We, the Barbarians: A spiritual examination of the hatred, anger and violence that has captured us
The barbarian in us has merely changed its weapons. Its spirit remains strong, it powers us, it pulls us back, it tells us that the temple of the body is where salvation lies not in the fuzzy ideas of the mind.
Sitting in us, in each and every one of us, is an entity we thought we had left behind in the course of our glorious evolution. You reading this column, I writing it, millions completely unaware of it…all of us are biological and spiritual hosts to this barbarian. The barbarian has been a part of our being forever. It is driven by a force of nature, the vital force. This force imparts life to poetry, to art, to music. It powers organisations of society, it creates visions of a better world.
But this force also revels in despair, gets joy from pain. And now, when humanity is standing at its most peaceful point in recorded history, this force tugs at our past, shuns harmony and brings out the barbarian in us. It breaks through our layers upon layers of falsehoods. If the peace within is impure, the barbarian grows. If the harmony is incomplete, the barbarian shows it to us in the raw.
Closest to us, we see it in JNU today.
A little time lapse, we watched it play out at Dadri last year.
Across the map, we read about the Islamic state in West Asia.
Further west, the barbarian shifts into Europe, creating rifts of culture.
In the land of plenty, we have plenty of gun deaths, racial subjugation.
In Sudan, genocide is the currency of control.
In Latin America, organised cartel killings have all but neutered psychological pains of death.
Each of these can be examined to great detail and turned unique. And intellectually speaking, unique they are — the religion-driven violence of the Islamic state is different from gun violence of the US, which is different from control-driven cartel killings in Latin America or lawyers running amuck in Patiala House.
But in spirit, they are one, driven by the same vital barbarian.
Individually and outwardly we might shun violence but let’s not deceive ourselves. The beast lies waiting. Patiently. It seeks little avenues to vent. In its dormancy it gathers force. It watches technological developments. It studies man’s reorganisation of society from religion to politics. It burns in frustration of the kingdom of violence lost to peace — as Steven Pinker wrote in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011), “today we may be living in the most peaceable era in the existence of our species.”
Created in response to a hostile environment of nature and fellow humans, driven by primal and primordial instincts of survival and procreation, with body structures that supported a physical existence, the barbarian ruled supreme till mind came into play. The mind changed everything. Initially it created tools to kill, cook, protect. Later it goaded clusters of men to richer environs, sharpening their weapons on the way, leaning on one another to create the first divisions of labour, quenching the thirst of life, seeking food chains across geographies.
Societal structures followed. From simple systems of tribal self-governance and nation states led by monarchies to complex democracies of today, the political evolution of the collective and thinking man has tried to leave the barbarian behind. Mass wars as the currency of inter-country discourse are giving way to tools like diplomacy and commerce. Despite news about violence every day in newspapers and every hour on Twitter feeds, the fact is physical violence has subsided.
In 260 BCE, Ashoka ‘the great’ killed more than 100,000 people of Kalinga (now Odisha). In 1397, Timur killed 100,000 in northern India and turned another 100,000 into slaves. In 1770, the British killed more than 10 million people in the Great Bengal Famine, followed by another 3 million in the Bengal famine of 1943 — a state-led strategic violence where mass-starvation was its weapon, and Winston Churchill’s quote, “If food is so scarce, why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?”, its barbarous solution.
Outside India, historians believe Gengis Khan killed 40 million people in the 13th century. Between 1560 and 1700, more than 150,000 people were killed during the Spanish Inquisition. More than 16 million died in World War 1 and 61 million in World War 2. Between 1941 and 1945. More than 6 million Jews were killed by Germans in the Holocaust. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the US killed 129,000 people.
Compared to these statistics, we are living in a relative peace.
History has a lot to teach but we are unwilling to learn.
Despite science, prosperity and peace, we remain a society at war.
With ‘them’. With ‘others’. With ‘neighbours’.
On ‘sedition’. On ‘lines of border’. On ‘clashes of civilisation’.
Over ‘religion’. Over ‘rights’. Over ‘ideologies’.
We are at war with everyone because we are at war with ourselves.
Enough waiting, it’s feeding time and the beast is emerging.
Beyond acronyms and incidents
JNU is just another acronym, Patiala House yet another incident, tomorrow will bring more. Tie these individual and unique episodes together and what we have is an emerging society of barbarians wearing the garb of man, happy to stand on its time-pinnacle, reveling in the illusion of grandeur that rules this planet, its expression a brutal lie, its evolution a pretence.
We are allegedly living in the age of reason. Rationality is our alleged ecosystem, logic our alleged currency. We have allegedly evolved, from the physical man to the mental man. With due respect to Charles Darwin, I use the word ‘evolution’ in its deeper and spiritual sense, not purely mechanical. For this, I lean on Indian spirituality, best articulated in the words of Sri Aurobindo, which effectively captures evolution into this statement: into matter burst life, into life entered mind, into mind will arrive the spirit.
But the process of evolution is incomplete. The barbarian lurking within us may not have the stamina or strength to kill or maim physically. But the driving vital force being of the same origin, surely it can express itself using the same tools of reason, rationality and logic to capture and control.
And so, cowardice is discovering new mediums, the most popular being keyboard courage.
Glib is expressing its latent power, with clever outrage being more convincing than truth.
Thought is hiding behind positions, and contaminating the purity of ideas by using reason.
Violence is discovering it still has political strength — it is fuelled by and in turn fuels the mob.
Spinning is realising its power to cloak, and does so with style.
Shame is the new cross on which we nail and in turn are nailed.
The barbarian has risen.
Reason is caught in the jaws of the vital barbarian
Driving the barbarian is a force that’s taking man’s evolution head-on, creating hurdles before the next future, raising barriers that sit within, that lay waiting for this stretched moment to explode, destroy, consume. An old consciousness is lingering over us like gangrene, waiting to be amputated by a humanity reluctant to let go of the stench and the agony of the past. Unaware of what lies in the mental age, our familiarity with the past that is sunk deep into the collective memory of our flesh, bones and DNA is keeping us running towards what we perceive to be a higher realm of life but is little more than a hamster’s wheel from the predictability and the pain of which we derive modern meaning.
From barbarian to man, the journey was supposed to embrace arguments, opinions, ideas. In this age of reason, in the triumph of the mind, on the ashes of conquest, killings and rapacious consumption of the other, we were to arrive at a higher equilibrium, towards a greater unity, a higher level of existence. Existential threats were to have given way to a harmonious sense of security. A new existence, based on values, beliefs, work, achievement, prosperity, knowledge was to have taken charge.
New values were to have dissolved differences and embraced oneness. New beliefs were to have made our planet cleaner, more equal, harmonious. New work was to have helped man find expression, provide meaning, grant him his swadharm. New achievements were to have pushed the barriers of excellence, at individual as well as societal level, higher. New prosperity, driven by science and technological innovations, was to have provided a basic minimum for every human. And new knowledge was to have pushed the limits of knowing higher, wider, deeper.
Technology was to have created a new balance, democratic organisation of society a new power, tools like legislated protections a new security. Arguments were to take precedence over duels, ideas were to be the new currency of discourse replacing blood, ideologies were to determine the destiny of nations not swords. In the mental age, the rational mind was to dominate over the brute body.
But when we look up and emerge from the world of screens, when we decide that we’ve spun enough and now need an inner stability based on our own thoughts and values, when we look within and behind all our justifications and ideas of self-worth, what we see is the looming shadow of a rising barbarian. From its invisible, unperceivable, untouchable stage it is now gathering a form.
The barbarian in us has merely changed its weapons. Its spirit remains strong, it powers us, it pulls us back, it tells us that the temple of the body is where salvation lies not in the fuzzy ideas of the mind. From the trails of blood on the streets, through the voices of hate, in a world of for-against, all creating, powering and capturing unthinking mobs, the barbarian is coming into his own. The soul of the barbarian is simply this: body is the temple, material the offering, trade the transaction of consciousness.
“The time is passing away, permanently — let us hope — for this cycle of civilisation, when the entire identification of the self with the body and the physical life was possible for the general consciousness of the race,” Sri Aurobindo wrote a century ago in The Human Cycle (1916-18). “That is the primary characteristic of complete barbarism. To take the body and the physical life as the one thing important, to judge manhood by the physical strength, development and prowess, to be at the mercy of the instincts which rise out of the physical inconscient, to despise knowledge as a weakness and inferiority or look on it as a peculiarity and no necessary part of the conception of manhood, this is the mentality of the barbarian.”
But evolution will not wait for the barbarian
Nowhere do we see, engage with and experience this barbarian as we do digitally --- on Facebook and Twitter, in egroups and emails. It has taken charge of our drawing room conversations with pride --- harsher and sharper the opinion, greater the response and reaction and more delicious the victory of the barbarian. We protect our children from this barbarian because we know it can harm. But we engage it within ourselves and spread its emissions nonetheless, turn it into a tool of vanity.
Using heavy words like sedition and democracy, converting them into marketing hashtags to fill the ravenous belly of the barbarian, in a world being spun by him, we are the spun. In our petty verbal victories and vanities we embrace a higher defeat. In our celebrations of small change, we fight to remain the same. In our little minds we create little communities of endemic barbarities. Like germs that afflict the planet every now and then, these endemic expressions are really a subset of an epidemic that’s raging wild across our planet and within ourselves.
Evolution will not stop or even pause for the barbarian. The inevitability of its end and the advent of the age of true reason is destined. As we introspect, we may come face to face with our own demons. But we may not even have to kill the barbarian within and through it free the consciousness of humanity. This upsurge maybe be nothing more than a tipping point, last burst of a dying flame, a precipice of reason on the edge of which stands the barbarian, its arms of destruction strangulating its own vitality, its feet thumping its own destruction.
The author tracks money, power, faith and mythology. He is the New Media Director at Reliance Industries Ltd. Views are personal. He tweets @gchikermane. Reliance Industries owns Network 18, of which Firstpost is a division.
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