19th century Russia were all young. They were overthrown by those who believed that leaders and governments were needed for the sake of nations and of societies which needed structures. The current crop of trouble-makers in France are also young.
Some agitators go far beyond those who seek anarchy. This includes those who, during the process of agitation, are willing to be physically harmed or even annihilated. These people would be regarded as nihilists. Nihilism, an extreme version of anarchy, is founded on the basis that morality, as such, does not exist and that life does not have any meaning. Nihilists exist in a perpetual mood of despair which can drive them with a self-destructive motivation. Strangely, the nihilists of 19th century Russia might have been atheists, or more specifically, the rejecters of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Contemporary nihilists, on the other hand, who are willing to sacrifice themselves, have strong religious affiliations.
Some analysts compare the most extreme version of nihilism to the Indian metaphysical nirvana. This involves a complete stillness of the mind and the relinquishing of desire. Nirvana is today associated with Buddhism. It might seem strange to many that a Hindu-majority country like India has chosen Buddhist symbols to portray its nationhood. This includes the Ashoka Chakra (‘chakra’ is the wheel of life) on its flag and philosophical terms like ahimsa (non-violence) as a main political tenet.
As a large and populous country, bigger than Western Europe, India includes a multitude of religious and political philosophies. Practically, India should be regarded as made up of many little societies, each with their own ideas and philosophies.
Mahatma Gandhi, considered the Father of the Nation, gave a new direction by uniting its peoples with the sole objective of independence. He engendered within them hope and the vision of an egalitarian culture. He rightly perceived that India and Britain should remain on friendly terms though they might disagree on specific issues.
India is made up of individualistic, mono-cultural and multicultural societies. Generally, an individual forms part of a specific society and might express the views that his particular group does. When an area has an overload of such individuals, then we have a mono-cultural society. When numerous such groups come together, a multicultural society emerges such as in India’s metropolitan areas.
Many today wonder whether current PM Narendra Modi has the potential to unite India’s diverse peoples. He seems to be the only Indian leader of the current era who has that sort of vision.