Saturday, December 29, 2012

Man and the Beast

The word "Beast" has different meanings.  Dictionary defines a beast as "any large nonhuman animal, especially a large, four-footed mammal.  It also defines a beast as "a live creature, as distinguished from a plant".  Another accepted meaning of "Beast" is "the crude animal nature common to humans and lower animals".   So, beastly nature is common to humans and animals.  Recent happenings in Delhi and the sad death of a young girl is a startling example of beastly men.  Animals kill other animals mostly for food.  But man does not need any real reason or rationale to kill other animals.  Of course, he has innumerable reasons to kill other human beings.  We often hear someone say - "Do not behave like a beast, behave like a man".  What distinguishes a man from a a beast?  When does a two legged animal called man become a "Human being"?  These questions crop up from time to time.  Are there any clear answers to these questions?  These questions have clear cut answers in ancient Indian wisdom and literature.  It is indeed important to know these answers at present times, especially when one reads in the media regularly about the beastly acts of so called humans.

There are certain qualities that distinguish "Man, the animal" and "Man, the human being".  Bhartruhari, the original triple centurion on account of his three Shatakas, brings out this difference beautifully in a small sloka in his Neetishataka:

साहित्य संगीत कला विहीनः साक्षात् पशुः  प्रुच्हविषाणहीनः |
तृणं न खादन्नपि जीवमानः तद्भागधेयम्  परमं पशूनाम् ||

Saahitya sangeeta kalaa viheenaha saakshaat pashuhu pruchha vishaana heenaha
Trunam na khaadannai jeevamaanaha tad bhaagadeyam param pashoonam!

A man who does not have any interest in Literature, Music and Fine Arts is an animal personified.  But there are two noticeable differences.  First difference is in appearance.  Man does not have a tail or horns that animals usually have.  Second and more important difference is that man does not eat grass like animals do.  "The Creator" has made this vital difference probably keeping the welfare of animals in view.  If man was habituated to eat grass also, he would consume the entire grass available on earth and force grass-eating animals to die of hunger.  Thanks to the Creator's wisdom or discretion,  whatever you may call it, animals are at least left with grass to fill their stomachs.  But man is more intelligent than the Creator, make no mistake about understanding that.  What if the Lord has not given him an instinct to eat grass?  Man can eat grass-eating animals themselves.  There are experiments being made to manufacture fuel (ethanol) from grass and already certain type of grass is consumed by man to fuel his cars.  The day is not far off when the Creator's designs are defeated by this wonderfully intelligent animal called man and the animals may have to live just on air.  Again, air that is abundantly polluted by man!

Let us get back to the main qualities that differentiate a man from a pashu, an animal- the ones of interest in Literature, Music and Fine Arts.  These disciplines are expected to refine a man and dispel the baser instincts in him.  Fill him with compassion and humility instead.  "Aatmavat Sarva bhooteshu", meaning seeing his own reflection in every living being.  Music, literature and fine arts provide him scope to think of other things that make life more interesting and worth living.  Children are taught to learn and participate in these events since a tender age.  Parents take great pains in providing them opportunities to inculcate these values.  Every child that learns music does not become a M S Subbulakshmi or Balamurli Krishna.  Similarly with writers and artistes.  They may not themselves reach the pinnacle;  but they can appreciate a master in their field better.  They may take out some time from the routine life to sit in a concert, read a good book or move around in an exhibition or museum.  These things make appreciation of finer things in life much better and civilise a man.

A question may arise then.  What about the kind of literature or art that achieve the opposite effect; that of provoking man to even more beastly behavior?  Let us not insult arts and literature by including such things in their purview. Literature, Music and Fine Arts are words earmarked for those instruments that refine a man; and transform him from a beast to a real man    

Monday, December 3, 2012

The power of Encouragement

In my blog post titled "Ovation for over 15 minutes" (Click here to read it) I had made a mention of the tonic of encouragement an artiste or a performer gets when the audience or group watching the performance applauds their effort.

There is a story about the famous 19th-century poet and artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, popularly known as Dante.  Dante came from a very talented family and his siblings were also writers and made their own mark in literature.  Many budding artistes and poets visited him to seek his opinion on their paintings and poems.  Dante was a kind man and quick to encourage any genuine talent that he spotted.
Once Dante was approached by an elderly man. The old man had some sketches and drawings that he wanted Dante to look at and tell him if they were any good, or if they at least showed potential talent.  Dante looked them over carefully.  After the first few, he knew that they were worthless, showing not the least sign of artistic talent. Being a kind man, Dante told the elderly man as gently as possible that the pictures were without much value and showed little talent.  He was sorry, but he could not lie to the man. The visitor was disappointed, but seemed to expect Dante's judgment and left.

The old man was back after a few days with some more paintings.  He apologized for taking up Dante's time and requested him to just look at a few more drawings, those done by a young art student.  Dante looked over the second batch of sketches and immediately became enthusiastic over the talent they revealed. "These," Dante said, "oh, these are good. This young student has great talent. He should be given every help and encouragement in his career as an artist. He has a great future if he will work hard and stick to it."

The elderly man was deeply moved. "Who is this fine young artist, Your son?" Dante asked.  "No," said the old man sadly. "It is me - 40 years ago. If only I had heard your praise then!  For you see, I got discouraged and gave up - too soon."  Dante realized the power of encouraging young talent or more than that the negative effect of discouraging young talents.  Dante is credited with founding the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood movement that inspired a generation of writers and painters.  It is a paradox that Dante himself was attacked by the critics on his poems and paintings.  Such criticism led him to a depression and he became an alcoholic.  It is said that he buried many of his unpublished poems along with his wife's body in her grave, when she died.  It is also said that he got the grave dug up later on to retrieve the poems.

Why talented youngsters get discouraged and give up?  Why they do not get the tonic of appreciation?  This question often comes up.  The first problem lies in the ability of the elders to identify or spot the talent.  In order to catch them young, the elderly require two qualities; capacity to spot the talent and the broad mindedness to appreciate it.  There is a need for the elderly to realize that the world belongs to the young.    The second problem lies in miserly behavior when it comes to conveying the genuine recognition of the hidden capacities.    Misplaced appreciation could result in more damage.  Appreciation should not be confused with flattery.  Encouragement should be in proportion to the hidden talent and not excessive.  It should also be fair to other competitors, if there are any.  An extra consolation prize in a competition does not cost much to the organisers or judges, but goes a long way in encouraging one more talented youngster.

What does our ancient wisdom say about talent spotting and appreciation?  Our forefathers have identified three levels of appreciation of good qualities - Guna Grahana (identification of good qualities in others), Guna Prakashana (telling others about someone's good qualities) and Guna Sankeerthana (repeated and emphatic appreciation of the good qualities of a person in all possible methods).  An excellent example of Guna Sankeerthana, the highest form of appreciation, is James Boswell, biographer of Dr Samuel Johnson.  His "Life of Samuel Johnson" is considered as the most famous single work of biographical art in the whole of literature.  In fact, Boswell's "Life of Samuel Johnson" became as famous as Dr Johnson's "A dictionary of English Language"!  James Boswell was himself a man of many talents, but he chose to be a shadow of Dr Johnson and spent many years as a constant companion of the great man while writing his biography.  His was Guna Sankeertana of the ultimate level.

Coconut saplings receive little quantities of water when they are planted.  As they grow up and stand tall, they remember this kind act of some one and hold on their head many fruits full of sweet water and ready to offer to others.  Encouragement given to a young talent may continue the tradition and the world may be a better place to live in future.  A bowl of water to a young sapling is more valuable than a tankful of water to a fully grown tree.  A just and due appreciation to an youngster is far more valuable than flattery of an already well established personality.