- Ravi Sinha
Editors' Note: Below is the text of a talk that the author gave to High School students of Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, New Delhi. The students had, surprisingly, chosen "collective" as the theme for their Annual Day activities and invited the author to address them on this theme. We thought it might be of interest to grown ups too.
It is unusual for school students to be worrying about the “collective”. But, then, yours seems to be an unusual school. When I was here the last time, you were pondering the “continuum”. I find it truly remarkable. To grapple with issues and concepts that are deeply philosophical and at the same time of immense practical value – and doing so at a young age – is an ingredient that goes into the making of great civilizations. In a world that seems to revel in everything that is crass and commercial, and in a country that appears like a continent of cacophony and shallowness, this is not expected of you. You and your teachers must be congratulated for swimming against the tide.
Collective is something that falls between a collection and the composite. There is ample space between these two categories, and where exactly does a collective fall in this space depends on what kind of collective we are talking about. But let us first talk a bit about the endpoints of this space.
A collection can be gathering together of arbitrary and distinct elements as in a mathematical set. A set comprising of a frog, a princess, a pencil and a magic wand will qualify as a collection. A collection can also be of identical but distinct elements. A collection of four identical horses pulling Raja Dasharath’s chariot – or ten identical horses pulling King Solomon’s chariot – is also a collection, although you could also call it a team of horses. You may notice that we are already shifting from the concept of an arbitrary collection, although you would still not say that the chariot is being pulled by a collective of horses.
A composite, on the other hand, is like a diamond or like a bucket of water. The tightly bound crystal of carbon atoms – otherwise known as diamond – makes it impossible for the atoms to assert their individuality. Similarly, the molecules of water, each comprising of two hydrogen atoms and one of oxygen, make a bucket of water only by losing their individuality. Diamond is not a carbon collective, nor is water an H2O collective.
Humans are very different from horses and certainly very different from atoms and molecules. They should not be harnessed into chariots, nor should they be nailed or dissolved into a composite humanity in a manner that they lose their freedom and individuality. Unfortunately, humans are yet to attain such a simple and eminently reasonable goal. For a vast majority of them, being harnessed into exploitative and unjust systems has been their fate. Of course, systems have changed – generally for the better, although sometime for the worse – and seen over a long span of history the reins of the harness have loosened somewhat. But, being harnessed into the chariot of someone else is still the fate of a vast majority. Similarly, they are still tethered to oppressive customs and traditions. Dissolution of individuals into communities that submerge identities and enforce myriad forms of unfreedom remains the fate for a large majority of humans.
This morning I wish to make an argument – and hope to convince some of you, if not all – that collectives have played an important role in weakening the reins of oppression and unfreedom and the desirable collectives of the future will play an even more effective role in humanity’s march to collective prosperity and individual freedom.
But I should not run ahead of myself. We should first try to draw a map of the conceptual terrain covered by the word collective. We started delineating its boundaries by referring to collections and composites. We will stay at the boundaries for a while before moving in to the central meaning and in this process we will hopefully uncover some of the tensions within this concept that endow it with richness and power.