Language and mental worlds

I am still not finished thinking about language and the way that it shapes the brain. I think that the way the brain is shaped in early life by language is practically impossible to really change. Even though we have some power to control the way our brains develop as we grow older, there are too many things, practically hard-wired, to completely change.

The only hope we really have is that there are common features to humanity itself, and that the archetypal forces that govern humanity are universal. This means that the kind of aspirations that lead to a life of spiritual culture, of interiority and faith in love as a guiding principle of life, are not the property of one civilization or another, but lie in the pre-linguistic fabric of our being.

Yesterday when I wrote about "American testosterone" and an Anglophone sense of universal cultural superiority, which is not without its racist undertones, I was talking about certain ego givens of the first disciples in this Hare Krishna movement, who led it and gave it shape as much as Prabhupada did. And this happened with Prabhupada's complete complicity, from his intuited understanding that this was the best way to make the most of the energy that those young Americans had bursting inside themselves and had just been waiting for a purpose in which to direct it.

And just like one uses a needle to withdraw a thorn, he sent them to India to prepare for the rājasika and tāmasika invasion of India in the 21st century. And may it go on. The Hare Krishna movement is, like it or not -- whether you consider it a wave of fanaticism and backward looking ignorance or a corruption of true religion and spirituality -- it is a backlash against this world that human beings have created, whatever it is and whatever it is becoming.

Marx was wrong when he said religion is the sigh of the oppressed. Perhaps it is at some times, but at others it is an angry howl of protest: What is this society and what is it making me become? Why do I have to sell my soul so totally just for survival and sexual stimulation? Can we please have an alternative that does not go and get sucked into that abyss of vapid materialism?

So I say let them build their 700 foot Burj Kalipha to Krishna in Vrindavan, and their Hare Krishna St. Peter's Basilica in Mayapur: let them try to fight the asuras, let the games commence.

But that is just the confluence, where the turbulent waters of present and past clash like the Jalangi and Ganga in Nabadwip. Where does this river flow?  Can we get to the clear waters and actually see what lies at the bottom? Can we find the purity and light that will change the tide of demonic civilization that washes over us?

Recently, a friend from Mumbai brought me as a gift two Hindi paperbacks in the crime thriller genre, both by popular authors use marketing and fan-based networking to sell their pulp. My friend, who shall remain nameless, was inspired to help me learn "Bombay Hindi," or Bollywood Hindi, which I confess I do not know well. I can sit in a Hindi Bhāgavata lecture and get most of it, but in a Bollywood film my eyes glaze over most of the time. Thinking that increasing my range in Hindi would be worthwhile, I decided to read the books and underline words to improve my vocabulary of Bombay gangster slang and that particular mix of Hindi with Urdu and English that characterizes modern Hindustani.

Whatever. Again, here was the association of a particular linguistic genre, of which Hindi is a particularly good example, where the use of words from one source or another become part of the medium, the palate with which is painted a particular world, cops and robbers, movie stars and would-be screen writers, scantily dressed beauties with dubious morals -- Bollywood on newsprint in other words. And frankly, it is a horrible world with practically no redeeming features. Like would-be Elmore Leonards, these paperback writers reveal the monsters of the age of Kali with heroes who are barely heroic at all. A nightmare, really, that somehow shines a light on the minds and hopes of modern urban adolescents (please don't tell me women read this stuff!)

The only point of learning this language is to go to the place that these writers have created. It means entering their mercenary minds and following the fantasies they know they can sell the products of this ever more anxious society, to tempt and titillate, and consciously or not, to motivate their readers to participate with them in the maelstrom of materialism.

Whatever the hell that is, it is not the India that we bought into as starry eyed teenagers ourselves. It is the very antithesis of it And what is more, what must be remembered, is that the forces of materialism in India do not care for the substance of the old and irrelevant India. They would gladly kill it off altogether, tear it all down, and cover it with concrete and high rises, if only it did not mean a loss of potential tourist revenue.

We cannot go back to a world of Himalayan caves and thatched-roof hermitages in riverside forests -- at least not until we are forced to do so by some mocking Fate whenever it decides to give our civilization a jolly good smacking around, when Mother Earth decides the demons are just getting too heavy and prays to God for a Noah's flood or some other cataclysm to put a merciful end to our hubris. What we can do is look for other ways to direct our consciousness to a more sane way of interacting with the universe.

And the way Vaishnavas do that is through words, by contemplating the deeds of the Lord:

yathā yathātmā parimṛjyate'sau
tathā tathā paśyati vastu sūkṣmaṁ
cakṣur yathaivāñjana-samprayuktam
As the self is cleansed by hearing and telling my holy stories, so is one able to see subtle things, as does the eye that has been treated with collyrium. (SB 11.14.26)
Of course, the jñāna path also begins with śravaṇam, hearing philosophical truths. But also thereby assimilating a world view. It is called propaganda, and one can voluntarily submit oneself to propaganda without being a fool. I accept this as my world, or at least as the base of my world, the world I want, and in accordance with this ideal I will create my world.

It cannot be recreated "as it was", for it never was. Nor can it ever be realized, because dreams and fantasies are always dreams and fantasies, only the wishful and magical background to the world of birth, old-age, disease and death, to the world of struggle and desire and defeat, where gods are always battling demons, and cosmic forces of light clash with those of darkness. But wishful though it may be, thinking informs and transforms our reality.

Language is one part of that, but it would probably take, as Prabhupada said, 3000 years of bloody hard work to make Sanskrit a spoken language again. In the meantime, like the scavengers we are, we pick in the rubble of history and literature for worthwhile objects that we can maybe polish off and put to some good use. 

So I think with that we can maybe go back to Draupadi and the Mahābhārata for some more meditation on then and now, fantasy and reality.


Jagadananda Das said…
The starting point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is "knowing thyself" as a product of the historical process to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory.... Therefore it is imperative at the outset to compile such an inventory. (Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, quoted in E.W.Said, Orientalism, p. 25.

I guess that among the many things that I am trying to say here is that Western devotees need to be deeply conscious of their own cultural prejudices.

This is not just about critiquing political ideology, but about self-realization itself. Vidya and avidya. In Upanishadic terms, knowing avidya means to have taken Gramsci's inventory.

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