Some stories are small and deal with small things. Like the events of a single day, or the solution to a small problem. Other stories are big and deal with events of a grand scale. Like an entire world or universe or the nature of reality or the human condition itself.
Not everyone is a storyteller, but we all still tell the stories we have heard from others. Sometimes, we retell small stories - gossip. Sometimes, we retell big stories about the scale of the cosmos, scientific curiosity in ancient times, philosophical sophistication of our ancestors - things like that.
But we are not our ancestors. The big stories they told are not everyone’s cup of tea. But because we draw our sense of self worth from our ancestors, we pretend to be the gatekeepers of their stories. We tell people that we should be treated with as much respect as they were because we are descended from them. We expect the respect that the world has for ancient India to extend to us also. We want to be treated like scientists and philosophers and artists because our ancestors did those things as well.
Needless to say, such behaviour exposes us as dishonest wannabes who have nothing new to offer. Like drug-peddlers who have recently started renting a building that was previously being used by cosmologists, we are trying to bask in the glory of suns that no longer burn in the sky.
And what is it that we are doing right now? What of our present conduct? How are we taking forward the legacy of the ancestors that we never fail to sing about?
I will tell you if you are too busy to look out of the window. We are spreading small stories around the world. We are spreading the intellectual equivalent of roadside gossip and claiming that we need to be taken seriously because our ancestors were wise. We are selling shit - literal shit - to each other. In the name of cultural discourse, we are engaging in vile abuse and violence.
A conditional wisdom
Philosophical sophistication can co-exist with social barbarism. Our ancestors may have built great systems of thought. But they also built significant systems of social oppression. Often, in common discourse, we allow the former to blind us to the latter, partly because our ancestors also invented well-designed methods of denial and justification. They wrote treatises on philosophy yes, but they also wrote that such literature was forbidden to people from the so-called lower castes. They explored philosophical heights, but they also kept those heights from being accessed by those outside the priestly class.
When Abrahamic religions reached India’s shores, they weren’t secretive about the wisdom they offered. The marketplace of ideas was suddenly flourishing and those who had been kept out of the select circles of wisdom were finding new avenues of learning. Our ancestors panicked and opened the gates. It was a move forced upon them by sudden changes in the world around them.
Today, books on Yoga and Advaita philosophy are everywhere. But the strain of thought that once kept this knowledge secret still lives in the small minds that claim to be descended from our ancestors. They don’t want high places reserved for those they consider lowly (that’s the entire anti-reservation sentiment in a nutshell). They don’t want Muslims and Christians to have the same rights as Hindus. They don’t want others to have access to the resources they have always had access to. Resources that, I might add, have been protected by their system for them so that only they may reach them.
There are those among us in the privileged classes who would rather not confront this truth. Just as there are White people in America who would rather not accept that racism still exists and that America as it exists today was built on the back of slave labour. Like us, they too believe in a sanitised version of their own history which makes it look like slavery and racism were just a couple of hiccups that modern America has successfully left behind.
We know what the truth is though, don’t we? It’s easy to look at someone else’s problems and say they are being blind to them. It’s not as easy to hold ourselves accountable for the ills our ancestors brought into being and that we continue to perpetuate and benefit from.