Myths Debunked by Ishmael


Why do we humans seem unable to stop destroying the world and why do we seem unable to live in harmony with the world?

This is the most important question I’ve had in life so far and I had been looking for an answer for, ever since I was in the Twelfth standard. This is not an easy question to answer. Many pieces of the jigsaw puzzle are easy to find in observations made in our everyday life, but it’s not very obvious how they fit in together.

That’s what the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn does. It helped me consolidate my thoughts and changed my life forever. It’s the most important book I have read in my life, and I think it should be right up there among the most important books that have ever been written. I just thought I’d note down some of the common myths about humans and civilization that this book exposes.

1. Man is fundamentally flawed. The negative qualities of man like selfishness, cruelty, greed etc. outweigh the positive qualities like love, selflessness, kindness etc. And so, man cannot stop consuming the world.

This is not true. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with humans. All these qualities, constructive and destructive, are there in all of us. Given a system which fails to keep the destructive qualities under control, man will go on destroying the world, and given a system which can successfully keep them in check, man is perfectly capable of living in harmony with the world, as our tribal ancestors did for almost 190,000 years before civilization began. In short, we are captives of a civilizational system that makes us go on destroying the world.

2. Human history began only 10,000 years ago with the birth of agriculture and civilization. What happened before was insignificant and just a prelude. It was a long and uneventful chapter in the history of the human race. Man was always meant to be a civilization builder.

This is what conventional wisdom teaches us, through stories, text books, cartoons, movies, conversations, all sorts of media. We are made to believe that only after civilization began, did man fulfill his destiny, and potential and whatever preceded was just an uninteresting period when it was only a matter of time before man would discover the glory of civilization.

Evolutionary Anthropology has turned this view upside down, and the “Recently Out of Africa” theory reveals how resourceful our ancestors were in overcoming the challenges they faced in colonizing the entire planet. Not only that, by at least 40,000 years ago, people already possessed technology like the sewing needle, and sea faring vessels.

3. Tribalism was the first chapter of a story of which civilization is the second chapter.

Or in other words, tribalism is a relic of the past and has no relevance today. We are made to believe that civilization was a massive improvement over tribalism. But even today, tribal people lead very happy lives wherever they have been untouched by civilization. Ishmael says that tribalism and civilization are entirely different stories, based on contradictory premises.

4. Spread of agriculture was a revolution, much like the industrial revolution.

We are taught in history about the “Agricultural Revolution”. But there was no such thing. Around 12,000 years ago, the world was made of many tribes. Some of them followed the practice of selectively encouraging the growth of their favourite foods, and had been for centuries, but none of them practised full time agriculture.

It was then that a tribe in the Near East started practising this form of agriculture which led to huge surpluses, which made them powerful. They started expanding and this led to conflicts with other tribes. Some of them were lured by the power and seeming control over their lives afforded by this form of agriculture and joined with them, but most tribes resisted because they knew that full time agriculture meant a life of toil, and they were quite happy with their way of life.

But ultimately everyone had to either join or fight because the ones who practised agriculture were far too powerful for the hunter-gatherer tribes and they were intent on bringing every piece of land under agriculture. This is explained beautifully in Daniel Quinn’s article, The Great Forgetting . Also, this had many interesting consequences which ultimately led to the formation of classes, hierarchical societies, kingdoms, the need for legislature etc. as explained in another article, The Great Remembering.

This is quite unlike the Industrial Revolution where manual labour was systematically replaced by machines. “Agricultural revolution” was more like the Colonization of lands by the European powers during the 1500s-1700s.

5. Nature is a chaos which is not fit for man to live in and so man has to build his empire to put everything in order.

Not only is Nature a system in perfect balance with intricate feedback mechanisms, but all creatures that have evolved and survived, did so because they were very well able to live in it.

6. Man can do what he wants with nature because the laws of nature do not apply to us.

The laws of nature DO apply to us. Ultimately we are dependent on the green leaves of trees to capture sunlight and convert it into biological energy, to produce enough oxygen, for the proper functioning of the water cycle. Life, or the biosphere is an intricately woven web, and we have not even begun to understand the full extent of the interdependencies between organisms.

7. The life of primitive man was unimaginably hard and terrifying and the birth of civilization was a relief.

We are made to picturise primitive man as a savage, without any morals, always on the futile search for food, always on the run from predators. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. The so called “primitive” man lived in egalitarian social groups. Man is well adapted to eat an amazingly wide range of food, and it is inconceivable that primitive man could have gone hungry. Also man is not the preferred prey for any of the predators. So the life of “primitive” man was not that bad actually. In fact, anthropologist Marshall Sahlins went so far as to call the Stone Age people the “Original Affluent Society”.

8. Nature’s law is “Survival of the fittest”. Man is proving that he is the fittest, so it is inevitable that he will rule the world.

Survival of the fittest is an over simplified way to look at nature’s laws. True, there is competition at each level, but this competition is not like the one we have in our economies and politics, where any underhanded tactics may be used to maximize one’s gains. This is not an attempt to romanticize Nature, but it’s just that that’s not the way nature works. There are some rules which are invariably followed by all creatures, without which there would be no bio-diversity on our planet. These can be summarized as:

  • Take what you need and leave the rest alone
  • You may compete to the fullest extent of your abilities but you may not hunt down your competitors or destroy their food or deny them access to food

We have temporarily found a way to circumvent these rules with our technology, but anyone with common sense can understand that we cannot be absolutely independent and are ultimately dependent on the biosphere for many things that we take for granted.

9. Tribalism means living in caves, walking with leaves tied around your waist, and leading a hunter-gatherer existence.

Well, if that is what tribalism means, we can forget about it for good. Because there are too many of us today to be able to lead a hunter-gatherer existence. But there are deeper, valuable lessons to be learnt from tribalism as an egalitarian social organization that works and has been working for humans and our other ancestral species for almost three million years. Daniel Quinn defines a tribe as a group of people make a living together. He says that a “tribe” is to humans what a “school” is to fish, a “pride” is to lions, a “flock” is to geese etc. – a social organization that has been tried and tested by time, and passed down as a gift of natural selection.


Choices, Careers and Livelihoods


My seventh semester is underway, and I feel this is a good time to write about this, as companies have just started visiting the campus for recruitment and most of my friends are eagerly writing the tests and facing the interviews amid fears that campus placements could be seriously down this year, due to the recession.

The fact that I’m not putting myself up as well, with a “FOR HIRE” board,  seems astonishing and hard to digest, for most. It has invoked countless enquiries as to what my future plans are. When I tell them that I have no real concrete plans, though I may do a post grad, they are perplexed and exclaim that I could have at least appeared for the placements just to be “secure”. Secure from what? The vacuum created by the loss of an address that defined your life for the past four years perhaps, as a job would give you a new one? And what kind of security? The promise that some company will buy your time and skills and give you lots of money in exchange?

I’ve been often reminded of the fact that I would need money to live (strangely, something which most people feel that I’m oblivious to). But there is a difference between making money to live, and living to make money. I have never been attracted by the prospect of making a lot of money. As Henry David Thoreau said, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to leave alone”. On the other hand, I think I know why people generally are obsessed with making money to such an extent that it is the central concern in their lives (of course, a small fraction of the people are lucky and get to work on things which they are really passionate about, but this is a minority).

The urge to earn more and more money, is ultimately down to a deep insecurity regarding one’s own survival (and other comforts to a lesser extent). Obviously, in today’s society and economy with specialized divisions of labour, none of us have any survival value. (That we take pride in this condition and consider it to be a sign of progress seems incredible to me, but that is the topic for another post). For example, a software engineer knows only how to code, and if his company goes bust, he doesn’t have the skills or resources to earn a living off the land. So his obvious concern would be to earn as much money as possible, so that he is “safe”. The more specialized the division of labour, the deeper is this insecurity.

Like Christopher McCandless says in Into the Wild, “Careers are twentieth century inventions”. For the most of us, doing this work or that doesn’t make much difference if we get the money we need to support our families and lead a good life. Indeed, this makes a lot of sense. In fact, what people want is a livelihood and not a career. It is unfortunate that in our times, you invariably need to take up a career offered by an institution to earn a livelihood, and the difference between them has become almost imperceptible. I can’t imagine the Kalahari bushmen leading careers in picking berries. It’s just something they do for their livelihood.

Now I’ll tell you why I don’t like modern “careers”. It is a rat race out there to earn as much money as possible to “secure” oneself. In fact, people struggle too much just to stay alive. Some of the things you put into your work in exchange for wages, are simply invaluable and irreplacable. Each one of us might be aware that every decision and choice we make, is a tradeoff. When we choose something, we inevitably have to forego something else. And for me, taking up a career is a huge tradeoff, one that is almost unacceptable.

First, the amount of Time, Energy and Health that one has to put into a career. Any anthropologist would tell you that ours is the most laborious lifestyle ever developed on this planet. No other creature has to work so much just to stay alive. Nor did humans for a few million years, nor do the few tribal people who have survived. I accept that I cannot just jump off our culture at will, but what I can do is to reassess my actual needs, (as opposed to imagined needs and fear of future needs) and work only so much as to fulfil them, instead of sacrificing myself for earning money and then wondering what to do with it.

Another thing that is compromised, I feel, is Freedom. It is a word that is often used in misleading ways. For example, you often hear that when you get a job, you get economic freedom and independence. What the speaker probably means is that you no longer have to depend on your parents for your livelihood. But as I see it, a job just transfers your dependence(at least in modern economies with specialized division of labour) from your parents to the company and the wider economic structure without which your job wouldn’t exist. So that’s why I feel that taking up a career means compromising one’s freedom to a large extent. Again I realize that I can perhaps never be completely independent of the global economy, but I can experiment with alternative ways of living that would minimize the dependence.

To quote Thoreau once again, “The price of anything is the amount of what I call life, that you exchange for it”. So taking up a career is indeed a costly affair. If I reject a particular career, it is because I roughly realize the terms of the trade off and find them unacceptable. It is actually because I feel there is something to be gained by searching for alternative ways of living, and not down to frustration or indifference or prejudice. Of course, this is another trade off, where I’m compromising social “security” for other things which, obviously, I personally consider dearer.

It is one thing to know all this, and quite another to actually experiment with one’s life. That’s why I admire people like Gandhiji and Thoreau so much. I don’t really know what I’ll end up doing, but I am damn sure that what I’d like to do is to find my own path, however dense and unforgiving the undergrowth seems, and not to follow the beaten road, “secure” and “promising”. It doesn’t really matter how long the path runs or where it leads, as ultimately it is the journey itself that is important and fulfilling.

The Great Forgetting


Read The Great Forgetting based on The Story of B by Daniel Quinn.

For thousands of years, people of our culture (not in the usual sense of the world, but as Daniel Quinn defines it- “if food is placed under lock and key and people have to work and earn money to buy it back, then the people of that place belong to OUR culture”, in short- modern civilization) believed that humanity, agriculture and civilization all began at roughly the same time, and that they are inseparable from each other. This meant that the general belief was that humanity was only a few thousand years old.

But today we know that it is not so. We know that humanity is about three million years old, and people had led a very different life from ours, obeying the laws of life which applies to all living beings on earth. This had been forgotten in the “Great Forgetting“, when one group of people (or more, we don’t exactly know) decided to take up totalitarian agriculture, convinced that human beings were meant to be the rulers of the world, and that they weren’t meant to live like lions and snakes and butterflies any longer. Man’s destiny was surely something more “glorious” and they broke with their past.

Now, if we call this event the Great Forgetting, something happened in the nineteenth century, which could have been called the Great Remembering. Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution and others followed up his research to tell us that we are much older than a few thousand years, that we evolved from “lower” animals, and did not just appear as “civilized” agriculturalists. This was a bitter pill to swallow as it shook the very foundations of our culture, which was based on the pillar of the alleged specialty and uniqueness of man which vindicated his rule of the world.

But nothing remarkable happened, really. Things went on as before, and the Great Remembering didn’t even happen. No one thought about questioning the assumptions on which our civilization was built. It didn’t even occur to anyone that this new finding could make any difference. After all, that’s pre-history. What did it matter if man evolved from the slime around him? He was always meant to be an agriculturalist, and the ruler of the world.

Nevertheless, a century and a half later, with the world on the brink of catastrophe, at least some people are starting to ask the right questions. It’s still a tiny minority, but importantly it is a growing minority. We can’t blame the Industrial Revolution, we can’t blame cars and factories and missiles. The seeds of disaster have been with us for a long long time- a culture that casts us as conquerors of a world which is hostile and from where we have to forcibly take everything we need. We can save the world only through changed minds.

“If there are still people here in 200 years, they won’t be living the way we do. I can make that prediction with confidence, because if people go on living the way we do, there won’t be any people here in 200 years.” —Daniel Quinn

Walking Out and Walking On


That’s how people at Shikshantar refer to what people generally call “dropping out”.

“Today, those who have the good sense to choose to leave the dominant system of education are labeled by it as ‘drop-outs’. This negative term connotes failing and incompetence, and is applied to those who don’t fit in the competitive schooling or college system. We view the decision to walk out (or rise out) of formal educational structures, as a thoughtful and positive choice. Far from signifying incompetence, walking out demonstrates intelligence, creativity and courage of conviction.

It also exposes education for what it is: a deep form of violence against peoples’ minds, bodies and spirits, which cuts them off from nature, their family, communities, culture, work, expression, and themselves. Furthermore, walking out represents a strong form of dissent against the global political economy. It is a powerful indication of reclaiming control over one’s own learning, and therefore, over one’s own life. It is an important step in de-institutionalizing one’s life and moving towards swaraj.”

Our lives are so rigid and institutionalized. Right from age 3 or 4 we are sent to school and “educated” for almost two decades. Then when we are grown, we have to find a job in an organization/industry and build a career. Why do we need these inhuman mega structures- social, political and economic- to depend on?

Why do we need multinational corporations to employ us? Why do we need agribusinesses and retail chains to feed us? Why do we need a degree to certify our worth? Why do we need governments to “take care” of us? Why do we need to depend so much on so many institutions? If I believe that my life so far has not been a complete waste, and that I have developed a few useful skills over the years, then why should I have to sell my time to make a livelihood? Can I not make a livelihood(not necessarily a career) doing the things that I care passionately about?

It’s a question that has been haunting me for a while. In fact, I’m an aspirant of walking out and walking on. Exactly how and when I do not know. But I believe that I will be able to find the way when the right time comes. My biggest dream is to get rid of all those irrelevant stuff that needlessly sophisticate our lives and reclaim all the missing things that really make Life meaningful.

“Relying on your strengths and talents, instead of your degrees, makes you a walkout.”

Sail Transport Network

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Wanderer way before

“The great age of sail didn’t end, it just took a break”

Over the past 100 years, all basic human activities like agriculture, transport and trade have all become heavily mechanized and highly dependant on non-renewable and polluting energy. We have built up an empire with no foundation- in fact, I would rather call it a sand castle in the air. We, as a race, are about to enter that point of our evolution when we realize this fact, and are forced to modify our culture to be in harmony with Nature. One of the biggest dangers to this evolution, apart from the actual destruction of the life-sustaining environment, is that during these 100 years of complacency, we have lost huge repositories of invaluable traditional knowledge.

One of these is Sailing. Just imagine- could there be a more efficient mode of trans-continental transport? It was the mode of transport and trade for many centuries- even millenia- before the steam engine pushed it to the sidelines. Now that we are about to enter an era of inevitable enlightenment(wonder how fast we can get rid of those nasty gas-guzzling smoke-spewing airplanes), sailing is bound be a valuable skill. That’s why I think we should all hail and support the activities of the Sail Transport Network.

“Sail Transport Network is a movement. For thousands of years, wind energy moved people and goods all over the world without pollution. Today, dwindling, geopolitically sensitive oil is used for every form of transportation and commerce. Even e-commerce with computers is dependent on forms of petroleum, and trucks and cars clog roads to a deathly degree.

The Sail Transport Network is dedicated to finding answers to the problems of tomorrow by looking back to the way it worked before. Trade, exchange, and travel are the basic triad of intercultural connection. If we can reduce the dependence on oil in these three areas, we will have reduced the majority of oil dependence in the world, while establishing through STN a model for sustainability in the new post-oil, greenhouse-ravaged world.

There once was a time when you could walk down to the local harbor, and see nothing but great sailing ships. These ships stirred something in the soul of humans then, and it is that same stirring that can bring us into a cleaner, more sustainable future. The great age of sail didn’t end, it just took a break. Now is the time to take up the sheets again, as it were, and sail into a future of sustainable trade that doesn’t cause wars for non-renewable resources.”

Nothing Short of a Miracle!

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That’s what happened today. The occasion was a cultural night arranged by the Staff Club of NITC (no one knew one even existed, till today!). Some of the faculty got together and wrote a drama to be staged tonight. I learnt about it from Deepak sir’s blog a few days ago, and that in itself seemed like a miracle. But the actual performance was nothing short of unbelievable, to say the least! It was fantastic. About the drama itself, I keep that for another day. I’m just too dazed by that performance to analyze it critically. Besides, Deepak sir has promised to make the script and video available.

I always knew that the faculty members were fantastic people outside the classroom, but hats off to them for this wonderful performance!

Village Life- The Only REAL Life

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“The value of a village? I’ll have to think about that, because for me I can not imagine any other life than village life, so consequently it is very hard for me to see the value of village life. It is like if you asked me, “What’s the value of love for a couple?” And I think, well I don’t know. Any city I see is for me a nonsense. I can love the people, like in New York. I loved New York because there was a big humanness in New York, but at the same time, from the beginning for me the city is a nonsense, it’s absurd. It’s like a big octopus with suckers pumping the countryside around. A city has no life of itself. If the trucks that bring the vegetables and the food to the city stop for only two days, the city would collapse, die. If you cut the electricity, if you cut . . the city is a completely artificial life. A village can live and live and live for hundreds of years if you cut all those things because it’s on the Mother Earth, on the living Earth, and because the number of people is small and all that. I mean, a village, with all its mistakes and jealousy is a natural self that breathes and has a pulse. It might be sick in some places, but its alive. For me, the big thing is that a city is unreal. Of course, there are humans, so we love it. We’ll go there, but the city is biologically unreal, it doesn’t live of itself, it has no life of itself. Everything you touch in a city is dead. It does not evolve, it’s paving, it’s stones. There is no life in a city of itself, therefore it’s hard for me to say what is good in a village, because the only life I see as possible for human beings is a village life.

A hamlet life, or village life, or community life is a life where you know every one of the people you live around. I think that when the village becomes so big that you don’t know everyone who lives around, you must stop the growth. I think everything you must reach with your hands and with your feet, like within a stroll of half an hour, for example. The world is at the tip of our finger. When it stops being reachable by the tip of our finger, it becomes monstrous, it escapes us.

What is good in a village is hard for me to say in that way. I really see that it is the only possible life, is village life. I see very much like Gandhi visualized it, a world of decentralized village democracies. That is the way he called it, or a gentle anarchy he called it. I see very much that the best way to be interdependent with our heart and the best way to feel we are one is to first be very independent with our basic needs. If, for example, I am too much depending on you for my clothes or for my food or for my fuel, it would be very hard to have really clean relations at the level of the heart. Maybe I have a truth to say to you. “Eh, Robert, I think that’s not right with you.” Your attitudes or whatever. I won’t say it because you’re furnishing me with the wood. I won’t dare to say to you the truth that you need as a friend, because you might take it bad and you might not give me wood anymore. Therefore, hypocrisy comes very quickly if we are too dependent on the material level. We need to be self- sufficient, like decentralized village democracies, as much as possible. When I say village, I mean a real village, not a residential village. I mean a village where there are gardens, goats, cows, a little dairy – a village like a community we see today. To be as much, as much, as much as possible self-sufficient on all the basic levels of clothes, shelter, warming, fuel, building is the best way to have the best possible relation with the next village because our relation is really coming from the heart. It is like people who married for money, or who married to get a bigger estate. It is very hard to keep the love pure in that way, but if you are marrying someone who has nothing to give you, you have nothing to give her materially, it’s just love. I believe very much that the best way to clear up our relationships all over the planet is self-sufficiency.

I don’t see self-sufficiency as a kind of isolation. For me it is not the opposite of communication. It is the best way to start clear on our communication, because our communication must be coming from the heart. We go to the next village for a feast, or we go to the next village because we want to see other people who are a bit different from us. We don’t go there because we are going to please them so that in return we are going to get this or that. All over the world the economy is based on that. The planet has become such a place of lies, and hypocrisy, and a wrong vibration between people and countries. So I see the village as being very independent economically.

Another aspect I will say about that thing is a more spiritual aspect. For example, why a village should be self- sufficient, or why we, in our little farm, homestead, should be. We were really striving, working hard on that idea that here is the place we are going to depend on; to have our cultural life, our spiritual life, our material life, our food, everything, because that’s more spiritual. For me it is as important. I don’t speak about the economic factor. Oh [changing his mind], very quickly, we did not want imported products or oranges. We bought no products from other countries, especially not at all from poor countries, but not even from other countries, because we know that when you get oranges, for example, from Morocco in France, it’s the cheapest fruit, because in Morocco people are starving. They are paid less than nothing to pick the oranges, and where they pick the oranges, they can not grow their own vegetables. And if some people try to grow their vegetables, they are put in jail. It happens the same in Honduras and El Salvador with the bananas, so we must stop eating those things clearly and simply, because it means suffering and it means unrighteousness in other parts of the world.

But the other aspect of it is also that for me importing things is like saying to God, “Hey, your world is not well done. We have not enough vitamin C here, we need oranges.” And it’s not true. He will tell you, “No, you have enough. Look, you have wild rose hips here, or you have this or that.” We saw that in our place where we lived in Norway. The balance of nature was perfect. You could grow, and you could pick in the wild, and you could fish, and you could find everything that the body needs, for shelter, for everything. So using things that are around you is a kind of way to say to the great spirit, “Hey, it’s perfect. Look, I have everything I need here.” That’s the best way to express your total gratefulness towards the creator who made the world perfect, in every place it’s perfect. Eskimos might eat only meat and seal fat and clothe themselves with seal skins. It’s perfect for them. Any place has all it needs for keeping a human alive, and not only alive, but happy and everything, so self- sufficiency is a way to express your contentment, your satisfaction. Dependency is a way to express your dissatisfaction, and your everlasting discontent – you are never satisfied. You want an orange, you want bananas, you want coffee, you want this. It doesn’t grow here, but you want it. It’s a way to say, we have not enough. It’s like if we are in a house together and I am always running away. It’s like if you are married with a woman, and are always going to sleep some nights with another woman, because you are not in love with the first woman. It’s a bit what we do when we are not satisfied with what we are. The earth is a woman, is a beautiful queen. Around here we have everything we need, and we will express our satisfaction and contentment by developing all our senses and exploring around and seeing that around is everything we need, to transform it into food, into art, into beauty, into shelter – everything is here.

So therefore, it comes back to the big wisdom and knowledge of the tradition. To see that, I had to take my bag on my back and go to see people who know that. All over Europe, in some places of Germany, some places of Scotland, especially the mountainous parts, some places of Spain, Italy, or Morocco, or Norway, there are people who have built their houses only with the local wood. Where all food and recipes are made only with the things that grow around. In Norway, the basic food was potatoes, bread, fish, and milk, which is only about four things, some berries, but from those things, thousands, hundreds of different kinds of bread, recipes, hundreds of ways of making milk, you know, preparing milk. You are not going to run after exotic things, but see how you can use in depth all the local things. It is the same in the way to honor stone and wood. You are not going to learn it from the world today. You open a recipe book, you are sure half of the products are from India, from Africa, some are local. We have no more that sense of integrity of things being here. So you have to go to the places where the tradition still exist to learn that wisdom and that kind of good way to use the local things.

from Village Life – Reflections by a French multicultural explorer : An interview with Francois Monnet, by Robert Gilman

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