As more news emerges about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, I feel myself going through a range of emotions – confusion, disbelief, insecurity, paranoia, anger . . . and resignation. I am sure I am not alone in this flux. We’re all in it together – willingly or unwittingly. As a Facebook user (a decade now), I feel I’ve already shared so much with FB that there is no turning back. They have my number already. But then so do I. I think FB and I finally understand each other. This entire event actually drove me to look for some answers in the Indian mythology (we have answers for everything!).
Samudra Manthan is one of the more popular stories of the Bhagavata Purana, which finds expression in numerous South Asian miniatures and carvings across the ancient Indian kingdoms. It’s a fascinating story of the Devas (good guys) and the Asuras (bad guys) jointly churning the Ocean of Milk or Kshirsagara to obtain the Nectar of Immortality or Amrita. Although initially it is decided that the nectar would be shared equally between the two, but the Devas tricked the Asuras and consumed it all to attain immortality. However Amrita was not the only object that emerged from the Kshirsagara. The Bhagavata Purana describes numerous other living and inanimate beings which were birthed from the Ocean. This episode talks of alliances, treachery, deceit, intentions, desires and problem-management, among other things. But the chief image which is being highlighted is, of course, the manthan itself. The churning.
Mythology expert, Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik says churning is not the same as tug-of-war. Both require a force and a counter-force, but whereas a tug-of-war implies the two sides implementing force at the same time (so that one side may win), churning requires one party to let go while the other applies force, and vice-versa (so that both are benefited). Change in any form has met with reactions and counter-reactions, but we, as a civilization, have never dwelled on them for too long. Kingdoms have emerged, and kingdoms have been devastated; people have settled and people have moved; temples and mosques and churches have been built and destroyed; there has been love, there has been hate, but nothing has been permanent. A constant churning has been in progress – sometimes in good faith, sometimes in ill-will; but much like the Devas and Asuras, we have been realizing the need for alliance and acceptance; the need to rise to the needs of the times; putting the land above everything else, at some point or another.
The Cambridge Analytica episode brought back the churning into focus for me. We’ve been part of the push and pull to unearth the digital delights of this world. We’ve actively contributed with our data to make our lives better. We’ve been tracked, and quite willingly too. I would like to point out that I feel I’ve been tracked not just the last few years on internet, but essentially since my birth. My kindergarten profiled me as a ‘sweet, but talkative child’, the neighbourhood grocery man knew my buying behaviour, the salesman at the clothing store quickly profiled my likes and dislikes about colours and patterns, my parents thought I was a rebel, my friends thought I was crazy cuckoo. Point being, we’ve been profiled forever. It’s nothing new. With the advancement in technology, this profiling has, in a way, made our lives easier. We have better cars, better houses, better clothes, better medicines etc. Someone is paying close attention to our likes and dislikes and making things just for us. So far, so good.
So while I happily consume the Nectar of Ocean, much like our gods did, I cannot ignore the other darker things that emerge from this or cry unfair. The data that benefited us, can also manipulate us. We need to be aware of that. Alternatively, we can disconnect from the internet and go back to our old ways. But really, is it possible to be disconnected in today’s world? We’re all caught in the spiral now. We can either roll with it or it’ll churn us, whether we like it or not.
What we need today is awareness, of our actions and the implications it can have; not only on us as an individual, but society as a whole. The greatest thing about our world today is the ease of communication. We’re on the cusp of being connected to every other individual on this earth. We’re not without power. We have access to higher thoughts, ideologies, and intelligence to push back on manipulative intents. It’s all about the push and pull.
The churning must go on.