More on “The magic of PW” and Some on “Who comes for your Lab”


by V Kartikeyan

I have read and re-read both Gagandeep Singh’s blog “Process Work Spaces : Triggering the magic within” and subsequently Ashok Malhotra’s post “Decoding the magic of Process Work”.  I have been intrigued by the word “magic” making itself visible this year in relation to the forthcoming summer program of Sumedhas in many ways – apart from the two blogs, I also recall S.V.Nathan referring to “magic” in his video and Bhavana Issar mentioning the same word in her video.  I also recall feeling disturbed when I first heard this word applied to the Sumedhas labs because a part of me was not wanting people to see Sumedhas as just an esoteric land …

But these several inputs and triggers have helped me revisit my idea of magic when it comes to Sumedhas labs and also offer what to me is one very potent aspect of the magic that happens.  Gagandeep talks of the magic as that which happens when a stranger groups sits together, engages, shares and dialogs on the lens that each person in the group brings with themselves.  He also talks of it as an energy that cannot be evoked by one individual, insights that cannot be monopolized by one individual, and an intense sense of love and companionship that cannot be offered by one or the other.  Ashok talks of the magic of lab spaces as a dramatic shift in the perspective with which we engage with reality.  Ashok also goes on the explicate how this magic unfolds in a lab space.  To add to all this, I have also been moved by reading Raghu Ananthanarayanan’s article “Life Space Exploration – a perspective derived from Yoga and Sankhya” – and I refer to some relevant triggers here below.

My thoughts and ruminations lead me to offer two other resonant views on this magic in Sumedhas lab spaces. 

  1. Magic happens when that which is hidden in the “Unconscious” of a person or the group gets released into the “Conscious”.  It suddenly bursts into view, and with a numinosity that holds the paradoxical idea of a compelling invitation.  This can happen through many processes or a combination of many processes.  In a sense in Sumedhas space, the scene is set for the magic to unfold right from the time the participant enters the inaugural plenary event, it then emerges at various times for various people through various events and processes – be it intense sharing in the small groups spaces or in the rituals or in the community events or even in “addas” that happen from time to time in informal spaces.  This process is the letting go of the “Avidyaa”.  A participant experiences it as magic as their patterned responses and response capabilities (their Upaadaana Kaarana) get jolted / challenged and new grounds, new responses become apparent.  Gagandeep’s anguished getting in touch with his over crystallised “minority identity” location and learning to let go of it is an example of such a shift in the Upaadaana.  All this magic is not entertainment because it is not a view of something happening out there.  It is often gut-wrenching yet immensely enlivening as it is happening to oneself.  
  2. In learning spaces in corporate systems, I often narrate to people a view of how learning happens when the system moves from “Unconscious Incompetence” to “Conscious Incompetence” to “Conscious Competence” to “Unconscious Competence”.  The magic in lab spaces would seem to happen thus –
    1. Starting out not knowing about the depth and potential of the “Unconscious” in oneself and maybe even holding it in disdain / ambivalence i.e. a state that can be loosely called “Incompetent Unconscious” and
    2. simultaneous over engagement with what one already knows and believes to be true about oneself – i.e. one’s “Competent Conscious” to
    3. realising in the lab spaces that this over engagement may in fact be the problem – i.e. touching an element of “Incompetent Conscious” to finally
    4. getting in touch with the multiplicities of possibilities, frames, action choices that lie deep within and owning / acting them – embodying them – and thus learning to treat the Unconscious as an ally – a space of “Competent (Immensely Valuable) Unconscious”

This unfolding process often also appears magical because a lot of the Sumedhian work is in working with symbols, metaphors, myths, rituals, and essentially associative logic rather than linear logic – all of which create a sense of enchantment and magic. 


One aspect of magic I wish to focus on is in “who comes for your lab” – as in, who are your labmates and your facilitators.  For this, I lean on Carl Jung’s postulate of synchronicity.

To Jung,  synchronicity was a phenomenon that holds the idea of  “meaningful coincidences” – where seemingly random events occur with no linear / causal relationship, yet seem to be meaningfully related.  I advocate the view that who comes for your lab is a synchronicitous magical event.  You have no conscious control over who your lab-mates and facilitators are, yet one of the magical stage-settings is that you (and everyone else in the lab / event) get the lab-mates and facilitators that are perhaps the most important voices that you need to engage with in your current life context.  As the lab unfolds, through the sharing and voices of others in the shared space you hear the statements that you are most meant to hear and the pattern of resonances then set in motion for you a new reflexivity.

For a participant oriented to reflexivity in a lab, getting in touch with the magic of “who comes for your lab” can be a very meaningful and substantive experience.  Sanctifying the view that who you find around you are in fact the symbols that would be the most meaningful for you to engage with now, and the voices you hear around you in the lab are simultaneously the echoes of your over-crystallized patterns AND beckoning for new beginnings – can be a deeply impactful starting point for one’s explorations.

Back to the emergence of “magic” in this year’s pre SP language … in a way the magic of the Summer Program has already emerged ….

V Kartikeyan is a Fellow of Sumedhas, an OD & Leadership Consultant and is the Ex-Head of HR (India) for Motorola and Texas Instruments

Decoding the “magic” of Process Work

This note is triggered by Gagandeep Singh’s blog post on “Process Work Spaces- Triggering the Magic Within…”

In this note I have tried to :

1.      Elaborate upon the concept of “Reflexivity”, and

2.      Linked it to what is often called the “Magic of Process Work”

Significance of the LENS

Reflexivity as Singh tell us is “to understand the lens with which one looks at self and the environment or the context, and in referencing this lens,creates new meanings,new intents, and new actions for self”  The emphasis is on the “process” of perceiving, meaning-making and action choices, rather than on the “content”. The basic assumption here is that “what we see” and the “meanings that we make” are  deeply impacted by the LENS that we deploy. Thus one person’s lens may tend to magnify the signs of “danger” in the environment whereas another person’s lens may tend to ignore them. Similarly, in looking at one self one person may gravitate towards what he/she considers as areas of “shame and guilt” whereas another may be pulled towards area of “pride” Simply put, every person’s lens has an in-built “selectivity” which determines what we focus our attention to and what we ignore.

Our LENS not merely maginfies/blocks what we see, it also has an interpretive function. It helps us to give meaning to what we see. The same gesture, comment, behaviour will be given a separate meaning by each one of us. A smile may be seen as a “sneer” by one person and a  “friendly invitation” by another. What may appear as a sympathetic helpful gesture to some one, may be interpreted as patronising condescending act by another.

This selectivity and its association with “fixed meanings” generates a repetitive pattern in our experience and generates “self-fulfilling prophesies” Thus we see only that which we are programmed to see, give meanings which we are programmed to give and make choices which we are programmed to make. Needless to say, the process is not as mechanical as I have made it sound, but more often than not we fail to see how our so called “free will” is being actually determined by the LENS which we deploy to see, interpret and engage with our “reality”. Simply put, all of us to lesser or greater extent are captives of the perspective generated by our respective Lenses.

What is Magic?

In a very simple sense Magic is essentially a dramatic shift in the perspective with which we engage with reality. A magician does not fabricate a different reality, he/she merely “manipulates” the way in which we are experiencing it. At the most elementary level, the magician will make us focus on one hand while we remain oblivious to the other. Thus when he/she pulls out some thing from thin air, it appears magical to us while it is only the handiwork of the hand of which we were oblivious. At more advanced levels, the complexity increases manifold but the essential principle of “manipulation of the Lens” remains the same.

At a more personal level, most of our magical experiences are accompanied by a dramatic shift of perspective. Thus in such momements we are likely to say- “oh, I have not seen anything like this before”, or “Thank you for opening my eyes  to this “ or “I did not know such feelings exised in me” etc. It is as though we are awakening to a hitherto unknown world. The fact is that this world had always existed but either not visible to us or interpreted in a fixed or frozen way by us, because of our captivity to our respective Lenses.

Process Work and Magic

There is an interesting relationship between our Lens and our life experiences. In many ways, the Lens that we have is shaped by our life experiences. Thus a person who has had to face intense hostility in life is likely to develop a Lens which is hypersensitive to any potential threat. However, this by no means is a one-sided relationship. A person who is hypersensitive to threat is likely to be seen as non-trusting by others and thus invite hostility on to himself/herself. Thus the relationship between the Lens and experience is such that they mutually reinforce each other.  In a process work space, it is this relationship which is under the microscope i.e. how our experience has impacted our lens and how our Lens is impacting our experience.

 This exploration takes place in a group setting and hence multiple Lenses and multiple sets of life experiences. It is this multiplicity which transforms the exploration from a didactic,intellectual process to a live experience with intense feelings. It opens the eyes of the individual to possible multiple perspectives on engaging with the same phenomenon. Further, this awareness is not just at a cognitive level but a lived experience with a strong emotive dimensions. It is this process which creates what we call “magic of process work”. While it unfolds differently for different people, the broad pattern is something akin to the following-

1.    In the first phase, most people remain entrenched in the perspective generated by their individual Lens. Thus it is not uncommon to find some withdrawl, cynicism and boredom. Simultaneously  any challenge to their perspective is met with resentment, hostility and defensivenes. This manifests itself through indifference, dismissal,  passive aggression and counter-attack. People who do not move beyond this phase experience no magic. In fact they often feel bewildered as to what is every one so excited about. They may even see the entire experience as a fabricated manipulation. Such people may receive some cognitive learning but it does not become an experiential reality for them.

 However for most people a “ tipping point” occours. This tipping point can come from an intense encounter, an empathetic touch  or an evocation ( e.g. an alter ego statement which brings forth some repressed/suppressed part of the person). This in a sense is the individual’s  first experience of the magic. Most people recall this moment as “ something hit me or shifted inside me and I can’t put my finger on it) Effectively, what has happened here is that a “reality” which had got obscured by the Lens of the individual has made its presence felt and thereby created a sense of magic

2.    In the second phase the individual actively participates, shares, relates  and joins others in their exploration. This creates an emotionally charged atmosphere in the group and also the necessary emotional infrastructure for the individual to allow himself/herself to be vulnerable. This in itself is a magical experience. Most of us  try to  avoid feeling vulnerable. To expeience vulnerability through a different lens is quite a magical experience

Further, as the individual shares his/her life  experiences/struggles/inner feelings etc. , he/she is being received in a variety of ways by different individuals. This is a critical moment both for the Individual and the Group. If the responses to the Individual are interpretive and/or advisory, they tend to block the person and also destroy what ever initial magic the person may have experienced. It is the” non-collusive empathy “ which bring forth the magic of process work into full force. These responses do not invalidate the Lens of the individual nor do they pressurise the individual into looking at the situation through a different lens. Instead they create a resonance with the Lens deployed by the person and then create some space for newer perspectives. One of the most powerful ways of doing this is through the technology of Psychodrama- wherin first the inner world of the person is created( as visible through the existing Lens)  and then newer perspectives are added through “alter ego” /dialogue etc. Not surprisingly, Psychodramas create some of the most magical moments for the individual and are generally accompanied by a strong sense of “looking at oneself and others” through a totally new Lens.

At this stage, the individual attributes the magic to others, particularly the facilitators. This is not an unrealistic assessment of the situation, because for all practical purposes the individual remains a recipient of “insights” and not their generator. This  not merely  creates strong dependency but also becomes a hindrance for further movement.  For people who do not move beyond this phase, process work remains  only a powerful healing and replenishing experience from which they receive significant insights. It does not lead to  reflexivity i.e. reflecting upon the Lens.

In a manner of speaking, at this stage, the person is looking at Self and the Context, through a” borrowed lens” This lens is extremely liberating and hence creates a strong resistance in the individual to go beyond, also there is considerable pressure on the individual from the rest of the group/community to own up this borrowed lens as his/her own. The tipping points occurs when the discomfort of living with the borrowed lens begins to surface. People who address this discomfort take the next step towards examining the nature of their own lens (i.e. reflexivity) Many others face it only after moving out of the process work space and then bemoan the fact that the borrowed lens which worked so beautifully in the process work space seems to be totally ineffective in the “real world”

3.    In this phase, the individual begins to look at his/her own Lens. Why is that, what is visible through the new Lens, remained invisible earlier and why is it that what seemed so significant earlier does not seem all that important now? Why have the meanings given to several phenomenon  changed so much? What is the nature of  selectivity/interpreting which my Lens is prone to and what purpose is being served by this selectivity and meaning making.

In this exploration, the individual is largely on his/her own. Others are there as resources, as sounding boards, as co-travelers but  the essential dialogue is between the person and his/her Lens. In this phase there is exhilaration of discovery but no great sense of magic. In a sense, the individual tries to assimilate the magical experience so that it can make sense in the context of his/her own Lens. The attempt here is to give up the borrowed lens, to cleanse one’s own Lens of the dust that it may have accumulated, to understand the unique nature of one’s Lens and try to unblock some of the hurdles that it may have put to its own expansion.

People who enter this phase are likely to experience some loneliness and also risk alienation from the rest of the group/community. This is particularly so if the large part of the group/community is caught with the euphoria and magic of the second phase. Their quest is some times seen as regressive by others and may also be seen as a threat to the collective  well-being.

 It is in this phase that the borrowed lens of the earlier phase starts getting integrated with one’s own lens. However this also tends to wither away over time because “Reflexivity” is a process and not a one time event. Thus people who do not move beyond this phase tend to experience themselves very differently in “process work spaces” and their “day to day living” . This creates a split between the two spaces. Process work space is seen as only for “Reflexivity” and any intrusion of the “messiness of life” in it is resented. Simultaneously, any inclusion of Reflexivity in day to day living is seen as a threat and potential de-stabliser of existing equilibrium.

4.    In the fourth phase Reflexivity becomes a practice and an integral part ofday to day living. In this phase, there is no great difference between process space and other spaces. Needless to say, each space has its own unique Dharma, but Reflexivity is not linked to the Dharma of a space. It is an integral part of being human – it is neither a curse nor a boon, it is neither terrible nor magical-it just is.

While this phase is not a feature of the process work spaces, there is some relationship between what happens in the process work space and quality of engagement in this phase.  If the individual comes out of the process work space with only resolutions, insights and answers then there is very little chance of Reflexivity getting integrated with his/her life space. Often the only questions that people come out with are those pertaining to application and implications- how will I apply this learning to my back home situation? Or how will other people relate to this “new me” etc. While these questions are important, they are not particularly conducive to sustaining Reflexivity. In other words, it is important that besides carrying insights about the nature of his/her Lens, the individual also carries some questions around it (e.g. What makes me look for the strings attached to any gift?)

Needless to say, like any other learning experience, it is important for an individual to have a sense of “closure”. In the context of Reflexivity, it is important that this “closure” is sufficiently “open” to let Reflexivity find a trigger. Often the temptation to have everything “resolved” is so strong, that several openings for Reflexivity are closed prematurely.

To sum up, Reflexivity sits on two seemingly opposite poles of “conviction” and “doubt”. Unless there is some degree of faith in one’s own lens, one will remain perpetually dependent upon the perspectives of others. On the other hand unless one is willing to examine the impact of one’s lens on what one sees and the meanings one makes, no Reflexivity is possible. This duality was brilliantly articulated by Pulin Garg in his famous statement “I have no certainty but I have no doubts either”. Personally, I prefer to say it the other way – “I have many strong convictions and also plenty of doubts.”

Ashok Malhotra is an author, thinker, organisation consultant and commentator on the social character of contemporary Indians. For related reading by the same author click on

Process Work Spaces – Triggering the Magic Within …



In late 1993, I participated in my first behavioral lab at IIM Ahmedabad. Titled ERI, in ways more than one, this lab marked my life both for the good and the ‘not-so-good’. Suffice it to say, that the lab ended up reinforcing my deep ambivalence to success, capitalism, and the world of becoming, and I emerged as what was perhaps true at that time, and yet I was blind to it – a confused, lonely, angry, and frozen young man with a very little idea of what life is all about. ERI teetered me over the edge, and with associated trauma, loneliness, and pain, to seek, to experiment, to gamble and most importantly to get lost … in a journey to find something anew.

In 1998, I was back again at the Sumedhas Summer Program for my internship – a two week lab, with a cognitive intent of becoming skilled in behavioral work. I was carrying a lot more baggage this time and immersed myself into a process-work space similar to ERI that had pushed me into a painful oblivion may years ago.

Was I keen to come back – not really – for unconsciously, this was another mad gamble, a veritable straw for the drowning me clutching for hope and redemption. However this particular process work experience was intense yet benign – it, through the energy of the group and the facilitators, generated healing, hope, and new insights – an intensely magical experience for myself. It also helped me acknowledge the gifts offered by the earlier lab in 1993 – the gifts of search, experiment, and self reliance.

Looking back, both these labs evoked a lifetime commitment towards working with groups – whether through the process-work spaces / labs offered by Sumedhas or through group relations conferences in India and abroad. Each time in a lab space, I have experienced a quality of certain magic unfold – an energy that cannot be evoked by one individual, insights that cannot be monopolized by one individual, and an intense sense of love and companionship that cannot be offered by one or the other.  

I write this blog for any reader who is curious to understand how such spaces are created, sustained, and deployed and the conditions for unleashing the magic that I have personally experienced. Let me begin by differentiating Reflexivity from Reflection that happens in a process work space.

Reflexivity versus Reflection

Very often, we invite someone to a process work space by saying that it allows for deep reflection on one’s identity (who am I?), one’s socialization and role-taking, and new choice making. Yes, most such spaces offer time and energy for reflection – such times are rare these days for those of us who are playing multiple roles and engaging with diverse systems. The gift of reflection is valuable as it allows us to step off the treadmill for some time, and review, recalibrate, and renew ourselves. We feel good about it.

However, lab spaces such as Sumedhas Summer Program offer a lot more than the gift of Reflection. For many of us, it offers us to examine our own ‘Reflexivity’. Allow me to build on the narrative of Reflexivity for it is important.

The principle of reflexivity was first mooted by William Thomas in 1923 as the Thomas Theorem –the situations that men define as true, become true for them.’ In Sociology, Reflexivity is an act of ‘self-reference’, where it refers to the ability or capacity of the individual (agent) to recognize forces of socialization, and change his or her place in the social structure.

  • An individual with low reflexivity would be shaped largely by the environment with no real choices for self.
  • An individual with high reflexivity may actually shape himself or herself in terms of roles, desires, politics, values and so on.

Thus Reflexivity, to put it simply, is to understand the lens with which one looks at self and the environment or the context, and in referencing this lens, creates new meanings, new intents, and new actions for self. Reflexivity is the idea that a person’s thoughts and ideas tend to be inherently biased. In other words, the values and thoughts of a person will be represented in their work, in their relationships, and in their choices.

Let me start with a simple example – an individual carrying the memories of being victimized in the past, often ends up unconsciously setting himself or herself as the victim because the current lens of looking at phenomena create a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ – a process referred to by both Merton and Karl Popper.

Unless there is sufficient energy invested into engaging with the lens of looking at self and the world, and transforming the lens itself, chances are that labs become a space for mere catharsis, breakdowns, and pseudo-wombs, and once the person goes back, processes of victimization continue.

My experience of the ‘Magic unfolding’ …

I have always considered myself to be a ‘minority’ in almost all contexts. The identity of being a minority brought with it huge tides of feelings – of being excluded, or of being attacked (by the powerful majority) or of being powerless and impotent, or of being continuously misunderstood.

I would view all my systemic contexts with the lens of being the minority, and would end up bemoaning the usual narratives – that of politics of the majority, that of the insensitivity of the larger world, that of being the underdog fighting a losing battle against the Goliath.

It took me many years to realize what the lens was really offering to me – an excuse of not living to my own potential, and a fear of owning my own power. The minority lens allowed me to insulate myself from all accusations as well as all invitations – invitations of love, inclusion, and membership. The minority lens allowed me to let go of being responsible!

It as only in a GRC (IFSI) in France, as I slipped into another cycle of tantrums – of being the Indian minority in a largely Anglo-Saxon community – when the absurdity of the lens came out so vividly. I still remember Ana, my partner, who helped me engage with reflexivity, with a compassion and love, where I was able to let go of this lens.

The moment was intense, traumatizing, and also joyous, as I realized how conveniently I would use the lens of reflexivity to avoid action prerogatives that lay ahead. It took me many process work-spaces to comprehend the enormity of this realization.

Only a group, and very often stranger-groups, allow for this to happen

Magic that happens in a stranger group sitting together in a Sumedhas Summer Program, is when groups engage, share, and dialogue on the lens that each brings in with herself or himself. Authenticity and Reflexivity go hand in hand for the space itself creates multiple lens of looking at the same narrative. It is the collective energy invested by the group to tear down the socialized defenses of each individual, and to reach into the ‘lens’ of the actor is when something new emerges.

 A Caveat …

However, I am also aware that sometimes groups don’t delve deeper for working with reflexivity is a lot tougher than working with reflection. When one is stuck with Reflection, one becomes dependent upon the facilitator (often called as faculty) for new reflections, new insights, and new knowledge. This dependency is dysfunctional and the lab space is remembered merely as a cathartic space to weep, to emote, to vomit, and to let go.

There are many who believe that one can be a spectator and watch others ‘reflect’, and then one can collect treasures of insights, of lessons learnt, of new ideas – unfortunately it doesn’t work this way either. The consumer mindset is quite dominant in most spaces including Sumedhas spaces, where the lens of working is to tell oneself that learning lies out there, and if one pays money (fees), the learning can be bought over.

The other defense that I hear people talking about when unwilling to engage with reflexivity is that of being ‘introverted’. I don’t think introversion or extroversion (or any of these lens acquired with judgments, values, and biases) can be an excuse of not wanting to work with reflexivity.


Reflexivity and the magic that I seem to be promising in this note, requires a greater effort of every individual within the group – to work with the notion of truth, to be authentic, to keep the witness inside alive even though the actor roles become seductive, and to engage and offer, to receive and to create new meanings.

Yes, just like my first lab, reflexivity can also create confusion, dissonance, alienation, rage, fragmentation et al – well these only get exposed as one takes a deep dive. These gifts are immensely valuable in their own right – for these also provide the energy to re-look at the lens. So yes, a lab space would evoke painful memories, would raise ugly reflections as a mirror, would create turmoil and immense sorrow, and yes if reflexivity happens – would create immense magic that offers new meanings, new choices, and new actions.

Process work spaces are voluntary in their spirit and all of us who join groups uphold this value. The act of joining a GRC or a Sumedhas Summer Program is an act of autonomy, of authorizing oneself, and an act of ‘reflexivity’ where a person chooses to challenge the Thomas Law – by joining in a space where new lens of living and loving can be created.

Those of you who like this blog – please visit and check out the Sumedhas Summer Program 2016.

Gagandeep Singh, is a Fellow of Sumedhas Academy for the Human Context.



Hindutava and Indianess : Ashok Malhotra


“Hindi hain hum, watan hai Hindostan hamara” Sadly, the author of these lines Mohd. Iqbal became one of the strongest advocates of the two nation theory and hence partition of India. Even more sad is the fact that the term Hindi (meaning people belonging to the land of Hind) has been totally eclipsed by the term Hindu. Hindu is generally understood as a term for people belonging to a certain religion. It is highly debatable whether any such religion has ever existed, but that is how the term has come to be used. Since Hinduism is at best an umbrella term, it gets defined not so much by what it includes but what it excludes. The followers of Semitic organized religions like Islam and Christianity are automatically excluded. Religions like Sikhism and Buddhism though technically non-Hindu, are sometimes regarded as part of the same family of religions/sects, which are broadly clubbed under the Hindu umbrella. Broadly the Hindu umbrella includes several ancient sects like Vedic Brahmanism, Puranic Hinduism, Tantric and Bhakti traditions and the more recent sects like Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj etc. There is no single source from which these various sects have originated, unlike say the Islam or Christianity wherein the different sects can at least claim some sort of commonality of origin in terms of a common founder and/or sacred text. There is at best some sort of link with what may be called philosophical underpinnings e.g. the concept of Yugas, theory of Karma and cycle of rebirth, social design based on the principles of Varna ashram etc. But here again the variations are far too many for Hinduism to be regarded as a monolithic religion. Hence if the term Hindu is to be used in a religious sense then at best we can talk of Hindu religions and not Hindu religion.

Sadhu@Varnasi. Photo Credit : Sharbori Gomes, 2014

The notion of a monolithic construct of Hinduism has been the main plank around which the socio-political ideology of Hindutava has been built. Inevitably, it generates its own counter reactions and in the process the civilizational quintessence of the people of Hind gets totally obscured. In this paper the term Hindatva will be used to convey this civilizational quintessence.

Bodhi Tree @ Sarnath. Photo Credit : Sharbori Gomes, 2014

Human beings are not merely products of their own unique personal context but also of the civilization that they belong to. Salience across different civilizations is not of an absolute nature but only of nuances and relative emphasis. Thus, each civilization depending upon its history and context places a little more emphasis on some human attributes and a little less on others in comparison to other civilizations. For example a civilization may place greater emphasis on individual autonomy whereas another may place greater emphasis on affiliation and belonging. These nuances put together may be broadly called the civilizational character. While the civilizational character is not static, nuances acquired over centuries cannot be overthrown just like that. Further, doing so has its own immense emotional and psychological cost. In a sense, it will tantamount to waging a war against one’s own quintessence.

Khusru Bagh@Allahabad. Photo Credit : Sharbori Gomes, 2014

Religion plays a significant role in shaping the civilizational character, but by no means is it the sole determinant of it. Also the impact of Religion will very much depend upon how the people of that civilization relate to religion, and this it self will not be uniform across all civilizations. Thus, to begin with, it would be pertinent to ask as to what does religion mean to the people of Hind? Romila Thapar, a well known historian has this to say- “From the colonial perspective Hinduism and Islam were two monolithic religions and all Hindus and Muslims observed the rules of their text –based religions. This may have been applicable to sections of the elite, such as court circles and heads of religious institutions. However, for the vast majority of people religion was an open-ended experience-a mixing, merging, overlapping, borrowing or rejecting of forms and ideas beyond the formal labels. Religion for the larger population lay in forms of personal devotion, in the worship of the spirits within trees and mountains, nagas, yakshis and ancillary deities of local cult shrines, in listening to the words of the bhikkhus and the Nayannars and Alvars, the Bhakti and Sufi teachers, to the stories retold from the epics and the puranas, and to the conversations of those who congregated around faqirs, pirs and other holy men, agreeing or disagreeing on the essentials of understanding the purpose of life and meaning of death”

Calligraphy parchment /scroll@Lucknow. Photo Credit : Sharbori Gomes, 2014

This engagement with religion as an open-ended experience is very much in line with what Ashish Nandy has called a fluid self-definition. In an earlier paper (Indianness and Existential Ambivalence) I had suggested that the three main elements of Indian quintessence are a)     A fluid self definition b)     “Maryada” of roles and boundaries, and c)     Faith in the intrinsic benevolence of God/Cosmos/ Nature/Unknown etc. Thus what Thapar has said in respect of religion is perhaps only a manifestation of this civilizational quintessence. Coming back to the issue of religion, the present Indian situation may not exactly conform to Thapar’s description, but is not very different either. Admittedly, the last couple of centuries have witnessed the emergence of more monolithic religious identities but perhaps the association of religion as an open-ended experience is so deeply launched in the psyche of people of Hind that it is not going to be very easy for them to see religion as a monolith. In Hind, followers of even more organized religions like Islam and Christianity have generally shown considerable flexibility and adaptability. In spite of their egalitarian philosophy, they have ended up evolving their own brand of caste system. The Sufi tradition is virtually indistinguishable from the Bhakti tradition, and the ambience of a Dargah is not very different from that of a temple. While there are Christians who believe in the jealous God theory, there are many more who would automatically show some sign of respect while passing by a place of worship irrespective of the religion that it belongs to. In some of the Christian festivities the way Jesus and Mary are worshipped that you could easily mistake them for some Hindu deities. A significant question is- what are the feelings associated with this engagement with religion as an “open-ended experience”? At one level it has been accepted, graced and even showcased as evidence of our tolerance and respect for other religions. However, it has perhaps also been a source of considerable anguish and even shame, particularly for the followers of Hindu religions. A message, which they perhaps ended up internalizing, was that organized religion is a pre-requisite to being civilized. Without a proper organized body, a religious authority and a sacred text, no society can claim to be civilized. Consequently, many of their religious practices got equated to mere superstition. Polytheism, Idol –worship became signs of their backwardness and ignorance. Simultaneously there is perhaps also a feeling that the absence of a monolithic organized religion has come in the way to unification and hence puts them at a considerable disadvantage vis. a vis. their adversaries. Search for a monolithic model like that of more organized Semitic religions has much to do with this feeling of stigma, shame and victimhood. In this endeavour Vedic Brahamanism has a distinctive advantage over other sects of Hindu religions. Not merely does it have more followers among the elite, it also has a much richer stock of sacred texts and an extremely sophisticated philosophy to back it up. Thus it is to be expected that if Hindutva is an endeavour to build a monolithic frame for Hindu religions, then Vedic Brahamanism will become its main plank. Ironically, Vedic Brahamanism also provides the maximum ammunition to its detractors. After all, you can always quote a Manu Smriti to show the oppressive and discriminatory side of the Hindu religions and social order. The followers of non-Hindu religions have their own set of difficulties with the Indian approach to religion as an open-ended experience. Unlike their counterparts in Hindu religions, they have a clearer and tighter religious organization, authority and sacred text. Consequently this open-ended approach is a much greater source of conflicting loyalties for them. While their inner propensity may pull them towards an open-ended approach, they are also likely to be left with the residual feeling of betraying their own religion. The issue gets accentuated with the higher status being granted to the foreigner. As Romila Thapar points out “ Among Muslim castes priority was given to the very few that claimed to be of Arab, Persian or Turkish descent, as against the many who were local converts” The situation in respect of Christians is not likely to be very different. Finally, embracing of the Indian way is perhaps also associated with being equated with the heathen and less civilized.

Durga Temple@Varnasi. Photo Credit : Sharbori Gomes, 2014

All in all, it seems that people of Hind are not quite at ease with their own quintessence or what we can call Hindatva (as distinct from Hindutva) While Hindutva may be an ideology, Hindatva is a reality; a fact of life from which we can not escape. For some people, Hindutva may provide a convenient refuge from the self-hate and victimhood which Hindatva generates in us and they may do so by directing the hate on to the “other” or by glorifying an imagined past or by stubbornly holding on to practices which have lost all relevance. For others, the release from self-hate may come through attacking all that is wrong with us, with our heritage, with our traditions with our practices etc. Sometimes the viciousness with which anything Indian is put down that one begins to wonder whether there are strong vested interests in ensuring that the Indian psyche remains caught with its self-hate and victimhood. Since Hindutva itself is a product of self-hate, the more vicious the attack, the more virulent it becomes. Hindatva and Hindutva are very different from each other but they are also intertwined. Sometimes they appear in sync with each other and sometimes they stand in opposition to each other. Possibly, Hindutava is the backlash of shunning Hindatva. For various historical reasons self-hate and victimhood have become significant parts of the Indian identity. Hindutva provides a convenient medium through which these feelings can be expressed in a reactive and aggressive manner. This is a vicious cycle because it is of little help in restoration of self-esteem. On the other hand, it provides even more ammunition to fuel both self-hate and victimhood. The only purpose that it ends up serving is to provide legitimacy to such reactionary forces, which do no want any fundamental change in the oppressive, discriminatory and exploitative aspects of the present social order. On the other hand are the forces, which perhaps do not want the Indian identity to find release from its self-hate and victimhood. While on the face of it, they champion the cause of the oppressed, and claim to be progressive in their outlook; often their frame of progress has very little space for Hindatva in it. For them, Hindatva is either irrelevant or a burden/handicap in the path of what they consider as progress. The more insensitive, scornful and contemptuous they are towards Hindatva, the more virulent Hindutva becomes. To sum up, the preoccupation with Hindutva has obscured the more important issue of Hindatva. In a sense, there is no real difference between the supporters and detractors of Hindutva. Both ensure that the Indian identity remains in the grip of its historical burden of self-hate and victimhood. If this vicious cycle is to be broken, then we need to

  1. Recognize that religion in the Indian context does not mean the same as it may in other places, that a monolithic organized religion is not a prerequisite for a civilized society, and that our civilization has preferred to adopt an open-ended approach to religion rather than enforcing a commonality. So long as we retain this open-ended orientation, admission of religion(s) into public domain is not a threat to us. The most effective demonstration of this phenomenon was provided by Gandhiji who could easily bring religion(s) into the public domain in an inclusive manner. The paranoia around religious identities that we are experiencing today is perhaps more an outcome of our self-hate than an intrinsic part of our identity.
  2. Recognize that our heritage is extremely rich and also diverse. On one hand, it is an unparalleled storehouse of wisdom, but also contains elements which will make us squirm today e.g. caste and gender based discrimination and oppression. To look at our heritage only through the lens of these negatives is as absurd as attempts to rationalize these negatives or dismiss them as minor distortions. All heritages are a mixed bag of positives and negatives and there is no reason why ours should be an exception. Just because we have a great heritage does not mean that we can turn a blind eye to its negatives. Simultaneously, just because we do not like some features of our heritage does not mean that we condemn it altogether or turn our backs to it or constantly beat ourselves for it. A large part of our self-hate stems from not coming to terms with our heritage. This self-hate manifests itself either through over-glorification of the heritage, or through its outright condemnation, or through disowning it completely as though it does not concern us at all. In the process, we overlook that civilizational heritage is not some thing “out there” but lives through us and there is no way we can run away from it. Here again, Gandhiji showed us the way of how we can embrace our heritage without becoming a captive of its negative features.
  3. Pursue a path of development and progress, which is aligned, to the imperatives of our quintessence. Often progress and development get equated with the ways of the West. Shri Dharampal an eminent Gandhian thinker and historian had suggested that opulence and wide differentials in consumption is largely a postcolonial phenomenon in India. Till that time there was very little difference in the life style and standard of living between the rich and the poor. To substantiate this claim he has relied upon statistical data and other records from various sources including British archives. If this were so, then the present trend to define development in terms of GDP and consumerism may not be our cup of tea. Its glitter may attract us but is it what we really want for ourselves? Surely it will serve the purpose of the Hindutava brigade, but what will it do toHindatva? ⌘⌘⌘
Artist’s name represented by a fish symbol, Khusru Bagh. @Allahabad Photo Credit : Sharbori Gomes, 2014










Ashok Malhotra is an author, thinker, organisation consultant and commentator on the social character of  contemporary Indians.  For related reading by the same author click on: Indianess and Existential AmbivalenceIndianess and UsIndianess and Gender.