Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Culture of the Market

Some earlier observations.

Social and cultural critics often write about how the "market" subverts humanity and its deeper values.  On one hand, market is simply about the exchange of value.  The freer the exchange is from state intervention, with effective regulations to deter malfeasance and exploitation of the environment, the more liberated is the society.  On the other, being subject to market forces with deep pockets can wreak havoc on smaller communities and individuals.

If the essentials of an economy are in elite hands, who have special access to the legislature, media and the army, what does such an economy do to individuals?

But that is at the macro level, what does market do at the micro level?

In what fundamental ways is a market society like modern-day urban America different from a society where money and the overt-ness of value exchange is not all-pervasive?

There are societies, or at least sections of societies, where people invite each other for no good reason.  Where people share home cooked food.  Where gifts are not bought but made.  Where artists and writers practice their craft without an expectation of a reward.  Where gadgets and branded personal items are not talked about.  Where, in essence, there is no expectation of an immediate pay-off or ego-stroking.

I remember an anecdote told to me by an old neighbor from India.  He had gone to the US to meet his sons.  While he was being driven in his son's car, they both noticed a man trying to load a big chunk of lumber into his pickup truck.  They both stopped to help him and lifted the weight into his truck.  As they were about to leave, that individual offered both of them five dollars each.  They were not only shocked, they felt bad at being offered money and vehemently refused it.

It is not my case that India is less money-minded.  Probably the big cities in India are much worse when it comes to helping a stranger.  Even the small towns are getting infected by the virus of "What's in it for me?".

The culture of market can be summed up as: I don't care about you, or have no space to care about you, as long as you don't give me something, now or in the future.

The culture of leisure is opposed to the culture of the market.  The culture of leisure involves doing things just for the inherent pleasure.  To read a book not because it will lead to self-improvement, but because... There is no because.  One just reads a book that one finds in one's hands because somehow something about it speaks to oneself, and one feels that it is a book that one has to read. 

The culture of leisure might be somewhat spartan, but we all understand that a long conversation and a cup of tea with friends is somehow far more valuable than a housewarming party where everybody is stressed about whether their gift will be considered suitable. 

The difference between an act of leisure and an act of exchange is in its lack of expectation.  To do a thing without expectation is to do it without the market driving it.

When was the last time you were at leisure?  Without an awareness of time being "wasted"?

The market finds a home in us when we cannot seem to have leisure and when we cannot relate to other people without an agenda or an expectation of something in return.

It can be said that love can truly exist only in a culture of leisure.

To really get a feel for the culture of the market, read an airline magazine while on your next flight.  Even a holiday is described in a manner which is less of a travelogue than a sales seminar.  Eat this seafood at this restaurant,  have this margarita at this nightclub, scuba dive with this company, try that local handloom market for gifts to take home.  Even if that magazine describes a walk along the beach, it will narrate it in a manner almost as if they are trying to sell nature to you.

Leaf through the magazine, and you might see some doctors who look and dress like models under the heading "The Best Doctors in America".  Everything in that magazine is to sell something to you.  And that is a pity.

Turn your gaze to the small screen in front of you, and you will see singers who are more interested in looking good than in singing well.

"You have to market yourself".  "You have to create an attractive package".  Adele cannot just sing "Hello".  She has to wear make-up, fake eye-lashes, and wear clothes which hide her weight.  The entire notion of a "music video" is for you to divide your attention between the sound and the spectacle.  The music is "packaged" for you.  If even one of the package's contents is a hit, the thing sells.  The package will include auto-tune, beautiful locales, skimpy models, tight choreography, acrobatics, time lapse photography, the latest fashion, sculpted muscles, chic homes and interiors... What does that have to do with the quality of music?  The music will suffer because it is no longer of primary importance. 

Because sale-ability is paramount, packaging has become important.  The creation or product in itself might be simple, but it is glamorized because you have to be bewitched.  Because you are not trusted to just enjoy the music on its own.  You can definitely enjoy the package too, but a sensitive individual cannot help but feel that too much effort is being made for him to deliver his applause and acquiescence.  And that it is somehow impure and almost vulgar.

The logic of the market is that something is worthwhile only if others are willing to give you something for it.  Intrinsic value is nil.  Inherent happiness is not the goal.  Unconditional love is considered medieval.

When art, writing and philosophy get infected by the market, they suffer the most.  At their best, an artist or a writer creates for a future, potential human.  A marketing specialist, though, creates so something will sell now.  A lack of regard for compensation makes for transcendence, while a focus on how much money we can make makes for manipulation of the present and pandering to the baser instincts in us.

I always had a feeling that Jagjit Singh prostituted himself when he used to crack dirty jokes in front of drunk audiences just so he could keep them entertained.  Nusrat corrupted himself toward the end of his career when he, wanting market share, produced the atrocious "Mera Piya Ghar Aya" and "Afreen".  (The latter has been the subject of a short film: "Nusrat has left the building")

Even the rich in a culture of market are not rich because they continue being obsessed by the means of living.  Consider an artist who has internalized the logic of the market.  For such an artist money, status, fame, instead of being organic effects of the artist's creation, will become primary and the work of art or literature is then cunningly designed to achieve money, status and fame.  So the work becomes the means, and what should have been secondary achieves primacy.

That is corruption of the artist's soul.  That is when a writer starts writing "Ph D" on the cover of the book.  That is when a music album contains coupons for the artist's future tour.  That is when a painting makes the news only for how much money it made in the market. 

When was the last time a painting was discussed in a newspaper, unconcerned with its "record breaking auction price"?  What matters for books these days is if they make the "best selling" list, not if they are works of outstanding originality or depth. 

To sell, you have to have your ear to the ground to know how the masses are gravitating.  To create, you only have to listen to your own voice.

Can it be said that true art is unconcerned with its reception?  That true philosophy is not about a TED lecture?

An artist, if he hankers after awards and endorsements, is not an artist but an entrepreneur.  Of course, one could be both, but the desert and the sky and the stars do not need endorsements.  They stand alone.  You can admire their beauty, without a billboard asking you to look up or look further.  It is not a question of money, but of dismay, when I find that a natural landmark has been commercialized.  It is not that I have to buy a ticket to be close to it, but that it is somehow no longer untrammeled nature.

One of the greatest mathematicians of our times, Grigori Perelman, was disinterested in accepting the Field's medal, because his proof of Poincare's conjecture stands taller than any certificate honoring him.  On the other hand, a politician will accept honorary doctorates or a Peace Nobel without even the least bit of self-doubt.  Though we are all subsumed by the market to varying degrees, something in us still marvels at the pure mathematician, and is somehow repelled by the politician.

We admire the freckles on the face of an old woman, and the wavy hair of a child in a very different manner than when we get impressed by an airbrushed Rihanna in People magazine.

That deep light within us, that the market constantly tries to extinguish, recognizes an instance of its nature and reflection quite easily.

The challenge for a sensitive human these days to be in this world, and yet remain un-corrupted by it.  That does not mean a spiritual detachment, but an understanding and awareness of the high and the low, of the silent versus the noisy.  To find oneself in a shopping mall, and yet understand that there is nothing there that one needs or wants.  To find oneself listening to music, and to put the noise of its marketing aside.  To read a piece of news, and to disregard the sensation and outrage of the journalist.  To be silent in the midst of the cacophony around oneself.

It is easier to be silent when in nature, and it is no wonder that those whose souls need healing go to the mountains and to the sea.  Is it not obvious that the primary joy of being in nature is that of being away from civilization and its groping of your spirit?  It does not matter that the landscape be beautiful.  Anyone who tells you that you must visit "those falls" which are "so awesome" does not understand silence.  They regard nature as yet another article of consumption.  You can know them because they will plan their day when in nature, instead of recognizing that what their soul truly needs is that sense of leisure and non-seeking, non-acquisition, non-greed.  Just silence.

For silence, mere wilderness, desolation, solitude is enough.

The market has become more powerful than ever, and so the struggle is harder than ever.  One could say that one is more free to be oneself these days, and choose one's own path, but is it easier or more difficult these days to remain free from influence?  At every turn there is bombardment.  It is an illusion to believe that modern man is more free.  In essentials, when it comes to his life and relationships, he is on the highway of civilization, patrolled by helicopters and cop cars.  He has the freedom to change lanes and choose the color of his car, perhaps.

This has been a meandering essay, but I needed to write this.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Annihilation of Caste, reviewed

Caste is system of social classification in India, which finds some justification and examples in a few Indian scriptures and the common mythological legends.  There are also many Indian scriptures which do not encourage it or give importance to it.

The most important manifestations of this classification are social prohibitions which are exclusive to certain castes, and a segregation which is practiced quite pervasively when it comes to interaction of the castes.  That segregation is especially forceful in terms of inter-marriage, inter-dining and the use of communal resources and places of worship.  This segregation is enforced quite brutally with violence and by various kinds of social punishments and humiliations enforced by kangaroo courts in Indian villages.

I consider caste as a way social power structures in India have preserved themselves.  At the point of social boycott or a gun, any upward mobility of the lower classes has been crushed by the powerful who obviously benefited from the status quo.  The powerful in India remained only somewhat powerful, and due (in part) to this myopic and socially stunting preservation of their privilege and power, did not ascend to the enlightenment and global power of Europe where the lower classes were at least allowed education and organization.

B R Ambedkar, in his work "Annihilation of Caste" advocates a repudiation of the authority of various Indic scriptures, and thereby a demolishing of the various foundations of what is now known as Hinduism, as the only way to get rid of this brutal system.  He was opposed in his view most famously by M K Gandhi, who was inclined to the view that moral education and self-governance was key.  He hoped that benevolent and moral masters would treat the lower classes with compassion, and could be expected to wield their power humanely, and that it was unwise to compel the masters to give up their power or to organize the lower classes to revolt against the masters.

Arundhati Roy has written an introduction to Ambedkar's essay.  I do not take Ms Roy seriously as she is not a social scientist and frequently veers into invective and sentiment after being impressed, and trying to impress the reader, by anecdotes.

But I do believe injustice is endemic in India, and it is of fundamental importance to see how this system of injustice can be, and should be, transformed into a system that is more just and which protects the basic human needs of liberty and safety.

I am of the considered opinion that Ambedkar had a sound intellect and was well-intentioned, but that he was unrealistic and misguided in his remedy.  Ambedkar did observe the injustice, was pained by it, and wanted to correct it, but his solution suffered from a bad diagnosis (which was probably a result of his own lower-caste background) and, more pertinently, was simply un-achievable.  It is not possible for religion, or the authority of scriptures, to be demolished without severe restrictions on speech and thought, and without state oppression (as was done in Russia and China).  In a country like India, it would have led to outright civil war.

Ambedkar, as part of his remedy, wanted religious freedoms to be massively curtailed, with the state sanctioning and certifying priests, and with unlicensed priests to be prosecuted by law.  Moreover, though he acknowledged that caste and segregation was not limited to Hinduism, he thereby failed to conclude that perhaps it was not Hindu scriptures at fault, but something else.  In his zeal, he quotes obscure scriptures which are not in common use and whose rather brutal assertions and prescribed penalties are nowhere followed in the present times.

As for Gandhi, I consider him to be quite deluded and archaic, thoroughly non-rigorous in his thinking, and quite woefully equipped is his intellectual understanding and acceptance of orthodox religious beliefs.  To list just a few instances, his understanding of human sexuality, medicine, modern science, evolution, the mechanisms of law and power etc. were quite regressive.  He was effective in gaining power through his persona of holiness and self-mortification, and he was possibly seen as a safe opponent by the British, but he had no real sociological or psychological insight which could stand the test of analysis or science or time.  Political success often requires little insight and is usually much more effected by charisma and abject manipulation of impressionable minds.

Coming to the question of injustice in India, I consider that a modern state must first take care of protecting its citizens from violence and intimidation and that any further legislation is dead in its tracks if a citizen can be assaulted and intimidated, without consequence, to remain powerless, ignorant, mute and subservient.

Caste can become a justification of violence, just as religion can be, or ideology, or even something as common as a property or marital dispute.  It is an acceptance of injustice, and a further injustice, if instead of tackling violence per se, the state starts legislating on what it sees as the psychological causes of that violence.  When a state is involved in policing thought instead of acts, it undermines the most important foundation of human happiness: liberty.  When a state outlaws and prohibits conduct which may lead to violence, it is thereby admitting that it is powerless to punish those who are actually violent, and would rather preclude it by clamping down a priori.

If two communities do not wish to inter-marry or inter-dine, it is no business of the state to compel them to do so.  But it is the solemn duty of the state to protect two individuals who defy their communities to inter-dine or inter-marry.  The state is overreaching when it seeks to impose justice by prohibiting or criminalizing acts which are not violent in themselves.

Therefore, Ambedkar is wrong in asking the state to intervene in the religious affairs of its people, just as Gandhi is wrong in asking the state to be religiously guided.  The constitution must be an enlightened one, but it must not seek to force that enlightenment at the point of a gun.  If two people in a modern state want to believe in a flat earth, or believe in global warming, or consider women as superior to men or vice versa, or consider gay marriage as sinful, or consider the Nazi holocaust as a fiction, it is their freedom to do so.  But when they start beating or killing someone who disagrees with them, then the state must protect their victims with all the force that it can muster, and it must punish the aggressors quickly and effectively.

Instead of abolishing caste, what was, and continues to be, needed in India is simply the effective enforcement of laws against violence and intimidation. If the upper-castes butcher a lower-caste man who dared to marry an upper-caste woman, the solution is not to have an SC/ST atrocities act (as Arundhati Roy would giddily advocate) but simply, to deter and punish those who dare to commit such an assault, and to ensure protection to those who claim danger to their lives from social thugs.

Therefore I say: it is much more important to have a tangibly accountable and effective police and judiciary than to endlessly debate on how to have a more just society.

I wonder why Ambedkar sought a far-flung remedy instead of simply helping create a constitution in which ordinary citizens had quick recourse to state protection when they felt endangered, and in which criminals could not appeal all the way to Supreme Court and get away.  He left the IPC and CrPC unchanged.  Did he not see that these were tools of the colonial masters, and not fit for a self-governed democratic republic?

A response to my argument may be that we cannot expect the police and judiciary to be faithful to the constitution and that they will work as per their biases.  And therefore the state must actively legislate against the biases.  But then, what will that further legislation do?  How and why should we expect the police to faithfully enforce the SC/ST atrocities act instead of simply expecting them to faithfully enforce the law against murder?

I have no real problem with prejudice.  I see it as a stage in evolution of human thought, which will eventually wilt or see a scientific basis.  In the longer term, education will hopefully make people more enlightened.  And secular education, after justice, must remain a priority for the state.  But if education is cognitive nourishment and (hopefully) enlightenment, criminalizing "bad" thought is coercion and brutality.  It is not the job of the state to correct prejudices and shape the minds of its people, howsoever we might see those prejudices as harmful to society.  Once a state is given sanction to prosecute prejudices in its people, it will quickly turn into an entity that prosecutes anyone that it sees as prejudicial to its interests, and those of the powerful.

It is the role of intellectuals and the social reformers to educate the society, in a democratic way, of their conclusions.  They may face opposition, as Ambedkar faced from Gandhi, but that dialectic and process cannot, and should not, be short-circuited by state power.  It is a slow process, and revolutionaries often want quick solutions to historical injustices, but such revolutions often leave in their wake suffering and resentment, which then necessitate a coercive state and a violent underground.

Ambedkar was wise to insist on affirmative action for a decade, in government recruitment and higher education.  But such affirmative action has become a permanent firmament in India, and more and more tribes and castes are angling for "reservation".  Arun Shourie's book "Worshiping False Gods" is an interesting take on the corruption and massive resentment that this perpetuation of affirmative action has caused.  I have no doubt that special facilities and budgetary allocation must be provided for the education and upliftment of those communities that have been historically intimidated.  It is debatable whether after 70 years of affirmative action, do we need more of it or do we need to refocus on the ground realities and provide good education and healthcare.  It is not self-evident that those from the oppressed classes who rise to the top do not themselves become collaborators in their oppression.  It is far more important to address the base of the pyramid (of the oppressed classes), when it comes to health, education, sanitation and access to legal remedies, than to continue to only ensure that the top of that pyramid is at an equal height to the other, historically advantaged, pyramids in society.

What a state should seek is lack of prejudice under law, not lack of prejudice between individuals or communities.  As abhorrent as communal or individual prejudices might be to you or to me, the state must stay away from criminalizing them.  What is abhorrent today might not remain so tomorrow, and what is abhorrent to me may not be to you.  If all abhorrence is to be outlawed, what will we do with heretical or unpopular opinions?  Ironically, this manner of thinking (of outlawing prejudice and abhorrent thoughts and acts) is one reason why blasphemy and homosexuality continue to remain crimes in India.  To the Indian state, and presumably to Ambedkar, whatever is offensive and might start a cycle of violence is thereby criminal.

More than an attack on the ideal of liberty, this is also a pragmatic error.  The more a state clamps down on prejudice, the more that prejudice festers and explodes eventually.

Let people be free, and protect them in their freedom.  That is all.  The Indian state fails utterly in the latter, and thereby justifies its failure in the former.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Some Observations on Internet

1.  It is rare that a piece of writing on the internet is re-read.  That is an indication that internet is primarily a medium of interaction, information and entertainment. 

2.  It is well-understood that distraction is harmful for a deeper understanding.  What are the ways in which internet forces distraction on you?  Since the medium is ad-driven, any one page on a major website has many other headlines and titles tempting you to stop reading and click on them.  It is an interesting exercise to time yourself before you click on something else.  Like in modern films in which a cut happens every few seconds (as compared to old films in which each scene is on average much longer), the primary feature of internet consumption is an accelerating disruption in reading (or watching) and the jump to something else.

3.  The primary difference between a written and a streaming medium (even an audio book) is that there is no time to pause.  How many times have you voluntarily paused a lecture or documentary to ponder over it?  This makes it easy to understand why television, videos (TED!) and lectures are much, much less effective in fostering a deep understanding born of reflection and pondering, as compared to reading.

4.  Books are also primitively hyperlinked in terms of footnotes which can motivate you to read the original text from which an excerpt or a conclusion has been quoted.  But streaming media and internet (or even Kindle) make it hard to pause, refer to something else, and then come back to the original text.  The best content on internet takes the best features of the book, and offers easy access to references in their entirety.  Wikipedia, for example.  But Wikipedia is factual, what about opinion pieces on the internet?  This is the primary reason "fake news" is easy to disseminate on the internet than in a book or journal article.  Internet makes it hard to do research because it is easy.  Because it is easy to tempt you, and make you jump to something else rather than really just focus on one text and its sources.

5.  The vast majority is not interested, or doesn't have the mental space for, meditation or reflection on an issue.  Understanding complexity takes effort.  But what is happening to the minority which is so interested?  If the medium is toxic in fundamental ways, it will eventually affect the genuinely intellectual in similar (if slower) ways than others.

6.  It is therefore important to use the internet with discrimination and an awareness of its temptations.  I hope that concerned educators, if they understand what is going on, will introduce courses in schools and colleges on internet and its discontents, probably titled as "online attention and time management".  I can only hope.

7.  Because something is easily available, it can also thereby remain on the watch-list or reading list.  What takes priority is the latest, the sensational and the witty.  One can always (never, as it happens) find time to listen to that one-hour lecture or read that 2000 page essay.  Since it is available, what is the hurry?

8. You might rail against advertising and its intrusive nature, but what about intrusiveness of content itself.  YouTube finishes a video and offers you suggestions which you have to cancel otherwise it will play the next.  Major websites offer click-bait article titles on top, on bottom, and on both sides.  The noise is overwhelming.  How can you read Marcus Aurelius or Umberto Eco in a cacophonous and cackling den of chaos.  If meditation essentially is founded on inward silence, then internet is the most toxic way to never have that silence.

9.  Someone suggested that the elites of the future will predicate their elitism on a longer attention span.  The proles will remain distracted and chuckling at the latest sex scandal or at the fat lady slipping in the pool.  What that means for democracy and evolution is not difficult to comprehend.  Will humanity evolve a balance?  I doubt it.  The last hundred years have gone in one direction only: a greater control of the public mind.  The Century of the Self has now evolved to become the Century of the Distracted.  It is still early days, but given that trillions of dollars, and the very engine of consumption and elite power, are weighing on the other scale, what chance does a teenage student have to preserve his attention and sanity?

10.  FANG is an acronym which could not be more appropriately named by gods themselves.  While they used to need guns and armies, it is infinitely easier for the elite vampires to suck the blood of an entire generation without human intervention.  You might have the smartphone in your pocket, but you are quite firmly in theirs.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Three Scenes, and a Parable, on Culture

Scene 1

In an elocution contest in a youth festival, the topic is: "Cultural Policy".  All the participants talk about the importance of culture, and for the need of preserving it.  None talk about the continuum between art and living, what we mean by culture when we talk about it, whether our understanding is from our our life or from a brochure, why the culture is threatened, what is the culture of the threat itself, why the threat seems stronger than what is, whether efforts to preserve are an admission of weakness, whether policy can only preserve the artistic nature or whether it can also preserve a way of life, and whether state intervention or a top-down diktat is really about culture or whether it is about the self-esteem of a fledgling nation.

One of the participants speaking in Punjabi, to my surprise, quotes that (in)famous sentence: "Whenever I hear the word culture, I release the catch on my Browning."  But he doesn't expound on it.

Scene 2

In a series of classical music concerts in a local university, I find almost no connoisseurs who are there for the music.  There are invited VIPs, donors, students and teachers of the organizing department of music.  The university has thousands of students in arts and sciences, and hundreds of teachers.  This event is in a city of a million people.  The artists have come from far away.  But only those are present in the auditorium who have a professional or research or organizational interest in the event.

Some girls leave at 7pm because of the hostel curfew time.

The anchors talk about the "grade" of the artist (apparently signifying how much the artist is paid by public broadcasting for a performance) and which political dignitaries the artist has performed for.  They do not mention the specific interest or inclination of the artist and his/her work, how the music of the artist has evolved over the years, which are some of the stand-out performances or recordings (by the artist) that one could listen to.  The introduction of the artist is performed mechanically, and the artists themselves (except for one) are ill-at-ease introducing themselves and what they are going to present that evening.

Some anchors are teachers in the department of music.  And they refer to the students in the audience as "dear children".

The poster for the event is in Punjabi, but has the words "coordinator" and "convener" in English transliterated in Gurmukhi script.

The artist from Pune does not understand Punjabi.  The head of the music department forgets her name when introducing her.  And he speaks in Punjabi while the artist looks on with confusion.

The anchor instructs the "children" to appreciate the performance properly and not with whistles.

Scene 3

The invitation card of the University youth festival is chock-full of the names of the VIP guests and only as an after-thought mentions the events themselves.  The font for the names of the VIPs is bigger than the event descriptions.

The third page of the invitation reads in Punjabi (translated into English by me):

"Winning students will be fortunate to receive the prizes from the hallowed hands of the esteemed vice-chancellor."

A Parable

The roof had long covered the house but the winds had weakened its joints with the walls.  At present, it scarcely protected the house from rain and dust.  Any minor storm punished the people of the house with the misery of a fresh damage and chaos.

The rainwater came from the heavens above, but due to an old superstition, the house owner continued to build fortifications in front.  He saw the roof as weak, but not knowing the basics of masonry, he continue to add another coat of whitewash to the walls after every storm.

There was intense discord within the family of the house, and they all resented the owner, who they knew was a fool, but who possessed the only gun in that village.

One day  a mendicant came to that village, begging for alms.  The mendicant's loincloth was patched with regular square pieces from his discarded clothes.  As he passed that ugly house (the roof of which was now woefully patched with earthen pots and ramshackle metal pieces), he started singing an old tune: "The leaf is strong.  The rock is weak.  What's alive is well.  Only the dead is bleak."

The perennially annoyed tyrant of that house flew into a rage at hearing this strange song.  He rushed out and kicked the singing stranger, and screamed at him as he fell down: "We are cursed by the storms, and you think of these silly songs?"

The mendicant slowly got up, dusted off his loincloth and his bag, and replied to the angry man: "I have seen many a storm in my life.  But tell me, what are you protecting from the next storm?"

The man blurted: "Why, our possessions and our life itself!"

The mendicant started singing his tune again: "The leaf is strong.  The rock is weak.  What's alive is well.  Only the dead is bleak."

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Purple Rain

The village was in the hinterlands and its inhabitants were simple-minded.  They tilled their land, waited for the rains, and nature was their god.

The village had been ravaged many times by dacoits.  Even its own chief was not known to be kind or generous.  But the village-folks accepted their good and bad times with patience and prayer.

Their life was one of need and survival, and only a few experienced any comfort or luxury.  The rains were infrequent, and good rains led to a good harvest.  Even if the villagers had excess grain, they stored it for a year or two of famine which might befall them in future.

The village priest, like the villagers themselves, was a simple man, given to prayer and simple rituals.  He lived on alms.  He was never in fear of starvation, and he lived in a simple hut with his holy book.  Adjoining his hut was a temple, if it could be called that.  The temple had an ancient and beautiful, but spartan, statue of a mythical God with a few flowers always placed on its feet.

Life continued for the village at a languorous pace.  Nothing had really changed for decades and centuries.  The villagers were mostly content, and their view of the world was limited to their families and their farms.

Presently, it was the season of rains and so far that year the rainfall had been fitful and patchy.  The village-folk were worried and kept awake at night, watching for any sign of the clouds.

One morning during that season, they watched with glee as a fierce storm formed itself and the easterly winds brought a dense cover of thick, black clouds.  They had prayed for rains, and the gods had answered.

The clouds gathered above them, there was a deafening roar of thunder and the lightening almost blinded them with its intensity, and they danced as thick dusty raindrops started hitting the parched soil.

It was raining heavily now, but strangely - the villagers watched with some anxiety - the raindrops were purple in color.  It was water, from appearance, but the wet soil did not smell familiar.  There was a weird stench, and they wondered if the "water" was indeed water.  One of them, a man braver than others, gathered some drops in his palm and fearfully licked them.  He started dancing, as if drunk.  The sweetness was beyond what they thought was possible in this world. They got out all their pitchers and pots, and collected as much of this sweet purple rain as they could.

They had a good harvest that year.  But strangely, as they fed on that harvest, their skin turned purple.  Unknown maladies afflicted some of them.  They became lazy, indolent, and fond of that purple drink that now filled their wells and flowed in their rivers.  The skin of many turned itchy, and all the time of those itchy men and women was spent in tending to their skin.

Afraid and uncertain of what was going on, they decided to seek the counsel and blessing of the village priest.  After all, he was known to understand the mysteries of nature and had more experience and wisdom than any of them.

But the rain had fallen on the priest's hut and the temple too.  The priest had taken to drinking that purple sweet soma, and the statue of the God now had at its feet, instead of those simple flowers, a pitcher of soma and some pieces of gold.  The priest too was itchy, and as he prayed and read his scripture, he could not help but constantly scratch his belly and thighs.

Crestfallen, the villagers cursed him as a fallen man and destroyed his hut.

...

Spiritual teachers are not immune to the cultural winds, the parabolic nature of technology and consumerism, and the clouds of gratification.  A Buddha of today would have to be on social media.  Ramakrishna would travel in a Mercedes, and a Krishna would have many models as his consorts.

What we are, what our world is, so will be our teachers.  They may say what is old, but their innards are drenched and flooded with the new.  The rare one who will continue to be old will remain unknown and unheard.

Their sickness is not a rare one, but is part of the epidemic.