Leading intellectual and sociologist Ashis Nandy spoke at Vassar on Nov. 3, sharing his experience researching on mass violence and human potential. He has combined these two seemingly-opposite fields of study to construct a multidimensional view of human kind.
As Professor Katherine Hite, chair of the Vassar Political Science Department, said, “Ashis Nandy has been a seminal thinker on imagining human connection and potentiality beyond conflict.”
Nandy has, in his many years as a professor and a thinker, explored the relationship between potentialities and violence. He has taken the worst of humanity and the best of humanity, putting them face to face with one another to glean new meaning. As a result, he has found glimmers of hope in even the bleakest of situations.
“I have been interested in human violence for a long time…[but] after studying it continuously for a while, you are demoralized and lose all hope for human kind. So, you need a respite from it, and then I switch to human dignity and human presence.” Nandy said at his lecture.
Though the realities of mass violence can be difficult to ignore, Nandy delves deep into history to find moments of humanity.
“Even when dealing with something as nasty as genocide, I like to look at the possible ways in which human beings face it,” Nandy explained. “That comes from my belief that there is always some human potential which we have not tapped.”
He continued, “After the end of World War II, over 500 German Jews appeared in Berlin, as if by magic. In order for them to have escaped the horrors of the Holocaust and the war, at least five hundred Germans had to have made the decision to protect them. On a similar note, after the India-Pakistani riots which surrounded the Partition of India, 40 percent of all survivors said that they were helped by a member of the opposing side: Hindus helping Muslims, Muslims helping Hindus.” Nandy takes these events and he finds the capacity for goodness in them. “I am sure that if other researchers focused on this side of the story, they would find at least a less pessimistic picture of human kind,” Nandy explained.
At the forefront of this picture is the concept of religion. As Professor E.H. Jarow of the Religion Department notes, “It’s refreshing…to find a scholar of political science who understands religion in more than a cursory sense, understands the intricacies and problematics of how politics and religion interface… it’s never a simple thing.”
Nandy explored this relationship in his talk, and noted the dichotomy which surrounds the notion of religion: “Religion can be used as faith, personal faith…but religion can be used also as an ideology…the moment you use religion as an ideology, you are using it as a superficial religion with no deeper place in your personal life.”
Drawing on examples of fickle religious status in Middle Eastern politics, Nandy expressed how identifying with a religion has become a matter of just that: identifying. Religion has become a marker of ideology, and not a system of beliefs which reflects personal convictions. The meaning of the word itself has been altered from a personal faith to a political tool, at least in part; after attending Nandy’s lecture, Sophia Pitcairn ’16 expressed that “[Nandy’s] comments forced me to challenge my own concept of religion,” Pitcairn said.
Stemming from religion, and equally as important, is another idea: truth. Nandy challenged the traditional idea of truth: “I looked… not for truth, but for constructions of truth.”
This seems, at first, to be a dangerous and sad concept: if there are only constructions of truth, how can one hope to find truth itself? Or, rather, how can one be sure that truth even exists? Jarow remarked on these questions: “Since deconstruction, there’s the impending awareness that truth is just a construction; and so, a lot of people take that and run with that annihilistically.”
Jarow notes that lacking in one truth seems to lend itself only to a negative view of the world. Truth being nothing but a construction is a bleak concept, one which, if taken the wrong way, seems to contradict Nandy’s otherwise optimistic view of humanity. However, Nandy saw these concepts not as a shattered mirror, but rather as pieces to an otherwise unknown puzzle. Only by understanding the constructs of truth can we hope to discover truth itself, and only by building upon the foundations humanity has already laid can we construct an accurate model of truth.
When considering the lecture as a whole, it was not the specific examples nor the engaging factoids which students pulled from Nandy’s discussion. Rather, they found his views thought-provoking. “Nandy’s alternative theoretical conceptions when looking at mass violence encourages students to create new frameworks to discuss societal phenomena,” said Tanvi Jaluka ’17, an attendee at the lecture.
These frameworks begin with academia, which can be entirely pertinent to the issues of the world. As Jarow said: “His lecture debunked the myth of the ivory tower, that academics is not relevant: It can be extremely relevant to everything when you’re willing to engage.”
Ashis Nandy is a perfect example of someone willing to engage; through the combination of two opposing fields, Nandy has brought to light what has been previously unknown and has explore the ramifications thereof. “He epitomizes what an intellectual should be, because he is not in a narrow box of disciplines; he taken on things that really matter,” said Jarow.
In the face of mass violence, still human potentiality prevails. We have the ability to change things, the ability to be good. Ashis Nandy has discovered this himself, stating: “We are not as helpless as we like to believe.”