Years ago, when I was quite young, I recall being in natural awe of great thinkers, scholars, writers, scientists and even statesmen (even though I learned early to be very wary and skeptical of politics in general) that transform the world with ideas and deeds. I was taught back then that it took extraordinary talent, dedication and effort in order to even dream of attaining the stature of a Tagore, a Gandhi, or an Einstein. What made these rarest of the rare human beings so priceless was that through their deeply creative and larger than life contributions to the higher ideals of human civilization, they set an exceedingly high standard for the rest of us to at least try to emulate.
Back then in India, we were living through the early post-independence years, following the tumultuous end to almost 200 years of British colonialism in 1947. Looking back, I now realize that even without Tagore and Gandhi, two absolute towers of Indian socio-cultural history (the former having died in 1941, and the latter felled by an assassin's bullet in 1948), our country still possessed some truly extraordinary, iconic figures worthy of great honor. Figures such as Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the leading modern philosopher and scholar, in whose honor the government of India declared his birthday the national Teacher's Day. Likewise, C.V. Raman, the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize in physics. And Jawaharlal Nehru himself, a true statesman-like presence in India, whose vision and controlled approach to building a new India in the modern age, despite appearing sluggish, has enabled the establishment of solid democratic institutions there that appropriately separate religion, politics, the civic and the military. These stalwarts received the Bharat Ratna (BR), the highest civilian award given by the nation in those early years. Even though the likes of Tagore, Gandhi, Vivekananda or Tilak -- all, with the exception of Gandhi, deceased prior to 1947 -- were light years ahead in terms of national veneration on the Bharat Ratna scale, to me the Bharat Ratna still represented an extraordinary accomplishment.
It was in later years that we began to see the obvious "cheapening" of these national honors, when individuals not remotely close to the high standard established by the Ramans and the Radhakrishnans began to be awarded the BR. At some level, it simply became a political instrument to garner influence and prestige. A good example, which might be scandalous to some for me to say this here, was that of Mrs. Indira Gandhi receiving the BR. To many of us in those years, Mrs. Gandhi was prominent in India primarily on the coattails of her illustrious father. To many like myself, awarding the BR to her simply lowered the inviolable standard we expected the younger generations to strive for.
For me personally, this devolution reached a true climax in 1991 when, following the ghastly assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, he was posthumously awarded the BR. While I consider myself second to none in terms of my opposition to, and abhorrence of what was done to a decent political leader, my mind went reeling after this one.
I was reminded of a Panchatantra story in the Bengali folklore version, in which a Guru warns his pupil to run as fast as he could from any place that assigns equal value to puffed rice (muri, a plebian food) and sugar candy (michhri, considered precious). In the story, the pupil foolishly ignores the Guru's dictum, and almost pays with his life for his mistake, only to be rescued at the last moment by his Guru. This story to me offers a powerful lesson to us in terms of setting standards of social ethic, art, culture, and human striving towards the higher attainments. If the sublime and the ridiculous are equated,the result honestly can be disastrous in the long run to any society or civilization.
Not surprisingly, in years subsequent to the award to Rajiv Gandhi, the BR has now been debased and devalued so grievously that few ascribe much credibility to it. I have long believed that the highest honor for a true icon of human greatness comes from the love and admiration bestowed upon them by the people in their contemporaneous times, but even more importantly, by generations thereafter. What award, set up by obviously subjective human standards, could possibly measure adequately the celestial aspirations of, say, a Buddha, a Christ, a Shankara, a Shakespeare, a Voltaire, a Valmiki, or a Kalidasa?
Just as importantly, can we in any objective way, truly regard, say, all Nobel-winning physicists as intellectual equals? Are the winners from the past 30 or more years the equivalent of an Einstein? In my mind, Einstein, whose awarding of the Nobel prize honored the prize itself, was in the category of "a Nobelian amongst Nobelians," or, many would argue, even greater. Likewise, Rabindranath Tagore of my own Bengal in India, brought immeasurable honor to the Nobel prize by becoming the first non-European to be so recognized, and his impact upon the literary and philosophical firmament of my country and that of the world, will be felt, I am confident, for centuries yet. We know well how deeply Tagore influenced countless other writers and creative spirits around the world. Pablo Neruda, Hart Crane, Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats, Juan Ramon Jimenez, Gabriela Mistral, Satyajit Ray, Ravi Shankar -- these are but a sampling of Tagore's enormous sphere of influence. How do we measure a life-changing figure such as Tagoreagainst other Nobelians?
Therefore, when Barack Obama (BO), in what could not have been anything but an act of political expediency, especially after the absolute horror of the preceding lawless governance of the United States by a violent, malevolent group of unscrupulous zealots, was awarded the Nobel peace prize (try as I might, I could personally think of little to properly stack up to the measure of that award), I was mentally deflated by the very thought that this award once went to a great man of long-standing impact such as a Martin Luther King, Jr. Watching MLK's lifetime of extraordinary work, words, inspiration, commitment, and phenomenal human influence-- fighting as he did against inhumanity and injustice of Himalayan proportions -- how can we not think, indeed, that such whimsical award-granting does nothing but greatly cheapen the award itself?
With that in mind, and thinking of the great promises of the beginning of the year, I wrote the following in my recent end-of-2009 annual holidays message...
"The year began amid hopes worldwide that certain humane changes were in order. The impossible had happened -- a black person with mixed heritage had ascended to a position hitherto unimaginable -- an event that would surely fill Martin Luther King, Jr. with bewilderment. They composed paeans to him from the African continent and Latin America, to the Middle East and Southeast Asia (where he spent part of his childhood with his remarkable Mother), and danced in the streets that the years of hate and waging war might be ending soon. Personally, of course, my one and only viable candidate was Dennis Kucinich, a man of Peace, a man of decency, of care for the street-dwellers, of the righteous fight for truth and justice -- words and concepts that are derided and laughed at in even erudite circles (as surely as they would be, had the Buddha or the Son of Man spoken of such in this age). But, of course,Kucinich did not have the remotest chance, given the duopoly's stranglehold upon power brokerage in this mighty democracy (small "d" in my books).
"But the world is a strange place indeed, and I doubt if Eric Arthur Blair would offer "Two Cheers" to the commercial din for Democracy any longer, or would satirize with any hope, such devious instruments of fraud as the Doublespeak (or, more appropriately, Newspeak) practiced by the purveyors of arms and wealth. Thus, while Guantanamo, renditions and torture continue, as do occupations of sovereign nations, a newly anointed Supremo of the world orders the deployment of fresh cannon fodder to target the hapless and desperately poor in another part of the world -- and thentravelsto Oslo to collect a Nobel Peace Prize. Let us not forget that Gandhi was unfit for this honor (while Henry Kissinger clearly was), much the same as Leo Tolstoy or Mark Twain were not worthy of the literature prize. Somewhere, I sense, the Muses of virtue and propriety weep."
After the criminal rampage of the Bushco mafia, I suppose the stage was set for the emergence of a BO at the political center stage. But to many of us it was clear that while a vast improvement upon the vicious, incompetent and mental ultra-lightweights who had terrorized the world foreight years, BO was a crafty political player who could readily fit into the Washington playbook. And fit in he has. Heart-sinkingly, but remarkably. In the name of rescuing the plundered financial markets, he brought in or retained some of the most dubious Wall Street insiders (think Geithner and Bernanke).
In fact, in less than one year, the BO organization, made up of questionable Clintonites, has offered betrayal after betrayal to the progressive electorate that put him in office. Here is a meager, partial list:
(1) Lukewarm on the criminal enterprise named Guantanamo.
(2) Insufficient action regarding rapid pullout of the criminal "war" in Iraq.
(3) No action whatsoever regarding prosecution of the Bushco war criminals. The world waits.
(4) Continuing the corporate crime wave on Wall Street, facilitating the mega bonuses to the CEO bandits, instead of jail terms.
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