Freedom and identity, the right to be

The aspirational values in the Constitution will make sense only when the average Indian realises the freedom to be

Tulsidas, who wrote one of the several influential versions of the Ramayana, described Ram Rajya as a place where everyone felt free to do what they were supposed to do and where there was no fear, sorrow or disease. Mahatma Gandhi recognised the values of Ram Rajya as a shared universal consciousness. Underlying the articulation of both these exponents of Ram Rajya was the conception of a citizen as a free being.Bound by lawsThe final quest of all of life is freedom. This means that life as we know it is not free. We are all struggling from bondage to freedom. What binds us? We are bound by one law or the other. What is a law? Any event or phenomenon that repeats itself is a law. For example, an apple seed will always produce an apple. This seed will keep on producing apples — perhaps one million apples will come from that one seed. An apple seed will not produce bananas because an apple seed is bound by its own law — it is programmed to produce apples. All of nature is nothing but an expression of laws — the repeated occurrence of form and phenomena. By this law a fish learns to swim and an eagle learns to soar in the sky. By this very law our hearts beat 72 times a minute and our body temperature is maintained at 98.6° Fahrenheit. So to break a law is to go against nature and risk one’s life.Finding freedomCan we, therefore, ever be free? We can, provided we learn to look beyond nature’s law-bound forms toward something deeper that is always free. This is slightly difficult to explain, but one can try. Take a long rope and tie it into a knot in the middle. As you tighten the knot it takes a definite shape. The knot is bound by its own nature. If the knot were alive, it would imagine itself to be a knot that is limited within the shape of the knot. But someone who has tied the knot will know that all that it requires for the knot to be free is to pull at the right place — the knot breaks free and straightens into a rope again.So what is required to find freedom is just this knowledge that you are not a knot. Just this awareness that if you look beyond your physical form to your original state, which is formless and free, you indeed become free. What is that formless state? Classical Indian wisdom calls this state adhyātma. The compound word adhyātma is a combination of two words, adhi+atma which means awareness of self. The human body-mind complex is animated and powered by this spiritual dimension called atma that can be described as soul or self. The body is the hardware, the mind is the software and atma is the UPS (uninterruptible and independent power source). That which sets a human being free is the knowledge of the self — that spontaneous animating principle which runs the body-mind complex. Living in the light of atma or self is the true meaning of Swarajya. Etymologically, Swarajya means, swena rajate or self-luminous existence. Take the case of a person who burns his lips while sipping a cup of hot tea. He may think that the tea has burnt him. It is not the tea but the invisible heat that permeates the tea that has burnt him. Heat is not a property of the tea but it can pervade the tea and make it appear to be hot. Likewise, it is the atma that permeated the body mind that is responsible for our experience of the world.On choicesMany people confuse freedom with multiplication of choices. Multiplication of television channels, political outfits, or shampoo brands tend to confuse us rather than help us choose better. Fewer good options would have been a better way to weed out undesirable options. At its core, freedom is not about choices; it is rather about identity. Do I get identified with a compulsive and conditioned mind-body or do I identify myself with a liberated self that refuses to be labelled by the market, polity or society as belonging to a pre-deterministic category? The free being that is our self, expresses itself not through an algorithm but awareness.In the Mahabharata, in a deep dialogue, Yakhsa asks Yudhishthira this question, What is the strangest thing in this world? Yudhishthira responds: The most startling thing is, though humans have a mortal body, everybody goes about their life as if they are going to live in their body forever.The awareness of atma, inherent in pure being, sets us free from the illusion that we are nothing more than our bodies and our minds. The knot of illusion that we are this body-mind complex unravels itself as realisation of our being dawns on us. We become aware as the rishis of the Upanishads did, of that Anindavatam svadhaya tadekam, one ultimate being in us that exists freely by itself. How does one access the freedom of pure, uninterrupted power of being? In the stillness of being, not in the quest for being this and that or the other, we find the doorway to our own freedom. Not being co-optedFrom Ram Rajya to Swarajya is a continuum — the journey from the temporal to the transcendental; from the civic to the sacred. The Preamble of the Indian Constitution promises the delivery of aspirational values of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity for its citizens. They make sense only when the average Indian realises the freedom to be and not be co-opted by the politics of identity, machinations of the market or the dictatorship of the digital world. Swarajya in thought and education that liberates the free being, sa vidya ya vimuktaye, can only rescue India from a myopia of the post-colonial leadership. Until then, Ram Rajya will remain an enchanting utopia. Debashis Chatterjee, the author of ‘Timeless Leadership’, is the Director of IIM Kozhikode

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