Sunday, May 10, 2009

Vashishtha and Vishvâmitra

In 1922, Rabindranath Tagore wrote, in "Creative Unity" (do a search on the author name from "", a direct link does not seem to work):
The characters of two eminent sages have been described in our mythology. One was Vashishtha and another Vishvâmitra. Both of them were great, but they represented two different types of wisdom; and there was conflict between them. Vishvâmitra sought to achieve power and was proud of it; Vashishtha was rudely smitten by that power. But his hurt and his loss could not touch the illumination of his soul; for he rose above them and could forgive. Râmachandra, the great hero of our epic, had his initiation to the spiritual life from Vashishtha, the life of inner peace and perfection. But he had his initiation to war from Vishvâmitra, who called him to kill the demons and gave him weapons that were irresistible.

Those two sages symbolise in themselves the two guiding spirits of civilisation. Can it be true that they shall never be reconciled? If so, can ever the age of peace and co-operation dawn upon the human world? Creation is the harmony of contrary forces—the forces of attraction and repulsion. When they join hands, all the fire and fight are changed into the smile of flowers and the songs of birds. When there is only one of them triumphant and the other defeated, then either there is the death of cold rigidity or that of suicidal explosion.

Humanity, for ages, has been busy with the one great creation of spiritual life. Its best wisdom, its discipline, its literature and art, all the teachings and self-sacrifice of its noblest teachers, have been for this. But the harmony of contrary forces, which give their rhythm to all creation, has not yet been perfected by man in his civilisation, and the Creator in him is baffled over and over again. He comes back to his work, however, and makes himself busy, building his world in the midst of desolation and ruins. His history is the history of his aspiration interrupted and renewed. And one truth of which he must be reminded, therefore, is that the power which accomplishes the miracle of creation, by bringing conflicting forces into the harmony of the One, is no passion, but a love which accepts the bonds of self-control from the joy of its own immensity—a love whose sacrifice is the manifestation of its endless wealth within itself.[1]

And, a few pages afterward:
Lately I went to visit some battlefields of France which had been devastated by war. The awful calm of desolation, which still bore wrinkles of pain—death-struggles stiffened into ugly ridges—brought before my mind the vision of a huge demon, which had no shape, no meaning, yet had two arms that could strike and break and tear, a gaping mouth that could devour, and bulging brains that could conspire and plan. It was a purpose, which had a living body, but no complete humanity to temper it. Because it was passion—belonging to life, and yet not having the wholeness of life—it was the most terrible of life's enemies.

Something of the same sense of oppression in a different degree, the same desolation in a different aspect, is produced in my mind when I realise the effect of the West upon Eastern life—the West which, in its relation to us, is all plan and purpose incarnate, without any superfluous humanity.

I feel the contrast very strongly in Japan. In that country the old world presents itself with some ideal of perfection, in which man has his varied opportunities of self-revelation in art, in ceremonial, in religious faith, and in customs expressing the poetry of social relationship. There one feels that deep delight of hospitality which life offers to life. And side by side, in the same soil, stands the modern world, which is stupendously big and powerful, but inhospitable. It has no simple-hearted welcome for man. It is living; yet the incompleteness of life's ideal within it cannot but hurt humanity.[2]

While Tagore wrote these words, the West was falling into Stalinism and Fascism, and later Neo-Conservatism (the watered-down heir of the two formers). We are just emerging from this era, and it is, more than ever, urgent to clarify what has been at play during the 20th century.
All these ideologies (along with all their variations) rest on a common view of reality, one of dualism between emotion and reason, or in the words of Tagore, between Vashishtha and Vishvâmitra, but this view is ultimately part of the wisdom of Vishvâmitra, of its utilitarianism, and Fascism is properly the enslavement of emotions in order to serve the ends of power and domination defined by Vishvâmitra. Zeev Sternhell identifies the origins of Fascism in the Sorelian revision of Marxism:
Sorel is going to use the myth as a true working tool, an engine for action, and to provide it with an absolute value[...]The mythical thinking is opposed to the rational and discursive thinking[...]Because of this opposition, the myth constitute a social force, by galvanizing the masses, it allows to overcome the hurdle made by the social and economic reality of the beginning of the century[3]

By means of propaganda, the people's emotions become channeled, as a raw energy, to support, feed and propel the most rational objective of power and domination over reality at large. By this means, fraternity becomes degenerated into nationalistic pride, patriotic fanaticism, the individual existence is reduced to that of a canon fodder at the service of the collective (which is similar to what was done in Stalinism, even though some clear differences of modalities prevent the confusion between the two).

Nowadays, this relationship has been exactly reversed, but this reversal only constitutes a new instance of the same old fallacy of dualism. The wisdoms of Vashishtha and Vishvâmitra are not to be opposed, one has no prevalence over the other (even though Vishvâmitra clearly has the ambition to assert such a prevalence, because of its nature), they are both complementary. Similarly, the individual and the collective should not be opposed: The fascistic and stalinist fallacy of asserting a domination of the collective over the individual, is neither more nor less absurd than the thatcherian, neoconservative assertion of a primacy of the individual over the collective. There is no survival, no freedom, no self of an individual outside a society; both the collective and the individual can only exist and thrive in the conjunction of empathy and reason that is the creative unity Tagore is talking about.

[1]: Rabindranath Tagore. Creative Unity/The religion of the Forest/IV
[2]: Rabindranath Tagore. Creative Unity/East and West/II
[3]: Zeev Sternhell/David Maisel. The Birth of Fascist Ideology, Chapter 1: Georges Sorel and the Antimaterialist Revision of Marxism/Antirationalism and Activism: The Social Myths

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