Discovering Millennials: Why The Brain Must Learn To Work Hard?
Suddenly, the next big word is the “millennials”. Immensely important to our present day marketers as this is a generation that is marked by consumption mania. Our classical growth strategy for brands has been to grow through increased penetration and once adequately penetrated, to increase consumption. Which means first more people should buy and then these people should buy more. And here is why the millennials are our apple of the eye. The phenomenal speed with which they buy, change loyalty and their consumption appetite, make them a rare breed, almost like a newly manufactured specie! And of course, we love them.
The question naturally arises – what makes this generation so unique?
Anthropologically, in the evolution journey of Homo Sapiens, a few big milestones have been crucial in the making of the modern man, namely, migration from quadrupedal creatures to becoming bipedal, subsequent shrinking in body size, formation of the thumb, and the formation of neocortex (or the thinking brain). Since the thinking brain appeared, most of our evolution has mainly happened on the back of further refinement of this brain. Man kept acquiring higher and higher IQ and kept bringing home the stars and the moons. After the galactic conquest, his next big invention happened in the field of information technology and bang in the middle of this giant leap were born the millennials!
Born to an open economy and not having witnessed either the aftermath of the world wars or the great depression or partitions of any sort, this is a generation that witnessed the least economic instability and therefore the least financial or social insecurity. One may think this was their biggest advantage. I used to think so too. But now, I have doubts. I am increasingly beginning to conclude what one may call as their greatest strength may soon prove to be a chink in the armor. And I’ll explain why.
The millennials also arrived at a time when their neo-parents too acquired some revolutionary parental wisdom. These parents for the first time saw rapid increase in disposable incomes, thus believing in modernizing the upbringing of their children. The millennials were therefore brought up to “be themselves” without the fear of economic instability looming upon them. The biggest regret of their parents as they looked back was that they were forced to live a life where few could “be themselves”. Economic uncertainty, conservative social construct, high moral grounds, societal expectations and pressures forced millennials’ parents to live a life of constricted claustrophobia and they wanted their offsprings to be free. They gave them freedom of all sorts. The millennials grew up getting all that they wanted. Money, material, social freedom, freedom to choose what they like to study, freedom to dump what they do not like to study, freedom to choose whatever profession they want, freedom to not want a profession, freedom to not do what they do not want to do, freedom to act how they want, and so on. However, the newly defined freedom has come at a cost. And dare I say, a heavy one.
The millennials, despite all the freedom, have developed a new kind of insecurity. Youth counsellors are of the view that a tremendous psychological crisis is seizing the youth of today owing to the massive accountability of taking all their life decisions alone. Since they are now asked to make their own choices (instead of the parents thrusting their wish upon them that their son or daughter should grow up to be a doctor, pilot, etc), they have no one to share the burden of their choices with, in the event that the choices were to unfold as erroneous in the future. This is resulting in a kind of fear. The presence of fear is not the problem. All animals including man have coping mechanisms for fear through ‘fight’ or ‘flight’. The challenge is the millennials have not learnt to fight!
The role of education
Till about the late nineties, a large part of traditional education comprised a lot of hard work. (Of course that had its own plaguing issues – remember the Floydd anthem for us as students? “….all in all you’re just another brick in the wall...”). Periodic tables with its unending array of elements had to be memorized; there were no calculators so logarithmic calculations had to be manually computed; multiplication tables used to be rote learnt; long poems needed to be remembered by heart; and so on. All of these processes involve exertion of the brain. The natural preference of the brain is to not exert. Neuroscience tells us how the brain refuses to work hard because it has to conserve energy for the involuntary work that it has to do all the time. At any given point in time, if any one part of the human body is always functioning, it is the brain. Even if you are walking and using your limbs alone, the brain is still at work registering the processes and all the signals. We don’t realize this but there is never a moment when the brain does not work. On top of that we have the thought clutters and brain chatters that tirelessly assault the brain. Hence, the brain tries not to expend its energy as it knows it anyway has to keep working most of the time. Now, our compulsory erstwhile education process involving a huge amount of brain exertion quite naturally attracted furious agitation from the students’ fraternity. But what they did not realize then was that this whole unwanted process of exertion was preparing the mind to deal with all unwelcome events that were to follow in life. A massive fight between couples did not lead to divorce, the brain figured out a coping mechanism. A failed exam in school did not end in a suicide, the brain learnt to deal with the consequences. All this, because, the brain knew it had to exert in moments of crisis and solutions wouldn’t flow naturally. It would have to work hard just as it did when it struggled to memorize the dates and events of the Mughal era on the eve of the History exam!
Compare this to our new gen. They have grown up only doing things they like, and boy, don’t we, the pre millennials envy them! For the longest time, I was in complete awe of this generation. What style, what freedom, what a nay-care attitude, and what complete unabashed dismissal of trammels of convention! They inspired me. I started interacting with them closely to understand how they earned such confidence at so early an age?
The more I delve deeper, the real challenge staring us into our face unnerves me! Our beloved millennials have not learnt to fight or exert. The formative years of their brain were spent in doing things they loved to do. To do things we love, we don’t have to exert, it comes naturally. For someone whose brain is naturally geared to solving complex arithmetic problems, it does not learn to exert if it only keeps sharpening its skills on solving such problems. Such brain has to work hard in memorizing long poetry by Shelley, such brain has to exert to understand the import of Wordsworth’s appreciation of Nature, and such brain has to exercise very hard to empathise with Macbeth’s three witches to develop the habit of mind exertion, to build the power of mind endurance. Yes, it is true, once these students graduate to areas of their interest, this knowledge may not have much or any application for them. But that’s okay. In subjecting their brain to the whole exhaustive process of learning, these subjects have left behind an indelible access to a power within. A power that can only be known through exertion. A power that would see them through in times of crisis.
“Taare zameen par” has been an all-time favourite movie of mine. But I now realize, Aamir Khan does make an important statement there which may be much to our liking but the statement has severe implications if not understood properly. In a scene where the teachers are arguing about Ishaan Awasthi’s progress or the lack of it in all subjects other than art which is where he clearly wants to shine, the aspirational teacher Ram Shankar Nikumbh (Aamir Khan) remarks “Ishaan just has to pass in other subjects, his real talent lies in art”. One may take home from this comment that do not make children exert on what they do not like, just get them to focus on their passion. Passion is great, Mr. Khan, but not every child has the advantage of Ishaan Awasthi, whose brain is anyway constantly learning to fight by virtue of his special case of dyslexia, thereby ingraining in him his own coping mechanisms for the future.
Consequence of not learning to fight
Having not learnt to fight, the brain quickly resorts to flight. While on the face of it, this generation is fearless and undaunted, if you get past the surface, you will meet a host of flight emotions and triggers. A very mature and fascinating millennial that I often talk to tells me that all her friends (about 20 year olds) are dating and from the first day of their dating, they start mentally preparing for a potential break up. There are also other nuances such as multiple dating at the same time, etc. All of these essentially point towards a superficial engagement between two individuals who are both always prepared for the worst eventuality because if they get seriously involved in the relationship, and if it were to break, they are not equipped to handle the consequences. So, their coping mechanism is a “flighty” engagement, made more “flighty” through multiple dating partners, thereby fully guarding themselves against any potential “loss”.
Too much of anything is not good. We perhaps saw also a generation that bore the brunt of excess exertion of the brain leading to a fatigued mind incapable of hosting joy and fearlessness and thus found the answer in the extreme opposite. The panacea, as always, lies somewhere in between. The only solution is to bring back the lifestyle of the yesteryears marked by moderation – a trend we are already beginning to see a glimpse of. Bring back exertion in mind control. Let the mind engage deeply with the universe it belongs to and learn to face the consequences of such deep engagement. Not engaging can just not be the solution of the future!
The Psychology Of Surprise And How It Can Help Our Marketers
“If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine; it is lethal.” ― Paulo Coelho
The lady who cleans our office every day is a demure, quiet woman who hardly interacts or emotes. She comes, cleans, leaves. Passively. Every day. Today, she was at her job when I suddenly interrupted the routine and asked her, “Kaisi ho, Irma?” She looked up, had a broad grin and said, “Jee, achhi hoon!”
I noticed Irma had a smile linger on her face for a long time today as she continued dusting the flower pot. Her eyes looked a little more life-ful. And I also noticed that Irma has beautiful eyes.
It took all of a very simple question to brighten up an otherwise placid Irma. All because she got positively surprised on two counts.
- She didn’t expect me to ask about her well-being
- She didn’t expect me to remember her name
There was counter surprise at my end too. I was pleasantly surprised to see Irma emote with me, albeit, with measured expressions.
Surprises are a natural tool that pleases our minds and can be extremely effectively used in our daily lives. The human brain is wired in a way that it has a predicted line of motion for every moment. For example, right now, I am sitting on my couch and writing this note. There is a certain motion around me. All my colleagues are at their desks, working. The brain has predicted this momentum to continue with no change barring occasional disruption when someone has to take a break or when the phone rings. Until lunch time. That is when the next line of motion will start and the brain will re-align itself to predict the new motion. Psychologists say, whenever this silent prediction of the brain is broken with an unexpected event, even if minor, the brain will react.
Animals and humans learn to approach pleasant stimuli and to avoid or defend against aversive ones. This is a primal instinct. According to C. Daniel Salzman, Dept. of Neuroscience and Psychiatry, Columbia University, both pleasant and aversive stimuli can elicit arousal and attention, and their salience or intensity increases when they occur by surprise.
Which means presenting a stimulus with an element of surprise can lead to a primal arousal of approach or avoidance.
While marketers use this tool sporadically to please their consumers, there is much more to be gained through a disciplined and creative use of surprises! If it is intelligently used, a positive arousal can create a lasting connection with brands. It can also be leveraged to influence consumers’ behaviour.
Emotional uprisings, both negative and positive, create cognitive imbalance. Which means one reacts in a manner that is impulsive and may not follow a rationale. For example, when the mother gets very angry with the child, she often beats the child though she thinks that she should not raise hands. When others become grief-stricken, they act in ways that defy common sense.
Similarly, when people get surprised with high intensity, they respond in a way that may differ from how they would normally respond.
In other words, if you can effectively and positively surprise your customer, you can possibly influence him/ her. The expectancy of surprise is a powerful catalyst for motion. For your non-customers, an association with positive surprise can make them curious about your brand than being indifferent or skeptical. Not that brands aren’t taking cognizance of it. The "Priceless Surprises" campaign by Mastercard, developed specifically to engage with their clients over social media, set out to surprise cardholders when they least expected it. These spontaneous gifts ranged from the small gifts like cupcakes from Magnolia Bakery to the more extravagant ones like concert tickets and VIP celebrity meetings. To date the #PricelessSurprises campaign has surprised about a lakh cardholders, spanning across 25 countries. An app and website accompanying the campaign are used to showcase their user-generated social media content which helps connect with potential cardholders. They even use it to inspire cardholders to give their own surprises to friends and family, expanding their reach by making each cardholder a vocal advocate for the brand.
Here is another example of a brand (Taco Bell) that actually played a negative surprise to its advantage and turned the game. An elaborate prank spread the rumour in the town of Bethel, Alaska (population 6000) that the town was finally going to receive their very own Taco Bell, the closest one about 4 hours away. The news, once found out to be untrue, left people sad and confused. Taco Bell jumped to rectify the situation. As word reached the headquarters, Taco Bell, in the ultimate PR move, pulled off a "surprise and delight" to remedy the situation. They airlifted a Taco Bell truck to the town filled with 10,000 tacos and delighted an entire town.
While the physical surprise may be restricted to one small town, the word spread. People started connecting the brand with one that cared to keep its customers delighted.
The Coca-Cola Company and Ogilvy & Mather have created the ‘Cola-Cola Hug Machine’ to bring doses of happiness into the lives of people anywhere and everywhere. People were pleasantly surprised to see a regular-looking Coca-Cola vending machine with the words ‘Hug me’ in large letters on the front. Those bold enough to embrace the machine were rewarded with cans of ice-cold Coca-Cola.
Leonardo O’Grady, Asean IMC Director, The Coca-Cola Company says, “Our strategy is to deliver doses of happiness in an unexpected, innovative way to engage not only the people present, but the audience at large.”
In media content, surprises and penny drop moments have their own role to play giving frequent pleasure fills to the viewers. Twists and turns in lengthy TV series to ramp up TRP ratings has been an old formula. Likewise, creative content in commercials use surprise elements to break clutter.
In fact, use of surprise and wonderment in pure entertainment dates back to ancient times in India to around 17th century, as part of the 'navarasas' in Kathakali dance form. According to the Natyashastra, ‘Adbhuta Rasa’ (rapture of wonder) is based on the philosophy that the key to wonder is to remain open-minded towards the miracle of life, which can be experienced in everything. Its presentation on the stage is through the perception of touch, earnest display of laughter, congratulatory remarks, tremor, choking words, perspiration etc.
Surprises can lead to dopamine release. Dopamine, very loosely put, is a chemical that is released when the brain feels pleasure. Even listening to others’ stories of surprises and delights has a dopamine effect. A studied attempt to leverage this phenomenon can do wonders to brands and humans alike.
It’s time now to expand the footprint of this ‘wonder’ element to include the world of brands and consumers.
We Don’t Need No Education
Pink Floyd sang this students’ anthem and perhaps stirred more minds than did any other song in the last five decades across the globe. It found huge resonance with the students’ fraternity for its romantic notion of a world free from the tyranny of monarchic education system.
In the decades that followed, we learnt to celebrate more freedom of mind and expression and less of hard work. To the extent, that today we have reached a point where UNESCO reports that 47 million youth in India drop out of school by 10th standard, which loosely translates to one in six students dropping out of school. Between tenth and eleventh standard, there is a further dropping out of 25%. While the numbers may not be entirely attributable to academic aversion but the direction, even if indicative, is telling.
Exasperated with the schooling rigmarole, even we often ask ourselves - was it worth it?
However, looking at some of the statistics above and the vulnerability of our present-day youth, I sometimes question if we over-celebrated this medieval romance of ‘down with education’? Incidentally, even Roger Waters, the writer of ‘The Wall’ has said - "You couldn't find anybody in the world more pro-education than me. But the education I went through in boys' grammar school in the '50s was very controlling and demanded rebellion.”
There are two ways in which school education can go wrong. 1. Imparted in a manner that makes the subjects uninteresting; 2. The role of education itself is not understood and therefore taught in a manner that is not purposeful. I feel, as a society, we have spent too much time in discussing the first problem without asking the fundamental question – why do we need education to start with.
The answer is not as straightforward. We believe the role of school education is to develop our mind. A mind that is healthy and is able to deal with the vicissitudes of life. Career is but a very small part of this larger task.
In a world too dependent on external perceptions, it is important to develop a strong and independent mind. "Trending" is one of my most dreaded words today. People follow trends, want to be like one another, want to belong to an aspiration group and hence conform. They look like each other. Wear the same clothes. Speak the same tongue. Hate the same people. Travel to the same destinations. All this, so that they can belong.
What is wrong with that, one may argue. We are, after all, social animals with an intrinsic need to belong. Fair. But these social clusters should form naturally, based on who we are, and not the other way around. We eclipse who we are and don the hat of who we are not, in order to belong to a certain social group. And that is a problem because it forces us to suppress our inner voice. An unhappy mind is a natural product of such a manipulative process.
Independent thoughts, often due to lack of nurturing, get lost or worse still, do not get to be born. We need education to play a role where these unborn and under-nourished independent thoughts are allowed to come forth and develop into wise minds.
How can education help to develop an independent, free mind?
In order to carry out any task, the human mind needs to do one or more of the following (this is not exhaustive but is a good enough indication):
4. Recall and connect
If you take any mental activity, any situation, you will see that the mind is typically required to do a combination of these tasks. If I look at our curriculum, each academic subject actually helps to develop each of these faculties. To that effect, while the curriculum can be improved and be made more relevant, it is still a sophisticated tool that can be used much to our advantage.
One look at the curriculum, especially at primary and secondary school, suggests a sense of wholeness. We have math and we have languages, we have science and we have social studies. In other words, the curriculum is meant to imbibe the faculties listed above.
Where we have failed is, instead of defining the role of these subjects in building the mind, we have defined them as a means to a career, a degree, marks on paper, and so on. And therefore, we end up producing a marks-hungry generation vying for a top position right from the childhood. Ruthlessly competitive and basking in misplaced glories of securing top ranks, unfortunately, their high IQs are not able to support them in face of unknown crises. Because when it was time for them to learn to observe, to analyze, to create, to build decision making ability, they were busy rote learning and adding more marks to the kitty.
In addition to cultivating the mind, the curriculum is also designed to inculcate virtues, of which I will discuss only two. Patience and hard work (often against one's wish). Memorising those long periodic table looked like a colossal waste of time and energy. As bad were complicated mathematical formulae. Or the numerous dates and events in history. But they had their own role. In doing those complex calculations and memorising those lengthy tables, we were teaching our brains to work hard. Working hard, much undervalued in today's times, is a huge ability. The patience required to sit with the same subjects that we don't always enjoy day after day for twelve long years, builds a long term endurance of the mind. After exerting so hard for twelve long years, the mind develops a natural ability to cope with situations. It knows all situations are not favourable and it has learnt how to deal with them.
I feel, by introducing technology too early in today's times, we are robbing our children of the opportunity to teach their minds to work hard. That is why, our present generation tends to falter in the face of crisis because their minds are not taught to deal with unplanned difficulties. Google, GPS, notepads, every technology is designed to ease the job of the brain. Shorter content, be it movies, or books, are all designed to shorten the attention span. Clearly, we are in the process of a biological evolution of the brain anatomy where there is less work for the brain and more for the technology.
While Nature takes its own course, all we can do in the meantime, is ask ourselves - how can education help build the mind? Because, all the preparatory work for the brain can only happen in the first eighteen years, after that one is just sucked up in the tide of life. We need a very strong mind capable of facing, and in certain cases, even altering these tidal waves.
There is no whale on the planet, natural or man-made, black or blue, that can remotely harm a mind that knows to observe, analyze, decide, and communicate.
Do You Have A Unique Story To Tell?
Sometime back, I met Sundaram Srinivasan, a young guy in early twenties. He told me about his experience at the Burning Man, an event that runs for nine days every year at Nevada. Black Rock City, a temporary city erected in the Black Rock Desert of northwest Nevada, rises from the dust every year. This event has become a sacred pilgrimage for those who want to leave the banality of everyday life behind and participate in one of the most abstract experiments to find out "Who am I?".
For those who haven’t been there, images of either elaborately dressed or naked attendees posing next to huge art pieces in apocalyptic-looking conditions may spring to mind. For those who have, returning to the 70,000-strong temporary city is called “coming home”.
This event points to very profound indicators of times to come. It is best captured by the official website of The Burning Man in three pithy expressions.
Life is short. Make something amazing. Then burn it.
Another young girl in my office made another interesting observation. She said, “When we shop these days, it is not the size of the brand that matters, but the story behind it”.
“Picture this”, she said.
“You’ve visited this coffee shop called Koinonia Coffee Roasters. A French man called Clement talks to you about roasting coffee. Clement tells you that all the beans are sourced from Indian farms. And with that the story of his life. You sit and listen to how his wife, children and he joined two native Bandra boys in this coffee adventure. Such brands whose stories connect with me as a person, and give me a sense that they are curating products for me, instantly win my heart.”
Having heard this from a number of my young friends, I wondered why that must be. Why are they looking to identify with brands and events to define themselves?
And I had a hypothesis.
Let’s rewind to three decades back. Here is a Gujarati young girl called Jignya. She lives in a small town in Gujarat. Has a quintessential Gujarati name. Is addressed with ‘ben’ as a suffix. Wears a chaniya choli. Reads Gujarati books. Speaks Gujarati dialect. Watches Gujarati plays and movies. Sings Gujarati songs. Celebrates Navaratri. Eats farsans like dhokla, pathra. She dances to daandiya. And listens to old tales in Gujarati from her grandmother. Her entire world is curated to give her an identity – which is quintessential Gujarati. This can become more granular if we get to the details of her sub-community (for example, what kind of business they have been in for generations, what kinds of traditional customs they follow, etc). And all these would converge to give her a fairly strong sense of identity. It may be a collective identity, but satiates, to a large extent, her primal urge to know and express, “Who am I?”
Now fast forward to the current time and meet Jignyaben’s grand daughter Aastha.
Aastha is known by the name Ash. Ash wears jeans and tops. Listens to Ed Sheeran. Speaks only English, occasionally broken Hindi. Reads Hunger Games and watches Game of Thrones. Eats pizzas and salads. Goes to the gym. Hangs out with friends at the pub. Parties in North Goa.
And asks the same question as her grandmother Jignya. “Who am I?”
While centuries old identities are passé, the need to know "Who am I?" is a primal quest of mankind.
The young are defining themselves through stories of brands they can "acquire" or "buy". In this pursuit of 'shopping' for an identity, this new generation is constantly restless in trying to find a defining variable which he or she is getting from the "external" through purchases, etc.
Look at the old generation in contrast. Unlike the young, their definition came from their origin. Be it their place of birth, or their ethnicity, or the culture and tradition they were born to. So, they had a list of identity codes handed over, whereas the identities of the new generation are acquired.
Why does a new generation need to acquire an identity? Perhaps because they have lost their original one. So may be they are trying to find something they have lost. So, in a way, it's not really an original process. It's not a process where you are trying to find a new thing, it's a process where you are trying to fill the vacuum of what you have lost. And once you start acquiring and consolidating what you have acquired, in this instance external culture acquired through brands for example, that itself will become a kind of a new culture.
This depletion in original identity has been a gradual process. Take me for example. I am a Bengali who can bake cup-cakes, make delicious chocolate walnut fudge, but have no idea what goes into the making of patishapta and shukto. I do not remember the last time I wore a Taant saree. And I haven’t read any Bengali authors after passing school. Even if I want, I cannot teach my thirteen year old niece anything substantial about her cultural roots.
Dear brands, robots, music, movies, places, events, books, media – you have an uphill job here to lend an identity to my niece and each of her global, young friends. You better have a unique story to tell them.
INDIA: THE ‘HAPPEN CULTURE’
By Dr. Rajeshwari V. Pandharipande
What is culture? And what is the relationship between culture and language? These are some of the questions which have intrigued human beings across the globe for a long time! Whorf, a well-known anthropologist, very beautifully outlines the role of language in shaping people’s perception of the world and of everything within it including themselves!
“--- the linguistic system of each language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of ideas, the program and guide for the individual’s mental activity for his analysis of impressions, for his synthesis of his mental stock in trade---we dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages.” (Whorf, B. Collected papers on Metalinguistic, 1952:5)
The following quote from the language of one of the native American Indian tribes in the US, eloquently tells the story of the perspective of their culture on life, death, and the inevitable renewal of all in the world including human beings and their natural identity with nature.
“We live; we die, and like the grass and trees, renew ourselves from the soft earth of the grave. Stones crumble and decay, faiths grow old and they are forgotten, but new beliefs are born. The faith of the villages is dust now... but it will grow again... like the trees (Chief Joseph, Nez Perce (91840-1904).”
There are many characteristics of a culture which set it apart from other cultures- its music, language, art, literature, religion, among other. However, a deeper exploration of these features reveals a worldview which underlies these features and which marks the culture as unique. It is the understanding of the world (with its myriads forms animate and inanimate) and the relationship of human beings with it which can be viewed as “world view.” The people who belong to the same culture see and experience the world through the lens/framework of their worldview. They give meaning and value to their life and everything within it according to the worldview. The world view is commonly shared and expressed in everything the people think, feel and do. If we consider language as a set of conventionalized patterns of meaning (grammar) encoded in words, syntax, and semantics, then, an analysis ofthe linguistic patterns in a language should allow us to reconstruct the underlying “meaning structure” and the world view of the people who belong to the same culture. The grammar of a language is indeed the grammar of culture which is internalized by the people and expressed in conventionalized linguistic patterns. In this sense, language is the DNA of a culture. By understanding the underlying meaning of the language, we can understand the meaning of a culture. There is a symbiotic relationship between language and culture. They sustain each other’s existence. Change in one is reflected in the other. Language is transferred from one generation to the next, and provides a road map, a set of linguistic/cultural categories with which to analyse and synthesize the world around and understand the meaning of it. These categories influence the way the people think, act and interact in the world. Through the analysis of linguistic categories, a culture’s identity can be reconstructed.
We can ask a question, “What indeed are the cultural categories which define Indian culture?” There have been and there will be many answers to this question-ranging from Indian food, dress, languages, diversity of religions, music, art, etc. I am looking into one category, which I believe, is deeply embedded into the Indian psyche and marks Indian-ness. I describe Indian culture as “Happen culture.” What this means is that the people in India divide their experiences and actions into two categories, those which they perceive as the results of their own actions, and the other which happen to them (without their effort). The former can be called intentional and the latter unintentional actions or experiences. There are actions over which they believe, they have control and then there are actions which they believe, are beyond their control. Furthermore, the Indians believe that the events and experiences they value most in life “happen” to them as opposed to those which are caused by their own intentions/actions. Those actions /experiences/events are unintentional, and human beings do not have any control over them. Human beings are recipients and not actors in those events! This assumption about Indian culture is supported by even a cursory look at the structures of Indian languages. For example, it is believed in the Indian culture that birth, love, friendship, marriage and death “happen” to people. Examples of this are many. In Hindi, the verbs which express unintentional acts are: shaadii honaa, for “marriage to happen”, janam hona,for “birth to happen”, mrityu honaa, for “death to happen”, pyaar honaa, for “love to happen” etc. These are perceived as unintended events/acts/ relations which should happen naturally as the wind blows, the sun shines and it rains. Human beings do not control them. These experiences (which happen) have a special aesthetic texture when they are not intentionally sought! However, similar to English, Indian languages also have parallel verbs which express intention. For example, shaadi karanaa “to marry”, janam denaa, “to give birth”, pyaar karnaa, “to love”. While in the first set of verbs the supporting verb is honaa “to happen” which expresses an unintentional act/event’, the second set of verbs have karnaa “to do” and denaa “to give” as supporting verbs which express intentionality. While the use of the verbs which express intentionality in the above contexts are not ungrammatical, the use of the verb honaa is preferred since their unintentional occurrence is viewed as natural and is valued more! Thus merii shadii huii “my marriage happened” and maine shaadii kii “I got married, (literally, “I did the marriage”) do not express the same meaning.
There are many more pieces of evidence which show beyond doubt that Indians believe that most of the basic experiences in life “happen” to them! For example, the set of “experience- verbs” in Indian languages indicate that the subject of the verbs is the recipient of the experiences expressed by the verb. People “receive” those experiences, they “happen” to people or they “come” to people; people do not intentionally seek them out. For example, human beings “receive” aanand “joy”, dukh “pain”, which is indicated by the Hindi verbs aanand milnaa (also, khushii honaa) “to receive joy” (“joy happens”), dukh milnaa “to receive pain” (dukh honaa) . Similarly, in Marathi, aananda hone “for happiness to happen” or duhkha hone “for pain to happen.” These “received” experiences have a different cultural accent, feel, and quality in contrast to those which are performed/done intentionally. For example, compare the two sentences-one with honaa (Hindi) “happen” as opposed to the one with karnaa “do.” Usko khushii huii, “he became happy (literally, “joy happened to him”, as opposed to maine usko khush kiyaa (Hindi), “I made him happy.” The first sentence with honaa “happen” refers to the state of happiness of the person (without referring to the agent/agency responsible for the state) while the second sentence with karnaa “do” explicitly refers to the agent “I” who is responsible for the resulting state of happiness and, the speaker takes credit for causing it! The difference between the two is of perception. The use of the verb honaadownplays the agency of any particular agent while the verb karnaa clearly indicates it. This phenomenon is very common in Indian languages. The verb yaad aanaa (literally, “for the memory to come”) “to remember unintentionally” expresses unintentional act of remembering while yaad karnaa (literally, “to do memory”) expresses the conscious/intentional act of remembering. To say, ”tum mujhe bahut yaad aate ho” “I miss you a lot”), with the verb yaad aanaa implies that the memory “comes” without any conscious effort on the part of the one who remembers. In contrast to this, a statement such as, main tumhen bahut yaad kartaa huun expresses intentional remembering. Therefore, it is best translated as, “I think about you a lot”. This assumption is supported by a very simple sentence in Hindi (with the verb yaad aanaa “for the memory to come) which clearly indicates lack of intention of the speaker in the action! Main tumhen bhuulane kii bahut koshiish karataa huun, phir bhii tum bahut yaad aate ho! “Even if I try hard to forget you I remember you (literally, your memory keeps coming to me).”
To say that something “happens” is to acknowledge that there are other agencies beyond the obvious actor/agent which are also instrumental in bringing about the result. Implicit in this acknowledgement is the perception that this is an interconnected universe where nothing happens independently of other existences. An event is a result of many visible and invisible forces, energies or agencies working together! The use of honaa in usko khushii huii, “happiness happened to him”, places the event at the same level as baarish huii “the rain happened”, where many forces such as evaporation of water and then condensation of it and the right temperature, are implicitly accepted as causal forces. Thus “honaa” does not deny agency per se but rather the agency of a singular agent with the exclusion of other possible causal forces. In contrast to this, the use of karnaa “do” indicates the speaker’s claim to the result to the exclusion of other possible causal forces! A striking contrast to this vision of the world is the view in the culture in the US. While in India the “babies happen” in the US, it is a fine statement, “we are starting the family soon” (a euphemism for having babies) or in the modern US culture, a husband can ask his wife, “do you want to make babies?(Are you ready to have children?)” Also, if one gets injured, in India, the normal question is, “what happened?” while in the US, the question, “what did you do?” is perfectly fine! The former implies the lack of control over event while the later implies control.
To the Indian mind, “happen” is natural, “do/make” is intentional and therefore, not valued as much as that which happens naturally! Indian culture celebrates un-intentionality, and downplays agency of the human subject even when it is clear that the event would not have happened without human action! If someone says, “This is indeed a great achievement, congratulations!” The normal and traditional answer is not “thank you” but rather, “aapkii dayaa hai”. (it is your kindness!) or “it’s god’s grace” (Bhagawan kii kripaa hai). Downgrading one’s agency is viewed as polite and dignified! In Hindi, when someone asks, “kyaa aap meraa itnaa kaam kar denge?” (Would you do this work for me?). A fine answer is “haan, kaam ho jaaegaa.” (Yes, the work will happen) where one’s agency is downplayed. Not attributing agency to oneself is viewed as a sign of humility and politeness in this culture. Some expressions in Hindi such as khaanaa ban gayaa hai), “ food is cooked,” kapde dhule hain “Clothes are washed”, do not mention any agency of the actions of cooking and washing respectively, but rather, refer to the product of the actions. The verbs used here, banana, “to be cooked,” and dhulnaa “to be washed” are intransitive and so do not express any agency explicitly.
I suggest that not claiming credit for the result of one’s desired actions is the consequence of accepting a larger network of agencies beyond oneself which is responsible for anything that happens in the world! Can we take credit for the rain? For the spring flowers? For the sunsets? One of the most profound categories which marks Indian culture (forthcoming 2013) and is related to the category of unintentionality, is rita literally, “thus gone-the course which everything takes in the universe“ “cosmic order.” The belief in ritadates back to the Vedic period (2000-3000 BCE). Implicit in rita is the belief that the universe with its infinite forms goes through the course indefinitely according to the laws of nature. Everything in the universe happens according to these laws. No one controls rita. Nothing can transgress rita. The animate as well as the inanimate existences must exist and operate according to rita. The rivers flow, the sun rises, the wind blows, the rain pours according to rita. Embedded in this belief is the belief that we do not control actions in the ultimate sense. We perform actions because we must since that is human nature! That is rita. But the result of the actions is not guaranteed! Result is the consequence of many forces operating simultaneously and finally, it is rita! Krishna’s advice to Arjuna is relevant to understand this view of “non-control,” where Krishna tells Arjuna that his control and right is only on the actions but not on the results of them, “karmanyevaadhikaaraste maa phaleshu kadaachana” (Bhagavadgita 2;47-details forthcoming 2013). The Bhagavadgita is one of the most poignant scripture of Indian culture where this category of “happen-ness” of events is very strongly emphasized!
The discussion here raises many questions regarding the moral and ethical responsibility, the duty of human beings and the role of human beings in the world! If all is predisposed, predetermined, is there any need to act at all? If the result of actions is due to many forces other than the actor, why should we assume responsibility for the actions we perform? Does the culture promote inaction and lack of responsibility? Are these not the questions which Arjuna had asked Krishna? At this point I will close the discussion with Krishna’s answer, ahamkaaravimuudhatmaa kartaa iti manyate, “deluded by egoism a man says,” I am the doer.” (Bhagavadgita 3:27). The point is, in this culture, assuming full agency for the result of an action is not considered polite but rather an expression of egoism!