Tyranny of recorded words

Just how important is the context in which something is said? How bound is a word to the time and place in which it is uttered, to the person saying it and to the person(s) addressed? I got some understanding on this issue from a doctor in the dispensary of Patna University some time in the early 1990s. The doctor was also a highly accomplished yoga teacher and had a keen spiritual insight. He was a product of the world renowned Bihar School of Yoga based in Munger in Bihar and ran a yoga training centre in the dispensary for university teachers and students.

While I was discussing something with him one day, an elderly man dropped in to seek his advice on some spiritual matters. One of the questions he asked was, ‘Lord Krishna says a lot of things in the Gita which he does not himself follow. Is Krishna fair doing this?’ The yoga teacher-cum-doctor replied, ‘One, the Gita is not meant for us in our times. It was something communicated to Arjun to fulfill a specific need at a certain occasion and time. It is meant for Arjun’s consumption. Second, when Krishna tells Arjun that certain things should be done or not, the instructions are meant for someone at a certain level of understanding and accomplishment. But these instructions are not for the Lord himself, for he knows all and is God himself. It is like this. If some live electricity wires are hanging loose with their ends exposed, the electrician might tell people to not touch any of the wires. But he himself will handle them because he knows about the wires and how the connections can be mended.’ This satisfied the elderly gentleman and he left us. I complimented the doctor for giving a good answer to the senior citizen’s question. The doctor replied, ‘The first naive person was that gentleman because he became content with my reply. The second naive person was me, for I attempted to answer his question. The Gita is God’s own word. What can we, mere mortals, understand about it? We can never truly understand God or why he says or does something. But that gentleman asked something and I gave an answer just for the sake of it. Even I don’t know whether my answer is correct or not.’

The entire Gita has a specific purpose. Arjun was running away his duty to fight prior to the battle of Kurukshetra. Arjun’s state of mind and the time and place he was in are clear in the first chapter of the Gita. The purpose of the Gita is to prepare Arjun for battle. Krishna’s advice to fight is for Arjun in a given situation defined by the time and place he was in. Gita should be seen in this context. But the words of the Gita were preserved and are now being used by people very different from Arjun, in contexts, times and places worlds away from the original.

This problem of subject, context, time and place applies to all words and texts. We see how often people complain that the meaning of something they had said was distorted because they were quoted out of context. The complaint is often made against the media and while much of the complaining can be said to be an attempt to evade controversy, the media often commits the mistake of quoting people out of context, sometimes unwittingly, sometimes knowingly to generate controversy and increase readership.

I am not sure about the date of this story, but this happened when a Pope visited Las Vegas in the US. The local tabloid media was determined to create ruckus with the Pope at its centre, but how does one get the Pope to say something outrageous? Well, where is a will, there is a quote. When the Pope landed in Las Vegas, one of the first questions a reporter asked him was, ‘Will you visit the nightclubs of Las Vegas?’ The Pope was startled by the question and asked, ‘Are there nightclubs in Las Vegas?’ The next day, a tabloid screamed on its front page: The first question the Pope asks after landing in Las Vegas, ‘Are there nightclubs in Las Vegas?’ Technically correct and sound but still a travesty of truth.

I feel all words are bound by the subjects or people party to it, and their context, time and place. A word is a natural entity, a flower that exists, blooms and draws life from the surroundings in which it is born. If this flower is plucked, preserved in a book or through any other means and served in a surrounding different from the one in which it first existed, you get the letter of the word, but not its essence, its meaning, its spirit.

That is the tyranny of not just the written word, but any recorded word. The spontaneity of its occurrence is lost and it begins to be things it was not meant to.

The author is a senior journalist and columnist
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