When I watched Shawshank Redemption for the first time, I was struck, among other things, by a conversation among the prison inmates. It is when Red explains that old Brooks, a long-term prisoner, resorted to violence on being granted parole because he was “institutionalised.” He then elaborates on the psychological effect of imprisonment on those who have been jailed for decades together, but what made a strong impression on me was the apparent connection between ‘institutionalisation’ and incarceration. Is every institution a kind of prison-house, I wondered.
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In trying to answer this intriguing question, I wanted to tackle the root of the problem: the possible origin of most social institutions. Tracing how these institutions developed in the process of human civilisation, I thought, may offer a clue to their real nature and purpose. When I say ‘human civilisation,’ of course, we can conveniently omit the pre-historic age when evolution was still by and large a physical phenomenon, and focus only on the times of recorded history, ever since we have been proud to think of ourselves as the possessors of culture.
At a time when mankind was still largely in its hunting-gathering phase, there was little chance for any organised social behaviour. The ideas of both ‘organisation’ and ‘society’ are the key to understanding all the developments that followed. When every man’s survival meant a daily battle with other (often larger and more ferocious) species, there couldn’t have been much time for socialising, leave alone establishing any rules of conduct. So, once we discount those human activities that were merely survival tactics (such as taming animals and living in settlements) and look closely at what Man did after he began to think over what he was doing, we shall find the roots of all social institutions.
Across different civilisations of the ancient times, there are to be found some fundamental institutions such as marriage and family, religion, a system of government, a legal framework, and suchlike, whose existence cannot merely be explained away as expedient tools of survival. The inherent complexity of many of these systems, right from the ancient times until now, challenges the notion that they were born simply in response to our primordial needs. The caveman’s worship of Fire and Thunder may perhaps be accounted for by fear, but such rudimentary motivations fail to explain the elaborate mythologies created by more sophisticated Greeks, Indians, and Nordic races.
To trace the evolution of all social institutions, we could analyse as an illustrative case the one institution which seems both ubiquitous and enduring—Marriage. The birth of Marriage was an indication of Man moving away from casual sexual encounters and fierce competition among mating rivals. The institution of marriage could ensure that a man had a wife (or several) of his own, and this security allowed room for greater emotional bonding between the man and his wife/wives. (The imposition of monogamy was, no doubt, an afterthought!) The whole question of parenting and other shared domestic responsibilities (over the millennia) has strengthened these ties, making marriage a viable institution across cultures.
The growth of civilisation further refined and embellished the structure, gradually elevating Marriage to the top rung of venerable social institutions. The ascent of Marriage to the powerful status it enjoys today among the must-haves of every culture was not the result of a blind, overnight coup d'état. Its success was orchestrated by great visionaries and inspired thinkers at every stage of human civilisation who realised the joy of loving and sharing, the mutual sense of intimacy between a couple and all that constitutes ‘the bliss of marital life.’ It is to their great credit that they were able to share their vision with less-gifted mortals in order to make the blessings of marriage accessible to every human being. In evidence of this, we can clearly see that, at this day and age, we don’t think of ourselves as getting married primarily in order to eliminate mating competition. Marriage has grown to become the socially recognised repository of love, trust and affection. Odes have been composed in honour of conjugal happiness and the entire genre of romantic narratives (along with a thriving rom-com industry) has been built on this foundation. Thus goes the story of the origin of Marriage and its steady rise to glory. A similar history may be made out for most institutions that exist.
If you look closely, it is true, of course, that every institution that survives today is founded upon a lofty ideal. Marriage, for instance, or even religion. The former was meant to acknowledge and celebrate human love, while the latter was Man’s way of recognising, and also reciprocating, Divine Love. Then arises the inevitable question: why, then, is our world today all but ideal? The corruption, violence, ignorance, hatred and evil that we witness all around obviously could not have been the natural products of an ideal order. So, where exactly did the rot set in? The trouble, I am convinced, lies in the gap between the initial vision that acted as the driving force and the sadly compromised form it achieved in execution.
Let me explain this further. Every social institution was created by some visionary leaders of every community, who were inspired by a praiseworthy ideal that they wanted to share with the rest of the society. Love, Justice, and Enlightenment were just some of those ideals that these extraordinary minds had conceived of, to be worthy goals for the whole of humanity to aspire for. However, such ideals could not be shared with others in their abstraction. They needed to assume a corporeal form in order to be accessible to the general public that could not partake of these abstract visions. And ay, there’s the rub. Whenever a forbiddingly high ideal is to be made accessible to the lowest common denominator of intelligence, its integrity is inevitably compromised. The form or the outer structure remains and penetrates every section of society, gathering strength all the while, but the spirit quietly departs. In fact, the stronger the physical form an ideal assumes, the farther the final result is likely to be from the spirit behind its conception.
To test this theory, consider a different example. The process of initial compromise and eventual degeneration can be seen at work in the creation of another major institution: organised religion. The curiosity to know more about forces greater than himself prompted Man to contemplate the idea of Divinity. The pioneering thinkers and mystics who felt that they had a direct experience or a revelation of a Supreme Being wanted to share this experience with those who had not. In trying to express the ineffable, they had to resort to much dumbing-down as well as oblique methods of communication, and ultimately ended up creating mythology. Successive generations attached further and further literal meaning to their communication, progressively alienating themselves from the spirit behind the original vision. In the place of a nebulous and tentative conception of the God-Experience, ever open to investigation and exploration, massive groups of human beings now had gods and their families (complete with children, step-mothers, and incestuous relatives!) to worship. Once these gods started multiplying like guinea pigs, Man had to house them somewhere. That accounts for all the imposing physical structures of temples, churches or synagogues that were erected. And what would these gods do in their idle hours, once provided with the security of housing and periodical food offerings? Why, listen to songs that people made up in their praise! Thus, to make the process complete, ritualised forms of worship were prescribed, with a privileged priestly class steadily battening on the remains of the gods. As the structure solidified with the passage of time, the idea of spiritual quest was increasingly lost sight of. In this way, spirituality was institutionalised into Religion.
Institutions, then, are the flawed inventions of fecund minds in order to administer to a near-savage populace a poor imitation of the ideals which they themselves conceive of in abstraction. The ideals which inspired those rare geniuses suffer progressive deterioration as they gain wider and wider currency, finally existing only as a parody of their original selves, but practised dogmatically by the great unwashed masses in the shape of mandatory institutional forms. But, didn’t those great visionaries realise how their cherished ideals would be betrayed by the very forms that they had created? I’m afraid, the answer is yes. Imagine the pain they must have felt when they saw what mankind would make of their pristine and sublime inspirations. I strongly believe it is this anguish that is depicted in the metaphorical story of the Fall of Adam and Eve.
As I explained earlier, the most powerful means of communication available to those inspired thinkers among our ancestors was myths and allegorical stories, by which they tried to crystallise their unique vision of our future. The familiar fable of the Fall of Man is one such illustration of their most heart-breaking realisation—that human beings tend to corrupt everything that comes to them in an ideal state. The Paradise, of course, stands for all that is ideal, and sadly, Man proves unworthy of the great gift and loses it by sheer wilfulness. Then, consider how ironical it is, that this poignant symbolism should have been turned into one of the many bed-time stories that religion lulls us with!
Once you recognise the process of degeneration that sets in with institutionalisation, you can apply the same principle to evaluate any of the powerful social institutions that exist today. For instance, the highest aspirations of intellectual curiosity and the liberal pursuit of knowledge have been converted into the degree-producing education system that we are saddled with today. Or, think of how the law, with its bureaucratic judicial system and ridiculous loopholes, has come to represent the more abstract ideal of Universal Justice. Every institution is, in fact a huge grinding system that works by simplifying emotions into conventional expressions, ideas into procedures and inspiration into habit. Once reduced to such an unimaginative and impersonal set of rules, rituals and formats, every ideal becomes a shadow of itself. The practical advantage of this, however, is that all those who cannot be convinced of ideas can be conditioned and disciplined into following conventions. A major share of humanity, unfortunately, falls under the category of those impervious to ideals, and this is where the idea of ‘organised social behaviour’ comes into play. Institutions are super-efficient, self-sustaining engines that can be run with minimal effort and zero imagination.
I am sure you must have seen those curious desiccate flowers that many of us preserve inside books. Devoid of the true colour, fragrance, and above all, the gentle freshness that characterise flowers, the desiccated ones merely retain the shape, hardened and coarsened, a grim reminder of their original texture. Come to think of it, are all institutions like these dead specimens that have only been hardened by time? Unfortunately, no. If they were only fossilised structures incapable of any real harm, the world we live in would be a much happier place indeed. But, the truth, alas, is quite the contrary. In fact, the most dangerous aspect of many institutions is that they work like fake currencies. They assume the value of what they are not and pass undetected among the less discerning. The common man mistakes conformity to religion for spiritual fulfilment and a degree certificate for intellectual attainment. These institutions do not merely represent an ideal, but replace it altogether. The very fact of being married takes away the obligation on the couple to seek, express or experience that sublime and mysterious quality of Love; the criminal acquitted by a court of law for want of evidence brags that Justice has been done. What to say of the deluded young graduate holding a paper that unequivocally declares that she has acquired all the wisdom requisite to call her, henceforth, ‘educated’? To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, where is the Knowledge we have lost in Education?
Talking of fake currency here reminds me, ironically, of the one major institution—the government—which has the longest history of debates and polemics in its evolution. One would think that after all the constant wrangle, we might have hit upon the ideal form: but the Government today remains the ultimate fake currency! Where we need a divinely inspired ruler or benign and farsighted leaders, we have corrupt and vote-bank-pandering politicians, backed by divisive, unprincipled parties. Cash-for-vote is only the latest form of ugliness to emerge from our already rotten system of governance. A wise and disillusioned E.M. Forster could declare more than half a century ago that even democracy is only a compromised form, a sort of least-of-all-evils. He gives it only two cheers, instead of three.
Now, there is a question you may legitimately ask: are all institutions, then, irredeemably evil? In other words, is there no chance for Love within Marriage, Justice within Law, and Enlightenment within our Educational system? Thankfully, they are not. Institutions are too mechanical and impersonal to be characterised as evil, per se. They allow all evils to thrive within them, of course, but they are not inherently evil. Left in the hands of the common people who are not gifted with any extraordinary intelligence, sensitivity or courage, they become the breeding ground for all evils. Remember, institutions are not corrupted by the positively wicked, but merely by the incompetent. After all, one need not be a bad person to be in an unhappy marriage or a hard-core criminal in order to be an unenlightened postgraduate. Simply by failing to rise to the ideal of selfless love or the liberal spirit of enquiry, you may be left with the rotting carcass of an institution rather than the uplifting spirit behind it.
All it requires is a bit of honesty to acknowledge that religion gets reduced to rituals; the shell of marriage becomes a set of social shackles; knowledge is measured by marks scored—these are certainly the consequences of the natural degeneration of the system. But, if this process of decay is inevitable, is it also irreversible? What does it take to stem the rot? The good news is, it is definitely possible for an individual to infuse life into any of these institutions, but only at a strictly personal level. With a sincere effort of imagination and true soul-searching, one may indeed discover God within the church or by an unquenchable thirst to learn, one may find the means to gain unfettered knowledge within the confines of a college. By consciously overcoming your innate selfishness and investing effort into caring for another person, you may bring that delicate spirit of Love alive even within the rigidly codified system of marriage. But the crucial thing to remember is that, whatever you do, you can only elevate the system for yourself. The institution, as a whole, can never be redeemed by the actions of one individual or one hundred. The coldly impersonal grindstone will remain what it is.
History is filled with the cases of spectacular failures of great people who have tried to make a lasting change to the system and redeem it for everybody. Martin Luther, Joan of Arc and Ramanuja could defy and challenge Religion; their historical achievement is certainly significant, but religion to the average man on the street still remains the same. Kennedy and Lincoln made a significant difference to government and political policies, but the natural degeneracy of the system outlasted their attempts at reform. Raja Rammohan Roy could fight for the blatant injustices of child marriage and Sati to be rooted out, but which reformer can ensure that every man is a loving, caring husband?
What this really means is, once you recognise the nature of social institutions, the onus is completely on you to make the best of them. Only you can put life into the empty shell, and not vice versa. Being married will never teach you love, being in college will never fill you with wisdom, whereas, you, the individual, can impart a higher spirit into any system, in whatever state of decay it may be. But, this task is in no way going to be easy. It would be an uphill struggle, an everyday battle against the temptation to settle comfortably for the least difficult option of letting the institutions govern your life.
Or a greater course still, and one chosen by the strongest individuals who are not daunted by the petty demands of society, is to go straightaway for the substance rather than the scaffold built around it. Set out on a personal exploration to find Love, Knowledge and Spiritual fulfilment outside the traditional bounds of marriage, universities and religious denominations. In fact, the great visionaries I spoke of were indeed the ones who received their inspiration only by hazarding to explore the unknown and not by trying to think from inside a shoebox. Even if you do not think of yourself as the next great leader whose grand vision is about to change the world, this more daring course would at least make you a much better human being. There have been such exceptional individuals all through the course of human history, and I can think of at least one such person among the popular public figures in Tamilnadu.
Let me conclude by telling you the extraordinary story of what one of those old, wise men could foretell thousands of years ago about our society. It is, as before, a story written by a sensitive idealist frustrated by the ignorance of those around. This wise man set out on a gruelling journey in search of God. All the others in his tribe awaited his return with the message from God, but were growing impatient. As their wait prolonged, they decided to make an idol—a golden calf—for themselves so that they may have something to worship and make offerings to. It apparently didn’t matter much to them that their absent leader had gone on their behalf and in search of the true ideal. They wanted quick solutions and not necessarily the right one. Further, they were not ready to put themselves through the trouble of finding the truth on their own, but were quick to find fault with the delay of the only responsible man who had undertaken the mission. When the man finally returned, the story goes, he was so furious at the false idol they had created that he put most of them to death.
The mythological element apart, this story explains the nature of most social institutions. First, that the common run of people who cannot subject themselves to the discipline of undertaking any quest don’t think twice about betraying the ideals of the best among them. Further, when such people create an idol of their choice, they would stick to it and swear by it, even if they happen to know that it is a false god. The golden calf of that age has been transformed into the formidable ‘holy cows’ of modern society.