by Sundar Sarukkai
Bare is in. All the enlightened souls I meet – mostly those in Delhi academic circles – keep talking about somebody called Agamben and his idea of ‘bare life’. I must confess that I don’t understand what the fuss about this ‘bare life’ is about. Much before this term became a fancy, we have had many other bare ‘things’ such as the barefoot college and barefoot doctors, not to forget the ‘bare back’ and its multiple manifestations in Hindi films. But my favourite in this list are the ‘barefoot hockey players’ of the Indian hockey team which won the Olympic gold (before independence) playing barefoot. Alas, now they have fancy shoes but no gold medal. There must be a lesson about being barefoot in this sorry history.
But the domain of barefoot is much larger. People with a bare life or in a non-Agambian sense, a life of bareness, also tend to go barefoot. Some may not have the means to get footwear or some may not want a protection on their feet. Mendicants and mystics seem to enjoy walking barefoot in their wanderings. You cannot enter a temple (and increasingly in other places of worship too) with footwear. So outside temples we can see mounds of footwear discarded casually by the devotees as if they don’t really care whether they get their footwear back or not. When computers were first introduced in our country, they were treated like gods. You could not enter a room with computers without removing your footwear. So, just like temples, every computer room had a mound of discarded footwear outside its doors. By being there, these slippers and shoes exerted a moral pressure on anybody who wanted to enter the computer room with her footwear. In many parts, particularly in the South, during certain periods of the year you can see large groups of people walking in the roads leading to a temple town. All of them trek miles without footwear; sometimes this trek is over a few days. Many Ayyappa devotees go without footwear in their daily lives when they keep their vow (generally for around 40 days). I have also noticed that drivers of public vehicles, such as taxi drivers and sometimes bus drivers, tend to drive with their bare feet. Their footwear is kept aside and they use their bare feet for operating the brake and clutch. The reason why drivers use their bare feet while driving is linked to the degree of ‘feel’ that they have of the vehicle.
Bareness is so important to many things ‘Indian’. Footwear, all said and done, is a mediating agent. It comes in between our body and the world. It does not let us sense, feel and touch the world. It is as if we are floating above the world, displaced from it by the thickness of the soles of what we wear on our feet. But being displaced from the world is to lose touch with the world, whether the distance is just one centimeter or more. When we wear the footwear we are only in touch with the footwear and not the ground. And given that footwear is so monotonously smooth and predictable, our touch with the world also becomes like that. Imagine walking on the bare ground on a cold day with our bare feet. A bare ground with bare little pebbles, mud and little twigs. The foot is no longer alienated from the world in the guise of protecting it. Walking in the temple barefoot can sometimes be an ordeal but it is one that becomes part of the religious experience. We may have to walk on hot stones, sometimes through slush, through sand and pebbles. Walking on barefoot there is to enter that space with our souls bared, without being protected by artificial footwear or by some ‘soulwear’.
But there is more to the foot than mere sensing. In Indian cultural traditions, the bare foot has a great significance. Blessings are sought by touching the feet – strictly not feet encased in shiny shoes but ones which are bare. The touch of the bare feet of another is the ultimate mark of respect to that person. To pay obeisance to elders, in many rituals, is to wash their feet. The washing of feet has a great significance, as was exemplified by Pope Francis when he washed the feet of immigrants and prisoners. A sense of surrender is also present when the bare feet of one is touched by the bare hand of another. There is thus an important relationship between barefoot and water. We don’t wash our slippers and shoes with water but the barefoot is always washed with water. The barefoot leads us to the water, to submerging ourselves in the experiences of the body and the world. In fact, historically where slippers were seen to have any use, they were largely as representatives of the feet of those who were not there, rather than as instruments to protect the feet. When Bharatha is asked to rule the kingdom in Rama’s absence, he does so by keeping the ‘sandals’ of Rama on the throne. In many religious sects, the wooden footwear of the religious head is often kept in the houses of the devotees so that they can get blessed by the feet of their guru even in his absence. The barefoot also has a deep social impact on the social systems in India. The caste system is often located within the model of the four varnas which is modelled on the body. The atishudras, or the dalits, are those who are outside caste in that they are outside but also ‘below’ the foot. Thus, for these reasons and more, we call ourselves the barefoot philosophers. This does not only mean a philosopher who is barefooted. It is actually more complex: it brings forth the image of a ‘bare philosopher’ walking barefoot. There are two types of ‘bare’ at work here: one at the level of barefoot, which is the path or conduit for an unmediated experience of the world through our feet. And the other is of the bare philosopher – a person who is able to think about the world and her experiences as a philosopher with a sense of ‘bareness’. Today, we seem to have confused the act of philosophy with the act of regurgitating the words of some famous philosophers. But philosophy cannot be reduced to this imitative action. What does it mean to recapture the space of discovering philosophical thinking in a bare manner? In other words, if philosophy is seen as the foot, then how does philosophy touch the world and experience the world through this touch? Excessively depending on the words of ‘famous’ philosophers is like covering a barefoot with the ‘sandal’ of words of the philosophers. These words protect the foot but do not allow for unmediated experience, thinking and learning. Walking all the time with the footwear – namely, the philosophers – will only give us an experience and knowledge of the philosopher’s words but not of the world per se. So the plea is that philosophers should learn to walk barefoot again. The most original and influential philosophers around the world have always done this. And by philosophers in this sense of the word, we include great poets and mystics who understood something of the world that others, surrounded too much by coverings of all kinds, couldn’t.
But philosophy cannot be perpetual rediscovery and hence it is important to know what others have thought and written. Like in everything else, it is all a matter of balance and finding the ‘middle-path’. But we can also see the importance of footwear in another sense: using them to navigate particularly difficult paths. While we may want to walk barefoot all the time, we may find it difficult to do so if the path is full of thorns or otherwise unwalkable. In such a case, it makes sense to wear footwear for genuine protection. So also, some experiences or some questions might be too difficult to traverse and the words and concepts of philosophers might prove to be a good support and protection that enables us to engage with those questions. But even in this case there is a lesson from our everyday life. When we leave the house, we normally wear footwear but when we come back, we first remove the footwear before we enter the house. So too is it with philosophy. My philosophy teacher, the man who made my act of philosophical thinking possible in every sense – Michael Weinstein – used to remind us in the class about the importance of what he called ‘home discourse’. Coming back home is to come back to a place where you walk around without the footwear. It is the place of the barefoot. Philosophy is after all home, a place where we go to rest, to take succour and to mediate and reflect. That cannot be done with mediated protection of footwear and books. Building such a bare home for a bare foot is what philosophy in the ultimate analysis is.