More about the Brahmin

I really enjoyed Jonathan Haidt’s book The Happiness Hypothesis, but there’s an idea in the last chapter I find amazing, and not in a good way. It’s the idea that ultimate happiness and meaning come from coherence between our senses, our thoughts, and the society we live in.

Haidt gives the example of a Hindu Brahmin relishing food that’s been offered to the gods, purifying himself in the Ganges, and feeling a socially sanctioned repulsion toward people of lower castes. That’s an ideal to strive for?

I wrote about this in an article about Haidt’s book and two other recent books on happiness, but my dissatisfaction grew (if possible) when I read Rohinton Mistry’s book A Fine Balance recently. The book tells the excruciating tale of what life is like for two “untouchables” trying to survive and make something of their lives. (I blogged about it here.)

Had Haidt read this novel first, I believe he could not have written the final chapter of his book as he did. Mistry gives us the caste system “up close and personal” leaving us no more able to idealize the Brahmin than we could idealize a slaver-owner in the American south. Haidt would surely not make an exemplar out of the master sipping a cool mint julep on his veranda while watching his slaves pick cotton!

Maybe because India is far away and culturally different from his own country, Haidt perceives its social customs as, well, untouchable. But the more you learn about caste, the more compassion you feel (for the victims of the system) and the less deference.

I sent Haidt my mostly appreciative article, which he kindly read and commented on. At first he didn’t respond to my criticism of what he said about the Brahmin. When I wrote back—ahem, do you really regard the Brahmin as an ideal?—he said he did have mixed feelings about the Brahmin and negative feelings about the caste system in general. Nevertheless, we could learn something from the example because of the way "they feel deeply connected to God, history, and each other."

But gee, what do we really learn? I think we learn that it’s all very well to conform, and feel comfortable, and enjoy the mesh between ourselves and our culture, but only if the culture is worth meshing with. Part of living a better life is figuring out what we should fit in with and what we should try to change.

In the world according to Haidt, there's not much of a reason to fight against injustice. As long as I’m the Brahmin, not the outcast, the master and not the slave, I don’t have a problem. My life can be not only happy but meaningful.

If that’s what happiness and meaning are, surely we should want much more!


Ophelia said...

Good lord - he said that in so many words? '[T]he example of a Hindu Brahmin...feeling a socially sanctioned repulsion toward people of lower castes'?

The mind boggles. Isn't it...sort of obvious that that's not a good idea, and why it's not?

Maybe it's just that he's trying too hard to empathize with alien ways of thinking. But...that can be a mistake.

Jean Kazez said...

Those aren't his words, but he didn't think I had misinterpreted him when I showed him my article.

From p. 227-228 of his book--
He offers the Brahmin as an example of a coherent, meaningful way of life because, if you are the Brahmin, "viscerally" you feel a need to "respect the invisible lines separating pure from profane spaces, and you have to keep track of people's fluctuating levels of purity before you touch them or take anything from their hands" etc etc. (there's more)

This visceral understanding contrasts with the fact that we in the west can't understand why "contact with a dog, a menstruating woman, or a person of low caste can render a person of high caste temporarily impure and unfit to make an offering."

Lots of empathy here for the happy Brahmin, but none for the victims of the caste system. Ugh...it makes me dubious of the whole positive psychology movement. It's about me-me-me and my journey to sublime happiness. Never mind the serious problems in the world I may be causing or overlooking.