The word “other” in English language means “second”, “that which is not the self”. It comes from the old English word oder. The very concept of ‘other’ has been expressed in different civilizations starting from the very moment of creation.
In Assyrian civilization
In the Assyrian civilization of east Mediterranean, the two primary forces that brought about creation of the universe are Apsu and Thiamat. Apsu means “the primordial waters” and Thiamat means the other one, the one other than Apsu.
In Babylonian civilization
In the Babylonian Mesopotamian civilization, the two forces that engage in the process of creation of this universe are Marduk and Thiamat.
In Indian civilization
Even in ancient Indian language, the word “thia” stood for ‘other’, be it in Samskrt or in the South Indian Malayalam language.
In the Indian Knowledge System, the Veda, the process of Creation is described as a duel between Indra and his ‘other’, Vrtra. Indra denotes the collective consciousness that spreads forth and Vrtra, the holding back force.
The principle of the Other, Thia has existed in Nature even before the Creation of the Universe takes place. The existence of this Other has been recognized and been accorded a name that is phonetically and semantically similar across many ancient civilizations and their languages. Herein lies the beauty in the Other.
The concept of Creation
We see here that the concept of ‘other’ existed in reality and in thought right from the moment of creation of the Universe. We are a part of this Universe and a part of the “Other” as well.
Even the perspective of how the Creation came to be is not one but two.
The one which describes Creation as the handiwork of a God external to the Created Universe, where God first created the Earth, then the Sun, Moon and the stars.
The “other”, which describes Creation as a natural order where the Divine becomes the Created Universe and is intrinsic to the Creation, where Creation happened from a cosmic egg with the Big Bang and everything spewed out from this. i.e the Earth appears later, much later, after the galaxies, the sun and all are created in the process of Creation. This view is held forth in the Veda as Hiranyagarbha for the Cosmic Egg and Brahmanda Visfotak for the Big Bang. This view is similar to that held by modern science too.
Which is the Other?
Right from the explanation of this basic event in the Universe, there has been the “other”, in thought which got carried forward in religion as well.
The view that is the “other view” usually is adverse. But, which is “the other” view, depends on the viewer.
An example can best be seen with the word Asura in Indian thought, which today is loosely translated in English as demon.
Deva Vs Asura
In early Vedic language, the term Asura meant that which is spirited, full of life, vigour and was applied for all divine forces in the Universe starting from the process of Creation.
In later thought, this word Asura picked up a negative connotation in Indian legends and came to denote that which is opposite of divine. Hence the Deva, divine forces of Nature came to be adversaries of the Asura. Since in Samskrt the syllable “a” usually signifies an antithesis, the word Asura was split as “a” and “Sura” and a new term Sura came into usage to denote the opposite of Asura. Hence the Deva or all that is divine came to be called Sura.
But the same idea of Asura appears to have stayed positive in Persian thought and morphed into the word Ahura for their main divinity and the Vedic Deva came to be seen as adversaries.
Respect for the Other
In India, across the land, through the times, there has always been a respect for the other.
The Veda welcome new thoughts and ideas from every direction apart from what is espoused in it.
Aa na bhadra katavo yanto vishwatah
Let noble thoughts come to us from every direction.
- Rig Veda
Nammazhavar, the saint from Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu, expresses in his poem that “every man worships God the way he perceives it in his situation and that is the right thought for him at that moment
That That person with His and His varied level of understanding,
His and His Divinity’s abode shall he attain.
That That person’s Divinity is no lesser.
His and His Destiny will lead to such a Divinity.
- A literal translation of the poem
Isn’t this a beautiful way of recognizing the plurality in the universe, in matter and in thought and respecting the same?
The thoughts of great people
Mahatma Gandhi in his prayer song “Raghupathi Raghava Raja Ram” has the next line as “Ishwar Allah Tero Nam”, where the divine in different names is equally acceptable.
Kabir, the weaver saint of medieval India in his doha, couplets praised both Ram and Rahim.
Swami Vivekananda in his now famous speech at Chicago conference of world religion in 1893 spoke eloquently of the existence of the ‘other’ thought, the plurality and how we innately need to respect the ‘other’ and accept the ‘other’ as our innate ethos.
“As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so O Lord, the different paths which men take through their different tendencies, various though they appear crroked or straight, all lead to thee.”
From Tolerance to Tolerate
120 years ago, in his speech, he brought in the concept of “tolerance” among religions. It was a 458 word speech that lasted just 6 minutes but ushered in a fresh breath of air then.
In the last 100 years, this tolerance has now come down from tolerance to tolerate.
Call to Respect
With this effort of The Other, we should now bring back into dialogue, the need to respect the other.
The idea of other is brought forth in a succulent manner by an incident from the Mahabharata, the epic of India.
When the 5 Pandava brothers were in exile in the forest. Duryodhana, their cousin and antagonist comes to the same forest to watch their sufferings during exile. Duryodhana and his Kaurava brothers were then captured by a third party. Yudhishtra, the eldest of the Pandava along with his brothers, secured the release of their cousins led by Duryodhana.
He explains that, “We are 5, they are hundred. But when a third person captures them, then we are 105 to unite against ‘the other’.
Vayam Pancha The Shatham
Vayam Panchotaram Shatham
- Mahabharata, Vana Parva
Other Not Permanent
Through this episode Yudhishtra brings out the fact that the notion of ‘the other’ is not permanent, but variable based on the situation. Let us understand this through a simple example
From Student to Class to School
When in a class, two students are fighting, each is ‘the other’ to the other.
But when another class is against them, then these two students unite, to jointly defend themselves against the ‘new other, i.e the other class’.
When someone from an ‘other’ school pits against this school, then the different classes unite to compete against the ‘new other’, i.e the other school.
The concept of mine thus keeps changing, expanding with every situation.
In the face of a common goal, we find commonality with our other.
When the mine expands, ‘the other’ starts shrinking gradually.
This should ideally and eventually lead to Vasudhaiva Kutumbhakam, One World Family.
Path and Goal – Distinguishing as well Binding
The path and the goal are the distinguishing factor.
It is the same path and the goal that are the binding factor too.
Recognizing, accepting and respecting the other is in itself the binding factor.
Inclusive and Not Exclusive
It is the approach that one takes of being inclusive or exclusive that decides what “the other” is.
Respecting the other and using that respect as the binding factor is the inclusive approach.
In contrast is the exclusive approach which looks at mine alone as the better path and goal.
It is pertinent here to take note of the concept of Dharma in the Indian thought. Dharma is not religion in the limited sense but instead is about the innate characteristic of a human, animal, plant, living being or even the inanimate. Dharma is also about the varying character and actions to be adopted in varying roles performed by all of these under different conditions of space, time and environ i.e in sync with Nature, science and society.
Seeing the “image of the other” with respect, in sync with Nature and science and being inclusive with love and peace is the common path that has stood the test of time across civilizations.