I was born in 1966 so I am certainly a child of the 60’s who came of age in Bangalore of the 70’s. Which is why when I hear the word ‘freedom’ the first thing that comes to mind is Richie Havens at Woodstock and not Constitutional rights or even human rights. The soaring plea of an individual voice etched across the blue sky, aching for freedom. Freedom! keens a black man wearing a saffron daishiki, and inscribes this yearning across our collective consciousness. Beyond fear, loneliness and tired habit is the human, overarching reach
On August 15, 1947, my mother was three-years-old and remembers crowds of happy people with megaphones walking down Diagonal Road in Visveshwarapuram, Bangalore and her parents giving the kids boondi laddus to eat. They had no radio in the house, so the news of freedom came from the street. My father was a 12-year-old in Madanapalle where there was a short supply of flags. Fabric was donated by the local cloth vendor and my grandmother sewed together panels of saffron, green and white. They had no idea what the ashoka chakra looked like, so they went to the library to look at a picture and then she painted it on. The children were all allowed to stay up late on August 14 so they could bring in freedom… even today, at 84, when my father tells this story, about that first hoisting of a homemade flag and singing of a new anthem, he says he feels a shiver go up his spine.
I have an early and indelible visual memory of two pictures stuck behind a door in our home on Nandidurga Road, Bangalore. My father had cut them out of SPAN magazine. One was of the first moon landing in 1969 and the other was of John F Kennedy who was assassinated just three years before I was born. The symbolism of Neil Armstrong stepping beyond the scope of our imagination was not lost on the dreamy child that I was. Nor the cataclysmic assassination of the charismatic, wind-blown Kennedy whose bereft widow would say, just four days after his death, “don’t let it be forgot, that for one brief, shining moment there was Camelot”. India was still a young nation at that point, so somehow, the vastness of freedom in the mid-20th century belonged to the United States and it would be about 15 years before the ‘taste of freedom’ came to India in the form of Charms cigarettes with their denim print box. I’m mentioning this because the significance of denim as a symbol of youth and freedom was potent those years. The student driven Velvet Revolution in erstwhile Czechoslovakia which had been on slow simmer since the 70s was said to be inspired by blue jeans and rock and roll and Václav Havel spoke of this to Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground when they met in 1999.
This morning, in Cubbon Park, Bangalore, a pleasant young man handed me a pamphlet. I cast a cursory eye on it realising it was some sort of proselytization but didn’t throw it away as I didn’t wish to offend him. Later, waiting for my train, I read it and while it clearly preached monotheism, it was inoffensive in a generic way. Multiple scriptures were quoted and it called on one to do good. The question really was — why the need for a religious pamphlet and what does it have to do with freedom? Is it that we consider freedom much more when our very rights are in peril?
To answer this is to investigate the history of freedom. Where does this notion come from? And what is the relationship between freedom and rights? While the concept of universal human rights is undoubtedly an aspect of modernity, many ancient and pre-modern civilizations have texts that enshrine universal moral values and principles as well as inalienable rights. The values ensure an environment and the rights a possibility for people to aspire to freedom. Two of the oldest living legal codes we know of are the Code of Ur-Nammu and Code of Hammurabi from Mesopotamia. These created a framework of fairness, guaranteeing certain moral human behaviours among members of a society. In India we have evidence of other such ancient texts. The Mahabharata describes the dharma yuddha or the Rules of Righteous Warfare. These were principles of dharma that dictated civilian life. The understanding that empathy and mindfulness, even in war, were central to the well-oiled functioning of a society.
Around 250BCE, Ashoka of the Mauryan Empire, having sickened himself of war, came up with 30 edicts to outline moral, social and religious codes. The shady banyans we still see by the sides of roads are remnants of his edicts. He willed that the ‘practice of morality’ be practiced. Similarly, the Constitution of Medina, drafted by Mohammed in 622CE is a reformist charter against the hierarchies and aristocratic privileges of previous times. Historian, Bernard Lewis writes that the charter brought major societal changes, “one of these was the presumption of freedom; the other, the ban on the enslavement of free persons except in strictly defined circumstances.” Therefore we can safely assume that the evolution of human understanding determined that freedom of the corporal self was not possible without the guarantee of fundamental rights and opportunities.
In 1948, post the horrors of World War II, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in a majority vote. India is one of the 48 countries that ratified the document. We also signed the 1989 Convention on Rights of the Child. But as we know, guaranteeing of rights means nothing without equal opportunity. Therefore our lived reality is very far from our ideological aspirations. If you are one of the ‘excluded’ you will jolly well be aware of it and despite being assured rights on paper, will lack opportunity and see freedoms denied, willy nilly, thanks to dead habit disguised as tradition or, the fear of losing power. And these are but two sides of the same coin.
Now, what of the spirit?
Rudolf Steiner, in his book, The Philosophy of Freedom, influenced greatly by what he called the, “…three so sharply-defined spiritual streams from old India in the Veda philosophy, the Sankhya philosophy and Yoga,” distills many of the ideas contained in Hinduism to write that freedom can never be had if one is slave to rank habit, conventional demands of duty and bodily instinct. Implying that, even if all rights are secured and ensured, freedom is still only possible if one cultivates a moral imagination, a moral intuition. Now here is something that simply cannot be legislated! It refers to the inner landscape, the spirit, of the individual. This is the freedom that Richie Havens sings of and it is blindingly attractive because its quest is of the spirit.
So, as we approach another Independence Day, it is clear that freedom only exists on a fluctuating scale dependent on a variety of factors including gender, class, caste and orientation. Even in urban, affluent Bangalore, colleges impose ridiculous rules of clothing and behaviour on students and simultaneously expect them to behave like adults of voting and marrying age. Many suffer acute heartburn if the fruit of their loins dare make life choices or choose partners outside the sweep of their understanding. In 2019, after all the rhetoric about freedom, this begs belief.
Freedom is elusive, the gift of those rare souls who live by their moral imagination, the spirit within that is behind our
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