Culture of pageantry

The World Culture Festival, organized by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living (AoL) Foundation, may be a good idea, but it could have been better without the charge that the event is hurting the Yamuna floodplains. Still better, had the organizers focused on general refinement in society.

There is remarkable predictability in the unfolding of the issue. On the one hand are environmentalists, with their facts and figures; on the other are the supporters and admirers of the spiritual guru, many of whom being extremely powerful like Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, and his UP counterpart Akhish Yadav.

The activists want us to believe that the river would suffer because of the event—as if it were not already a stinking drain! Their hyperbole is matched by the tall talk of the partisans of Ravi Shankar. So, Modi said: “We need the art of living to follow our dreams, to fight challenges and live for others. This is the Kumbh mela of art and culture; the world is not only connected through economic issues, it can be connected through humanity… I still recall during my visit to Mongolia, there was an Art of Living centre in that country, and they had organized a reception for me, where there were very few Indians, but Mongolians were waving the Indian tricolor.”

While the Prime Minister and other AoL supporters are lauding the grandeur of Indian civilization and culture, liberals are fuming with anger. Harish Khare, editor-in-chief of The Tribune, has coined a new term, “crony babaism” which, he wrote in an article in, “adds up to an assault on republican virtues and secular values in a way that is clearly unhelpful. The visible patronage of the state and its authorized agents on a gaggle of convenient godmen has somehow weakened the spirit of our constitutional covenants.”

The great editor, who was media adviser to former prime minister Manmohan Singh, never incensed when the previous government mauled “republican virtues and secular values.” For monumental corruption, revival of socialism, and Muslim appeasement—the defining features of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance—can scarcely be called republican virtues or secular values. And, Mr. Khare, what “constitutional covenants” were followed by Sonia Gandhi, the boss of his former boss?

In a nutshell, it is a clash between cant and duplicity, a clash that is unlikely to have a beneficial effect on either democracy or culture.

If the ruling dispensation is serious about enhancing culture, it has to do a lot to bring in change in all walks of life, beginning with governance; for good governance is the matrix on which good life can grows; it is the necessary, though not sufficient condition, for cultural progress. That refinement is impossible where philistine reigns is a truism; it is also very difficult in a society where the rule of law has almost broken down, where might is right and justice is the interest of the stronger. And especially where the most unscrupulous are often also the most sanctimonious.

In such a milieu, pageantry and grandiloquence cannot be equated with cultural progress. Culture is about people. If people are sober, discerning, and rational—and if the economic, political, and institutional ecosystem values sobriety, discernment, and reason—then culture is vibrant. But if people are reduced to a rabble of atomized entities, animated only by the vicissitudes of emotions, it is not. Unfortunately, this is the case today in India.

We, the people of India, are increasingly becoming incapable of equanimity and poise. A cricket match is won, and the players become gods; a match is lost a couple of days later, they become demons. In both cases, emotions get the better of us, making us forget that cricketers are neither gods nor demons but men, and men succeed and fail. In public life, major events like, say, the Nirbhaya rape, unleash a great deal of claptrap and sanctimony which cause a lot of heat but no light.

All these things happen because philistinism is rampant in Indian society. Owing to widespread ignorance about politics, society, economics, and history, Left-libbers and jihad-friendly intellectuals dominate public discourse. The situation can be rectified only by infusing vitality and vibrancy in Indian society, by bringing equanimity and poise in life, by general refinement. As Bharttruhari, a Sanskrit poet, wrote: Sahitya sangeeta kala vihinah/Sakshyat pashu puchha bishanahinah (Without literature, music, and art, a man is like a tailless beast).

The need of the hour is general refinement, not jamborees.