Friday, February 12, 2016

'Hindu' Theory of Creativity

This post is not about an idea that just popped up in my head, but about something that I saw. And, that, though uncharacteristic, is most appropriate. I just came across, while reading a book about 'Genius Clusters', a 'Hindu' theory of creativity!

I am reading Eric Weiner's Geography of Genius, a concoction of travelogue and psychological theories, representing a tour through spots of great creative flourishing in human history. I am about half-way through, and have already travelled through Athens, Hangzhou, Florence and Edinburgh - and currently in Calcutta! It is a chatty read, serious ideas and wackiness bound together, and oftentimes, as a book of this nature would invariably be, too simplistic. But, every now and then, there is an idea worth all my effort, and my current pulse-rusher is this notion that Hindus have a different notion of creativity.

Here is the argument in brief: That, in Judeo-Christian, currently Western tradition, the idea of creativity is ex nihilio, from nothing. So, the world was created from nothing, and a creator creates something from nothing. Contrary to this, the Hindu idea, Mr Weiner cites Ralph Hallman of Pasadena City College who wrote a paper in 1971 titled 'Towards A Hindu Theory of Creativity', is that creativity is illumination, seeing rather than making. Metaphorically, the creator is a lightbulb, which, once illuminated, brings the room in view. This, in his view, is much like the Chinese notion, where one can not create anything new, but just rearranges the old into a new order. And, anticipating the usual dismissive comments about this being impractical nonsense, Mr Weiner invokes a supreme authority, Steve Jobs, who said: "When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty, because they didn't really do it, they saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while."

This distinction is useful to me at two levels. The first is in itself. In a sense, all creativity is discovery. Einstein did not DO General Theory of Relativity, he postulated, and then proved through, certain ways of nature's working. Darwin did not MAKE Evolution, and Goethe rearranged words to create beautiful poetry. Ditto for Mozart, though we perhaps should say he could hear, rather than see. Uber is indeed a new way of rearranging our world, rather than making something from nothing. However, there is this modern Genius thinking, where the idea of special gifts, employed to justify a new aristocracy and inflated pay packets, rule the roost. The place left vacant by Divine Sovereigns has been taken over by these new Creative Gods, who, for most part, write codes for commercial applications these days. They claim to create something from nothing, disowning their debt to the rest of the humanity and all the little people, and promoting a new brand of selfish, self-obsessed being. In contrast, I would much rather be a Hindu - I indeed am, there is no escape - and be thankful! All I can ever do, anyone can ever accomplish, is to illuminate one small corner of one's universe, for a sliver of time!

The other significance is in explaining, yet again, how culturally loaded our current practises, in business and in academia, really are. I have been privy to many very patronising conversations in British universities how Chinese and Indian students do not get plagiarism, and how they are serial cheats! Once you start seeing the world in a culturally literate way, while the need to understand plagiarism norms while studying at a British university remains, the conclusion that the Chinese and the Indian are trying to cheat may be off the mark. The copy-and-catch-up innovation, that so offends the Western commentators (who, by the way, do the same, but live in the bliss of ignorance of debt), may rather be quite natural for the Chinese (it was natural, in a different sense, for nineteenth century Americans too). And, this leads to one of the central tenets of being civilised, accepting that there are more than one ways of seeing the world, and the limitations of the current approach of exporting creativity from Silicon Valley.

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