Why Do Humanities Matter?

We hardly find the government’s policy and agenda to build a university exclusively for humanities. It always reflects the marginal interest of the policymakers, therefore it’s always the adjunct part of any university

Aug. 6, 2020, 10:42 a.m.

Martha C. Nussbaum in her book “Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities” alerts us to a ‘silent crisis’ in Humanities. She considers training in humanities to be deficient and it doesn't bode well for the future of democracy. Humanities as a discipline are in a very precarious state in India. The utter neglect of the life-sustaining discipline (arts & humanities) doesn’t augur well for the well-being of a democratic country, because any democracy survives and thrives on discussion, debate, deliberation, and dissent. Many thinkers have prognosticated humanitarian crises because of the pitiable plight of humanities.

Being a student of humanities, I am deeply grieved to see the wretched condition of humanities and its dismal present. The reasons for expressing such deep concerns are galore. Investment in research in humanities and infrastructural augmentation is outrageously low. The non-committal approach of the authority towards humanities is very conspicuous in countries like India. During my stay at one of the top-notch universities of India, I experienced (so did others) the glaring discrimination between students of Science and Humanities.

One could easily feel the discrepancies in facilities and amenities provided to them. For instance; there were huge differences in the quality of food served to them. Unfortunately, a hierarchical relation among different disciplines has been constructed which is deeply embedded and often manifested. An undesired chauvinism is commonly writ large and blatant among the science students. Often this superiority complex blinds the insight and becomes a causative agent for incurable narcissism. Until they are successful, arts and humanities students, mostly maintain a low profile. We hardly find the government’s policy and agenda to build a university exclusively for humanities. It always reflects the marginal interest of the policymakers, therefore it’s always the adjunct part of any university.

Mostly, the prodigious amount of budget is allocated for science and technology, the budget allocation for arts and humanities is abysmally low, the leftover amount is given to it. There is mostly a step-motherly approach towards arts and humanities. There is a silent and subtle crisis in which society ruthlessly discards the skills which are indispensable to develop inner eyes, the discretion power, the ability to withstand the storms of life. It aggressively promotes the skills which sustain only the material aspects of life.

We must understand the fact that man doesn't exist on a physical plane alone, he has other dimensions of existence- emotional, intellectual and spiritual. There must be a balanced growth of all the aspects of being. Ignoring the one will result in asymmetrical and uneven growth of personality. We have ample examples of it where we find the materially opulent people are discontented and dissatisfied with life and are ethically and morally barren.

In the present time, we cannot neglect the scientific advancement, it’s indispensable for living a smooth and hassle-free life. I recall William Blake’s line “Art is the tree of life. Science is the tree of death”. Blake’s view appears to me extreme, unconvincing and reductive. However, giving inordinate attention to it is detrimental to individual and social health. Here, we are reminded of Rambriksha Benipuri’s essay “ Gehun banam Gulab” “ (गेहँ बनाम गुलाब”), where he emphasizes the necessity of striking a wholesome balance between worldly or mundane needs and aesthetic and spiritual aspirations. Benipuri emphasizes that it is the upliftment of aesthetic and spiritual needs that make man, else there is no essential difference between man and animal. ‘Science simplifies life and literature beautifies life.’

Unfortunately, the modern education system doesn't have even the scantest regard for the other dimensions of education, it’s a sole focus is to make learners financially fit and money-minting machines. ‘Are the universities providing the right material for the nation-building operation? asks S.Radhakrishnan in his essay ‘Science, Humanities and Religion’. The answers is loud and clear. This question forces us to think deeply about the deteriorating condition of humanities. The crisis, if not tackled on time, will certainly pose a serious threat to human civilization, it will be on the brink of collapse. We won’t be able to produce the complete man, rather a man full of dysfunctions and deformities. Today, many parents are ashamed of children who pursue careers in arts and humanities.

They are normally reluctant and indisposed to enroll their wards in arts and humanities and it’s mostly their last priority. They want their children to be ‘financially literate’, other literacies don't matter for them. Most of the time, against the interest and inclination of their children, parents force them to pursue a career in science and engineering and they end up in frustration. Let’s first discuss the potential advantages of reading arts and humanities, with its disadvantageous implications as well when it is ignored. Arts and humanities play a decisive role in democracy.

A successful democracy needs citizens who are full of understanding and empathy. Without empathy, there would be a hierarchy, harassment, hegemony and marginalization. Arts and humanities teach us the art of critical and analytical thinking. This enables us to eschew the uncritical and conformist acceptance of existing social structures. We learn to question the prevailing unfairness of society. These traits are crucial for the survival of democracy. In the absence of these qualities in citizens, the government would be dictatorial and draconian. Empathy teaches us to identify with the common human problems & predicaments. As Alfred Adler, an Austrian doctor, says, “Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another”. Without empathy, the world would be an inhabitable place.

Humanity is the record of trials and tribulations, victories and vanquishment of human experiences and endeavors. Through these stories, we learn to cope with the sudden misfortunes of life with patience, courage and optimism. It is the treasure house of worldly wisdom and teaches us how to live a better life. I will take a few examples to drive home my views. The Gita (to be read as a great piece of literature, not only a religious text) is one of the best guides to live a joyous and ecstatic life. It teaches us life-changing lessons like the sense of duty, detachment, maintaining equanimity, acceptance, the law of karma, etc. The Ramayana is another great reservoir of worldly wisdom. It teaches us the ideals of relationships, the value of humility, the path of righteousness, treating everyone equally, patience, determination, the victory of good over evil, etc. Shakespeare’s plays are a timeless guide to human behavior and action. They are replete with practical philosophies of life.

Othello, for example, gives the message that doesn't be credulous and naive, Macbeth warns us of the adverse consequences of vaulting and unbridled ambition. Hamlet alerts us of the deadly repercussions of indecisiveness and King Lear exhorts us to shun favoritism and partiality. Humanities teach us to learn from errors of the past, guides the present and paves the way for the future. Here, I am reminded of these lines from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem ‘A Psalm of Life’. Trust no Future, however pleasant! Let the dead Past bury its dead! On "Opportunity for Youth", Jawaharlal Nehru states that "Thought without action is abortion. Action without thought is folly.” Nehru conveys that the happiest man is he who is able to strike a balance between thought and action. Without the coordination between thought and action, life would be topsy-turvy. Literature plays a very crucial socio-cultural role. It makes us aware of the core of our existence—our humanness.

There are two prime purposes of literature: delight (ananda) and eradication of ignorance (avidya) which is the root cause of sorrow. In other words, literature gives us instruction and delight, education and entertainment. In the Indian context, all worldly and spiritual pursuits are measured by their role in the attainment of Pususartha, the four ends of life—dharma (righteousness), Artha (worldly prosperity), kama (satisfaction of desires) and mokhsa (liberation from sorrows). No activity is an end in itself-not even acquiring knowledge. applies to literature also. Do some people think that if there are different shastras for the “four ends of life” (Dharmashastra for Dharma, Arhtashastra for Artha, Kamashastra for Kama & Mokshashastra for Moksha) what is the need and relevance of literature? The answer lies in the fact that literature encompasses the essence and ethos of all four shastras. Instructions conveyed through literature are palatable and easily graspable.

Bharatamuni, talking of dramaturgy, says this is the ‘fifth’ Veda—branch of knowledge.-and it ensures “righteousness, good reputation, long long life, well being, increase in mental ability” and provides “guidance to ordinary people in the conduct of life (and also help them) have serious thoughts” (Natyashashtra). Bhamaha, a Sanskrit politician, says: “Composition of good poetry produces ability in dharma, artha, kama, moksha, also in arts. It also confers pleasure and fame. (Kāvyālaṅkāra)”. Artists, poets and writers are largely progressive. Their soul is restless to see the agony and affliction of humanity. They want to build a society free from distress, despondency, injustice and inequality. The sensitive soul of artists cannot withstand injustices and atrocities to be perpetrated. They strive to create an egalitarian society. They yearn to eliminate orthodoxy from society.

Literature plays a pivotal role in sublimating the primitive instincts and urges of man. Some critics define literature as a criticism of life and this criticism is done with the purpose to better and beautify life. Expansion and evolution are the eternal quests of human beings, they are by nature progressive and try their best to avoid contraction. Humanities play an instrumental role in the expansion of human personality. It has the capacity to change both the head and heart. It is all-inclusive and all-encompassing in its approach, it does not create a hierarchical society and has always acted like catalysts for revolutions. There is innate divinity in man and his divinity lies dormant because of ignorance and temptations of life. Literature is the means to discover the hidden divinity of mankind. Literature shows light where there is darkness, hope where there is despair and disappointment.

(Krishna Nand Mishra teaches English Literature at Kameshwar Singh, Sanskrit University, Darbhanga. He can be reached at krishnabhu53@gmail.com).

Mishra jee.jpg

Krishna Nand Mishra

Krishna Nand Mishra teaches English Literature at Kameshwar Singh Sanskrit University,Darbhanga. He can be reached at: krishnabhu53@gmail.com

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