Necessity and Freedom

Defining Liberation

T Vijayendra

Man desires liberation. So goes a traditional Indian saying. But what does liberation mean? In Indian texts there is the term 'Moksha' for liberation. Liberation from what? From Maya which means bondage. The soul desires to be liberated from the bondage of this world to unite with the Ultimate Being. The bondage comes in the form of love for earthly things, for property, for wife, children and relatives and for gratification of senses. One is supposed to cut this bondage of Maya. A popular practice has been to go on a pilgrimage.

What happens in a pilgrimage? One passes through different ecological regions and climate. The dress and food are different. One has to learn to eat different foods and so some of the bondage of sense gratification goes. One learns to sleep in different places, live on low budgets and lead a frugal life. One meets different people—different castes, regions. One learns to relate with them. Thus slowly the bondage breaks. One returns wiser, has a distance from the erstwhile loved ones, has become a simpler and frugal person. This concept of pilgrimage is common to many cultures. For example among Muslims, people go to Haj and return as Haji. A Haji is a wise person.

So what has happened to a person when he goes to a pilgrimage and returns? Essentially he has learned to care less for ‘I’ and ‘mine’ and learned to relate with a host of ‘other’. This has 'freed' him from many prejudices of past as he has seen that the ‘other’ is equally valid. He is on the path of liberation. Thus one can give a secular meaning to liberation. Liberation means an ability to relate with the 'other' on a basis of equality.

Well, a person is called 'liberated' if he sheds some of his prejudices. You are liberated if you can relate with women as persons and not as sex objects. If you are comfortable with people of different sexual orientation you will be called liberated. And so on. Liberation implies recognition of other's rights and a brotherhood. Hence the slogans of the French Revolution were "liberty, equality, fraternity".

In India's freedom movement relating with the other was seen important as part of nation building exercise. In the early days people joined the movement but stuck to their prejudices. Later eating from a common kitchen, inter-caste marriage became important. Ambedkar also saw inter-caste marriage as important for breaking the barrier of caste in his book, 'Annihilation of Caste'. In the Communist movement, eating beef by Hindus was considered as a step to break the prejudices of communalism.

Critics will say that it did not go far enough; it was window dressing as one can still see the influence of caste in the society and politics. How does one go far enough?

To change oneself, to be rid of one's prejudices, one has to begin with the very first question of philosophy. Know Thyself! Who are we? What are we? We live in society and relate with various members of the society. In the process we become a microcosm of the society. Each individual is different. The trouble is that we don't have an inventory of various aspects of our being. Hence know thyself.

As a microcosm, there is in each one of us male and female, adult and young, rich and poor, exploiter and exploited, oppressor and oppressed, upper caste and lower caste, healthy and sick and so on. It is how we work out these in our life determines the extent of liberation. So for each one there has to be both a collective and individual path of liberation.

How do we know ourselves? How do we make an inventory? Essentially it is a process of self reflection. There are several ways it can occur. At a consciousness level it can occur through travel, reading, listening. However real self reflection takes place through practice, through action on one's beliefs, through taking part in struggles of the other.

Men helping women's groups or upper caste persons working with lower caste groups often are liberated with many prejudices. In the Communist movement many youth from bourgeois background are very active in the working class movement. In the movements, as Mao said, 'Live with the people, eat with the people and sleep with the people' that creates a situation of self reflection.

It will be argued that the above describes the liberation of the privileged. How does it work with the oppressed?

Frantz Fanon, in the context of Black Africa's struggle against slavery and apartheid, argued that counter violence helps in liberation. When a black man looks up and finds that the white man is no bigger than himself, when he hits a white man and draws blood and sees a white man scared, then he feels as a man himself—he receives a baptism of blood.

"For in the first phase of the revolt killing is a necessity, killing a European is killing two birds with one stone, eliminating in one go oppressor and oppressed: leaving one man dead and the other man free;" "Violence is man re-creating himself."
—Frantz Fanon,
The Wretched of the Earth

In the Chinese Revolution they used to have 'cry bitterness' meetings. In the meeting the poor used to recall the suffering, the beating and exploitation they had during the period of pre liberation. People would cry, curse the bitter past and vow never to allow the past to come back. These meetings had a liberating effect. This author himself has seen such scenes in India during similar meetings among the freed bonded labour and child labour.

Liberation is a historical process involving both the larger society and the individual. At a larger society level it involves redistribution of wealth, allowing equal opportunity to all. At an individual level it implies self reflection, an ability to relate with different people equally. Mankind is moving from the 'realm of necessity to the realm of freedom'.

Vol. 46, No. 48, Jun 8 - 14, 2014