Indic Culture in a Metaphysical Framework

Introduction

Culture can also be likened to the “Operating System” of a Social machine – the framework and rule sets which govern the operation of the machine (Of course, the Culture OS is a lot more complicated and has a lot more “fuzzy” levels than a computer OS has). If we were to look at such a model, we could say that the spiritual, philosophical and ethical/moral aspects of the culture form the kernel of the OS. The artistic, intellectual and lifestyle aspects of Culture form its shell and various applications…

Overview

Rajiv Malhotra’s essay on Sulekha (Geopolitics and Sanskrit Phobia) got me thinking about it along the lines of the “Metaphysics of Quality” (Since Metaphysics of Quality is quite a mouthful, I’ll refer to it as MoQ henceforth). I had written another article earlier with a brief introduction to MoQ (and a reading – albeit, a non-scholarly one, of Indian Secularism using the MoQ Framework) – Deconstructing Indian Secularism.

Rajiv’s article delves deep into the phenomenon of Sanskrit phobia and declining Sanskriti (Culture) of Bharatiya Sabhyata (Indian Civilization). He writes about the apathy of the Indian intelligentsia towards Sanskrit and Sanskriti, and how that is detrimental to building a strong and secure India of the future. In course of the following discussions, he calls for the discussion of “Culture as a shared asset of a nation.”

This essay is my humble effort at answering that call – an attempt at studying Indian culture through MoQ-tinted lenses.

The Phenomenon called Culture

In order to understand the import of Sanskriti in the Indian context, we first have to understand what Culture is all about. Now, I’m not claiming to be an authority on Culture, but here’s what I think of, when I hear the term Culture (I have touched upon this topic in a previous article called The Peculiar Case of the NRI Hindu)

  •  Culture is the expression of the intellect of a social group (poetry, literature, science, technology, etc).
  • Culture is the collection of lifestyles that a social group offers to its members – could be several, could be one.
  • Culture is the philosophy (philosophies) that has originated as a result of that social group.
  • Culture is the arts and aesthetics of that social group.
  • Culture is the ethical and moral values subscribed to by the social group.
  • Culture is the spiritual and religious heritage and legacy of the social group.

Culture can also be likened to the “Operating System” of a Social machine – the framework and rule sets which govern the operation of the machine (Of course, the Culture OS is a lot more complicated and has a lot more “fuzzy” levels than a computer OS has). If we were to look at such a model, we could say that the spiritual, philosophical and ethical/moral aspects of the culture form the kernel of the OS. The artistic, intellectual and lifestyle aspects of Culture form its shell and various applications.

Who then (one might be given to wonder) is this all for? Who is the User? This model would say that the user is a “part” of the social machine. In fact, the user of this machine called Society, which runs an OS (and due to an OS) called Culture is also an integral component of the machine. You see (I’ll stop my flights of matrixian fancy in a bit), the OS and the Social Machine was built to make the process of living life, and getting better at it easier for the individual being.

What does MoQ have to say about this?

According to MoQ, the primary component/element of this Universe is “Quality” and this “Quality” is differentiated into two main categories – “Static Patterns” and “Dynamic Patterns.” Static patterns are static and unchanging, whereas dynamic patterns are ever changing and mercurial.

Evolution happens in “ratchet-like” steps – each stop in the ratcheting action is a particular checkpoint in evolution (inexact quote from Lila – An Inquiry into Morals by Robert Pirsig)

Evolution is the process of dynamic patterns of Quality, coming together to form static patterns (getting recorded onto some media) and then (these static patterns) getting acted upon by a drive towards dynamic patterns again. Perhaps we could say that Quality patterns tend to be unstable (dynamic), and in order to sustain itself, Quality would therefore require to change itself from an unstable state to a state of stability. But then, there will always remain a dynamic aspect of Quality driving these “stable” (static) patterns towards instability. If Quality were to be a living being, one could say that its life-cycle is an oscillation from Dynamic to Static to Dynamic, over and over again.

So Pirsig’s MoQ says that the first collection of Quality (in the process of stabilizing) was recorded into forming “Inorganic” patterns of Quality (static – matter, if you may). These inorganic patterns were then acted upon by “Dynamic” Quality (or the natural tendency of Quality towards instability) to form the next level of evolution – the “Organic” patterns of Quality (microbial organisms, plants, animals, man at various stages of interaction/integration). These Organic patterns then in turn got influenced by Dynamic Quality to form “Social” patterns of Quality and “Intellectual” patterns of Quality. The social patterns are what we call Culture, Civilization (in the human context) and the Intellectual patterns are what we call Intellect (the two interact all the time – sometimes complementing each other, sometimes at loggerheads).

Pirsig’s analysis of the American and European Societies (he also touches upon India in the Vedic period) in his book Lila – An Inquiry into Morals is insightful, to say the least. I will attempt to provide a brief narrative of Indian Culture and Society (through its evolving lifetime), while trying to extrapolate his standards.

Indian Society and Indian Culture

Let us look at a brief history and some possible timelines of the evolving Indian Civilization (I know this might be unacceptable to our “scientological friends out there”).

Mehrgarh through Sarasvati/Sindhu Civilization –

Dated around 7000 BCE, this is considered to be among the earliest neolithic settlements in South Asia. Archaeologists divide the evolution of Indic Culture and Civilization into the following phases:

  • Early Food Producing Era (Neolithic – Mehrgarh Period 1 (7000 – 5500 BCE))
  • Regionalization Era (Mehrgarh Periods 2, 3, 4, 5 and Early Harappa to Harappa Period 2 (approx. 5500 BCE to 2600 BCE altogether))
  • Localization Era (2600 BCE – 1300 BCE)
  • Integration Era (2200 – 1900 BCE)

What the archaeologists seem to be saying is that the phenomena of the neolithic settlements and the “Indus Valley” (Sarasvati/Sindhu) Civilizations are not mutually exclusive, but natural progressions of the Indic civilization. Also some indologists/archaeologists have suggested that the Vedic civilization was the same as the “Indus Valley”/Sarasvati-Sindhu civilizations.

Several folks have written extensively about this topic on Sulekha and therefore I will not dwell too much on it. What I did want to impress upon (with this information) is that there is no real “evidence” (save Max Mueller’s word) that there was any Aryan Invasion (or Aryan Migration on a large scale). So for the purpose of this essay, I will consider the early Indic Culture to be the same as the Vedic Culture.

As the human population in the Indic region started to evolve, they naturally started grouping into social structures. According to MoQ, this is an integral part of evolution and has to happen to prevent order from disintegrating into a lower Quality of order (or disorder for that matter).

In course of this phase of evolution, the Vedic social structures formed. The various social orders came into existence. Subjective inquiry became the primary method of “scientific methodology” (as opposed to objective inquiry used today) and gave birth to the Vedic material and the early schools of Indian philosophy (actually, more importantly the visionary nature of the early Vedic material). The early Vedic literature reflected this – the emphasis on “Subjective” analysis of Nature, the environment (leading to holistic observations of patterns and an emphasis on such, allegorical and metaphorical descriptions/encoding of these observations and “revealed” truths) and an emphasis on Order and rituals (Strangely enough, ancient Chinese society seemed to mirror this (as did the early Greek world) – with the development of Taoist philosophy and works like the I Ching). The concept of Rta was the embodiment of emphasis on order. Rta means “the course of things” and signified a state of Order – of Moral and Righteous quality. Rta called for observance of ritual ceremony, of yagna, of the right way of living.

The ancient Vedic seers, relying on their five sensory organs, observational skills and deep introspection (and meditation) explained the world in terms of principles such as Rta. This phase of Indic evolution was what MoQ would call “Social order”-centric static patterns of Quality. Although there was intellect involved, the emphasis was on orderly conduct (of social, physical and mental faculties). Sciences such as astronomy (with precision that is mind-boggling even by today’s standards) developed as well.

As time went by, natural (environmental) conditions changed the natural habitat of the Indic ancients (possibly with the drying up of the Sarasvati River) and with a mass exodus towards the Gangetic plains (and possibly further south), the nature of the Vedic social structures and cultural nuances changed. The culture and civilization that had developed and flourished on the banks of river Sarasvati was on the verge of extinction, and the survivors of this calamity had to begin the process of rebuilding (probably from scratch). The oral tradition of learning and narration from the early Vedic periods (and the learning tools such as meters, Sanskrit language, inflections) enabled the earlier material to survive. But perhaps the ability to really understand this material was not completely transmitted. As a result, we have the later materials such as the Upanishads establishing a middle ground.

Phenomena such as the extinction (or near extinction) of a culture or civilization are plentiful in recorded history. Some happen due to natural reasons (droughts, floods, etc) while others due to man-made reasons (war, plague, diseases, etc). That evolution is not infallible is evident through such phenomena (sometimes the locked position of a ratchet slips and slides back to a previous state or an intermediary state – to start over again). This time around, the Intellectual patterns of Quality seemed to gain an upper hand. Schools of thought such as sAnkhya, vaisheshika, uttara mimAmsa and nyAya developed. Now, simple acceptance of Rta was not enough – there had to be logic involved – to prove or disprove any specific statement that an ancient seer might have made. In light of this more “Objective” method of Inquiry, Vedic culture (especially the knowledge culture) transformed into Vedantic culture – and “Dharma.”

Jainism, Buddhism and Vedantism

As the primary method of inquiry shifted from “subjective” (meditative, direct experiential) to “objective” (albeit Vedanta still considered shabda pramANa to be superior to inferential or perceptional knowledge – that is anumAna or pratyaksha), the ability to acquire “shabda pramANa” reduced leading to an over reliance on either the ritualistic traditions of the older Vedic or an over-emphasis on logic (nyAya) (either social patterns of Quality superseding Intellectual patterns or vice versa). From that rubble arose Jainism and Buddhism. According to sources, Jain teachings are said to have existed for a few thousand years before their formalization into the Jain Dharma by Mahavira. The core philosophy of Jainism is tied into socially (although tinged in moral idealism) accepted practices that need to be followed in order to attain SiddhatvaRta (at least from the surface) though the method of adherence is different (rta relied on observance of ritual ceremonies etc whereas Jainism prescribed extreme ascetism and non-reliance on divine intervention, rather a self-reliant dependence on the prescribed method). (permanent release from the worldly cycles). This is identical to the Vedic concepts of

Buddhism is said to have been an improvement on Jainism (with the Buddha’s middle-path way) in response to the latter’s hard and difficult demands. With the focus on the 8-fold path (Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration) – the Buddhist philosophy tried to reconcile the Social Patterns (ethical/moral values, etc) with the Intellectual patterns (logic) and went on to gain immense popularity (and continues to do so to this day).

Although (like every other aspect of Indic history – where ascribing a date to any particular historical figure or event is rife with controversy) ascribing a date to Adi Shankaracharya is controversial, he brought about a revival of Hinduism (call it Vedantism) by appealing to the logical aspect of Indic society (Intellectual patterns of Quality superseding Social patterns). Although he prescribed the supremacy of the Vedas, Adi Shankara changed the philosophical and metaphysical aspect of Hinduism by focusing primacy on reason and logic. He probably had to do so in order to counter the eminence of Buddhism (and its concept of Shunyata). He was a great proponent and representative of the Advaita school of thought and he was perhaps single-handedly responsible for the revival of Hinduism in India.

The transmission of Indic Culture and the interaction with others

Throughout this time, Indic philosophies and culture went through several developments and even spread to other parts of the world through trade links, missionary activities (to Greece, Rome, West, South, Central and East Asia) and migration (to South East Asia). This was evolution in effect — the spread of philosophical (that is Intellectual) and social values. There might have been cross-pollination as well – perhaps with Greek and Chinese influences creeping into Indic schools of thought and Indic culture.

As India’s culture started impacting other cultures, a legend called India was born (from before the times of Alexander of Macedonia, the Greeks knew of India; and this knowledge is what led Alexander to want to invade/conquer her). Greek invasions into India created openings for trade with India and transmission of Indic culture to the Greek territories in Western Asia and Europe.

Until the first millennium of the current era (CE) (and perhaps a few centuries into the second millennium) some aspects of Indic culture grew and certain aspects waned. Mathematics and astronomy (tied with one another) developed and saw several stalwarts come forth — geniuses like Aryabhatta, Bhaskara, Varahamihira, Baudhayana, Apastamba and Panini. Great medical treatises were written by Charaka and Sushruta.

The grand intellectual and cultural framework left by the Vedic and Upanishadic Rishis helped grow and sustain Indic culture (art forms flourished, mathematics flourished, philosophical schools grew, sciences developed), all the while, also enriching the neighboring cultures and societies. But any commentary on Indic culture is not complete without referring to the infamous “Caste System” and other social degenerations. These phenomena can be attributed to over emphasis and “unreasonable” dependence on scriptural sources that were already so antiquated that most people interpreting them would miss their metaphorical/allegorical values. This is by no means an attempt to justify them, but I consider them to be out of scope of this essay (beyond what I already expressed) and shall refrain from further comment on these topics.

With the rise of Christianity and Islam in West Asia, during the late first millennium and early to mid second millennium CE, the world saw an increase of enforcement of social patterns of Quality – both Christianity and Islam were (and probably still are) highly static and overly social in nature (meaning, the Intellectual Quality of both these entities are secondary in comparison to their social aspects). In comparison with Rta these ideologies were more inflexible and intolerant (they did not have an inclusive philosophy like Rta or Dharma). Unlike Rta, these social systems lacked the synergy between Intellect and Social values. Islamic invasions in India might have started with intentions of loot and pillage, but eventually ended up in occupation. This interaction with Islam saw forcible imposition of Islamic social patterns (for the natural tendency of this static system of Quality is to “bring” everything around it to equilibrium with itself). But not all interactions with India resulted in tyrannical impositions; Sufism, an eclectic blend of Indic mystical traditions and Islam (with an emphasis on direct experience, or interaction with Dynamic Quality) was born.

Interactions with Christianity were no less disastrous for India. The Portuguese unleashed a reign of terror in Goa, all in the name of expanding the good church. (NOTE: Native Americans experienced similar genocides (albeit on a much larger scale) during the Spanish Inquisitions during the Middle Ages of the second millennium.) The subsequent interactions with Christianity (with the arrival of the British) had a more covert and indirect effect on India. In fact, the final crushing blow to Dharmic traditions was delivered by the British, in the guise of spreading the “white man’s burden”. The imposition of British education in India, at the expense of traditional schools of knowledge brought this millennia old traditional way of life to a grinding halt. But not all of this was bad – with reforms in degenerate social practices brought about via the interaction between the West and Indic minds. Perhaps this is the nature of evolution – when a particular system or static position does not work any more on the ratchet of evolution, Dynamic Quality affects in unpredictable ways forcing changes. Perhaps it was to be in India’s evolutionary destiny – and that’s why traditional Indic culture took a relative backseat.

Values arising from Intellectual Patterns of Quality seem to have a natural tendency towards deteriorating into rancid social dogma. We can see that happen with religions – we see that happening with some other ideologies, such as communism and its child socialism (although, capitalism and democracy have their share of dogma too). Indian history went through (and is still struggling against) a struggle against the forces of these dogmatic ideologies. These ideologies might have started off from intellectual quality, but soon solidified into dogmatic rules – astounding in their incredible propensity towards mayhem, tyranny and plain apathy (talk about irony, that’s probably the greatest example of it in the modern world – the ideology of the people turning against the people when it was threatened – China, the former Soviet Union and all the other communist nations are good examples). Modern India too was greatly afflicted by this ideology – and in fact we still have two states in India that are ruled by the communists. India’s natural ascendancy back to the top of the world’s food chain (as a leader in Intellectual, material and spiritual wealth – being a Dharmic nation) was greatly deterred by this ideology (and its offspring – socialism). Instead of allowing a natural resumption of the flow of the national destiny towards Dynamic Quality and higher evolution, it was set back by forcibly retarding (and at times reversing this direction) by the socialist leadership in India. It was only recently, when the natural tendency of humans (as intellectual entities on a journey of evolution) and society (as a social entity on a journey of evolution) was allowed to re-emerge did India start prospering again. A key observation to make (in light of this ascendancy by India) is the rise in the sense of re-acquiring the traditional Indic knowledge systems and philosophical frameworks by several Indians. With this revival of a national (collective) sense of worth, and a renewed sense of pride in one’s own traditions (not in all Indians, but many –and fast increasing), a fresh look at the way of the ancients has started. Maybe, this time around, we will be able to revive Vedic wisdom and Vedantic intelligence on our paths to Dynamic Quality.

References

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