The college I work at has a policy of students wearing uniforms, from which they are exempted on all Wednesdays. The previous Wednesday, one girl student had donned a fancy costume, perhaps just to celebrate her newly gained freedom of college life.
The dress looked good on her. It wasn’t vulgar either. However, some senior students had problems and they reported this unwelcoming tendency in the junior girl student to the authorities. Following this step, the girl student received a statutory warning from the department. Later that day, I was asked to give a lecture on the dress code accepted by the college. I was divided about what my stand should be, especially when I did not see anything wrong with the dressing of the girl, personally. However, I must also do the job I am asked to, right? So I went to their class. Started talking about the accepted dress codes at college. That was when the girl stood up and asked me, “Sir, aren’t we living in free and independent India? Why should we then bother about what someone else thinks about my clothing?”
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If you have been into teaching career, you may know the answer to her question. At least, you may know how to answer her question.
“The general rules of a society are important. We must not question some codes of conduct,” I said. She nodded, quite understandingly. For me, the teacher, the answers were as deceptive as a piece of advice from a “how-to” website. At that moment though, I did not have a better option.
The question of the girl student made me think about the apparent breach between national independence and individual freedom. Individual freedom is more of a question of morality than a political idea. However, as I understand it, politics has a lot to with the idea of ‘individual freedom’ too. All politics throughout the world make use of this grand notion in order to succumb freethinking individuals to participate in their ideological circus.
The girl student of mine was clearly a victim of the same circus. If national independence corresponds directly to personal freedom, shouldn’t we all be free? What is freedom? Is it a metaphor for following social conventions? What else is freedom other than that?
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Perhaps all definition of freedom is flawed, much as the idea of ‘individual freedom’ itself. As Carl Jung suggests in his seminal work, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, the purpose of human life is to acquire knowledge and understanding about one’s existence. This motivating concept is enough to drive me through this puzzling mud of a question about ‘freedom’. In order to share an insight that I gathered recently, I would like to draw your attention to the recently released second installment in the 300 movie series. Directed by Noam Murro, “300: Rise of an Empire” portrays the gruesome battle between the Persians and the Greeks.
The motivation that holds the soldiers of Greece together against their mighty enemy, the war-machine of Persia is the glory of martyrdom. “For glory” the army of Greece confronts the Persians. Significantly enough, a discourse of “freedom” surfaces intermittently throughout the movie. Although in the movie, it is shown as if democracy is a feeble phenomenon when compared to battles and bloodshed it is interesting to see the way freedom is portrayed. The soldiers don’t doubt, for a minute the glory of martyrdom. They are, on the contrary see it as an opportunity to establish their bravery and courage and of course freedom. One can observe a valuable message here. I am not sure if Noam Murro was aware if this, or was any of his writers.
The way a soldier constructs within his mental walls, an image of martyrdom and glory and the freedom that results from practicing those two previous virtues, every individual living in an independent nation has the chance to assert one’s freedom. The glory of martyrdom, under the circumstances, is what drives the brave soldiers of Greece forward. If we can apply this psychological tactics to our life in an independent nation, individual freedom would no longer be a taboo. What the soldiers of Greece and the Spartans use in their combat as a strategy is the simple technique of putting their imagination into use.
This one idea can change the way we structure our communities and social hierarchy. The individual can have full freedom in his mind and still be in harmony with the state or the social structure. Imagination lets one take any form one wants, and cross any hurdle there is in the path to self-fulfillment. A notable suggestion towards this direction comes from Albert Einstein. Here is a popular quote by Einstein, a friend of mine once sent me. “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”
The basic idea of freedom stems from the individual’s responsibility to live in harmony with other higher and complex structures of society. (Or so is the common notion.) However, over the years, perhaps due to the politicization of individual liberation, ‘freedom’ has become a term of high controversy. Individual liberty is often looked upon with the same attitude as bohemianism. Unlike bohemianism, freedom is a concept grounded in universal morality. It stems from the thought that every individual has an equal right to live upon this earth and enjoy the fruit of one’s work. This powerful moral concept has a great significance in forging the idea of ‘individual liberation’. Instead of politicizing this idea, if one can nurture a practice of experiencing freedom within the boundless space of one’s imagination, conflicts such as the one my student felt could be avoided.
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My students understand. They have promised me that next Wednesday they will surely take care of their individual freedom and practice what is permitted by the society. I always got this sensation when I look at their faces that they hear the call of wisdom and their minds are receptive.
I wish a Happy Independence Day for all my Indian readers, friends, and their family.