Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2012 > Land of Parallel Walkers

Mainstream, VOL L, No 45, October 27, 2012

Land of Parallel Walkers

Wednesday 31 October 2012, by Chandra Mohan Bhandari

Parallel Walkers

Here’s a unique land
with its unparalleled traditions:
its inhabitants are great talkers,
everybody talks, and everybody listens
only to his (her) own voice,
as there is no other choice;
tongues are internally linked
to their own auditory glands.
They are great walkers too,
walking together almost in parallel,
and make sure that their paths
do not meet, as with parallel lines.
Parallel walkers and parallel self-talkers,
culminating in a unique cultural blend;
long endless talks, long walks –
they thoroughly enjoy the process
without trying to meet at some point,
and reach—anywhere.

Analysing a societal trend is essentially a kind of statistical exercise. This gives us some kind of average, far from exact if applied to an individual case. Within that constraint it has its own advantage. It is like talking of the forest and not the trees in particular. At the most basic level all humans are alike which is essentially a by-product of biological evolution over a period of billions of years. The cultural transformation over a period of several thousand years has brought into focus the differences in attitudes, trends and behaviour. There are differences between persons, and those between groups. It is this difference in group behaviour which is going to be my concern in the present context, the group being one of the larger ones comprising a society or a nation.

Going back to the early days Indian experience has been reasonably healthy. The path of cultural transformation was never expected to be a straight line. It had many undulations and aberrations. Yet while putting the experience in words nothing remained unexplored at the conceptual level, be it the origin of the cosmos, origin of life or mind. A societal transformation is not always guided by wisdom or logic, it has its own dynamics where power-games are played at various levels. Words of wisdom that may appear in scriptures every now and then indicate enlightened individual concerns, indica-ting an extreme wavelength in the wide spectrum of human traits and concerns. As far as every-day practices and norms are concerned, the trends are governed by several other factors. The words of wisdom come handy in moments of relaxation or when one is in a benevolent frame of mind. Most of the time they remain dormant in the background.

Among other things one most important aspect that defines Indian ethos is the element of diversity. Diverse elements at various levels were incorporated into the main body of cultural life-pattern. Seemingly this appears to be an acceptance of various shades of opinion and traditions. To some extent this is not incorrect, yet its validity to all situations has a boundary line. There appears to be a strange attitude towards diversity. On the one hand there seems to be an acceptance of diversity at the level of faith, rituals and related practices, yet, on the other hand, at times an element of rigidity and intolerance has pervaded many of the societal concerns. Clans much like tribes were autonomous in several respects.

The interaction between separate entities was not always effective and evolutionary. The customs were accepted as a matter of faith and there was very little to argue about. As a consequence the notions and traditions were frozen on the time-axis. The notion of a nation-state was never strong enough to bypass or overcome the concerns of smaller units in the interest of the larger one. If a group or clan or caste was practising ‘sati’, it did not raise alarm bells for others who did not do so. Here the acceptance of diversity became a matter of convenience. Other practices, such as the ‘Devadasi custom’, were nobody’s concern. It was a certain level of indifference for the person next door if he or she belonged to a different class or caste. It was due to this kind of isolation that it took nothing less than the British intervention to put a legal ban on some of these practices. But for such an intervention many of our customs would have remained in practice even to this day, as some still are such as the so-called ‘honour killing’.

Understanding Diversity

HOW did we understand diversity? Was it an acceptance of others’ views as well? Or perhaps it was due to operational reasons. Since the units of caste and clan were, in general, large enough they could easily isolate themselves from others defining their own code of conduct. This was true to the extent that the traditional wisdom (!) within a group became a word of law where even the ruler (king or chief) did not interfere.

Again talking of the forest and not the trees in particular it is possible to analyse some other traits which have percolated down generations, even centuries. At the level of evolution of thought it had its impact which can be seen even to this day. Evolution has been at the basis of the entire creation including humans, and evolution of thought marked the basis of the cultural transformation. Acceptance of diversity in a particular context created an insulation and isolation which was a hard nut to crack. The intelligentsia usually is supposed to work with diffuse boundaries. This did not happen on the larger scale and this created islands of the thinking population. In an earlier era (which dates back to 3000 years), there was perhaps a relatively better state of affairs which changed its course with time, and by around sixth century AD the thinking islands seem to have made their appearance. Their island identity was manifest in the fact that whatever was said and written remained isolated not only from each other but from the actual practice on ground. At times the written word was in complete opposition to what was being practised. An example will suffice to illustrate this: In Ramayana the story of Rama’s acceptance of a Dalit girl’s invitation to visit her hut, and to eat joyously the fruits she offered after tasting them is often repeated by a devotee with a great sense of appreciation but in a majority cases the person would most likely be a believer of untouchability.

There are several other examples. The openness of thought, the inclusion and acceptance of an element of diversity, which was so evident in the hymns of the Rig Veda and elsewhere too, did not get reflected in our everyday living. It is a general tendency to verbally appreciate virtue, but who wants to acquire that? We are ready to worship virtue but do nothing to acquire it even in a small degree. The reasons are not difficult to search. One has to pay a price for acquiring virtue and the real life on the ground did not permit it. The survival game was hard to fight and it required all that was at variance from virtue. In a small measure this trend is present in all societies. In our case its presence has been more pronounced. Moreover, the winds of change were slow to appear, and when those did they were not essentially due to an inner voice raising its head. A foreign rule coupled with some strong measures was necessary to ensure the abolition of sati and elimination of ‘thuggery’. To a small extent these still survive in twentyfirst century India. There are several questions we need to raise for ourselves and seek a determined answer. Having done so well in the early stages why did we falter, and why were the changes so slow to come by? What is the reason for this extra thing in our psychic domain?

Serial versus Parallel

THOUGHT processes work on two different lines. For simplicity we may prefer to call them serial thinking and parallel thinking. Parallel thinking is like one hundred persons thinking about a problem almost independently or in small groups. They may come up with similar or dissimilar solutions to the problem and may compare their notes. After some deliberations one or more of the proposed solutions will be accepted. That is the general practice and has been followed ever since the dawn of civilisation. The rules, regulations and trends in matters pertaining to clans and castes were decided like this. However, there was little room for improvement in several cases. The trends that were set two or three thousand years ago continued even to this day.

In many matters the decisions of the caste-based panchayats were of the same calibre. Diversity should have bred tolerance, yet it did exactly otherwise. The element of tolerance, witnessed in the Indian context, had settled with two important features: acceptance of diversity between clans and castes, and acceptance of diversity in some religious matters and practices. There was non-tolerance for the Dalits in all matters. Even for others there was non-tolerance of diverse views in several social matters such as marriage relations. The recent upsurge in honour killings has been an outcome of this feature. The fact that at a certain stage in history some such customs were in practice is under-standable. The notions of democracy, equality, fundamental rights are relatively new and have not been part of any instinctual drive. However, the points under discussion are: (a) why were the corrective measures not coming from within, and (b) why were we so slow to accept and implement the changes.

Relay Race

SERIAL thinking is much like a relay race. I run up to a certain distance, and then hand over my baton to the next person who in turn follows the similar course. The step continues for quite sometime. The net outcome is that although each of the runners runs a relatively small distance, the net distance covered could be substantial. At the level of thought a similar relay is needed to carry the ideas forward. Summing up, the entire process of evolution of ideas requires both parallel as well as serial thinking. The very first step starts with parallel thinking which is followed by serial thinking. As the process continues both may be needed in different proportions. It is much like many small rivulets forming a river. As the river continues on its onward march some more streams join the flow and the water mass forms a mighty river. We appear to be doing well with thinking in parallel but there is some serious deficiency as regards the serial process. Let us look at it more closely.

Chain Reactions

ANY creative endeavour is based on some kind of a chain reaction. A good example is the process of burning of coal. A single piece of coal or two do not burn well. To get a good fire a number of coal pieces are required and these have to be arranged in a formation where they are arranged at some kind of optimal distance. They should not be too far apart as this would amount to a loss of heat resulting in a disruption of the process. They should be arranged close enough to keep each other warm, but not too close (dense stacking) to suffocate for lack of air flow. With this kind of arrangement, coal burns well forming a chain reaction. There are other examples such as that of nuclear chain reaction as witnessed in atomic energy release in nuclear fission which is uncontrolled in an atomic bomb but controlled in a nuclear reactor. An atom of uranium breaks in the presence of a neutron into two smaller units and releases more neutrons along with energy. These extra neutrons react with other atoms repeating the process and it continues. One neutron may produce two of them and these two produce four. The chain reaction is sustained. In mere sixty steps the number will be very large causing an enormous release of nuclear energy.

A social chain reaction works somewhat on the same pattern. The difference is that here the individual unit – the human being – is a thinking entity. However, looking at the forest and not trees in particular the analogy with burning of coal or nuclear chain reaction will be reasonably satisfactory even for the social chains. Two of the best examples of social chain reactions are:

(1) evolution of languages, and

(2) evolution of scientific thought.

Man as an animal started much like other species communicating almost like others in the very early stages. At some stage of evolution a larger brain, with larger number of neurons and plasticity of neuronal connections led to a co-evolution of the brain and its working. The outcome was that the biological evolution started reinforcing the improved neuronal activity which in turn helped the growth and plasticity of connections to connect still better, leading to a co-evolution.

The evolution of languages has been one of the best examples of a coordination in these processes and perhaps the biggest achievement of the two—nature, and its creation—the humans. Whatever be the mechanism of the evolutionary process the enormous power of the brain was linked to its capacity to work in terms of patterns. Pattern forming capacity of mind gives it enormous power which even a good computer cannot match. A computer computes things one after the other, or even some times in parallel, and only at the end of the computation it reaches a conclusion. In mathematical calculation the human mind does much the same; yet in many other cases it does otherwise. It appears as if it looks at the whole set of features and takes a decision. After a gap of twenty years I meet an old classmate, and with some initial hesitation I recognise the good old pal. I forget a particular poem and find it hard to recollect, but if someone gives me the first word I recollect the whole. This is the working of a pattern-oriented mind.

Patterns are thus an integral part of the mind’s working, and make its job much easier.

Without this capacity of mind learning would have been much more difficult and painful. Yet it has its negative aspect too. Patterns are captivating, in a sense habit forming. The mind is likely to become a captive of these patterns, if education at the early stages is not handled carefully, or if the educator himself is a captive of the patterns. There is a saying, ‘catch them young’. If you wish to train someone for a particular purpose then the patterns are to be created at an early stage. That is how fundamen-talists and zealots are created.

We have been talking of the chain reactions and relay processes. Thinking whether parallel or serial requires frequent use of these patterns and we have seen how patterns can be powerful tools in learning yet at times captivating. A relay race requires a certain degree of coordination between various units. At the level of thought it requires a coordination between various concepts, ideas and notions. In addition to this the mind’s capacity to break away from set patterns is also important, otherwise ideas and concepts will always move around in cycles. It is here that a difference in attitude would make a difference, and it will go a long way in defining the trajectory of the relay.

Inherent Incapability for Relay

A group may be lacking inherent capacity for the initiation and maintenance for a relay. The requirements of coordination, along with the use of pattern, and the capacity to break away from it are all necessary and may not be equally present in all groups. I have a strong reason to believe that we in India, although good at learning, have sharp minds and are diligent, do not have the inherent tendency to form relay processes. We may excel individually, but by ourselves we do not possess the necessary ingredients to form chain reactions. It is different altogether to join an already existing chain created and maintained elsewhere and do well. This statement is based on the analysis of a large number of cases both past and present. Some of the factors for this are outlined here:

I. Prolonged Dark Age: The history of a nation is not a linear affair, there are ups and downs—there is an era of growth and an era of sluggishness. However, in India a vast population remained almost inert for over thirteen long centuries, from around 6 th AD to the nineteenth.

II. Several philosophical schools were present around fifth century BC to around fourth century AD. None of these could form a temporal chain. We see only a frozen account of all these even to this day.

III. The statements are fairly true for philosophy and science in general, but only partly so for other areas. In music there did exist a significant chain reaction. There has been a growth process based on chain reaction.

IV. Present-day India is understandably making headlines for its science and scientific manpower. For a country of India’s size with second highest population in the world this should not be taken as an exceptional achievement. However, from the point of view of quality much is desirable and still below the mark.

V. Pyramidal structures could be used as a symbol to indicate that ‘quantity produces quality’. The larger the number of scientists, the larger should be the researches of path-breaking standard. A pyramid with a large base can sustain greater height. We have a fairly wide base as regards science and technology related institutions and manpower. The calibre of our students too is second to none in the world. Then why is it that almost negligible researches of the highest calibre are ever heard of in the country? With a large base and good meritorious student population we do not achieve the quality expected of us. This could symbo-lically be represented by truncated pyramid —a pyramid whose top is missing.

VI. A deeper analysis could easily relate the truncated pyramids to the incapacity of the chain reaction-forming attitude. Only a relay race can take you far. Individual excellence is fine but lack of coordination in letter and spirit could undo what a gifted group of individuals might otherwise would be able to achieve.

The Problem

DUE to non-existent chain reactions in science, philosophy and other fields—except probably one or two areas—we face a serious problem. Yet nobody seems to be worried about it. Every week we find new institutions coming up, new laboratories created and new methods adopted to upgrade the work. However, the end result is the same. No highest quality work is achieved by this kind of proliferation. A vision is needed to understand the mechanism of the relay process and chain reaction. A vision is also required to understand the dynamics of human mind as regards serious thinking and manipu-lative tendencies. A strong will power is absolutely necessary to check the negative tendencies and promote the positive ones.1

Who will Bell the Cat?

THE biggest problem in solving the problem at hand is this: who will bell the cat? There is no well-defined unit which can represent the cat. There is a whole chain of cats controlling certain chains. The entire network of policy planners-bureaucrats-fund providing bodies-academicians and others has formed strong, almost unbre-akable, chains where things are manipulated from the highest to the lowest level. Not viewing the trees and only looking at the forest what we witness is that the entire process—from planning, funding, monitoring to assessing—is controlled by master-manipulators handling these chains.

Chain reactions of the creative nature are impossible in a scenario where several spurious undesirable chain reactions are already eating away the resources and spirited creativity. This is true not only of science. Almost all areas are controlled and governed by such chains. This is not to say that there is complete absence of honest, dedicated and well-meaning individuals. What is implied that they are not able to form a chain reaction whereas the chains maintained by manipulators are going strong.

Did a creative chain reaction exist in modern India in the context of science? Yes, during the first few decades of the 20th century it did exist in and around Kolkata. Whether it was science, education in general or literature—there did exist an element of creativity and chain reaction which could sustain some degree of relay.
Earlier we talked of correlation in forming a relay process. An example will suffice. In the early decades of the last century the then Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University appointed two fresh graduates—Meghnad Saha and Satyendra Nath Bose—to the faculty of Physics Department at the Presidency College. The two youngsters had graduated with Applied Mathematics and not Physics. Was it merely a matter of chance that the two persons appointed in a subject other than their subject at the post-graduation level did so well that they could be counted among the most brilliant of Indian scientists? This era of creativity that existed in Kolkata was spatially and temporally of short duration. The chain could not be sustained beyond a limited space-time.

Reverse-biased Society

AS a nation we are not psychologically inclined and educationally trained to form spatio-temporal long chain reactions. As a child we see the hypocritical and diabolical attitude all around, be it the family or the school or the neighbourhood. We have been theoretically taught what is essential for constructing chain reactions and structuring tall pyramids with the height proportional to the base. However, the system is being manipulated by smart manipulators who have formed strong chains to serve their own ends. The reasons are not difficult to see. Basically we are a reverse-biased society. Let me explain. In electronic circuits the terms forward and reverse bias are very useful. A semiconductor junction (a junction of n-type and p-type semiconductors) if connected to a battery such that the positive of the battery is connected to the p-type end of the junction, the flow of current is significant (positive bias). If the battery positive is connected to the n-side, then the current will be negligible; this is called reverse bias.

We are basically a ‘Reverse-biased Society’. There are simple-to-understand age-old rules for forward biasing: ‘Reward for the good work, and punishment for undesirable and unhealthy practices’. There is hardly any reward for
selfless good work except self-satisfaction. And undesirable unhealthy acts are hardly punished. Corrupt practices have pervaded every aspect of the national life. We really take a very soft and sympathetic line towards corrupt practice. That is one example. Let me take another example.

In the 1971 war with Pakistan, the INS Khukri was torpedoed by the enemy, and it began to sink. The captain ordered everyone to leave the ship with the available boats, and decided to go down with the ship. Some of his colleagues did not obey his command and decided to go down with him. I ask one simple question. How many of us know and remember this event and the person? The great act of bravery could have been a matter of national pride; yet even the people of his own home town do not know him. That is the way we remember our true heroes! Petty politicians and corrupt bureaucrats are virtually known and acknowledged by all. That is reverse biasing. A person is not guided by the people’s appreciation while doing such a great act, but such gestures go deep down into the psyche. This is reverse biasing of the highest order wherein we all become responsible. We tolerate corruption of the highest order, and ignore heroism of the highest rank.
How do we define ourselves?

We are essentially a reverse-biased society of parallel walkers occupying truncated pyramids.

That is the average picture thus far. With some concerted effort and strong will power some of these deficiencies could be removed to an extent.

Discovering, Inventing and Evolving

THERE can be three possible stages of our action plan in the context of our expected role as citizens, or as part of the intelligentsia in the entire scheme of things. The very first stage requires the discovery. Recalling Nehru’s2 valuable contribution and that of some others, it should be possible to view ourselves objectively and analytically. There have been several other attempts to discover India over the following decades. It’s not always that we need an objective analytical approach looking at the entirety of our cultural journey, but it becomes necessary when we are likely to decide our next step. At the turning-points in the history of cultural transformation it is time to see the path we have taken and left behind. Our future trajectory will most likely be a continuation of our past although not necessarily a linear one. The present is but a junction-point between the defined past and the yet undefined future.

The next important point is to invent having discovered ‘what has been’ or ‘what is’; the vital question thereafter is: ‘what should be’ or ‘what could have been’. The elements of ‘discovery’ may give a clue, but only a clue and nothing more. Beyond this we shall have to invent—create a path for ourselves, if need be. That invented trajectory may or may not be a smooth one joining the past with the future at the junction of the present.

The first step of our discovery should include discovering objectively both our strong points, our not so strong points, and our weak points. Along with that it has to be realised that we had made some blunders. “We or our ancestors were incapable of committing blunders”—that kind of attitude would not help. Let us face the mirror, irrespective of the state we are in. Fortunately that kind of soul-searching is already going on at the moment.

Our role is only up to this and no further. Beyond this the process of growth and evolution should take its own course. It should be clear that the process of cultural evolution is not the same as that of the biological one, but there are certain points of similarity. In biological evolution there are two important steps: genetic mutation and natural selection. Somewhat similar is the case here. Mutation refers to jump-like changes where an entire molecular unit referred to as gene gets transferred. Cultural transformation does envisage a process in which not a word or a sentence, but an entire concept, an entire pattern of thought gets transferred. Dawkins3 prefers to call it—the meme, which for obvious reasons is similar to the word gene.

In conclusion, discovery, invention and evolution—‘meme-based evolution’—will define the future trajectory of our cultural journey. Having played our roles in the first two, we may leave the process of evolution to take its course, and hope for the best.


1. C.M. Bhandari, “Dynamics of Democracy and Corruption’, Mainstream weekly, August 6, 2011.

2. Jawaharlal Nehru, Discovery of India, Oxford University Press, 1946.

3. R. Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, 1976.

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