Truth has been a contested concept between men of religion, philosophers and ideologues, generating conflicting social-economic-political paradigms. The Towering Wave, a literary work by philosopher B.K. Mallik, first published in 1953, explores these clashing alternatives while seeking answers to problems of conflict and existential uncertainty. Mallik lived through two world wars in Oxford which had raised uncomfortable questions about the assumptions underlying European self-understanding and led to new attempts to configure a post-colonial international order. These form the background to the questions raised in this book.
Mallik offers a novel interpretation of conflict deriving from basic principles for dealing with fundamental differences. He suggests a qualitatively new technique that can bypass historical impasses and usher in a stable peace.
Philosopher Basanta Kumar Mallik (1879-1958), MA in Philosophy (Calcutta University) worked in the Rana court in Nepal before he left for higher studies (law, anthropology and philosophy) at Oxford, where he became part of a brilliant circle of academics (J.A. Smith, Gilbert Murray, R.R. Marrett and William Y. Elliott) and poets (Robert Bridges, Robert Graves and Sydney Lewis).Returning to India he lived in Calcutta, befriended by the likes of S. Radhakrishnan, Krishnachandra Bhattacharya, S.N. Bose, D.P. Mukerji, Humayun Kabir, had a short stint in Nepal, but finally returned to Oxford where he lectured during the Second World War. He wrote several books on philosophy including The Real & the Negative, Related Multiplicity, Non Absolutes and Mythology & Possibility.
It is an honour to be associated with the republication of philosopher Basanta Kumar Mallik's work. Born in 1879 and hailing from an old Meherpore (Nadia) family his academic and working career spanned Bengal, Nepal and Oxford in the first half of the twentieth century. His sojourn in England during both world wars considerably contributed to his meditations on conflict and peace. Although his strictly philosophical oeuvre consists of four major volumes on metaphysics, The Towering Wave, published in 1953, is written for a wider audience, packaging in literary form his seed ideas on conflict, history, society and prospects for a stable peace.
One can only describe the literary device he uses in this book as allegory, though he himself always rejected the term. His language is full of images, his poetic prose generously sprinkled with "quotable quotes" (e.g. "Life after all is meeting if anything"; "A city is not the heart of the state but only a 'process' or 'movement'" or "since theory and practice are essential to one another and appear and disappear together, it follows that a soldier, as such, no more fights than a theory, as such does"). He conveys his message through symbols, tantalizing suggestions and veiled references to current events interspersed with recognizable facts and unambiguous philosophic arguments. In other words, he seamlessly stitches together several aspects of thought and experience to create a vision which both enthrals and instructs.
The book opens with an arresting image of deep-seated anxiety and uncertainty generated by the dream of a towering wave threatening to burst its dam and wreak havoc on the surrounding countryside. This would be particularly piquant in today's world haunted by images of destruction wrought by recurrent tsunamis and cyclones apart from human abuse and disregard of Nature. But the surging Wave symbolizes more than the threat of ecological or environmental disaster, though it is that too: it suggests anxiety generated by the churning of received beliefs and values that underpinned the European world till the other day and an intellectual and civilizational dread of further erosion of these fundamentals.
The dream, rich in layered meanings, continues within an Oxford classroom and through the battlefields of Europe; it forebodes a renewed threat to international peace after the massive death and destruction of two world wars. The "tale" about the dream arouses further speculation and anxiety and ultimately catalyses a "pilgrimage" (described as the Search) constituted by individuals who set out to explore possible answers to the conundrum. Here the reader may be forgiven for seeing a prototype in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, but the Towering Wave is not a simple moral tale: rather it is a search for a weltanschauung, with a complex of ideas drawn from sociology, European philosophy, history, Eastern wisdom and insights, interwoven into a poetic and visionary tapestry. This mining of Western and Eastern thoughts for responses to common human lives and conceptual problems is typical of Mallik's integrated philosophical approach (to be differentiated from the usual comparative studies).
Although decolonization has resulted in the political emancipation of the non-European world, the civilizational question must be addressed since the world's problems of thought or social order can no longer be solved - if ever they could be - solely by the internal discourse of, or international institutionalization in, Western categories. The new global situation demands that men and women of goodwill step out of the confines of the Eurocentric argument between the medieval and the modern, and take into account new challenges from the hitherto dormant or repressed civilizations of the East (Mallik's discourse was confined in his time to the Anglo-Saxon world, Europe, the USSR and Asia, but in principle would have included all) hitherto dismissed as simply pre-modern". However, other traditional categories also demand rethinking as the problems of conflict are universal.
In this book written in the period following the Second World War when the newly-established UNO (referred to in the book as the Conference) had inspired hopes of putting an end to war, Mallik felt constrained to point out that without a solid basis of agreement and understanding, any institution modelled on Western political practices alone would ultimately founder on the shoals of the fundamental disagreements between different peoples of the globe. And indeed only three years later the post-war peace was severely dented by the Suez crisis and the Hungarian Revolution. There has indeed as yet been no (hot) Third World War, but conflict became institutionalized in the long global Cold War stretching from 1949 (the founding of NATO) to 1989, which tolerated under its overarching umbrella of Mutually Assured Destruction, geographically limited conflagrations or proxy wars in spots like Korea, Cambodia and Afghanistan. Today we inhabit a "globalized" economically interdependent world, which again does not promise peace: apart from geographically contained wars as in the Middle East and the havoc caused by "non-state actors" the dread of another large-scale conflict has not disappeared, thanks to the persistence of received paradigms and imbalances stemming from the regroupings, readjustments and challenges emerging from the Middle East and the Asia- Pacific region. The United Nations certainly provides a forum for debates on international crises and has conducted at times contested forays into peace-keeping, but the basic flaw that went into its inception remains, that of a skewed civilizational bias. Mallik advocated searching for a system that would genuinely and equally provide accommodation for all peoples of the globe.
Despite some inevitable historical limitations of a perspective outlined six decades ago - for example Mallik's inability to anticipate the more expansionist aspects of China (though he could foresee the civilizational challenge from an emergent Asia albeit expressed today somewhat crudely in official Chinese rhetoric) or the fallout from a resurgent Middle East, Mallik's basic philosophical-sociological insights into the nature of conflict remain relevant. Most of all his suggested approach for avoidance of conflict through the Ethics of Mutual Abstention is worthy of attention. He himself conceded that since it was based on a world-view outside what Gramscidescribed as the "common sense of the age" it was unlikely to be immediately accepted - but he also believed that people would be impelled in that direction when their received assumptions and values repeatedly failed to halt the apparently limitless cycle of conflict and violence. Indeed with supreme confidence The Towering Wave assures that the germ of the new outlook has already taken root.
Susheel Mittal of D.K. Printworld must be thanked for taking on this publishing project, and Prof. Purushottam Billimoria and Prof. Nirmalya Narayan Chakraborty for their support. Most of all one must pay homage to those dedicated British followers of Mallik, especially Winifred Lewis who after his death, worked to disseminate his works and ideas in India amongst philosophical circles and Mary M. Walker who succeeded Lewis as guardian of Mallik's legacy and became my colleague and friend. And one cannot forget Prof. Krishna Chandra Bhattacharya who consistently acknowledged Mallik's contribution, and Kalidas Bhattacharya who ran a course on his work at Shantiniketan. They form part of the small but consistent circle of Mallik's admirers.
I personally owe a debt of gratitude to M.L. Sondhi who while at Oxford in 1958 "found" Mallik's The Individual and the Group in a stack of unsold books under a table in Hall the Publishers. He realized he had discovered an original and significant thinker and later passed this discovery on to me.
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