Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Non-violence Wasn't Gandhi's Only Message

I have read only one book of Gandhi - "My Experiments with Truth". I read this when I was 13 or 14. I haven't re-read the book after that. But Gandhi's thoughts influences me to this day.

"I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and Non-violence are as old as the hills."

Today Gandhi is remembered whenever there is violence. Gandhi is used as a symbol of peace and love. We remember Gandhi mostly for non-violence.

But Gandhi's life was devoted to truth. Truth is a very important (if not the most important) message from Gandhi. "Devotion to this Truth is the sole justification for our existence. All our activities should be centered in Truth. Truth should be the very breath of our life." wrote Gandhi.

Gandhi teaches us that truth has great power. And in this post I will draw a direct connection between the power of truth and how a culture of dishonesty is ailing our society.


Sonali Vaid had posted a thread with tips for people starting off in a public health career. The points 6 & 7 are especially illustrative of how many of us stray away from truth in our daily lives.

If I were an academic sociologist, I would do a paper on this topic connecting how the misguided Indian notion of "respect" is at the root of all things evil in India. Here is what happens. At a very young age, Indians are indoctrinated into "respecting" various things including elders, religious stuff, ancient stuff, and in general anything and everything. Now, there are two kinds of respect. There is the actual respect defined in dictionary as "A feeling of appreciative, often deferential regard; esteem" which is a deep emotion. And then there is a fake respect which is an act of showing someone "respect" by calling them honorific titles (like "sir", "madam") or by bending in front of them, touching their feet, etc. When young Indians are forced to "respect" people whom they do not respect in reality, they imbibe and internalize the fake respect. They touch the feet of the old relative while hating them. They call the teacher they hate "sir" or "ma'am". They go to the religious institutions without knowing why. 

This causes Indians to be greatly separated from truth in three very dangerous ways:

1) They learn to ignore their feelings
2) They learn to lie through their teeth
3) They learn that truth does not matter

When one learns to ignore their feelings, they can no longer be struck by conscience.
When one learns to lie, it becomes easier for them to cover-up the truth.
When one learns that the truth does not matter, truth dies.

This affects us in every single field.

India's elite scientific institutions engage in scientific fraud (and retract papers when caught). Nobody keeps these institutions accountable for the sub-standard work they do. And truth doesn't matter.

India's health system is not interested in Indian's health. Hospitals are the most violent places. Nobody keeps our healthcare system accountable for poor quality healthcare. And truth doesn't matter.

Judiciary, engineering, social science, film industry, sports, infrastructure, urban planning, environment, finance, ... Take any field. Truth doesn't matter.

Every Indian knows that Adani is just the most successful among businesses that do the same kind of unfair business practices in India. Everyone knows that there is a great deal of corruption in Indian politics and money is made by corrupt politicians and bureaucrats in various corrupted ways. Everyone knows that Indians are lying. And we gladly join the lie. Because truth doesn't matter.

And it all starts with us learning to lie by showing "respect" to people.


It is possible to reverse this dishonesty in our individual lives. We need to follow just one principle:

A radical commitment to truth

Truth is very much misunderstood. What is truth? Is it something written down somewhere? Is it the same for everyone? Are there multiple truths?

Gandhi can be helpful here too: " Truth? A difficult question; but I have solved it for myself by saying that it is what the voice within tells you"

I concur with Gandhi on this. Truth is a very personal thing. Truth is when your thoughts, your speech, and your action are in 100% agreement with each other. Truth is when you don't lie.

Let me make it more practical. A radical commitment to truth requires the following:
1) Being in touch with your emotions and feelings, and showing commitment to try to label them accurately.
2) A commitment to yourself to not invalidate your own feelings. To not act in ways that go against your feelings.
3) A commitment to follow-up on things that you are uncertain of - so that you can arrive at the truth.

We often fail in all the three.

When we feel sad or annoyed, but don't recognize that we are so, we are being out of touch with our emotions.

When we tell ourselves that we should be grateful while we're actually disappointed, or when we act calm while we are furious, we are invalidating our feelings.

When we are uncertain of what our inner voice is telling us and we give up on reflecting, without experimenting to understand the truth - we're breaking our commitment towards truth.

Psychotherapy often helps with 1 & 2 above. It helps us to label our feelings. And it trains us not to invalidate our feelings. Although the very act of therapy can be a pursuit of truth, point 3 is deeper than that. A commitment to follow-up on things that we are uncertain of - is essentially about what we do with our lives. It is about deeply engaging with questions and finding "truth" through our engagement. 

Gandhi did this through politics. "To see the universal and all-pervading spirit of Truth face to face one must be able to love the meanest of creation as oneself. And a man who aspires after that cannot afford to keep out of any field of life. That is why my devotion to Truth has drawn me into the field of politics; and I can say without the slightest hesitation, and yet in all humility, that those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means"

It is why I'm committed to interdisciplinarity and generalism. If you're drawn to truth, you can no longer visualize the world in isolated subjects and topics. The curiosity will make you read, listen, travel, experience, and understand people. The commitment will make you a truth-seeker, a "scientist", it will make you devise your own methodologies. The positive energy of truth-seeking will force you to build, create, teach, write, and share.

Truth is as spiritual as it is science. It is as abstract as it is real. It is as hard as it is simple.

It takes nothing to start seeking truth, it takes everything to start seeking truth.

If you like what you're reading, subscribe!

Get posts via email:

Friday, March 10, 2023

Book Review: Everything is Obvious - Once You Know The Answers

I first saw this book in the Internet Freedom Foundation thread on which books people there were reading. Then I saw it on Scott Young's blog which I have been following since childhood. I never got around to reading it till yesterday when I got into a 19 hour train ride to reach Sevagram for medico friend circle's annual meeting.

There was no better time to read the book because mfc's meeting this year is on caste; caste is one of those sociological phenomenons that defy common sense thinking every day; and this book is about "how common sense fails us" and why sociology is not  merely common sense.

What Duncan Watts has done is write a book specifically for a particular niche of people. This niche includes those people who become so used to straightforward deterministic sciences that they start seeing the limitations of it and look at larger and more comprehensive studies of human kind. Duncan went from learning physics to becoming a sociologist. This is exactly the route that Nihal is taking (from law to policy). And the route I'm taking from medicine to history. And the biggest issue that we face when we take this route is this unprecedented predominance of uncertainty.

That sociology is more complicated than rocket science. That there are no grand rules waiting to be discovered which will solve all questions. That there are no silver bullets. This is a hard realization. Not one that's impossible. With enough interdisciplinary exploration and generalization people like Nihal and I do discover that the world is full of uncertainties. But it's just so difficult to settle for that. "It feels wrong". 

And this book makes it feel right. Well, not exactly. But at least it makes it a palatable truth that the world is extremely complicated. It also protects us from common sense thinking that makes us settle for simplistic explanations that push us into silver bullet solutions. This book, you must read, if you have asked this question "What on earth does a sociologist do?" Once you read it, you'll feel like the contents of the book itself is obvious. And that's the whole point of the book. Everything is obvious, once you know the answers.

If you like what you're reading, subscribe!

Get posts via email:

One more time, subscribe via email: