Back to roots: return of the Nomad

Dr Chandra Mohan Bhandari

by Chandra Mohan bhandari

One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.
                                                                                                  -     Henry Miller
For long man has inhabited the planet as a wanderer and hunter-gatherer motivated primarily by need for food, shelter and better survival options. It was the onset of agrarian revolution few thousand years ago that brought a sea-change in the lifestyle of nomadic man, and most of wandering tribes started a settled life and made a new beginning. Some wandering groups could still be traced around the globe, who could not accept a settled life like the vast majority. However, deep within his psychic layers man is still a wanderer, and with revolutionary changes in transport and communication the wanderer in man is trying to revisit his past in a different setting. It seems that itinerant existence is deeply ingrained (whether by design or by default) in deeper layers of man’s psyche and we might be witnessing a return of the nomadic life albeit in a different format.

We are all travellers, even when not traveling in the usual sense; we do travel in time even if stationary in space. Time is an important parameter that constitutes and imparts meaning to being, and it’s this parameter that has been one of the difficult notions to grasp, even for hard core scientists. In scientific terms theory of relativity goes to the extent of imparting time a relativistic character that could in principle change with the person who observes provided the observer is in a state of relative motion with respect to the system being observed. And that brings to the fore the element of subjectivity – a realm so familiar in literary pursuit. Nomadic man travelled in search of food, security and better survival options. That was the modus operandi for millennia until evolving and thinking human mind brought forth the transformation heralding an agrarian revolution. Things changed for most of humanity although some wandering groups kept following their earlier life styles. Prominent among them were the desert dwellers known as Bedouin, Kochi in Afghanistan, Roma in Europe and Banzara in India; these and several other groups could not permanently settle down even when most of mankind decided to call it a day. Some historians see a linkage between Romas and Banzaras; the two could possibly have a common history. A recent DNA study of the Romas has revealed their connection with North Indian Dalit communities. Indian Council of Cultural Relations organised a conference [1] to discuss some of these issues. The conference concluded with a resolution that Roma people should be recognised as part of Indian diaspora. Currently there are an estimated 20 million Roma people scattered all over Europe and Americas. Bedouin nomadic groups too are estimated to be around 21 million strong and are known to support themselves by goat and camel herding.  
What was it that stopped these wandering communities from choosing a settled life? Whether it was due to an innate irrepressible urge to constantly move on, embedded deep in their psychic underground, or an inherent incapacity to adapt to settled lifestyle – could be debatable, but one thing was certain - man’s psychic architecture that emerged during billion years of biological evolution could not be washed clean by the new settled lifestyle changes prompted by cultural transformation. The ever present dualist in man kept raising its head at regular intervals to remind him of the dilemma of existence. The ever-wandering human groups’ presence even to this day could be a vague manifestation of the same. A dualistic trend of settled (physically) and itinerant (mentally) conscious being could help understand some of the human situations. Present essay deals with some queries of this kind.
To begin with nomadic man was like other animal species which he truly is. The bipedal animal started on its forward march some six MYA (million years ago) when this offshoot of the chimp embarked upon a process of bio-cultural co-evolution. It is likely that standing on two legs accelerated man’s cranial evolution. On the other hand the cultural changes could possibly have an impact on evolutionary process, and that may be reasonably true for human brain [2]. As his brain grew in size (proportion to body mass) and complexity, complex neuronal networking started emerging. Along with this dualistic trends started manifesting themselves. The body cared for its survival as in other animal species and looked primarily after its autonomous needs. The mind did take many roles and dimensions: primarily it strengthened the autonomous need thereby giving mankind greater control over the surroundings. Agrarian revolution followed by a settled life transformed man’s thinking in a significant way; he now had enough time to manipulate things, he was now a ‘manipulator’ who acted not only for survival but for comfort, entertainment, power and prejudices. However, his mind was now destined to go beyond this limited role. Man had his (her) own hierarchy of needs, and among this list was his (her) frequent, although not too long, forays into the realm of the ‘transpersonal’. Man is often referred to as an amphibian leading two different lives – his autonomous physical existence as a living being like other animals, and his other existence beyond the autonomous self that may include his cultural life, sometimes referred to as his homonomous existence. 
Understandably the conscious mind is in a position to assert of another existence that transcends the self where one could embrace aspects of life beyond the need to focus on immediate survival.
Complex human mind is a by-product of the architecture of brain with strange and baffling neuronal circuitry guiding its actions. It has already been stated that the cultural transformation too had an indirect role in the process of evolution thereby making it a bio-cultural co-evolution. Whereas neuro-scientists were busy trying to comprehend the causes and repercussions of these baffling neuro-connections [3, 4], the artist in man has effectively used this intricate network to fulfil his other requirement – to search the meaning of being and to bring an element of aesthetics to it. Life is what it is, yet it is up to the man to search methods and means to impart it a meaning and a purpose, and make it worth something, although many of his actions have thus far highlighted the opposite.  
Man like other species had a long nomadic existence. The settled lifestyle was a consequence of a thinking mind and physical necessity; this could not stop the wandering mind from doing what it could do best – to wander. To wonder at the life and mind, and to wander in space and time - trying to discover new avenues to wonder about – that was the predicament of a man who was no longer obsessed merely with earning his daily bread. That may not be true for a vast majority of humans who still have to struggle  for earning their livelihood. However, anyone with reasonable livelihood had sufficient scope to satisfy this need of the mind; arts and literature were but a manifestation and an outcome of this need. Man, once physically rooted in a location, ceased to be a wanderer but could not do the same when it came to his mind. At the psychological level he fully retained his nomadic character. It was a kind of dual existence; man truly was now an amphibian in yet another sense, his autonomous physical existence often in conflict with his other existence, as part of the whole (homonomous existence), and his settled physical existence often in conflict [5] with his ever restless and itinerant mind.
It is not the purpose of this essay to delve deeper into the making of the human mind and certainly this is beyond the scope of this essay. That is a complex and growing field presenting serious challenges to scientists and some of its peculiarities are open to enquiry with the new developments in neurology – a puzzling account of neuronal connections and cross-connections. Whatever the origin of all these, one thing was certain by now – mind,  destined to float over the neuronal network, gradually emerged to remain unstable, restless, floating incessantly on a turbulent surface. In every sense mind was to be a traveller – a traveller in space and time. And an account of the space-time travels and travails of this wanderer is given a special name – LITERATURE.
Very often I try to feel in my bones the thrill of Marco Polo’s historic journeys or great Chinese traveller Huen Tsang’s journey to India and back covering a time frame of twenty years. Not an easy travel by any account. I often ruminate about innumerable other traveller-seekers spanning the length and breadth of the Himalayas. There was no tradition then to keep detailed accounts of the proceedings but the essence of their searches did pour out in the form of verses and jataks (short stories); in fact much of the Vedic literature has been a collection of all such experiences. Those who could not afford to face the uncertainties of such an arduous travel did so by sharing those moments from others’ travel accounts. Many great voyages witnessed different outcomes – the discovery of the Americas among them. Fifteenth century European voyages were definitely among the greatest feats of humans comparable to or even surpassing the earlier great travelling feats. The urge to discover the world for oneself guided all great journeys; the motive determined the future trajectory. While Columbus, Cortez and their successors, conquered lands and collected fortunes, travellers like Huen Tsang discovered an ideology and a way – a path, a Tao. The former was a story of adventure and conquests often followed by unfair acts and practices, the later reflected attempt to conquer the inner domain.
The world out there and the world within both reflect often the best and worst of life and living. Over the millennia the world out there has transformed almost beyond recognition with wilds giving way to settlements. As a consequence life and its primal cause, the biosphere, have gradually come under stress; as a consequence the ecological changes are bringing forth issues never heard of earlier. The world is changing out there; it is also changing the layers of psyche and its architecture. The irrepressible human urge to explore the planet may soon come closer to a dead end; there may not remain much in the planet to explore. The regions beyond the planet are immense but then exploratory voyages beyond earth are still a distant dream. On the other hand man’s efforts to explore the inner world would continue which can still offer unlimited possibilities.
The perennial traveling mind passes through different territories and, taking notes, glides on. It often discovers links that connect it to almost everything on the planet. At one epoch it was located in Marco Polo’ cranial cavity, at other instance it’s with Huen Tsang. Besides the two celebrated travellers innumerable others have their way and say in the scheme of things. Every inquisitive mind has the urge for a first hand encounter, and when this is not possible, it tries to remain connected to the world of experience available in literature  – a truly human experience. Power of language and communication has given the species a tool which can help him comprehend the reality without the necessity of going through a first- hand encounter – hereby enable him(her) to live many lives in one. This dualism- nay multiplism – has its rewards as also its curses; reward in the form of innumerable choices and curse in the form of conflict and failure. This mode of mind’s travels is going to stay; dealing with this challenge is among the toughest ever faced by man.
The nomad of earlier days did not possess a choice, under the circumstances that was the only way out. Itinerant man of today has a choice and if one decides to leave the comfort and security of home to explore the world [6, 7] around there seems to be an inner urge, something built-in in the psychic back waters. Or there may be another point of view- the comfort and security of home is now available all over the globe. Well this may be true for some tourists, but we must distinguish between a traveller and a tourist. There are innumerable examples of people taking risks of all sorts to discover things their way that may satisfy their inner urge to wander and to discover. “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves, and next we travel to find ourselves” [Pico Iyer].  
Often I find myself in the shoes of Marco Polo or Huen Tsang, and sometime among recent travellers [8 - 10] like Paul Theroux, Collin Thubron and Bill Aitken; but never even once I thought of reliving the travel accounts of Columbus, Cortez and the like in spite of their great spirit of adventure. But for the unfair and unjust practices that followed, these voyages could be counted among the greatest of human feats.   
I find Huen Tsang’s travels and travails of particular interest as he was among those who carried with him the enquiring spirit of man and a thirst for conquering the world within, that truly needed to be conquered. As the world events unfold we shall witness the great voyages of discovery exploring the depths of human mind. It seems that the primary purpose of a travel is to lose oneself to be able to discover oneself (recalling Pico Iyer). The details of the methodology will be travel-specific and traveller-specific. In fact almost all journeys are in that sense dual travels [11] – out there and also within.
Steady in Motion
In some respects mind is like a bicycle – stable and steady while in motion, and unable to stand while at rest; a balance is possible only while in motion. The two wheels unable to keep the system steady, require a kinetic energy to balance the bike to a steady state of motion; that is a good analogy for mind. And remember one has to learn to balance both – the bicycle and the mind. A further modification would be useful by adding an accelerating device. Think of a bicycle with a motor attached to it and with its brakes removed. This unique traveller (mind) is on a motorbike with acceleration facility but without brakes. You have to learn to occasionally stop it and how you do so defines your own self to some extent. In some Hindu and Buddhist practices, such as in Raj-Yoga and Zen, we find effort and procedure to bring the bicycle to a state of balance even when not in motion.
Dual exploratory travels in space and time – that is the characteristic feature of all great travels. However, the direction and motivation in a given case is that of the specific travel and the traveller. The wanderer of yesteryears saw a big change with settled life style and that determined much of his life and work-pattern. After the agrarian revolution two other transformational events took place in a small time-span, the industrial revolution in eighteenth century and the electronic revolution [12] that started in the second-half of twentieth century and is continuing. These developments had their impact on life and mind, and as a consequence yet another lifestyle change seems to emerge, the permanence of settled life giving way to semi-settled life. The human cultural transformation has taken a full circle. With the revolutionary changes in communication and transport and availability of frequent travel options a large population is already living some diluted form of a nomadic life.

Sitting on the balcony of the fifth floor suite in the hotel I reflected upon the travels of the wanderer mind and some of its travel accounts. From the balcony of my room in the hotel overlooking the Hudson river I felt myself to be a wanderer in my own way – an itinerant individual who just two months back was overlooking the magnificent central Himalayan range in Kumaon Hills.
Often do I ruminate upon the architecture of mind and wonder what could be its better description than a traveller – a traveller extraordinaire, a wanderer par-excellence, a dualist (nay multiplist ) tat-twam-asi. And what name could be given to its travel-accounts other than thought; travel-accounts of this unique traveller is also known as literature. Its peculiarities are in some sense better described by some unique concepts in modern quantum physics, important among them being superposition.  Like atoms or electrons  conscious mind keeps changing places, creating a thought pattern of its own, seeking the new along with the familiar and incessantly looking for a meaning of being which may or may not be there.  A wavelike fluidity imparts to mind a capacity to travel along two or more paths simultaneously something akin to what one encounters in quantum objects.

The World Created by Wandering Atoms
Physics and astrophysics remind us in no uncertain terms the origin of our solar system, the universe and above all the miniscule atoms that construct the world including us. I know now that the atoms that construct us have also been wanderers traveling for long in space and time inhabiting many stellar cores in their long and tedious journeys. Progress in cosmology brings us closer to the stellar evolution and evolution of the atoms that construct the world. The atoms like hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen are essential ingredients of living systems; all atoms other than hydrogen had their origin in the stellar wombs where they were virtually cooked for thousands of years before they started shaping the solar system, the planet earth and the world of living beings.  And remember – not one but several of stellar wombs. Not only humans but the atoms that construct them have been wanderers migrating from one star to another to be cooked and refined for the onward march. Poets are known for their imaginative powers but this kind of situation is even beyond their imagination range:

Universal [13]
Atoms of my body
and yours too
Cooked in stellar kitchens
at ten million degree.
Mould in molecular configurations, patterns and themes
Amino acids, proteins, cells and genes;
Herald and define my very existence
Essence of my being, interior and outline
The path and process of my presence
and yours too.

Yet, the billion years gone by
Roll down the blood stream, the bone marrow
And above all
In hundred billion neuronal cells
Performing incessant fire dance.

It’s time for ‘ I ‘ to step in
Widen shoulders, look around
Think, feel and proclaim
Uninhibited universality
Not just a figment of poetic imagination, 
A hard scientific fact
The universe within me
And yours too.

More Revelations
The notion of the universe within us now seems not merely a poetic metaphor, it is real;
that this is so is based on scientific findings. And not only this, we have to be prepared for other revealing notions from scientific quarters. Darwin’s theory of evolution reveals another aspect of our hunter-gatherer past; we have come to our present state of evolution after having gone through innumerable intermediary stages. The closest in these are the species of apes with chimpanzee being the closest and it was some six million years ago that this homosapien branch started evolving. Taking even a small chunk of this long evolutionary journey would be enough to tell the epical story of long and arduous space-time travels of this species, the humans.
Globalisation has started influencing our everyday lives, be it in information or in employment, commerce or economic inter-dependence. Transport and communication have made it possible to remain moving without the hardships associated with it in the past. A recent United Nation’s report (published in newspapers, January 2016) indicated the number of people living in countries other than those of their birth to be around 220 million which was about 3.5 percent of world population. Incidentally, Indian diaspora constitute the largest of such population standing at around 16 million, followed by Mexicans at 12. Of course by no means this is all due to love for travel only, there are many other considerations. This only indicated that in the three centuries of industrial revolution if this could be the scenario then in another three centuries, a whopping 10 percent of world population may be constituted by itinerant dwellers – a new class who in the real sense do not belong to any specific location and, in good many cases, country.
Often I ruminate that consciousness or awareness at the highest level is nonlocal by default and by definition too. I strongly feel that our psychic architecture is rooted deep in our long past that may include various stages, as homosapien or earlier as chimp or ape. Whatever be true a conscious mind is comfortable while in motion in its truly nomadic manifestation.
It could very well be the beginning of a new chapter in the epic story of humans, to be titled: ‘Return of the Nomad’.

[1] ‘Roma Conference and Cultural Festival’, organised by Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR); 3-day event starting February 12, 2016.
[2] P J Richardson and R Boyd, Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, University of Chicago Press (2008).
[3] V. Ramachandran, The Emerging Mind, Profile Books Ltd, London, 2003.
[4] R Penrose, The Emperor’s New Mind, Oxford University Press, 1989.
[5] C M Bhandari, Entangled realities in Literature and Science, Muse India, Jul – Aug 2012.
[6] Ed Stafford, Walking the Amazon, Virgin Books, U K, 2011.
[7] C M Bhandari, Travel and travel writing, Muse India September-October, 2013.
[8] Paul Theroux, Happy Isles of Oceania, G P Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1992.
[9] Colin Thubron, In Siberia, Chatto and Windus, Great Britain, 1999.
[10] Bill Aitken, Seven Sacred Rivers, Penguin Books, India, 1992.
[11] Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance, A Bantam New Age Book, 1991.
[12] Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave, William Collins and Sons, 1980.
[13] C M Bhandari, Universal,, 2013.

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