Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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The present cannot justifiably see the past in its own image

Decoding Progression of Consciousness to Assess Shortfalls in Present Understanding of Past Events

In man’s effort to make sense of life and the universe is the basis for the birth and growth of consciousness. The corollary of this truism is, given the fact of the immensity of the prospect of sizing up what is evidently infinite and therefore beyond a complete comprehension, consciousness is also always in a state of expansion, incorporating along the way all new experiences and interpretations of the world and the universe. This progress of consciousness, though generally beyond relapse to earlier stages, can hardly be said to be linear, for perceptions and interpretations of life can vary, and have multiple answers though not radically opposed to each other, as for instance this is seen in the emergence of many different religions, all aimed at addressing and resolving some of the endemic anxieties of life and death. There have been several chroniclers of this progress of human consciousness, among the latest is American intellectual Jeremy Rifkin, author of the influential “The Empathic Civilisation” and several more. Rifkin simplifies the picture for us by categorising them into broad consciousness eras in his theory on how humans are interconnected by empathy and if humans allow the flourishing of an empathic civilisation, it may actually mean a rescue from imminent extinction of their species brought by their unstainable fossil fuel driven economy. Rifkin contends how the fundamental basis of all economy can be summed up in one word – photosynthesis, the phenomenon by which green plants capture and store energy from the Sun. All life forms depend on this stored energy, directly or indirectly to sustain and live. Startlingly, though seven and a half billion humans constitute only one percent of earth’s biomass, they now consume 24 percent of all photosynthesis, and this is what is making the economy unsustainable.

At its most fundamental, human economy is about how successful any group or community of them have been in harnessing photosynthesis energy. For the hunter foragers, the energy at their command was only as much as they were able to hunt and forage. Then came the hydraulic civilisations, which successfully built irrigation systems to domesticate edible plants and harness photosynthetic energy in surplus. A complex organisation of services such as roads, markets, storages, security management also always came along as did some form of writing to augment this management and storage of knowledge of the methods involved. Then came the industrial era which is driven by coal and oil, which again essentially are photosynthetic energy stored in fossil deposits from the Jurassic Era. Writing to document and systematize management of this economy also came to be greatly enhanced by invention of printing technologies and therefore the birth of mass media. In the second phase of the industrial age, energy consumption transitioned majorly to electric, but fossils continued to be the driver, for by then nearly all that humans depended on in everyday life, clothes, medicines, construction materials, consumable household items etc., all came to be fossil based. Read from this standpoint, the fight against climate change is with the aim of reversing some of these trends in the consumption pattern and management of photosynthesis.

Alongside this progression of energy consumption modes, Rifkin notes there was also a complementary progression of human consciousness. Hence, the hunter-forager era belonged to the mythological age, and all hunter forager communities will always have myths and superstitions to depend on in their effort to understand life and its many unknowns. With the advent of hydraulic civilisation, arrived the theological era, and without exception, in all these societies were born organised religions, the great Abrahamic religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and more. Then came the industrial age and with it the enlightenment thinking based on science and reason. The first phase was the era of ideologies but when this was not enough to explain all of life’s many intricacies, the psychological age came to be. As a litmus test to confirm this contention of an ever-changing nature of human consciousness through the centuries, just take the hypothetical case of a child whose behaviour is seen as abnormal in any given society. What reason would our grandparents would have attributed the phenomenon and what would we in the modern time have seen it as. The remedial measures our grandparents would have sought and those we would have resorted to now would also probably be completely different, for we belong to different eras of consciousness. Indeed, there are now thinkers and analysts who believe too much dependence on ideas of the enlightenment age, or roughly the coming of the nation state, such as John Locke, Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud etc., great as they and their ideas are, may be inhibiting us from full comprehending our current realities, thereby causing new but avoidable social hysterias and neuroses. Sometimes, as philosophers J. Krishnamurti and Allan Anderson engaged in a video-recorded, 18-hour conversation in 18 different episodes, available for free access on another one of the internet age’s ubiquitous platform – YouTube – we often need to break free of the prisons of perspectives set by past knowledge.

This reflection on the idea that consciousness evolves constantly and it is far from being a static principle, is important in the Northeast region’s own effort, therefore Manipur’s as well, to understand itself and its past. Too often for comfort, the elites emerging from the region have tended to project their own consciousness into the past and draw conclusions, often moralistic ones, inferring that their judgments by today’s standards, of social phenomenon and events of another era, are what actually were. Missing in the process are efforts to take into account the driving logics determined by the consciousness of the time. In the zeal and campaign for nationality and nation formation today, what is often taken for granted and ignored is that the notions of community a hundred or two hundred years ago may not have extended beyond village or clan, and actions and relationships of people then would have been determined by loyalties that did not extend beyond this consciousness. Moreover, as another great philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, famously said, “Happiness are the blank pages of history”, history as an academic subject has indeed been a study of pathology of the past. It has a tendency of recording only abnormal morbidities, and neglect those periods of normalcy and harmony. Literature, oral or written, which all human societies are familiar with, in this sense, is a parallel and much more comprehensive testimony of historical periods and events. Hence, the nuanced understanding of Tsarist Russia from reading Leo Tolstoy or Feodor Dostoyevsky arguably cannot ever be had from reading historical records of the period. Anna Karenina’s suicide cannot be material for history but it does tell of the anxieties of that period which few or no historian can fathom. In the NE and Manipur too, there would be many fables, folklores and other stories of friendship, fraternity, comraderies amongst the communities which the elites of today see as sworn adversaries. These too cannot be ignored.

Furthermore, even if the past of the Northeast region were to be studied only from records left behind by the British, undoubtedly master documenters of the Saxonic intellectual tradition as Johan Galtung puts it, the region and its issues looked substantially different when seen from different vantages of the British headquarters in Shillong and Sylhet. Prof. Gunnel Cederlof’s book “Founding an Empire on India’s North-Eastern Frontiers 1700-1840”, which depends for a large part on British records from Sylhet, throws up very interesting perspectives on problems of the Northeast that many in the region have known. As for instance, we seldom have heard of a boundary dispute between Tripura and Manipur over an elephant hunting ground. Likewise, the loyalty of many in Sylhet seems to have been with the Manipur king, and hence the official who signed the 1762 treaty with the East India Company enlisting Manipur’s support in all British expeditions in the Northeast region and Burma, on behalf of the Manipur King Bheigyachandra, also known as Jai Singh and Chingthungkhomba, was a Sylheti Bengali. Obviously, boundaries and community affiliations would have been very different then, therefore it would be wrong and unfair for present day scholars to simply project their consciousness in the assessments of issues that prevailed in past historical eras without trying to understand how these same events may have been seen and assessed by people of those eras. This also is a call for moderation from this vantage, the controversy over the proposed Chandrakriti park at Behiang in South Manipur, and a decision whether it should or should not be carried forward.

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