Children sometimes ask difficult questions for which a father does not have satisfactory answers. The other day, my daughter asked me why nails grow. That made me think. Nails grow every third day. Parents scold their children if they do not cut their nails in time. But no one really knows why the nails grow back every time you cut them. Cut them and they will silently accept the punishment. Like a hardened criminal, however, they will grow back soon thereafter. Why are they such shameless and stubborn creatures?

It was just a few thousand years ago that the human being was a creature of the jungles. He needed nails. In fact, these were his weapons. As weapons go, teeth were secondary to nails. In those days he had to physically fight with his enemies. Nails were therefore an essential part of his body. Slowly he started using objects outside his body as weapons, such as stones and sharpened wood. He also made weapons from bones – the most famous of which was Indra’s Vajra, made from the bones of the sage Dadhichi.

Man progressed further. He made weapons from metal. Those who possessed metal weapons often won the battle. Because humans possessed metal weapons, they were sought by the gods in their wars against demons. Time moved on and guns, dynamite, bombs and bomber planes took over. These destructive weapons have dragged humanity into a mire. With the atom bomb, nail-adorned man has taken his destructive potential to another plane. But nails continue to grow even now. Nature has not robbed him of his original weapon.

I reflect on the fact that while parents admonish their children nowadays for not cutting their nails, thousands of years ago, they would have admonished them for not taking good care of them. Nature continues to keep nails alive, while man continues to cut them down to size. The damned nails continue to grow, not knowing that men have invented a thousand and million times more potent weapons.

I have a firm belief that man does not want nails anymore. He does not want to be reminded of the cruel times of the past. But on what basis do I say this? How does cutting nails change things? Cruelty among humans has not diminished, in fact, it continues to grow.

Hiroshima, though it occurred only once in history, is a modern manifestation of ancient cruelty. When I see the growth of human nails, I am engulfed by pessimism; they signify that the cruel instinct of human beings is alive. Humans try to conquer this instinct many a times, but it raises its ugly head yet again.

Humans started using their nails for youthful pleasures a few thousand years ago. Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra tells us that Indians in those times would carve their nails tastefully. The art of cutting the nails – triangular, semi-circular, moon-shaped, etc – was quite evolved. They were rubbed with colour and wax to make them red and smooth. People from the Gaur region liked their nails long, while those from the southern parts liked them short. I need not mention the purposes for which these were used by debauched citizens. But what I can say is that Indians have always elevated even the lower animal instincts to higher human pursuits.

Biologists have confirmed that several natural instincts and processes of humans have survived over thousands of years. For a long period during human evolution, they served important functions. Though not needed anymore, these processes continue to operate involuntarily in the body. The growth of nails is one such process, the growth of hair is another, and the re-eruption of teeth is a third.

In fact, these involuntary processes are memories of the unknown, distant past. There are similar examples in the evolution of language too. If a man thinks of and reflects on the instincts that arise spontaneously in our body, mind and words, he may be able to understand more about his own nature. However, he does not do this usually. He does not even realise that the natural growth of his nails is a proof of his animal origins.

His instinct of cutting his nails is a sign of his humanistic present. Although the signs of animal instincts are still evident, he has abandoned them. He cannot move ahead if he remains an animal, he has to explore an alternate path. Amassing weapons is against his human instinct.

My heart asks me – which alternate path should he explore? Which direction is the man moving towards, bestiality or humanity? Towards amassing weapons or towards abandoning them? It is as though my innocent daughter has asked this question on behalf of the entire humankind – do you know why nails grow? They are remnants of our animal life.

There is no word for independence in Indian languages. When India got freedom from British rule, newspapers reported it as swaadheenta (self-rule). Independence, on the other hand, means, not being under anyone’s rule. The nearest English word for swadheenta would probably be self-dependence.

Despite being a British colony for a long time, could India not call Independence anaadheenta (not under any rule)? All the names that Indians referred to for their freedom from British rule – swadheenta, swatantrata, swarajya – retained the fetter of swa. Is it a matter of chance or is it, unknowingly, an entire tradition and philosophy that is manifested in our choice of words? Once again I draw on the statement by an anthropologist to effect that involuntary processes are manifestations of a collective past.

Following freedom from British rule, political leaders and progressive citizens have naturally started thinking about how to make the country prosperous. This is not the first time that the people of the country have pondered over this problem. We are not novices who have been left unprotected in a jungle overnight, with no clue to what to do.

Our history spans many centuries, and our scriptures have addressed this question from many angles and many points of view. Our vast and splendorous tradition, heritage and culture forces us to unknowingly think in a certain way. But it is also true though that the circumstances have changed since the distant past. The tools are different, and the complexities have increased.

However, the fundamental problems have not changed as much. The Indian soul still cannot abandon the fetter of the self (swa). The fetter of the self, imposed by the self on the self, is a special feature of our civilisation.

I do not believe in holding onto what is old and traditional. The clamour of the past is not always desirable. But I also cannot believe that we should get intoxicated on the promise of the new and lose all we have inherited. Kalidasa had said that not all that is old is good, nor all that is new is bad. Wise people will examine the both and accept what is good, while the unwise people dance to the opinions of others. So we have to find out what is valuable to us – if what is valuable already exists in our store, why then wander elsewhere?

Many tribes came and settled on this land. Many a times they fought with one another, but eventually, most of them settled down peacefully. Standing on the different steps of civilisation, facing in different directions, it was not easy to find a common religion. The one thing that the rishis realised is that people of all tribes had one common ideal – that of binding themselves by their own fetters.

How is man different from animals? In his needs for eating and sleeping, he is very similar to them. But he is different in that has self-control, sensitivity towards the sukha and dukkha of others, reverence, discipline, and sacrifice. These are the self-imposed bindings of humans. This is why they do not consider fights and quarrels their ideal. They consider the unwise person who, drunk on his own anger, runs amok as doing something wrong.

This is not a religion of any particular caste, creed or community, this is the religion of humanity. That’s why, in the Mahabharata, the absence of ill-will and of anger and the presence of truth are considered the basic tenets of a general religion. In other writings, giving has also been included.

Gautama Buddha has rightly said that the humanity of humans lies in empathising with everyone’s sukkha and dukkha. This self-constructed fetter is what makes a human human. This is the origin of a dharma based on non-violence, truth and control of anger. I was surprised how this emotion has unintentionally stayed on in our language. But I was surprised by the growth of nails. Ignorance always defeats a man. But man is such that he starts all over again, ready to fight it out.

How will mankind be happy and prosperous? The big political leaders say that deficiency of material objects is the cause of misery. Deploy more machines, increase your productivity, enhance your wealth, multiply the power of your tools, and you will have solved the problem. On the contrary, an old man used to say: “Don’t look outside, look inside. Push out the violence from your minds, remove the myths, throw way the anger and ill-will, bear the pain for the wellbeing of others, do not think of you own comfort, think of love, think of self-sacrifice, think of work. Love is a big thing, because it is inside us. Restlessness is an animal instinct, fettering the self is the true nature of humans.”

I wonder what depths the old man had dived to in order to discover the significance and truth of mankind. But we did not like what the old man said, and we killed him. The animal instinct of the growing of nails lived on.

A day may come when humans’ nails stop growing. Anthropologists believe that, like the tail, those parts of the body that are not in use will ultimately drop off. On that day man may also get rid of his animal instincts. Perhaps he will also get rid of the weapons of destruction. Till then, it is desirable that we inform children that the growth of nails is a sign of animal instincts. And not to let them grow, to cut them, is of humans’ own volition, their ideal.

The hatred which seeps into humans spontaneously, without their having to learn it, is a sign of bestiality. To fetter this instinct, to respect the feelings of others, is the duty (swadharma) of human beings. It will be nice if children learn that objects acquired by discipline and practice alone lead to a splendorous future.

There is a difference between success and fulfilment. A man can amass fearful weapons, and with much guile, call it a success. But human fulfilment lies in love, fraternity, sacrifice, and in giving oneself away for the well-being of others. The growth of nails is a reflection of that blind, hereditary instinct of humans that wishes to bring “success” – and cutting them is the result of that self-discretion and self-control that brings fulfilment.

Let nails grow. Humans will always cut them down to size.