A Call for Cultural Work

If you want any reform in your society, you have to begin with yourself. How does it matter what the other has done, or not done?

– Mauni Baba of Ujjain

Just over sixty years ago, in the 2nd year of the publication of this paper, on Friday 16th December 1955, Jay Narain Roy (JNR) wrote an article which not only is still relevant today but has perhaps become more so in our contemporary society which is driven by excessive consumerism, increasing individualism (facilitated by social media), and the pursuit of pleasure and material wealth by any means fair or foul. His opening paragraph read as follows:

‘I wish, in all humility, to address a couple of letters to young people. This one will make a plea for cultural work. The next one will deal with political work. As there are various cultures and different approaches in this article I am generally thinking of Indo-Mauritian youths. I am thinking of the type of young men and young women who have had the advantage of education in foreign lands and have returned with either a professional or a University degree’ (italics added).

He complemented this humility with an amicable spirit towards the end of his text when he wrote that, ‘I repeat that I hope that what I write will be taken in the amicable spirit in which it is proffered. There is a great need for cultural work’.

How much of these two qualities of humility and amicable spirit are present nowadays in our modern society is a question we surely have to ask? JNR observed in his times a trend which seems to have increased today, ‘Two heinous tendencies are now in the formation. One is among the rich and the other among the educated. They want to form a class of their own’. And he sounded a warning bell, ‘I hope that highly educated people will have the vision to see the extreme danger of this’.

Further on, he raised a cry from the heart: ‘You are children of the community. You have had the privilege and the good luck to have a better dose of education. Your education perhaps enables you to live a decent living. But how is your superior education benefiting the community? Are you using your superior light to guide the less fortunate brethren?’

This paragraph sent me back to a short meeting I had with Swami Krishnarupananda of the Ramakrishna Mission a few years ago, during the course of which I happened to tell him, ‘Swamiji, the pujaris do not explain properly when they are performing rituals, and people especially the young are put off by what they perceive as agram-bagram’ (a derogatory term in Bhojpuri meaning nonsense).

Swamiji stopped me immediately, saying, ‘Dr Gopee, you should not say this! At least these pujaris have been maintaining the tradition, you must recognize that. Instead of criticizing, since you have had the benefit of university education, why don’t you do something yourself? Everybody should. There are so many books that give explanations in simple language in English, they are all available here in our library, you can read and help to explain to others’.

This gentle but firm admonition of Swamiji resonates with some other remarks made by JNR, which enjoins upon us a duty to rethink our roles in modern society, to wit, inter alia: ‘Does not your education impose certain obligations on you? …Man is a social being. If you just earn your living and enjoy life by forming a class of your own within the fold of your natural society, not only that you are socially useless but you are also perpetuating an evil that will have sinister consequences in the long run.

‘The community is in fact very proud to see that it has in its midst an increasing number of young people who have had foreign education and experience. What is desired is that far from leaving it idle, you will use your higher culture to spread literacy and social enthusiasm to those who for no fault of theirs have been left in ignorance and squalor.

‘Are you going to waste your intelligence after such bright academic career by leading a selfish and personal life? Does not the intellectual in you declare war against this kind of life, which should only suit unenlightened self-seekers who cannot understand the simplest of wisdoms that man is a social animal?’

Strong words maybe, but to repeat, it is the humble and amicable spirit in which they are written that must be retained if we want to act on them in our modern context. We are lucky that we have had such visionary personalities in the past who have left us the legacy of their deep thoughts and clear guidance. Not to act upon them is an act of betrayal of ourselves to start with.

It is true that education is more widespread and more people have the opportunity to attend university locally and abroad, but the problem of non-engagement in cultural work is no less an issue as it was when JNR wrote. The difference I think is that then there was a greater number of enthusiasts and genuinely sincere social activists who performed selfless service, compared to today when some material or personal advantage, or spurious fame, seems to be the more sought after objective.

Precisely because of more people being educated, they can begin by doing for themselves what Swami Krishnarupananda advised me, which I have been trying to do in my own little way. If there is a reluctance to involve oneself publicly or in larger groups, it is always possible to share what one has learnt with some others at least. If more such attempts are made, then the circle of cultural knowledge enlarges as it were, leaving those who are more comfortable or have the time to take matters in larger forums contribute too as they deem fit.

But doing nothing is not an option, for there are so many social ills for which the fundamental remedy can only be found in the cultural values which have allowed us to travel thus far relatively successfully. We must be conscious about the ‘sinister consequences in the long run’ to the community and society at large if we choose isolation rather than social engagement, which can be of any magnitude and in whatever way suits best our capacity and temperament. It is the little drop that goes to make the ocean, so the quantum of one’s action is not the main concern. Rather, it is making the small, inspired step forward: who knows that it can become a mighty leap?

Incidentally, a good way to begin is to visit the annual Ramakrishna Mission book sales exhibition currently being held at its centre in Vacoas. Best is also to take children along, as there are many titles including bandes dessinées that will appeal to them. Nothing like inculcating values from a young age.

RN Gopee

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