In Conversation with Dr Karan Singh
Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
In October last Dr Karan Singh was in Mauritius and delivered the Gandhi Memorial Lecture at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute, and also gave an interview to this paper. Unfortunately I did not get the opportunity to attend that lecture. However, as part of a series of talks on the systems of Indian philosophy organized by the India International Centre in New Delhi, luckily for me he was the speaker for the first talk on Vedanta on January 30. As I was in town, I therefore made it a point to be present that evening, and it was indeed a great pleasureto be able to listen to this eminent personality once again, many years after I had done so at the same venue in January 1996.
I decided to take an appointment with him to pursue some of the issues he had raised in his interview to the Mauritius Times, and next day I rang up the Indian Council for Cultural Relations of which he is currently the President. To my pleasant surprise early in the afternoon his secretary rang up to confirm a meeting on Friday 1st February in the morning at his residence. That was indeed very kind of him, given his extremely busy schedule, and it was the first point I made to him as I sat down after he had welcomed me in, expressing my gratitude for his prompt response to my request.
Whenever one meets such great thinkers, the time is never enough! – but I did remind him that I remembered his visit to the SSRN Hospital when he was Minister of Health in Mrs Indira Gandhi’s cabinet, probably in 1974. I was then a junior doctor there, and I had accompanied him and our then Minister of Health on a visit to the wards. He did remember that visit, and said that the following year he had come again to Mauritius on an invitation to inaugurate the Triveni Club, mentioning the name of his ‘good friend’ Kher Jagatsingh. (It would perhaps shame him to learn what the Triveni Club has turned out to be, a dream shattered, but I preferred not to elaborate further on this matter.)
We talked about the seminar on ‘Culture and Development’ held at the India International Centre on 4-7 January 1996, when he had chaired the inaugural ceremony at which the keynote address was delivered by Nobel Prize winner late Professor Ilya Prigogine. The latter is very well known for his work on the early evolution of the universe, based on his theory of ‘dissipative structures.’ We shared some thoughts on how he had transposed that physical model to the evolution of human civilizations and societies, which each developed at its own pace, hence the simultaneous existence of societies at different stages of development which we ought to accept in a spirit of tolerance. During his wrapping up after Prof Prigogine’s lecture, Dr Karan Singh had recited the whole of Robert Frost’s poem ‘Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening’ and how the poet had taken the road less travelled, and it was the turn of Dr Karan Singh to be pleasantly surprised at this recall!
Dr Karan Singh is a proponent of the ‘global society’ based on the Indic concept of ‘the world as one family,’ Vasudeva Kumtumbakam, and is UNESCO’s ambassador for the Interfaith Movement, grounded in the belief of the essential unity of all religions and that there is a multiplicity of paths to the divine, as the ancient sages – rishis – of India had advanced – Ekam sat vipra bahuda badanti: ‘Truth is one, but the sages it call it by various names.’ He goes around the world tirelessly, as does his friend the Dalai Lama, to promote peace among peoples and urge mankind to live in harmony.
Among other things, we talked about whether these two ideas along with other Vedantic principles, which constituted an overarching umbrella of inclusive growth and development, could form the basis of a more rapid transformation of Indian society, reducing inequalities and barriers. His view was that because of some structural provisions that had been built into the Constitution of India at the very beginning, such a comprehensive change could not be wrought in at this stage, and that it was lifting India out of poverty that would really help to bring about that desired radical change.
In reply to his enquiries at the beginning of our conversation, I had briefed him about the genesis of Mauritius Times and the crucial role that it had played in the struggle for the Independence of the country, at the same time as it upheld the image of India and stressed – as it continues to do – the principles of social justice and equity based on the universal values derived from all great civilizations. He asked me whether Kher Jagatsingh had been associated with the paper and I answered that to the best of my knowledge this had been so.
Before we left he presented me with a copy of a film made on his life titled ‘I Believe’, which in fact is a blueprint for the development of a sane, humane and peaceful global society, starting at the level of individual countries. One of the best things that this country could do, especially at this stage of unbelievable turmoil, would be to invite this erudite world scholar to come and share his ideas with the decision-makers at large in a series of lectures. This would undoubtedly be of immense benefit to everyone, but sometimes one wonders whether it is worth continuing to cast pearls…