What Life Asks of Us

What life asks of us, is the rhetorical title of the post by David Brooks on NYTimes.

It discusses the guiding principles of an individual’s life and highlights an approach of institutions governing the actions of man. This is in contrast to an individual thrusting his ego, desire and ambition onto the field of action.

David recounts ideas from “On Thinking Institutionally” by political scientist Hugh Heclo. And I quote-

In this way of living, to borrow an old phrase, we are not defined by what we ask of life. We are defined by what life asks of us. As we go through life, we travel through institutions — first family and school, then the institutions of a profession or a craft.

Each of these institutions comes with certain rules and obligations that tell us how to do what we’re supposed to do. Journalism imposes habits that help reporters keep a mental distance from those they cover. Scientists have obligations to the community of researchers. In the process of absorbing the rules of the institutions we inhabit, we become who we are.

New generations don’t invent institutional practices. These practices are passed down and evolve. So the institutionalist has a deep reverence for those who came before and built up the rules that he has temporarily taken delivery of. “In taking delivery,” Heclo writes, “institutionalists see themselves as debtors who owe something, not creditors to whom something is owed.”

Romantic as it may sound, I cannot but flinch at the notion of the individual being subservient to the needs and goals of any institution. Of course there are valid scenarios quoted as examples and am sure many more can be brought out if you restrict sampling to the cream of humanity.

My disagreement arises out of the experience of living through the various Indian institutional systems including that of religion, caste and creed to mention but a few. I use the Indian case as a representative sample of what happens elsewhere.

Because when you remove the cultural, and regional, specifics human systems tend to resemble each other a lot.

Now to quote a few of the ills – i) Chaturvarna, the Four fold caste system ii) The impulse to Sanyassa. And before you think these are religious/spiritual aspects not relevant in other cultures, let me quote some secular ills – iii) Institutions of Governance and iv) Educational Institutions

Chaturvana, four-fold caste system

Manu, the mythical founding father of the human race according to Hindu mythology, is said to have classified humans into four classes of beings. The Brahmin, man of knowledge. Kshatriya, the fighter and defender. Vaishya, the trader. And finally Shudra, the worker.

This classification has a dubious record in India. Just about every caste based ill can be traced to it. To anyone with an ounce of subtlety and insight into the symbolic nature of Indian mythology this is immediately apparent as a psychological profiling scheme. Profile so as to have a body of rules that would help govern the individuals actions in this life.

Guess you would have caught the drift of my thought here. A system that had its rightful place by the founder, whoever it was in reality, gets muddled and misused.

The social institution of caste by heredity is a failure.

Today the son of a Brahmin has little in common with the aims of his caste. Perhaps he is an investment banker doing the job a Vaishya is supposed to do. Or even a common foot-soldier in a large corporation, doing the work of a Shudra.

No sane society can let this institution and its methods survive, at least not in the form it is now.

Institution of Sanyasa

Adi Shankara, a founder of Advaita, had a difficult task. The nation was overrun by the nihilism of the Buddha. Nihilism in itself was not the issue, but the fact that Buddha completely denied the ritualistic systems of the Veda was unacceptable. What would remain of Hinduism, the Sanatana Dharma, once you removed the foundation of the Veda! With that as context came the overwhelming Advaita philosophy. And with it the standard of Sanyassa came to be the one mark to distinguish those who were serious about the pursuit of spiritual goals. A race that had once reveled in art and work and beauty was stripped to the bare essentials of a single pointed movement to the Non-dualistic goal of Advaita.

Sanyasa exists today in the various monasteries of India and the countless who linger by temples donning the ochre colored robe.

Nothing wrong in it as such.

But in creating a class whose sole aim was to achieve salvation meant that in a single stroke a deep gulf was established between who could attain to the high states of the soul and who could not. Perceptions were forever skewed.

The householder and common worker could still enter these realms but only as an exception and a special case. Common life was destined to be common. The comprehensive and all-inclusive system of Sanatana Dharma had a rift that remains uncrossed after many hundred years.

Institutions of Governance

The remnants of a colonial past still shackles the nation. The ills of this system are common knowledge. And I shall refrain from dipping into this muck.

Educational Institutions

The purpose of education is to equip an individual with the tools and techniques needed to lead a productive life. But now these are schools of rote learning with little independent thinking encouraged and with absolutely no emphasis on fostering a values driven individual culture.

There is a moral crisis, as the various financial industry scams and widespread corruption will attest. And it is in no small measure due to educational institutions being reduced to being offices that confer paper recognition.

The title stands in lieu of the individual’s knowledge.

And when that happens the goal of men turns out to be to get the title through hook or crook and not the acquisition of knowledge. Of course exceptions remain but by and large educational degrees and certificates have lost their efficacy.

To summarize..

…individuals should not be subservient to any institution. The way of having an objective set of standards for an individual to govern his living by has been tried before and it is definitely not the entire solution.

An institution can provide guidelines, or suggestions, and leave it to the individual to mould his worldview, assuming that a strong foundation of values is already in place, and get out of the damned way.