Headlines      Issue Released December 17 2003


City of Hamilton exhibits -


India in perspective

(Final of 3 parts)

By Dr. Mohan Ragbeer

The last 1000 years has been a period of decline for India, from the viewpoint of its indigenous peoples. Great nations, it seems, have a cyclical growth. Great empires have arisen and collapsed throughout recorded history, usually and paradoxically at times of great prosperity and plenty. Just as the Roman Empire fell to barbarians, so did India, with piecemeal conquests in the north and west of kingdoms that had grown soft and smug and had forgotten the lessons of their history, which showed clearly that strength in the past millennia had come from unity and not from pursuing selfish aims. And so India fell, first to the Muslims for nearly 800 years, then to the British for another two centuries. In that time India lost over 60,000 temples and many schools, including the great university of Nalanda destroyed in 1197 by Ikhtiyar ud-din.

The Muslim conquest of the north established new norms and values at all levels of society, and changes took place, mostly after successive wars. In the 15th century guru Nanak founded Sikhism another offshoot of Hinduism and converted many with his message of peace, unity, love-between Hindus and Muslims--and devotion to God.

In 1600 the British went to trade - cotton, spices, gems, silks - and stayed to conquer, exporting India's wealth to enrich Britain, and pursued a vigorous policy of impoverishing, anglicizing and Christianising the nation, at least the urban population, and those in its service, to gain their loyalty and keep them subservient, as was done throughout the Empire. The subservient attitudes survive enough to make for fiery criticism by modern Indophiles such as President Abdul Kalam and French writer Francois Gauthier.

Traditionally leadership in India had come from princes (kshatriyas) and religious men (brahmins) while power flowed from those with wealth, the land-owners (vaishyas). Caste has had a significant role in Indian history, less so in the Diaspora. Formal learning was under the control of Brahmins who passed on their knowledge to their own, hence perpetuating the illusion that learning was an exclusive right and privilege of this class. Thus by neglect of the fullest opportunity to educate all its people India created the conditions for its subjugation. The Muslim conquerors were crude warlords bent on pillage and extortion, seeking to control lands for taxation, convert people to Islam, and create vassal states. They hired or enslaved scribes and teachers, forcing many to convert, including by taxation, and allowed converts access to schooling that enabled them to get steady jobs in clerical, technical and administrative positions. Thus in the 800 years of Muslim rule in India inducements and coercion converted 12% of the population, many of whom improved their lot and were justifiably thankful to the conqueror and switched loyalties. Countless others migrated.

The Hindu caste system was not meant to be the rigid structure into which it degenerated. By failing to examine the plight of people trapped by it, pre-invasion Indian rulers sowed the seeds of their own enslavement for a thousand years, which paved the way for the dilemmas the nation faces today. (A similar condition of caste afflicted the English, and is beautifully depicted in a British cartoon of the Elizabethan period showing the castes as limbs of a social tree, similar to India's. Other societies, particularly German and Russian - and France prior to 1783 - were similarly based on a strict hierarchical system, which Communism tried to eradicate, but did not). The persisting inferiority of the subjugated has affected India's attempts to become strong and purposeful, struggling at the same time to be religiously neutral and tolerant of Christian fundamentalists and others who, with assorted handouts, tempt their poor into conversion all across the nation - especially in the north-eastern state of Mizoram and in major cities, the while fighting an essentially religious war with Pakistan

In a secular Republic everyone is free to choose his way of worship and so India protects the place of all religions and tends to be toughest on the majority Hindus, perhaps on the principle that the duty of any democracy is to preserve the rights of minorities. That being so, great care must be taken to ensure that majority interests are safe-guarded. If India moves ahead with its plan to allocate 33% of Lower House (Lok Sabha) seats of the legislature to women, it will show a unique leadership, similar to its reservation of places in schools and jobs in Government for the deprived members of the lower classes.

Many fresh minds have blossomed in the Diaspora, reaching the highest levels in Government in several countries including Canada, Guyana, Trinidad &Tobago, Fiji, Mauritius, Singapore and others. Indians dominate computer sciences in North America. Recently writer Vidia Naipaul won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and MG Vassanji has become a unique second time winner of the Giller Prize. Akaash Maharaj was a leading candidate for the Presidency of the Liberal Party of Canada.

The material shown on Indian achievements reach into the beginnings of Indian history and presents chronologies based on the most recent data from archaeology, astronomy and re-interpretations of previously obscure passages in the Vedas; for example references to the Saraswati River and civilisation were dismissed as myth by British Indologists of the 19th century until the dried out river bed and its course were re-charted by satellite mapping. Also debunked is the pervasive and powerful fable created by these same British "scholars" of an "invasion" of India by a mythical race called "Aryan" - unheard of before the 19th century and an erroneous transformation of the adjective "aryan" (noble) - regularly applied in Sanskrit literature to anyone deserving of it - into a noun.

The fact is that the Europeans are at once troubled and fascinated by India, and befuddled by the complexity of her major religion, Hinduism and all its apparent contradictions; yet these seem paradoxically to add to a coherent whole that demands more of the believer intellectually than any other faith. Hinduism uncompromisingly accepts all faiths, has rescued and accommodated others through history and presents a philosophy of peace-seeking more tangibly than all the peace-loving preachers of the world. But modern trends in international human relations threaten the best intentions of peace-seekers; the expansion and muscle-flexing of corporate giants world-wide do little to create any sense of security in the smaller or poorer nations. The developed nations who control and push that expansion with the connivance of their governments need to take a second look at the results of corporate neo-colonialism. A survey of the history of India would yield many valuable clues on what to avoid.

(Mohan Ragbeer, VP, Indo-Canadian Networking Council of Hamilton, 905 648 5122)




A season of strange currents


Christmas morning beckons and hard to miss is the change in this year’s seasonal attitude. The customary euphoria seems forced, the sense of the year winding down is beset by stress and more stress and work not yet done, perhaps work that will never be done. And a strange current in the air, a temporizing, until...what?

 This is a period of waiting, until things right themselves again, until some sort of equilibrium creeps back into the world, though this by no means implies that what we had before was perfect order. The capture of Saddam Hussein, the Ace of Spades, no less, the news reaching us on a snowbound Sunday morning, generated such an orgy of self-congratulation among the present world masters that one could only stare at the television in disbelief. How does this change the price of cocoa or, for that matter, oil, a sceptical West Indian might ask?  A “Wanted: Dead or Alive” scenario connected to Saddam is so irrelevant to what has already been set in motion that the capture scarcely deserves our attention.

Killing fields dot the global landscape and now it appears that war (men killing other men; for whatever reason, women are marginal to warmongering) will never end. Even the earth protests by shaking itself, by sloughing off unwary building exercises, releasing enough quicksand to swallow a man in seconds, casting a pall of bleakness and days grayer than usual, as the first snows of winter remind us of the bitter months ahead.

 Doom and gloom - yes, why pretend otherwise? It is also noteworthy that age distinctions matter more as pressure mounts upon people to siphon off whatever saving morsel of good cheer they can hoard for themselves, as they back further into their caves and their abominably-tight peer groups.

For the young, tweens and even teens, a mild euphoria is still possible, fuelled by visions of sugar plums and images of Santa arriving on his sleigh bulging with big-ticket consumerables. And woe to the parent who cannot deliver!

For the twenty-somes, bar-hopping and shots, shots and more shots is the order of the day. Shots and absurd drinks such as dessert-flavoured martinis and daiquiris - now the regular martini is dubbed a “classic.” All change is not equal, for truth.

The thirties and forties are indistinguishable, vacillating between a hedonistic plunge into the so-called pleasures of life and a blah-sense of nothing beyond, a temporariness behind the world that they are beginning to control, the make or break consistency of the rat race that had hog-tied their parents and now grips them, that rat race which they had steadfastly disavowed in earlier years.

For the fifties there is much desperation coupled with an urgent need to live life before Omar Khayyam’s “liquor in its cup runs dry.” Folks older than the late fifties are perhaps the ones most imbued with the spirit of Christmas, enjoying the season more quietly, with a feeling of gratitude, that unfashionable sentiment, and reflection, another grace that we are losing fast.

 The need to seek refuge from the assault of reality television on all fronts -the endless matchmaking and arrangements for the marriages of  mercenary pairs whose mating games up to the point of in flagrante delicto provide delight to millions, the lies and cooked-up unrealities of war scenes from the theatre of un-war, the antics of politicos the world over - perhaps explains the number of radio stations this year dedicated to nothing but uninterrupted Christmas music for the duration.

This may seem to be a boon but it is only so on the first day of reconnecting with old time favourites. You might wonder why there is no exploration of the wide array of Christmas music produced the world over and why the same six to eight songs get played and replayed incessantly and, at the end of the season, you will still be left wondering.

Recent awkward attempts to produce new Christmas music is perhaps the most telling indicator of our present loss of faith and belief in the power of a season of goodwill to transform the world temporarily so that we might gather the strength for New Year’s resolutions and the promise of another year, because most of the new songs simply cannot cut it.

On the pop charts this year the two that struck me are Christmas Shoes and the one about Maria and the first nightingale’s song. The perennial classics such as Little Drummer Boy, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, I’ll be home for Christmas and even White Christmas (which some of us are forced to deconstruct in anti-colonial terms by sheer force of habit, even though we now live smack in the middle of the selfsame White Christmas) have a resonance, a harmony of sentiment, poetry and musicology that make them work.

By contrast, the country and western styled Christmas Shoes drips with tear-jerking sentimentality - the ragged little boy, the dying mama, the helpless Daddy, and the well-heeled man with pockets deep enough to buy the shoes which will make the child’s mama look beautiful if she met Jesus that night, and simultaneously purchase peace and goodwill for the man whose Christmas cheer was so cheaply bought. Compared to Nap Hepburn’s earlier contemplation of a similar theme in Listen Mama, ah want you to tell Santa Claus, the Christmas shoes fails dismally.

Maria and the nightingale echoes the Little Drummer Boy in that the Christchild recognizes in both cases purity of intent, and reinforces, in his preference for simple gifts given by those “who have nothing,” the depth of the message about what is truly important. The little drummer boy beats his drum and the child smiles at him - the subtlety of the movement is its brilliance. The bird that Maria offers sings at midnight and “its beauty is fit for a king;” in this case the message is right but unfortunately the medium fails. This song is wordy in the extreme, struggling to over-explain, perhaps because of our alienation from the deeper meaning of Christmas.

What makes items classic is their ability to endure in spite of the brainwashing by media and  moghuls, harnessed to the powers that be, who try to dictate language, culture, sexuality, fashion, fad, musical taste, cuisine, - the fabric of everyday reality. And over and over, the choices of the masses who are thus afflicted declare themselves to be stubbornly democratic and uncontainable as some things take and others simply don’t. “Who can explain it, who can tell you why/Fools give you reasons, wise men never try...”



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