Values for the 21st. Century

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The Second R K Swamy Memorial Lecture

It is not easy to judge a man by looking at him or reading about him. To know about R K Swamy, one should know about the physical, intellectual and spiritual dimensions of his life. He was a perfect man, an evolved gentleman. When he was in a temple, he was not a professional. When he was in the office, he did not blame the Almighty for any office problem. At each level, he was the perfect person. He was a professional to the core.

He came from a village background. The publishers, clients and industrialists of that era were, like the Marwadis, coming from the village to the larger city where they grew their business.  The Birlas, Goenkas or Dalmias and publishers like my father K C Kulish or the founder of Malayala Manaroma group came from such a background, before they became successful.  They all grew with the freedom fight.  The national spirit was therefore common to all of them.  They wanted to contribute to the development of the country while retaining its ancient philosophy.  They were aspiring and they put in their best efforts. 

The ad agency profession was not an Indian profession then, rather it was an imported one. Publishers and industrialists were Indians by thought, but not the ad agency people. They were the bridge between the publisher and the client. The lifestyle of ad agency professionals today is very much western. Many of them talk about creating demand and supplying it. India was thriving in those days on the ‘saving model’ of life.

It was a win-win situation for Mr R K Swamy to join hands with like-minded clients.  I remember two of his ads which reflected how highly he thought of the country. He brought out the importance of intellectual and emotional components in his communications.

Today, the ad industry is moving away from Indian philosophies. Swamy did a fine balancing role between the tradition and modern. He dreamt that India would become a super power in the times to come by transferring all the ancient wisdom to the modern society. He had the courage to rebuild many ancient and heritage monuments and temples. He created institutions for ancient literature. He earmarked a portion of his earnings for social welfare. 

He maintained friendly and family-like relationship with employees. Today, it is often business like. He knew the relationship between humans and nature. He grew like a banyan tree.  No wonder, he was so much appreciated by his clients.  India needs many more R K Swamys. His biography makes an interesting read and I learnt many things for my life, reading it. To quote R K Swamy, “Efforts alone are not enough. You need the grace of God. You need to take a few knocks in your head to realise that.” 

Shri Swamy was a genius and a veritable polymath, who straddled with great ease and distinction several fields, some even apparently contrasting. I was always in awe of his ability to gain a deep insight into every subject that he touched. He would as expertly explain the nuances of a Vaishnavite tradition, as he would deal with the consumer reaction to a creative output. He could be as close a friend to the mightiest industrialist, as he would, to a poor priest in a temple. He was a generous philanthropist while being a tough negotiator. There was one unmistakable common thread that ran through all his talents and skills: His strong sense of intellectual integrity. He said what he meant. I was also very struck with his urge to remain contemporary in his thoughts, while continuing to be steeped in tradition. It is therefore very appropriate that we should be talking about 21st century and about values. The character of 21st century is indeed unique and different in many ways to the past. Three ‘mega events’ have shaped and continue to shape this century. 

Technology Revolution

The technology revolution has birthed the twins: information and intelligence revolutions. In a way, information revolution may be said to have commenced in early 20thcentury, with the first trans-atlantic telephone call that happened in January 1915. Even the World Wide Web, the backbone of internet, was delivered to mankind in the 20th century, when the English scientist Tim Berners-Lee wrote the first web browser in 1990. But it is in this century, that the relevant technology reached a tipping point, triggering a virtual information avalanche.

The gargantuan treasure trove of past knowledge has become instantly accessible at the mere touch of a piece of plastic screen. Just in 20 years, Wikipedia has 55 million articles in 300 languages, and 1.7 billion people use it every month. Facebook has 2.5 billion users, twice the size of India, Instagram has 1.2 billion users.  There are social networking groups whose membership runs into several hundred millions.

More than 700 million people owe allegiance to LinkedIn.  Similarly, the intelligence revolution may also be said to have commenced in the last century. Smart machines or robots are at least seventy years old. William Walters of England constructed way back in 1949, the first pair of electronic autonomous robots, which were called Elmer and Elsie.  Interestingly, he even demonstrated the feasibility of using neural networks model rather than reductionist logic to construct intelligent machines. Yet, it was only in the 21st century, that artificial intelligence has reached the tipping point, and has become a pervasive force.  A Tesla car running in Seoul in South Korea may have its glitch fixed by an Israeli firm sitting in China.  National borders have been contemptuously dismissed by technology that binds the world with the glue of a byte.

The Degradation of Environment

Scientists believe that we might just about be able to avoid global temperatures rising by 3 degrees during this century.  No doubt, the rapid degradation of the environment began with the advent of industrial revolution, which brought in its wake rampant consumerism, all of which began in the early 19th century. The climate emergency has brought a simple fact that all living beings are inexorably intertwined: Carbon emissions in the US are causing flooding of mangroves in Bangladesh; the toxic pollutants from China are melting the arctic glaciers in the North Pole…

The Pandemic

The third mega event is even closer—The Pandemic. This is not the first pandemic, nor for sure, will it be the last, even in this century. The pandemic has not only underscored the vulnerability of humanity as a whole, but also knocked the message hard into our head that humanity is one seamless mass.  Two meters and a cloth mask do not isolate us. They are mere reminders of our interconnectedness. Virus respects no boundaries. These three mega events define this century and make it unique, unlike any time in the past.

The character of 21st century is indeed unique and different in many ways to the past. Three ‘mega events’ have shaped and continue to shape this century.

Value No1: Vasudaiva Kutumbakam

The value that our ancient thinkers have expounded, ‘Vasudaiva Kutumbakam,’ means that the world is one family. Our Hon’ble Prime Minister has reminded the world about this abiding value of Indian culture at every possible opportunity. It would appear most natural to embrace this value as a motive force to navigate the challenges of this century.  Yet,  human beings are getting more deeply engaged in further sharpening their distinguishing identities by nationality, religion, race or colour. When scientists are warning about the climate emergency threatening the very survival of life on the planet, we find not the creation but the collapse of multilateral initiatives for collective and coordinated action. When a pandemic of monumental proportions strikes mankind, we witness the ugly spectacle of nations blaming each other, of pre-emptive bids for procurement of vaccines by the rich and mighty nations at the expense of poorer peoples, and a complete lack of responsible multilateral actions. Why does this happen?  There is a strong, practical argument that you need power to overcome the assault of power; that you cannot make love or talk peace to a violent bully. In any period in history, nations or kingdoms have become successful and people have enjoyed peace only through acquiring economic and military might… but with a caveat Peace is the ultimate objective of military prowess, not aggrandizement. Nuclear weapon is meant to be a deterrent, not a destroyer. A father might slap an errant son, but he does so with the intent to deter him from further misdeeds, but never with hatred. The situation is no different when two superpowers of the world—the US and China—are in confrontation. The spirit of family—the spirit of Vasudaiva Kutumbakam—would require continuous strengthening of the scaffoldings to build harmony in the family, and it cannot happen by stoking hatred for the errant son or daughter or by constantly rushing to the brink.

The failure of family spirit is not merely being witnessed at the global level, but sadly at national level as well.

Inequalities and the Swinging Pendulum

The failure of family spirit is not merely being witnessed at the global level, but sadly at national level as well. Societies are getting more polarised than ever in recent history. Many large countries look rather like dysfunctional families with internecine fights, mistrust and hatred. There appears to be two broad explanations for this very disturbing phenomenon. One, this is seen as a result of widening income and wealth inequalities within a country, a facet of classic class wars. An economic framework that targets equitable distribution of gains amongst citizens of a country and amongst nations in the long run is thus a condition precedent for fostering the spirit of family.

The second explanation is that this phenomenon is the result of the swing of the social pendulum. At any point in history one race or community dominates a society, oppressing another, only to be replaced at a later point of time by the oppressed race, which rises in revolt. Then, it becomes the turn of the oppressed to dominate the erstwhile oppressor. This is understandable, but certainly not advisable. Einstein is credited to have made this noteworthy observation: Weak people revenge, strong people forgive and intelligent people forget. Nelson Mandela, suffered twenty seven years of incarceration. Yet, when he became the first President of post-apartheid South Africa,  he observed with great clarity of purpose, that harking back to the past and settling scores would solve no problem and would only irretrievably destroy the future of his people. Seeking reconciliation with the Whites was the only wise way to construct the future.

Rama, whose conduct is an object lesson on Dharma, not just bears no ill will for Kaikeyi, but he chastises Lakshmana for his intemperate words against Kaikeyi on more than one occasion. The kernel of family spirit, Vasudaiva Kutumbakam, is the ability to forget and forgive the past.  This concept is a close cousin of the philosophy of humanism, espoused at about the same time, between 4th to 6th century BCE,  by three great thinkers of the world—Buddha, Confucius and Socrates, each crafting their own unique dimension to the concept. All three men intuitively emphasised the interconnectedness and interdependence of the human race and the utter futility of war and human conflict. 

In more recent times, the world witnessed the rise of two outstanding humanists from India, Mahatma Gandhi, and Rabindranath Tagore. Interestingly, they provided two different views of humanism and approached the concept of Vasudaiva Kutumbakam in contrasting styles.

Tagore was a poet and an intellectual, and hence his concept of humanism remained rather in the abstract. He believed that nationalism had the propensity to degenerate into xenophobia, and hence his concept of humanism eschewed undue emphasis of nation as a unit.  Gandhi, being a mass leader with a political mission, provided a more practical interpretation of the concept. As a diehard nationalist, he believed that a strong feeling of nationalism was essential as a step in the journey towards humanism. Without diluting the pride of his nation, he declared openness towards other people, nations and culture. 

Gandhi, being a mass leader with a political mission, provided a more practical interpretation of the concept. As a diehard nationalist, he believed that a strong feeling of nationalism was essential as a step in the journey towards humanism. Without diluting the pride of his nation, he declared openness towards other people, nations and culture.  Gandhi did not shy away from war. In his life, he took positions in the context of six wars that crossed his life, including the two world wars.  While the world war was unavoidable, he felt equally strongly that the conflicts within the Indian society, amongst castes, and amongst Hindus and Muslims were completely avoidable. He scrupulously kept his focus on strengthening what was common to us as a society rather than dwelling on what was different amongst us. Gandhi not only saw Hindu-Muslim unity and eradication of untouchability  as being  vital prerequisites to present a unified force of India to defeat a common enemy. He genuinely believed that Indians were one huge family, sharing not only the same geography, but also the same history. Like Mandela, he was focused on building a harmonious home for the future. This was his concept of humanism, Vasudaiva Kutumbakam.

Value No.2: Satyameva Jayate

One common belief that Tagore and Gandhi shared was the unfailing commitment to truth or sathya. The modern world is yet to see a taller apostle of truth than Gandhi. The second value that I believe is essential to navigate this unique century is the immeasurable faith that we as a people have placed in the ultimate success of Truth: Satyameva Jayate. But, does Truth have a chance to succeed in the 21st century?

Technology has made news travel instantaneously. Technology has also made verifying news irrelevant. Bad and false news travel faster and getting gluttonously consumed by gullible public. And false news always has an agenda, and is detrimental to the larger part of humanity. Truth will be challenged in a violent and unprecedented way in the coming decades and untruth could destroy nations and communities. This is the reason we need to invoke the ancient value of Satyam.

Two Types of Truth

There are two types of truth. One, verifiable through the powers of human faculty, what you might call ‘facts’. If fake news is created about the occurrence of an event, we can soon filter out such news with technology, particularly through the use of Artificial Intelligence.  The second is truth that cannot be verified because it is beyond the limits of human faculty. And that is one’s experience, one’s faith.  It is immensely difficult to lay down limits to freedom of expression, so as not to hurt another’s feelings. And that’s where a civilised society has to nurture values which will provide the anchor to people’s behaviour.

The best definition of truth, and therefore the value to be adhered to, is provided by Thiruvalluvar, who says, “Truth is that which does not cause harm to anyone.” Another well-known verse from the Mahabharata says, “Speak the truth that which is pleasant. Do not speak the truth, if it is unpleasant. Do not speak lies, even if it is pleasant.”

There is always a parent or a grandfather or a grandmother in every family, a family avatar, who is considered the personification of family unity, love and affection. We need to keep them alive in our memory to inspire us to show us the right path and set our moral touchstones. That brings me back to R K Swamy.  Among the many meetings and conversations that I remember with Shri Swamy, one that is most relevant in the context of the value of truth is this: I had a copy of a campaign that we wanted to run for Ashok Leyland. The concept had originated from our Marketing division and was brilliant, but I was uncomfortable and I wanted to get Swamy’s opinion.  The product claims contained in the campaign message  were somewhat hyperbolic. Swamy saw the write-up and instantly asked me, “Is this the whole truth?” I said that I shared his concern that while the claim was true, it was not the whole truth.  “Drop it” he said without a minute of hesitation. We need many Swamys in this century of challenges, who would stay anchored to core values.