ADDRESS BY SHRI K.R. NARAYANAN, VICE‑PRESIDENT OF INDIA, AT THE MEETING OF THE UNIVERSAL ACADEMY OF CULTURES AT SIENA
MAY 25, 1995
The President of the Academy, distinguished members of the Universal Academy of Cultures, and friends,
I have submitted a composite paper on the two subjects we are discussing today ‑‑ the Universal and the Particular and the question of Racism and Intolerance. I would not read the paper but this morning I would concentrate on the question of the Universal and the Particular.
From the beginning of human history, from the time man appeared in this universe, it has been the striving of the human being to raise himself to the level of something larger or what you call the universal. Man was born as a lonely individual and though he has remained in the solitude of his individuality, even in the midst of all the changes and happenings in the world, he has been constantly stretching his arms to reach the universal concept. This was reflected in various ways. In the social formation, to begin with he became member of small groups, may be tribes and then larger groupings, and then he created the nation ‑state, and thereafter, he tried to reach beyond into larger regional groupings and ultimately a one world order and a single human society. It is interesting that this progression of the human individual from the particular to the universal had been understood by sheer insight by philosophers in ancient times.
In my own country, the sages wrote the Vedas about 3,500 years ago. They had identified the human being, the individual, with the universal. In fact the central part of Indian philosophy is that the human being is a part of the universe. There is an integral link or connection between the self or what we call the Atman and the Brahman which is universal. The evolution of the human being was to attain self realisation, perfection, by continuously moving towards the universal soul or the universal spirit. There is a saying in Sanskrit "as in the body so in the universe". This is a translation of the Sanskrit verse from the Vedas. It shows that there is no radical difference between the physical body, or the individual or his mind and with the universal being.
In his philosophical aspiration, man has created many splendid systems of thought. These systems emphasise the universal aspect and at the same time the creativity and to some extent the separateness of the individual mind and the human being. We talk about global society. We talk about social system. But one thing we have to ask is what is it all for? Ultimately it is for the individual, because it is only the individual who feels sorrow and joy, who can appreciate beauty, who can have elevated feelings. Therefore whatever we may do to create in terms of social organisation, national organisation, or international society, it is the individual who feels, who is at the receiving end. There is no group mind which feels pain or which feels pleasure. That is why this concept of the ascent of the individual human being to the higher level to attain self realisation and identity with humanity as a whole has been visualised.
This process has taken different forms in history. We find great individuals, ambitious men, great conquerors rising and trying to subjugate the whole world to his vision or his will. This was one way of attaining universality. But this did not really succeed. Then you get the emergence of the nation ‑state and then the movement towards the formation of a global society. Here again the inter‑play was between the individual human being and society, the inter‑play between the individual self and a larger universal entity. We find a movement towards one world in political and economic organisation. We have also the ideological march of the human mind towards a universal religion. Religion to my mind is universal in concept because every religion seeks to interpret how life came on this earth, what is God, what is the law governing life, what are the laws of ethics governing human behaviour, what the role is of the individual in society or as a member of the larger community. So in this march of events constantly we have been trying to establish some sort of a balance between the individual and the society.
Today on the top of the religious universality and the top of the movement towards a one world, we get another new kind of universality established by science and technology. Science and technology has, more than any other force before, reduced mankind to a single connected whole in a concrete way. This has had an impact on the behaviour of the human being. In the situation in which he finds himself constrained at a series of levels by different movements towards universality the individual is rebelling and finding his freedom. While he is aspiring to attain universality he wishes to retain his identity, his inner creativity which is after all the moving force in the formation of any society, any world order, in any technological unification of the world. So whatever be the enlargement of man's involvement in the world, in the ultimate analysis, he remains as a creative individual. This is where the concept of humanism becomes a most important question.
Now in all this, we find that while unity, even uniformity, is constantly emphasised and strengthened, it has never been possible to reduce the world into a uniform system. All the great religions tried to convert the whole of mankind to its own faith. We know that the Christians and the Muslims fought the Crusades which lasted intermittently for 170 or 180 years. We know that in Europe, one of the most bitter, one of the most brutal religious wars was fought in the 30 Years War. But in India, for example, we were ruled by Islamic rulers for over 800 years. Then there was the British rule with belief in the white man's burden and in the superiority in the Christian faith, which lasted about 150 years. But India still remains multi‑religious.
The world still remains multi‑religious. Therefore the particularity has been maintained throughout in spite of the expansion of the field of the universal in thought and practice. I think this is where unity of mankind comes in. One has to understand how our individual human being is in fact, part and parcel of what is universal and is aspiring and progressing towards the realisation of the universal. At the same time we resist being submerged and being destroyed by the universal concept. The world, the language, nature, they are all pluralistic. The more pluralistic they are, the more fascinating and the more meaningful they become. Therefore any attempt to destroy the particularities of life would be very negative thing to do and an impossible thing to achieve.
I may say one thing about the idea of the universal from a different point of view. When you talk about the universal, there seems to be often something dogmatic about it. The Indian concept of universality has never been dogmatic. In all our philosophy, in spite of deep faith, deep spirituality, there has always been a philosophic doubt and it is this philosophic doubt that maintains the freedom of the individual mind. I should like to quote here from the Rigveda, which was the first of the Vedas in India. It was written about 1500 years before Christ. There is "A Hymn to Creation" and it contains certain ideas which are very similar to the idea of evolution. What was the world like in the beginning? There was nothing. Nothing existed. There was some warm being which breathed itself and out of the power heat life emerged, and the author of this hymn says : " After all, who knows and who can say ‑ When it all came and how the creation happened ‑ The Gods themselves are later than creation When all creation had its origin, whether he fashioned it or whether he did not ‑ He who surveys it all from the highest heavens ‑ He knows or may be he does not know." This is a great spiritual outpouring of our first philosophers. What is healthy is the doubt, is the philosophic doubt, which is the opposite of dogmatism.
Unless this doubt is there all the problems, whether of toleration, racism or of persecuting someone because of faith, believing that theirs' is the ultimate truth, all this comes about because of the lack of this doubt. I believe that in the western world what we call religious toleration, out of which emerged political toleration, came about actually after there had been a certain diminution of religious faith after the emergence of scepticism. I do not say there was no faith. But the emergence of scepticism in society and the emergence of the doubt that the other person may have something true to say, the concept that the truth is not a sum total given to us from above, it is something which grew from time to time, when that concept came there was less intolerance against other faiths, other people's ways of living.
Now very paradoxically, we are living in a very different age. We find that this very healthy scepticism, this philosophical doubt is gradually withering away. I do not know why it has happened. You find the re‑emergence of what we call fundamentalism, of religious convictions, in a very strong aggressive way, in intolerant ways. Why it has emerged, we have to ask? In the 19th century, in the age of reason and in the age of science that followed we had doubts about things. We had the feeling that the other man may have some truth in what he says and believes. As Dr. Karl Popper used to say and he was my teacher in the London School of Economics, man is essentially a discussing animal.
I think this is the unique character of this Academy itself, that we discuss, we exchange views, there are intellectual arguments out of which the truth may emerge, and from which we can progress to a higher level of truth. But when science has achieved very glorious heights, paradoxically, scientists put very often their findings to irrational uses and people assert that theirs only is the truth and others must believe it, must not question it. It is impossible to give a reason for the growth of this new dogmatism. I think, to some extent, it is because of the impact of the science and technology, and of the imposition of certain uniformity upon the individual and smaller groups. They find themselves suppressed and therefore are rebelling against it. At one time the process of individuation was the origin of liberty and freedom. Today it is happening the same way and individuality is now rebelling against the uniformity being imposed by science and technology, by extreme rationalism.
I said somewhere in my paper, that it is a case of the rebellion of the particular against the tyranny of the universal. The new dogmatism is a different way of trying to assert the freedom, individuality of the particular human being; only that in the case of religious fundamentalism it expresses itself in a narrow and intolerant manner. How do we get out of this and how do we bring toleration into our life. I believe that while globalisation and centralisation is taking place in the world, it is necessary, concurrently, to set in motion, it is already happening, a process of decentralisation even in unitary states, small states. Society is composed of pluralistic elements. Both decision making and the implementation of decisions have to be progressively decentralised so that the smaller groups as well as individuals are participants and actors and creative elements in the social process. The paradox of the particular and the universal is that the more you become universal, the more you become pluralsitic and the more you have to decentralise and invest the individual and the smaller groups with power.
Now religion is a subject which worries us all because how we can deal with this problem of the revival of religion as fundamentalism. It is often a selective choice of a few aspects of a religion, and more often than not it is the ceremonial and the ritualistic aspects of religion that is chosen. It is taken out of context and projected as the true religion, as the whole religion. Therefore when we talk about fundamentalism, it is not about the revival of religion as such but the revival of a certain aspects of religion, certain narrow and obscurantist aspects of the religions which are projected as the true faith in a very dogmatic and intolerant manner. Therefore, it is important that a different type of religious education is imparted. We in India believe that different religions are different paths to God. They are just different paths to the same goal. Thus it is necessary to tolerate, not only to tolerate, but to understand different religions with sympathy.
I should like to end by reading out a quotation from Mahatma Gandhi which he wrote in l905 or thereabouts when he was in South Africa, on religious education. He wrote:‑ "A curriculum of religious instruction should include the study of the tenets of the faith other than one's own. So for this purpose a student should be trained to cultivate the habit of understanding and appreciating the problems of various religions of the world in a spirit of reverence and broad minded tolerance. If properly done, this would help them to build a spiritual assurance and a better appreciation of their own religion. This study of other religions, besides ones' own, will give one the grasp of the rock bottom unity of all religions and afford a glimpse also of the universal and absolute truth which lies beyond the dust of creeds and faiths." I think for us to understand each other, for us to understand that the particular is not necessarily conflicting with other particulars or with the universal truth is to study and understand different faiths in this manner. Not only to religions, it applies to political doctrines, maybe to economic doctrines, this approach of plurality, of variety, and at the same time reaching out towards some sort of unity and some sort of higher level of humanism. I think it is to this that this Academy is dedicated.