There comes a time in history when a nation as a whole needs to stop, take a step back, reflect and re-examine its assumptions and perceptions about language. We forget the value that words hold. It doesn’t cross our minds when they are too cheap to type, tweet, post, and share. We quite wilfully forget the degree of social investment that was poured into empowering the different factions and sections of the world population with literacy, technology, and vast infrastructure. Was it endowed upon us so that we could hurl abuses at each other using these mediums or platforms of communication?
In recent times, the public discourse in India has witnessed one of the greatest concepts of our civilisation turn into a meaningless word, an insult, even. However, the context in which this has happened has been within a debate about ‘civility’ on the internet. Quite ironic as one might say. Yet it has failed to realise how easily it has turned something as sacred and pious an idea as ‘bhakti’ into a currency of political, electoral and communal invective.
The complete ease with which the word ‘bhakt’ (devotee) is being hurled around, like a derogatory term, an abuse, should be seen as a warning by us. It depicts the extent to which our imagination, our thought process, has been colonised. It portrays how distant we’ve become from our deeply spiritual, life-affirming and non-violent sensibilities. After all, ‘bhakti’(devotion) is not just some ‘trait’ of Indian culture that needs to be protected and fought over like some religious symbol that might offend some group or the other. It goes beyond that. It is way deeper than that. It is at the very core of what it means to be human, and what it means to live and not just exist. Bhakti means to live for love in the face of formidable political, economic and social challenges. Only when we acknowledge the widespread existence of its opposite, the value of ‘bhakti’ will be understood. The opposite is lovelessness. This is a monster. If you are privileged enough to not have encountered it yet, thank your stars. Even if you have not experienced it personally, it does exist in this brutal, so-called ‘modern’ chaotic world where violence penetrates every sphere of society and spares none.
The issue, of course, lies in the fact that too often we perceive lovelessness as a personal problem. But we forget that it is also a systemic social and cultural failure. We need to ask ourselves: if at all today’s media environment with its enormous miasma of stories, images, and words, teaches us to cultivate love, whether human, non-human, divine, call it what you will. Sadly, it does not. What the media and the educational system mostly has to offer primarily centres around being efficient (or inefficient). These platforms are formed on the basis of the principle of lovelessness by managers, professors, narcissists and consumers―mutually adjusting self-interests, nothing more.
And yet, in this land, in this great civilisation called India, there still is a better way to live. And this, the people have been doing, for several centuries now, against the greatest odds. India’s religiosity, its culture of ‘bhakti’ has been fighting a relentless battle for the idea of love in ways that the scholars of today can barely even decipher, let alone understand. After all, what do you do when the facade of emptiness stares you down coldly, almost like a rapacious army circling your house or a tyrannical boss stabbing out your sense of worth? You pray. What do you do, but sing your soul out to the different manifestations of the divine, to Lord Rama, to Jesus, to Allah or whoever it is who you think is listening to your faint whispers?
When I think of ‘bhakti’, I think of this sense of desperation, this feeling of urgency, this flight from a disastrous world beyond our control to a moment of agency when we can say, I will still see You, I will still feel love, and I will be okay. When I think of ‘bhakti’, I think of the voice of my Guru, and the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi—who through the “love force” of peaceful agitation reversed centuries of colonisation. When I think of bhakti, I think of the profound truth hidden in the anonymity of these words, which for a moment make a friendship between you and me that for a gives us the hope that language in its decency and communion, in its bhaava (emotion), will one day become something more real and meaningful than any of our policies, and manifestos, and op-eds can ever be. The late modern world with its refined, idealistic and now contorted words like pluralism and secularism can only pitter-patter around the idea of ‘bhakti’.
Bhakti is a very precious word, it simply CANNOT be denigrated. Far from mocking bhakti, what we really ought to be cultivating now, here in the wilderness of the digital spaces in which we live and seethe, is a little more bhakti in practice too; perhaps a sense of bhakti towards language itself. After all, just a few generations ago our elders learned to write with a finger tracing imperishable symbols into hot sand. Would they have found it so easy to trivialise language itself the way we do today?
Censoring words and ideas is a meaningless solution. However, thinking of this differently, resolving to grow in understanding, kindness, and love–through language–is the way civilisation can restore itself in its wild new frontiers too. I really hope therefore that all those in India who think ‘bhakt’ is some primitive mindset or an insult will seriously rethink their assumptions. You need to take it as a surrender of what you might feel is a principled resistance against a political figure or his boisterous fans. You need to do better with your criticism, and perhaps yourself.
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