The Essay paper of UPSC Mains 2021 conducted in January 2022 was as predicted and unsurprising- even though it has left many aspirants perplexed about ‘Philosophical’ Essays. The essay topics in the paper were undoubtedly abstract as can be expected from Essay topics but they were not Philosophical which is to say that no Philosophy was at the center of the debates enclosed in the topics.
There was instead a rich-interplay of Psychology, Technology and general awareness. The topics were centered around burning issues and debates which are ongoing in the public discourse such as the effects of technology, creativity, materialism etc.
This lesson is a detailed analysis of the questions asked in the UPSC Mains 2021 Essay paper along with a 4D analysis – Deconstruction, Demonstration, Discussions and Demystification.
UPSC Mains 2021 Essay Topic 1:
Thing 1: Self-Discovery
Thing 2: Technology
Heart of the Essay topic and Central themes:
The process of Self-discovery encompasses a life-long evolution for humans as they discover both, their environment and themselves through the journey of life.
Partly biological but mostly social, this process involves the formation of basic self-identity from childhood where caregivers and the inner social group shapes the personality of the child, and onwards through adolescence when the peer group becomes the dominant agency for self-discovery. The coming of age of children is a monumental transition into adult life- one which is invariably a deeply social process. While biologically, It might take 2 people to make a human being, It takes a tribe or a family to raise them. No one can come of age in isolation.
Technology has fundamentally altered this ancient and most sacred of processes. With smart phones and zoom calls, children no longer discover themselves through play but through video-games. We live in a world where social media posts remind us about the birthdays of our own loved ones- all in the midst of a veritable storm of click-bait. Children now discover how much their peers think they are worth by the number of likes, instead of fist-bumps and high-fives. Big Data, AI and the technological wizardry in our pockets and wrists now bombard us with more data about our own selves than we know what to do with….
How is self-discovery changing because of technology? Is it leading to desired outcomes? If not, then what can be done to achieve a synthesis? etc are some themes an aspirant would do well to address in this Essay topic.
UPSC Mains 2021 Essay Topic 2:
Thing 1: Perception of self
Thing 2: Perception of others
Heart of the Essay topic:
Art is in the eye of the beholder might be an understatement for the eyes of the beholder. It seems like our very selves exist only in the eyes of the beholder in as much our perceptions are subjective and personal. When we see ourselves, we see what we want to see. When we see others, we see mostly ourselves projected on to their personas. Thus we never really see the other person objectively.
Our perceptions of ourselves and of others are colored by our expectations. This distortion is the root of stereotyping, xenophobia and all social malice. Much evil has been perpetrated because of our blindness to this subtle force pulling the strings from behind our eyes- genocide, ethnic cleansing and riots are all different faces of projecting hate onto the ‘others’.
But the process is not all evil. Humans have a need to form social bonds and as a result, in-groups. This is the source of our sense of security and belongingness. It is also the root of empathy and of love.
The caveat is that during the course of doing so, it is easy to forget that the distinctions we impose on people are a matter of our own convenience and are not a truth ordained by nature. A contagious virus, for instance does not distinguish between communities or casts. Covid-19 is a brutal reminder of the artificiality of our socially constructed world.
Self-awareness about this subtle psychic process is called meta-cognition. The ability to observe impartially and to watch ones stream of thoughts passing by without acting on them is the seat of all power, all equanimity. But to catch the mind while it is up to it’s trickery is tricky business and reserved for only the most keenly aware among us.
This is the ultimate education for the more self-aware we are ,the more of ourselves we control and the better we can choose to be.
Other themes which might find mention in this topic of UPSC Mains 2021 are- mindfulness, psychology, development etc
UPSC Mains 2021 Essay Topic 3
Thing 1: Wantlessness
Thing 2: Materialism
Heart of the topic:
What is the best way to live life? To desire or not to desire-that is the question. This debate highlights our unending struggle between the desire which compels us forward and the inevitable misery it brings when we follow its lead. The Buddha said that desire is the root of all suffering and he was presumably correct. As a matter of experience- there is no lasting peace to be found in modern life which is rife with desire and consumable pleasures. The solution? To quell desire and to root it out. To be happy, become wantless.
But is this antidote a cure? Does not the meditating monk want enlightenment? How else would years of practice and training be justified? We are a species driven to explore the cosmos and to look beyond the big bang- the very moment of creation. We are driven to become millionaires, powerful bureaucrats and to have it all in our fleeting and short lives. More importantly, is it even possible given the evolutionary heritage of humans as the most curious and insatiable of creatures.
This is not to suggest that desire should be allowed to hold our reigns unfettered. For it will surely drive us into hedonism and self-destruction. Research shows that happiness is not derived from material possessions as much as it is from healthy social relationships. Cars and clothes do not translate to happiness- an appreciative compliment from a friend, does. And therefore materialism turns out to be as empty and vacuous as it’s twin- wantlessness.
Does does equal suffering. It brings with it the aches and pains of growth. In as much as we are purpose-driven, we are driven by desire. In as much as we stop pushing towards a purpose, we cease to exist. To give up desire is to give up purpose and that might not be cost worth paying.
The debate is the fine line between desire and progress and how to balance the two. Some other themes which can be inserted are socialism vs capitalism, consumerism, minimalism etc.
Essay Topic 4:
Thing 2: Rationality
Heart of the topic:
Reality is the most slippery of concepts because it defies definition. Even if the mind can comprehend it, language can never adequately capture it. The Jains were keenly aware of this and correctly called their idea of reality- Anekantavad– meaning literally, the multi faceted. To a physicist, reality is composed of particles which combine according to laws of nature to give rise to the world we live in and indeed, us. While to an idealist, reality is non-material and composed of ideas/concepts. For a dualist, reality lies in the realm of both matter and mind.
If reality is what is experienced by the human mind/brain, then is the reality of a giraffe different from ours? If it is, are there multiple realities- perhaps as many as there are minds? Is reality subject to perception by a conscious mind or is it independent of minds altogether? The mystery of what reality is runs rampant.
What is clear in as much as there are minds, is that intelligence is based on rationality. Rationality is a subset of logic which minds use to navigate the world. We speak of ‘rational decision-making’ to imply decisions taken based on data, objectivity and calculations.
But is reality rational? What can be said about the rationality of nature is that it certainly uses logic in it’s designs. Logical and rational laws determine the movement of planets, the structure of DNA and most things on our scale of the universe. But things take a different flavor at the scale of the sub-atomic where rationality seems to dissipate as particles pop into existence out of the quantum foam of zero space and disappear into what, we know not.
The relationship of rationality and reality is hidden behind a veil looking beyond which seems forbidden.
If nature at it’s most fundamental level can be lax about rationality, then surely humans can expect themselves to be less than rational as well. This is in conformity with research from Behavioral Economics which is essentially the study of human irrationality. One need not refer to research to note the abject irrationality of humans as they exploit the Earth towards a point of no-return as climate change crosses a critical threshold. For a species which lives to reproduce, how paradoxical it is to witness us destroying the world for our own children.
And yet we are on the cusp of creating a truly rational intelligent synthetic life-form as Artificial Intelligence gets smarter by the day. If truly rational intelligence minds can be created by irrational creatures like us, is it so hard to allow for the possibility that an irrational universe could have created us in much the same way?
Perhaps reality is not yet rational but wants to be. Would love- the most irrational of forces exist in such a universe?
Other themes which may be discussed- Artificial Intelligence, human emotions, empathy and altruism as irrational but fundamental forces.
Essay topic 5:
Thing1: Hand that rocks the cradle (Nurturance)
Thing 2: The world
Heart of the Essay topic:
None of us would exist without our mothers. Nor would we be us had our cradles not been rocked by gentle, loving hands. The maternal and feminine is the first force we come in contact with upon birth. It is the bedrock upon which children explore their worlds and become fully functioning adults.
But to what extent is the force dominant in today’s world where women, on average are paid less than men for the same jobs. Men hold disproportionate wealth, opportunity and power today in most societies of the world. It was unthinkable for women to have the right to vote or to educate themselves until a few centuries ago. The world appears to rule over the hand that rocks the cradle instead of the other way round.
The maternal and feminine is however, not a human phenomenon but a universal one. We depend on the nurturance of mother nature as much as as child depends on the mother for its survival. Without her, we would cease to exist. The feminine force of nature is a force of love, compassion, care and creation. While we traverse the landscape, we often forget and take for granted the role of our parents in our lives just as we have forgotten how beholden we are to mother nature’s benevolence.
We might have forgotten about the hand of mother nature like mislead children but would do well to realize the debt we owe to the feminine force which truly rules the world.
Themes: Feminism, Compassion, Nurturance, Nature, Environment, Gender-equality etc.
UPSC Mains 2021 Essay Topic 6:
Thing 1: Research
Thing 2: Knowledge
Heart of the topic:
Knowledge may be acquired through intuition and bursts of insight or through careful deliberation. Research is one among many methods to acquire knowledge. Research involves the scientific method- the core values of which are objectivity, reason and verification. It is the process of accumulating information and testing out ideas/hypothesis to see if they survive scrutiny and drawing conclusions based only on rational evidence.
A fundamental tenet of research is to go where the evidence leads. And in as much it is a method to reach knowledge, it can sometimes take surprising twists and turns. Once an hypothesis is opened to research, it can lead the researcher anywhere. The history of science is replete with lucky detours leading to astounding discoveries- the discovery of Penicillin, DNA and Jupiter, to name a few.
Research is not the only thing on a blind date. Our fleeting human lives are on a blind date with destiny where infinite stories unfold in every moment. This is because of the inherent unpredictability of the universe. Research just mirrors this fundamental uncertainty.
Most research opens more questions than it answers. This makes science hard and unpredictable. It also makes it uncomfortable because research can lead to some discomforting revelations. Ever since Galileo discovered that the Earth was not the center of the universe, there has been wave after wave of humbling news for humanity. Not only we are not at the center of the universe but exist on a pale blue dot near a humdrum star, orbiting with millions of other worlds in a galaxy like billions of other galaxies. But why go to the farthest reaches of the cosmos when discomforting truths are found close to home- a recent case in point is the UNFCC report on Climate change which warns of impending disaster if global warming is not curtailed and predicts dire consequences for humanity’s inaction.
Who would have thought a few centuries ago that humans will walk the moon? or split the atom? or defeat an invisible disease by manipulating the virus’ molecular structure? The world which science has revealed to us is far more beautiful, mysterious amazing and mind-blowing than we could ever have imagined.
Research is on a blind date with truth because truth truly is stranger than fiction.
Essay topic 7:
Natural disasters and calamities are the result of forces much larger than human beings and we hold little power to prevent them from occurring.
The difference between a devastating tsunami and a devastating war is that we, alone are responsible for the latter. An Earthquake or a tsunami can come without warning and may repeatedly occur but our human response and preparedness to these natural events is not set in stone.
But if we know this to be the case then why is history littered with wars and tragedies? Is history then a chronology of events or a repository of human mistakes?
The latter offers a more interesting prospect because with a list of mistakes passed on from generation to generation, humans can learn from them. And to some extent we have.
History repeating itself from World War I in World War II was a tragedy-an unfortunate and regrettable turn of events. Thankfully the farce has not yet occurred in the several decades after the tragic war as the United Nations has kept World War III at bay. This is not say that it will never occur. If it does, it might be the final farce humanity will witness.
And yet we find ourselves poised to create the greatest farce the world has ever seen as we fail to arrest global warming within sustainable levels pushing not only ourselves, but thousands of other species, to their doom.
Essay topic 8:
- Deconstruct the above Essay topic from UPSC Mains 2021 into Thing 1 and Thing2
- Try to drill down to the heart of the essay topic and identify key debates
- Write a micro-essay in less than 300 words
-Ravi Kapoor IRS