Hinduism and Post - Modernism: How close is the Connection?
-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao
Synapses from a re-reading of the noveSamskara
The term "post-modernism" means different things to different people: it has been used pejoratively, to reject new experiments in art, music, etc.; it has been used to critique the "formlessness" and "shapelessness" of a mind-set that is newly aware of a complex and burgeoning world (see Smith, 1982); or it has been celebrated as a reaction against the traditional and modern world-views -- a reaction that rejects metaphysics since life situations differ and hence a single world outlook relevant to everyone is misguided in principle. Bauman (1991) writing about the third view says:
What the inherently polysemic and controversial idea of postmodernity most often refers to (even if only tacitly) is first and foremost an acceptance of ineradicable plurality of the world; plurality which is not a temporary station on the road to the not-yet attained perfection... a station sooner or later to be left behind -- but the constitutive quality of existence. By the same token, postmodernity means a resolute emancipation from the characteristically modern urge to overcome ambivalence and promote the monosemic clarity of the sameness (p. 98).
The consequences of plurality or multiple realities are many: first and foremost, it means that there is no particular path to happiness, God, development, progress, or emancipation or love! Bauman is being euphemistic when he says that the idea of postmodernism is controversial. To many, the idea that there is not only no particular way to God but there is indeed no particular God is sacrilegious. We can immediately conjure in our minds a "fundamentalist" who will put a price on your head and have you hunted down for proclaiming that his God is just a figment of his imagination. But let us leave "fundamentalists" alone. What about scientists, rationalists, believers in a free-market, or democracy? Will they not be equally disturbed by the claim that, for example, science is no better than faith, that democracy is no better than authoritarian rule, or that capitalism is not the cure-all for nations' ills? Controversial indeed.
Moving from the response of groups to that of the status of the individual in a postmodern world we need to note the consequences in particular. Here is Bauman again:
Today's world does not abolish strangerhood and the existential ambivalence with which it is infused. (I)t (also) does not offer any hope that the stranger can be redeemed. And as the condition of ambivalence turns into an ever more universal experience and thus the prospect of redemption grows increasingly dim, the emancipatory urge peters out (p. 97).
When Eve had her beau Adam eat that apple, the connection between them and God was broken and their descendants have heard a lot of static on the line since then. However, there has always been the hope that the static will clear and one will hear that signal from beyond again. What else but that did partygoers in Times Square look forward to last December 31st?! And when Durkheim introduced the term "anomie" to describe the condition of "modern man", or when we hear of "alienation" from the many who appear and talk psycho-babble on TV, it is that there is still some hope for or "way" to regain/ing firm ground and reconnecting "individuals" to "community" and God and thus escape strangerhood. Bauman's reading of postmodernism, however, throws cold water on such expectations. Thus, according to postmodernists, as the "prospect of redemption" grows cold Bible-thumping should grow softer, the muezzin's call would get muted and temple bells would begin to rust. And maybe there would be fewer and fewer grant proposals written for funding cancer or AIDS research! Such a postmodernistic prognosis, we can point out, is rather faulty simply because it is still a prognosis based on linear thinking. To claim that as the prospect of redemption grows dim the emancipatory urge will peter out is itself a conclusion based on an "if-then" logic. A more accurate postmodernistic prognosis would speculate that as the "condition of ambivalence turns into an ever more universal experience" we could have a variety of reactions, from individuals and groups, including maybe a more fanatic adherence to religious and other precepts, simply because it is another "logical" reaction when confronted with "existential ambivalence". We see this kind of reaction already in the form of a million dollar price that was put on Rushdie's head by Iranian mullahs, more monies asked for more research projects by more scientists, a variety of apocalyptic groups setting up shop and attracting adherents and the periodic and loud cries about the death of communism and the victory of democracy.
One can argue that fundamentalism is the last gasp of traditionalism against the forces of modernity and that the influence of postmodernistic thought and action is still too new and feeble for us to discern its effects. Maybe. However, if we are to be faithful to the original premise of postmodernism, i.e., the "ineradicable plurality of the world", we cannot conclude, as Bauman does, that the emancipatory urge will peter out. Multiple realities are multiple realities. Some of us may react to them like the deer caught in the glare of headlights, some of us may give up the idea of pursuing and attaining anything, some of us may despair, some of us could celebrate our liberation from the past and its influences and some of us could hark back harder to the past. But the idea of a global and monosemic influence of postmodernity is incorrect insofar as the internal logic of such a philosophy.
Rorty (1991) says the "postmodernist" is someone who distrusts metanarratives. According to him, these metanarratives... describe or predict the activities of such entities as the noumenal self or the Absolute Spirit or the Proletariat. These metanarratives are stories which purport to justify loyalty to, or breaks with, certain contemporary communities, but which are neither historical narratives about what these or other communities have done in the past nor scenarios about what they might do in the future (p. 199).
Rorty claims that the postmodernist identifies with a number of different communities and is "equally reluctant to marginalize" him/herself in relation to any of them. Rorty also believes that this diversity of identifications increases with education, "just as the number of communities with which a person may identify increases with civilization" (p. 201). Seems like the postmodernist is just another jetsetter! Maybe, the person works for the United Nations, or she could be an English professor teaching world literature and who has just spent a sabbatical year in China. Rorty's portrait of the postmodernist is a rather bland version of Bauman's but is similarly flawed. While Bauman's postmodern man lives/despairs in existential ambivalence, Rorty's goes on to become more and more "educated" and "civilized". While Rorty rejects metanarratives of a certain sort, "education" and "civilization" seem to attain that status, however. There is no data to support Rorty's claim that educated and "civilized" beings identify with more and more communities (Just this morning, April 30th, 2000 I heard the report of a 34 year-old lawyer in Pittsburgh shooting and killing five people -- one Jew, one India, two Chinese and one Black. What say you, Mr. Rorty?). Also, there is no attempt at adumbrating the nature of those communities. Those communities could be exclusive or inclusive; they could lead to more fragmentation and those fissiparous tendencies could lead to the creation of more narrow identities and thus defeat Rorty's implicit assumption of the "good" that would happen through education and civilization. Therefore, both Bauman's and Rorty's versions of the effects of postmodernism (to the extent I have quoted them) fail to follow strictly the internal logic of a postmodern philosophy. However, Bauman elsewhere (p. 231-238) provides a better reading of the postmodern world and I will comment on it at the end of this essay.
So, what would be a correct rendering of the nature and effects of postmodernism? I think both Bauman and Rorty, despite their thoughtful enterprise, fail to "grasp" postmodernism. Bauman is right in stating that "What the... idea of postmodernity... refers to... is first and foremost an acceptance of ineradicable plurality of the world..."; but he makes the mistake of seeing the sensory world as the only world. And Rorty, while correct in being suspicious of some metanarratives, makes the mistake of rejecting all metanarratives. This happens because, like Bauman, he succumbs to a logic that allows for improper classification. Thus a metanarrative like capitalism or socialism is grouped along with a metanarrative on the noumenal self. Why is this wrong classification? Simply because, while there is empirical evidence that capitalism and socialism have "failed" to live up to their claims, there is little experiment on or experience with the pursuit of the noumenal self. Also, while political philosophies deal with solutions/approaches to societywide issues, the "noumenal self" could very well be a pursuit by individuals for individual happiness or realization.
Another problem with Bauman and Rorty's descriptions are when they begin claiming certain effects or indications of postmodernism. Thus, Bauman ends up claiming that the emancipatory urge will peter out and Rorty speculates that the postmodern person is one who is educated and more civilized. These prognostications are clearly the result of a western, linear logic -- an if-then logic, which is itself a metanarrative and about which we have enough empirical evidence to reject it as a metanarrative. The postmodern has, by its own internal logic, to be both western and nonwestern. It has to accept both the either/or and both/and logic. Multiple realities and narratives do mean just that. One cannot therefore pick the dominant (at present) logic to understand or present the postmodern. Being creatures of habit, though, we easily fall into the trap of our past training. There is a way out of such a trap and a reading of Hinduism could enable us to make better sense of the postmodern.
Postmodernism and Hinduism do share certain metaphysical underpinnings. However, Hinduism is a different kind of slippery eel than postmodernism. Based on those parallels and differences I will critique the novel Samskara, especially the predicament of the protagonist, Praneshacharya to describe how Praneshacharya's existence (as a handsome, learned man amidst a greedy, sickly lot in a settled community) is shattered and how his entry into a world "on the move" opens up multiple possibilities and therefore a postmodern unpredictability. The novel is not postmodern in its structure. The author does not seek to confuse the reader about the identity of the narrator/s, nor does he contrive at cleverness to make it structurally a postmodern work. However, the open-ended nature of the story is decidedly postmodern.
Hinduism, according to Klostermaier (1989), is "the oldest living major tradition on earth, with roots reaching back into the prehistory of humankind" (p.1) and is "also a vibrant living tradition" (p.1). Being both very old and still practiced by hundreds of millions, Hinduism has acquired a protean quality. Klostermaier aptly says that asking the question, "What are the essentials of Hinduism?" will receive as many different answers as one asks people. Many Hindus believe that whatever their thoughts on God, the world and humankind are must be Hinduism. This is because there is no one church, no one book, no one prophet that disseminate/d the precepts of this "religion" which Hindus claim to be "Sanatana Dharma" (eternal religion or philosophy). Some Hindus, however, draw the boundaries of Hinduism so narrowly on the basis of caste and ritual purity that relatively few would qualify to be called Hindus. We also need to note that Hinduism is not the same as Brahminism, though it has been so conflated by both naive and mischievous observers. Essentially, Hinduism "rests on the particular revelation(s) on which the (particular) Hindu tradition believes itself to be grounded" (Klostermaier, p. 16). These revelations can be found in the Vedas and Upanishads and other books that are held sacred as scriptures by Hindus. Hindu scriptures have no identifiable authors (and are therefore truly postmodern). Scholars debate and disagree about both the origins and the antiquity of these scriptures; and Hindus, aware only of the names and times of the commentators on the scriptures carry on the tradition of debate and discussion, aware that there is no conclusion to such debates and conclusions. Thus, Bibhuti Yadav (1980), describes Hindus and Hinduism as:
The socalled Hinduism is a rolling conference of conceptual spaces, all of them facing all and all of them requiring all. Each claims loyalty to the srutis, each showing how its claims are decisively true and charging the rival schools with perpetuating the confusion of tongue in the dharmaksetra... A lay Hindu... is a living contradiction, unsynthetic and logically incomplete to any and all. "Synthetic unity" has never existed in Hinduism, neither in conceptual space nor in lived time. Hinduism is a moving form of life whose predicament is to be incomplete to its own logics; it is a history of contradictions in flesh, fortunately demanding that their resolution be constantly postponed.
Listening to and reading debates about postmodernism should remind us that the confusion prevailing about the nature and scope of and limits to postmodernism is not different from similar confusion about Hinduism. Yadav captures the essence of Hinduism when he says that it is "a moving form of life whose predicament is to be incomplete to its own logics". Postmodernism cannot be any different. We can, to some degree, identify postmodern music, architecture, or literature because of some structural ir/regularity. Beyond that a resolution of what is postmodern (by nature, content and consequences), like what is Hinduism, "must be constantly postponed".
However, where the postmodernist stumbles after describing the nature of the postmodern world, the Hindu scriptures provide glimpses of a world "beyond the postmodern" that is not circumscribed by the postmodern condition. Thus, whereas the postmodern person, according to Rorty, is limited to being just an "educated and civilized" person, the books of the Hindus would tell us that beyond the postmodern is the possibility of "illumination". An illumined man, according to the Paramahamsa Upanishad, has renounced all selfish attachments And observes no rites and ceremonies. He has only minimum possessions, And lives his life for the welfare of all. He has no staff nor tuft nor sacred thread. He faces heat and cold, pleasure and pain, Honor and dishonor with equal calm. He is not affected by calumny, Pride, jealousy, status, joy, or sorrow, Greed, anger, or infatuation, Excitement, egoism, or other goads; For he knows he is neither body nor mind..." (Translated by Eknath Easwaran, 1987) Rorty, I believe, would describe this as another attempt at constructing a metanarrative of the noumenal self. Constrained by academic training, we commentators on the postmodern mind reflect our own limited perceptions, knowledge and experience in adumbrating the possibilities for the postmodern. Of course, if like Rorty, we reject at the outset narratives which "describe the activities of such entities as the noumenal self..." we commit both a classification error as well as the error of defying the internal logic of the postmodern.
To sum up, Hinduism is postmodern in at least three ways: 1) It provides a theoretical basis for seeing any view of God as a personal construct. Shankara, the seventh century (?) commentator on the Upanishads said that the world of thought and matter is not real -- that it is maya. God as a personal construct is also thus maya. When Shankara said that the world is maya, he did not mean that it is non-existent. It is and it is not. It is existent only in our state of ignorance (our everyday consciousness) and it is experienced and it exists as it appears. Ignorance as the cause and world-appearance as the effect have always existed and will always exist, according to Shankara (VivekaChudamani, translated by Prabhavananda and Isherwood, 1947). 2) Hinduism provides a theoretical basis for seeing goals and projects as unproductive and unredemptive. It does not mean that one should renounce action. But action with the expectation of results is unproductive. Only when one acts without concern for the consequences, or fruits, of one's action can one escape bondage to this world of maya(The Bhagavad Gita, chapter 18, translated by Miller, 1986). 3) Finally, the proliferation of competing schools and sects in Hinduism encourages outsiders to see only chaos when they try to understand it. We can say the same about postmodernism! Now that I have set out, to some extent, the similarities and differences between Hinduism and postmodernism, let me see if I can tease out the two in Samskara to understand how it is both a postmodern and a Hindu rendering.
Samskara was first published in Kannada in 1965 and was translated into English in 1976. Since then it has acquired the status of a minor classic and numerous articles have appeared that seek to analyze the novel in its various facets (Misra, 1982; Sharma, 1982; Kaul, 1982; Dey, 1985). Many of the analyses have dwelt on the theme of the "traditional" versus the "modern", without a serious discussion of the underlying crosscurrents in Hindu philosophy and how such a philosophy casts a shadow over the lives of the characters in the novel. Most critics have dwelt on the sociological aspects of the novel and given short shrift to the philosophical. Or else, they have perceived the predicament of the protagonist in imprecise ways -- for example, as the urge to escape the "depersonalising character of Hinduism... by making a choice outside the code" (Misra, p. 102); or characterizing the novel merely as a "representation of the conflict between orthodox Brahminism and anti-Brahminism" (Sharma, p. 104).
The novel is set in anagrahaara(Brahmin community) called Durvasapura. The story begins with the death of a reprobate Brahmin named Naranappa because of the plague. His death raises many questions (Who should perform the last rites? Did he have the refinement of a Brahmin? Who gets paid to do the cremation? What do the sacred books advise?) -- and the person who has the onus of answering these is Naranappa's cousin, the agrahaara's conscience and most learned Brahmin, Praneshacharya. He is the embodiment of all that is good in the agrahaara. He has been to Kashi and studied the Vedas, he has debated with learned others and won gold-laced shawls. And as a supreme sacrifice, he has married an invalid woman so that he can serve her and win the grace and goodwill of the many gods whose praises he sings daily. Handsome, learned and ascetic, Praneshacharya is looked up to by all the other Brahmins in the agrahaara. However, as the plague rages through the town, so rages conflict in Praneshacharya. The denouement is classically postmodern, in the sense that we don't clearly know how Praneshacharya resolves the conflicts, except to be reminded of his newly acquired individuality and freedom and the conflict and confusion that they engender.
Praneshacharya is a Madhva, a believer in "dualism" and thus, in his own eyes, anastika(believer and follower of the orthodox Vedic tradition). There is a running battle between the Madhvasin the agrahaara and their close neighbors, the Smarthas(followers of Shankara's advaitaor non-dualistic philosophy and so, according to the Madhvas, nastikas-- literally, nonbelievers, but actually, the non-orthodox). The Smarthas represent, to some extent, modernity and the Madhvas, a calcified traditionalism. These and other interesting subtle undercurrents in the novel, are left unexplored or mixed-up in most of the reviews and critiques of the work. Thus, for example, Sharma (p. 105) claims that the novelist has taken ample care to make brahminism appear singularly repulsive; Non-brahmin characters appear more human and appealing than the brahmins.... The brahmin women are pale, withered and sickly with dwarfish braids or they are shaven-headed widows, whereas, the lowcaste women remind one of Shakuntala, Matsyagandhi, Urvashi. Not only physically, but spiritually too, the brahmins are ugly.... Brahminism becomes a synonym for robbing shaven-headed widows, practising black magic with evil men, having hair cut to a tuft, smearing faces with charcoal and listening to the holy yarns of the Acharya.
This description ignores the differences between the Madhvas and the Smarthas which Anantha Murthy carefully builds into his text. For example, Durgabhatta, a Smartha from Durvasapura thinks that "Parijatapura's brahmins were Smartas (sic), not quite out of the upper set, their lines being a little mixed.... On the whole the brahmins of Parijatapura were pleasure-lovers, not so crazy about orthodoxy and strict rules; they were experts at running betelnut farms and rich too". Furthermore, Durgabhatta was fascinated by the Smartha widows "who didn't shave their heads and grew their hair long, who even chewed betel leaf and reddened their mouths..." (Samskara, p. 12-13). It is important to sort these narratives carefully so that we can make better sense of the dilemma that the protagonist, Praneshacharya faces.
How much of this is acknowledged in Praneshacharya's understanding of thesrutis(that which has been revealed and heard)? Infact, here is the crux of the issue. Praneshacharya's loyalty to the srutis, as he reads them , binds him to a course of action that leads finally to his confrontation with the kinds of contradictions that life presents to all of us. The communal metanarrative of the Madhva philosophy, we discover, is not adequate to his needs. Such a discovery of inadequacy is postmodern in nature.
Agonizing over the proper course of action in regards to the cremation of Naranappa, Praneshacharya goes to his sacred books for an answer. Praneshacharya is a scholarly man, given to the close study of scriptures. But try as he does, he is unable to find a solution to the problem in the books. As long as he doesn't find an answer as to how and who should cremate Naranappa, the Brahmins of the agrahaara cannot eat any food. That is part of their religious belief. Moreover, the longer the agrahaara waits, the worse the situation becomes -- the corpse of Naranappa starts rotting, the plague is taking a toll of people and there are dead rats in the streets and vultures hovering in the skies and swooping down on the houses to pick up the rats. As the Brahmins plead with Praneshacharya, he hits upon an idea: If he prays to Maruti (Hanuman), he would find the answer. There is a Maruti temple outside the agrahaara, in the woods. He goes to the temple and puts flowers in both hands of the Marutiidol and prays that flowers from the right hand will fall indicating to him which is the right path of action. He prays, sings devotional songs, beseeches and berates, but Marutiremains mute. The books have failed him and now Maruti doesn't have any answers for him. Praneshacharya's deepest convictions are shaken. Only these convictions had made him the conscience-keeper and adviser to the agrahaara. Tired, despondent and hungry he walks out of the temple in the dark and stumbles across Naranappa's concubine, Chandri who is waiting for him. They make love and thus Chandri kindles in this handsome Brahmin, who has deliberately wedded an invalid wife, the desire to know and experience the beauty and pleasures of making love to a woman. This experience with Chandri liberates Praneshacharya from the rigid Madhva code but it also orphans him because he now finds his beliefs shaken. The death of his wife, soon thereafter, shakes his belief in his moorings further. He no longer has his daily penances to the gods and services to his wife to direct his energies. He walks away from the agrahaara leaving his rosary beads, his lace shawls and his rote learning.
If the story were to unfold traditionally, we would probably have Praneshacharya seeking out Chandri and settling down to life in some other town, pursuing some other vocation. But this is a postmodern story -- neat endings are problematic and walking away into the sunset, even if it is allowed to happen, is imbued with doubt and dissonance, or comes only as a temporary reprieve. In his struggle to understand his new self Praneshacharya seeks excuses for his behavior, tries to rationalize his actions and battles vainly the doubts that now plague him. As a student in the holy city of Kashi he had wondered how his friend Mahabala had quit the study of scriptures and begun living with a prostitute. Back in Durvasapura he had taken on Naranappa, his reprobate cousin, who proclaimed that he would destroy Brahminism (p. 23). But now in a state of doubt, he recalls his struggle to reform Naranappa and Naranappa's words: "Aha! The Acharya too can get angry! Lust and anger, I thought, were only for the likes of us. But then anger plays on the nose-tips of people who try to hold down lust. That's what they say. Durvasa, Parashara, Bhrigu, Brihaspati, Kashyapa, all the sages were given to anger..." (p.23). And "...As the Achari's virtue grew, so did the sins of everyone else in the agrahara. One day a funny thing happened. What, Acharya-re, are you listening? There's a moral at the end -- every action results not in what is expected but in its exact opposite..." (p.24-25). Ironically, Naranappa is proven right. For he who had claimed to have renounced Brahminism, Naranappa as he lay dying mumbles, "...O Mother! O God Ramachandra, Narayana!" (p.45) -- words that do not ordinarily come out of a reprobate's mouth.
Praneshacharya struggles to understand what has happened to him after he has made love to Chandri: "...undesired, as if it were God's will, the moment had arrived -- that was the reason why. It was a sacred moment... That moment brought into being what never was and then itself went out of being... which means I'm absolutely not responsible for making love to her. Not responsible for that moment" (p.97). But this reasoning doesn't satisfy him. If it is God's will that he made love to Chandri, it was also God's will that Naranappa was what he was, that Mahabala did what he did, that others were what they were. So, he cannot accept that. If he cannot will to achieve goodness, realize God, then what is the use of any struggle? "I'm not free till I realize that the turning is also my act, I'm to answer for it" he tells himself (p.98). But what happened at that turning? Why was it different from the rest of the acts in his life? It was different because dualities, conflict rushed into his life where previously there was neither. He wonders how the ancient sages faced such experiences: "Could they have lived, seeing life itself as renunciation, staying with God, going beyond conflicts and opposites by living through them, taking on every changing shape that earth carves and offers, flowing finally into formlessness in the ocean like a river?" (p.99). Praneshacharya had married an invalid woman because he expected that act of sacrifice would make him "ripe and ready" (p.2) for God's grace. He had become learned with the hope, once again, of purifying himself and of then being able to reach the state of God-realization. We know from a reading of the Bhagavad-Gita and of the Paramahamsa Upanishad that any action done caring for the fruit of that action would lead to conflict.
The process begun by Chandri is pushed further by Putta, a talkative young man whom Praneshacharya meets on his way to Kundapura, a town where he hopes he can meet Chandri again. Putta drags a reluctant Praneshacharya to a local town fair and he is introduced to a prostitute, to cock fighting, to the tug and pull of humanity -- all of which the sedate Brahmin had never seen or experienced. But being in the midst of such events and people doesn't make the acharyaa part of them. He is anxiety-ridden, he feels guilty and he does not know how to live in the tumult of such a life. He sees Putta as a natural, someone with streetsmarts. Putta both intrigues and entices him and yet makes him uneasy. Like the rake who has difficulty letting go of his past as he comes under the influence of a "good" man, so does Praneshacharya have difficulties trying to enter a world of ambivalence under Putta's influence. He is aware of being "caught in this play of opposites" (p.115).
The last scene takes us to a crossroads (literally and symbolically) where Putta and Praneshacharya are contemplating returning to Durvasapura. A bullock cart comes trundling and Putta makes Praneshacharya take the ride offered by the people in the cart (there is place only for one). As Putta promises to meet him the next day and Praneshacharya rides away into the dark, we are left wondering what will happen to Praneshacharya. Will he really get back to Durvasapura and confront his fellowMadhvas? Will he tell them what has happened in his life? Will he renounce his status as the conscience-keeper of the agrahaara? Will he take a new wife? Will he walk away from it all? As the translator of the novel, A.K. Ramanujan so lucidly puts it, "... the last phase of the Acharya's initiation is an anxious return, a waiting on the threshold; his questions seem to find no restful answers. What is suggested is a movement, not a closure. The novel ends, but does not conclude" (p. 147). This is very well and as it should be in a postmodern context. Praneshacharya's new life accords both with Yadav's description of Hinduism and the Hindu life and Bauman's characterization of the postmodern life. No longer will Praneshacharya's life be guided by strictly Madhva principles: he is not protected by them, nor is he circumscribed by them. He is set free from his moorings (where he was a stranger to some but close to a personal God and his numerous fellow Madhvas) and cast out in the new world (where he is a stranger to all and where his God is both distant and abstract).
Bauman says that there is a substantive difference between being "a stranger in a well-settled native world and a stranger in a world on the move". In the first instance, misery and despair comes with the promise, the hope of its termination. There is a promise and a hope because there are defined and recommended ways of dealing with our miserable state. But in the second case, however, though the strangers remain strangers, they do not live any more among the natives; indeed, there are no such natives in sight because they have all become postmodern! Thus, they do not have, or they have lost, belief in standards (contested or uncontested) and thus "strangerhood does not feel like a temporary condition". But this "not temporary" strangerhood does not feel like an unbearable condition, one from which one has the duty and the desire to escape. "Difference now bears no guilt; and the shame of being guilty of difference no longer prompts the culprit to escape from estrangement" (p. 97), concludes Bauman. We do not leave Praneshacharya, at the end of the novel, in that enviable position. Doubt and the desire to escape estrangement dog him. And we realize that Bauman's commentary on postmodernism has also undergone a subtle shift. The person who does not seek to escape from estrangement or difference (conflict) seems to be similar to the "illumined man" of the Paramahamsa Upanishad-- one who "faces heat and cold, pleasure and pain, honor and dishonor with equal calm". Bauman says that the "solidarity" of the postmodern contingent should be "grounded in silence" and that its "hopes lie in refraining from asking certain questions and seeking certain answers" (p.236). Such action, it seems, is possible only when one is "serene in himself" (Bhagavad Gita, Chp.18, verse 54).
Praneshacharya is not, when we leave him, "serene in himself". He is free from his past, but "freedom promises no certainty and no guarantee of anything. It causes therefore a lot of mental pain. In practice, it means constant exposure to ambivalence" (Bauman, p.244-245). It is fit to conclude then with Ramanujan: "We only see him (Praneshacharya) mutating, changing from a fully evolved socialized brahmin... towards a new kind of person; choosing himself, individuating himself and 'alienating' himself. We are left 'anxious, expectant', like the Acharya himself at the end of the novel" (p.143).
Note: This essay is a slightly re-worked version of a paper that I presented at a small post modernism conference in our university.
Originally published on Thursday, May 4, 2000.