Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Counterproductive Life

Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich was of the opinion that most of us lived a life of counterproductivity.  That is, we defeat ourselves. 

Happiness is one of the most sought after goals in life.  We do a lot of things in order to achieve happiness.  We take up a profession assuming that the job and the salary will bring us happiness.  But soon we find ourselves competing with somebody or the other in order to achieve a higher position in the workplace because we assume that the position is the key to our happiness.  Then we need a house that suits the professional position.  We need a car, the best possible.  Our children should study in the best school in the city.  The fulfilment of every desire leads to more desires.  Desire is unhappiness.  The fulfilment of one desire brings in more desires.  More unhappiness, in other words.  Counterproductive life, Illich called it.  The Buddha had said much the same thing in slightly different words long ago.

The secret to happiness is obviously cutting down our desires.  Learning to live with as less as possible is the prominent key to happiness.  When the whole world is rushing at a breakneck speed towards more and more illusions driven by desires, it may be difficult to stand aside and learn to be content with less and less.  Yet that standing aside is the real key to happiness.

Illich illustrates it with an example.  You buy a car assuming that you are going to gain a lot of time by being able to travel faster at your own convenience.  The truth is that you spend a lot of time getting your car fuelled, waiting at traffic signals and traffic jams, keeping your vehicle in good condition, recuperating in a hospital after a crash, and so on.  Illich made a calculation and found out that the “real speed” of a car in America of 1970s was 3.7 miles per hour.  But people lived under the illusion that they were getting on much faster on the highway to happiness. 

Illusions.  They drive most of our lives.  When we finally learn that most of the things we did or acquired made little qualitative difference in our lives, we are too old to do anything about it. 

When I think of the current craze in India to bring about a religious rashtra, I am reminded of Illich’s counterproductivity theory.  Let us assume that we do succeed in bringing about that dream-rashtra.  Is it going to be a utopia?  Has any nation ever been happier for being theocratic or homogeneous in any way?  The most bizarre truth is that the present desh bhakts are doing exactly what they condemned in the theocratic nations earlier!

Once we achieve the dream-rashtra, we will soon find ourselves disillusioned.  We will start dividing ourselves into many other groups: linguistic, for example.  Such divisions are inevitable as long as people are driven by desires to be one up on the other.  Today we want to be one up on Muslims or Christians or whatever.  Tomorrow we will want to be one up on Tamils or Mizos or whatever.  

It is better to start reading history with a genuine desire to know what revolutions achieved so far.  Nothing except meaningless and heartless sacrifices of human lives.  No revolution has made the world a better place.  It is better to usher in the revolution in the heart.  As Ivan Illich said, “Carry a candle in the dark, be a candle in the dark, know that you’re a flame in the dark.”


  1. Sometimes it is more than a desire. It is the fear deep within of what others would. Today they want to be a Hindu rashtra or whatever because they are afraid that others would take advantage of their diversity if they become Buddha . Who are those others then? That's the disadvantage of diversity. If everything goes right diversity brings in the difference.

    Even the Islam religion has diversity within which has caused wars if I am not wrong within their sects.who is to be blamed for that? Human nature I guess.

    1. Human nature, precisely. In fact, I'm suggesting a change in the outlook which I know is rather impractical unless people are ready to change a part of their nature itself. Yet there is no other solution, I think.

      Is it fear really. Or is it a craze for power? I think it's the latter. In a globalised world (which of course is going back to narrow nationalist concepts - breakup of EU, Trump's victory, etc)diversity is not a problem; rather, it is the solution.

      I spoke to quite many people about this. Most of them, Hindus all, give me the reason that they want to avenge the past in which a certain religious people ruled over them, destroyed their gods and temples, and so on. That's the silliest argument I've got so far. And most people I spoke to are of that view.

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