No Branches without Roots — An Understanding of Hindu Social Structure from the Outside In — Part I
Separation causes blindness. In America, the urban legend goes, that when school children are asked where milk comes from, they all answer, “From the milk bottle.”
But let’s go even further, as a recent WhatsApp forward reminds us: If you believe that cows give milk, you are wrong. Cows don’t “give” milk, milk is the result of millennia of cattle domestication by humans, centuries of breeding, generations of getting up at 4 am, cleaning out the go-shaalas, protecting the cows from disease and ticks, squeezing the last bit of water and green from the summer heat in order to keep the cattle alive until the next monsoon… day after day… year after year. All of that is what is in our ice-creams… not just milk. And certainly not just milk that the cow “gave” us!
An understanding of inter-relationships and the terms that govern those inter-relationships is an essential component of the world of subsistence that all of our ancestors lived in hardly two generations ago. Ironically, today, in this world of surplus, where we are more connected than ever before, we know less and less about our inter-relationships.
Both the world of subsistence and the world of surplus generate specific patterns of human behaviour. The subsistence world generates a morality of subsistence – be good, don’t tell lies, help each other, have a family, respect your elders, control your anger/lust/greed. These are the values that maintain balance. Both hunter-gatherer cultures and farming cultures have the idea of balance at the heart of their social organizations. Culture is a means to maintain balance because without it, survival itself becomes precarious.
The surplus world, on the other hand, generates a morality of surplus – greed is good, it’s good to be bad, get ahead, break the rules, indulge your emotions, live young, live free, etc. You will see that these values are different in their intent from the values that make up the morality of subsistence. These values encourage unregulated growth and disruption. Industrial society is focused on growth without end and eternal imbalance as a means to achieve that goal. If culture is a means to balance, then industrial society is essentially antithetical to culture. It is, in fact, an anti-culture.
More interestingly, in a society where morality is derived from surplus, the two sources of surplus come to be seen as Gods – “machines” and the “market”. A simple diagram will show us how these two differing worldviews manifest along six principles of social organization.
In Bharat, our values are encoded in our cultures, our cultures are carried by the framework of our traditions, our traditions are upheld by our communities, our communities are bound by dharma, dharma is the road to moksha, and moksha is the metaphysical truth that generates our values. It is an elegant circle. By rejecting any one of these principles, we break the circle.
In the rest of this essay I will explore aspects of the Social Principle:
Part – I: Individuals/Autonomy/Rights in the Western sense
Part – II: Community/Collaboration/Civilization in the Bharatiya sense
Part I – Individuals, Autonomy and Rights
Individualist Autonomy — Origins and Limits
I too was a maverick, maybe still am. Never listened to anyone… always did my own thing.
But people like me must eventually come to realize that the high road of individualism and our yearning for liberty and autonomy have presided over the complete collapse of our traditions in the few, short generations since “independence”. For anyone who has even a vague sense of the awesome civilizational heritage we are heirs to, this would be an unacceptable price to pay.
When I was in college, I had made a documentary on travel, identity, and culture, in which I had interviewed a friend of mine. His words were prescient. “We all love to travel man,” he had said. “We love going to foreign countries and eating foreign food and experiencing foreign cultures and being global human beings… I mean, it’s great. But if everyone was to become like us… then who’s going to be there to keep this s**t alive man?” Forgive the language, but those were his exact words and they cut to the heart of the matter.
There is no belonging without participation… and there is no participation without the sacrifice of autonomy.
Hindu youth, as youth everywhere, must aim to channel their energies into doing more than their parents and grandparents did, but there is a qualitative difference between us and the West. The young in the West make it a point to rebel against their fathers, to explicitly do what he has been told not to do, to make a religion out of his autonomy, to deliberately cut the branch of the tree he sits on, in the faith that he will plant his own tree. He doesn’t realize that his son will do exactly the same to him. What that leaves us with is a bunch of stunted trees with sawn-off branches, not the magnificent banyan that civilization is meant to be.
It is for this reason that the Hindu youth must make it a point to respect ancestral boundaries, expand them if he is capable, constantly negotiate a settlement with them perhaps, but not tear them down. He is expected to take his family, his community and his ancestors along in his journey, not exist alone on his island. “I never did what my father told me to do” is not a badge of honour for a Hindu youth to wear, because if we are Hindu, we realize that we are only one link in a chain that stretches back to the beginning of time. To use a chemical metaphor, Western liberals are free radicals, and we are long-chain molecules. Our family, jaati, kula, sampradaya, ethnicity, religion, dharma all come together in an expanding, concentric, and fractal identity that we wear. We are free to expand the circles, to extend the chains, to join chains together, but not to break them… that is, if we want to continue calling ourselves Hindu in essence.
One of the foundational principles of Western, post-Enlightenment morality is the idea of “Individualist Autonomy”. As the technologies and economic systems of the West have captured the world, so too has its morality and this principle in particular. So much so, that today, many of us Hindus too take individualism and autonomy for granted, as an unquestionable moral good. But, do we know where this principle comes from and where it is leading us?
Where Individualist Autonomy Comes From
To use a Jared Diamond phrase – The “world until yesterday” was explicitly community-centred. Why? Because in the World-of-Nature (that I’ve also referred to as the world of subsistence earlier) that we all used to inhabit until very, very, very recently, it was only community that could ensure survival. In a non-industrial world, autonomous individuals would either be killed by rivals, wild animals, or hunger. It was only in his community that a man had freedom! Outside of his community he could expect a quick death. This is a very radical redefinition of what it means to be free. But we must understand that for freedom to exist, first there must be life. So, what is it that enables life? We must start by answering that question and by organizing our societies to incentivize the conditions that support the answer to that question. In the non-industrial world of subsistence that we all came from, hardly two generations ago, it was obvious to everyone that community ensured life, and it was therefore that all our morality was designed around the maintenance of community and the relations we had with other communities and Bhu Devi. Think “truth-speaking, sharing, family values, respect for elders, hospitability, ahimsa, shaurya, talking circularly about topics that may offend, building inter-dependencies, ritualizing possible points of friction, sacralising rivers, land, trees, etc”. This is true of traditional communities all over the world.
There are a couple of conclusions that emerge from this understanding:
- 1. In large parts of the agricultural, nomadic, and forest-dwelling worlds, this non-industrial, community-centred life continues to exist, and we must respect the right of these communities to live as they see fit, because we can see now that their morality is a legitimate outcome of the primarily natural world they inhabit and that they are not “backward” or “immoral”.
- 2. And, if we feel today that our world has changed so much in the mere seventy-five years since WW II that our timeless communities have been rendered irrelevant, then we must enquire into the true nature of that suspiciously rapid change. What has the coming of the Western industrial model into our urban settings done to us, and what do those changes mean for us in the long term?
I understand that autonomy is a drug, and once tasted it’s hard to discard. But, if we are intelligent, we can see that just because “we want it,” it does not mean it’s the next best thing since kaaju katli. We ignore community consciousness at our peril. This new found autonomy did not drop from the sky, and neither is it a fact of nature. So, where did it come from? And how did it become the moral force that it has? Why do we, in just a couple of generations, feel violated if our autonomy is constrained even a little? Why do we look upon older social structures that call for the sacrifice of our autonomy, as “regressive”? As “evil” even?
From inhabiting the World-of-Nature for two hundred thousand years, man and his tools finally passed a tipping point sometime in the 20th century. That moment in history has its roots in the Industrial Revolution of Europe but the ripples of the Industrial Revolution finally became waves for a vast majority of people on Earth only in the last century. Until that time, 80 percent of humanity continued to live primarily in the World-of-Nature. It was only in the last century that the World-of-Human-Artifice (that I’ve also referred to as the “world of surplus” earlier) began to outstrip the World-of-Nature as man’s primary experiential milieu. Our vehicles and transportation networks became our legs, our JCBs and earth movers became our arms, the internet became our memory, and under-sea cables and satellites became our voice and eyes. Like a giant octopus, our World-of-Human-Artifice sits upon the World-of-Nature, sucking at it and re-distributing its gifts. Each one of us, who has access to these tools, has become a “superman”. And supermen can indeed live all alone in pristine individualist autonomy. There is nothing that our traditional communities can do for us supermen that our octopus can’t. So, it’s clear now, it’s the octopus that has rendered our communities irrelevant, and granted us liberty as we know it: a technology-driven-individualist-autonomy. We have now come to be wholly dependent on the octopus, otherwise known as the “system”. It is ironic that we experience this total dependency as autonomy, but I digress….
Our limited emotional selves have evolved to respond to immediacy (think “living in the savannah amidst lions”), and we work most naturally with objects and concepts within one degree of separation from us. Inevitably then, the immediacy of the World-of-Human-Artifice that we live within today, has become our reality — asphalted roads, apartments, petrol pumps, light bulbs, TV, internet, smart phones, showers, western toilets, cars, planes, ATM cards, LPG gas, shopping malls, advertisements, universities, manicured lawns, ready-made clothes, groceries delivered. Billions today cannot even imagine that there was, and in fact, continues to be, a life free of all of this stuff. All we see is the octopus; we do not see the World-of-Nature hidden under its folds and tentacles… forgotten and invisiblised, but still giving without protest, our Bhu Devi.
Where Individualist Autonomy is Leading Us
As we have seen, the World-of-Nature demanded community and the World-of-Human-Artifice enabled individualist autonomy. The white man, who created and entered the World-of-Human-Artifice first, started to look with disdain upon the World-of-Nature, both Nature herself and the communities that inhabited that world. This is the colonial gaze that we fought against for so long and finally overthrew. Or did we?
More and more, it is becoming apparent that as we too entrench ourselves in the World-of-Human-Artifice, we too begin to look with disdain upon the World-of-Nature. We see the same patterns of behaviour and thought that the White Man exhibited repeat themselves in our unconscious minds. Today, a vast majority of urban, educated Hindu youth look down upon their ancestral social arrangements, their jaatis, their kulas, and the traditional occupations that kept their ancestral fires burning, and at all villagers and village life in general. This is typical of people making the transition from a subsistence morality to a surplus morality. This unconscious state of affairs needs to be critically looked at for four major reasons.
By uncritically embracing the World-of-Human-Artifice and worshipping its hidden principle of Individualist Autonomy this is what happens:
- 1. We fail to see, at the
Level of Morality
- — that this liberty-giving autonomy is merely a function of the recent emergence of a high-technology-enabled World-of-Human-Artifice. It is not necessarily a “moral good” upon which we must hang our judgements of our ancestors or other people who continue to live in the World-of-Nature.
- 2. We also fail to see, at the
Level of Fragility
- — that this state of affairs is barely a hundred years old and we still do not know its true nature, though many educated guesses can be made. Will it last, or will it destroy us all in an explosion of climate change, nuclear war, man-made pandemic, poisoned food, and resource termination? We don’t know. So how can we trust it, and how can we possibly construct our morality around it?
- 3. We also fail to see, at the
Level of Freedom
- — that the technologies that give us this liberty actually enslave us in many ways. We have to constantly remind ourselves that these technologies are built by corporations whose primary motivation is profit and the control of humans, not our well-being. By allowing our lives to revolve around, and depend intimately, on these technologies, we become beholden to these corporations, just as we were once beholden to the Gods. They promise freedom but they demand surrender. And as we move towards a more bio-manipulative future, our addiction to liberty has brought us to the threshold of self-extinction. We are faced with existential dilemmas of our own making: who are we (now that AI will soon do all we can)? What is our identity (now that gene editing can manipulate us before birth)? Why do we continue to live (now that science says there is no soul/God)? We see the failure to answer these questions play out more and more in the violent chaos of the industrial world that keeps pushing the boundaries of what we are supposed to consider “normal” and “human”.
- 4. We also fail to see, at the
Level of Well-Being
- — that this autonomy, in so far as it turns us unconsciously against the very communities we have sprung from, leads to an inner contradiction, an unbridgeable cleavage in our psyches, a kind of self-hate. When we humans accept and embrace an intellectual position that turns us against our biological and cultural origins, we enter a world of mind-body dichotomy that leads unerringly to all the psychological ills that we encounter in the industrial world (loneliness, depression, stress, and substance abuse). And many of these psychological ills eventually lead to many of the un-named and un-nameable physical ills that also plague industrial society (autism, auto-immune conditions, cancer, dementia, sociopathy, etc). These are all ways that the body reflects the self-hate of the mind. This is not just at the individual level but at the level of humanity itself.
The ancients knew that for everything gained, we had to give up something in exchange. This was the sentiment that appeared in our culture as the idea of sacrifice. Industrial society, on the other hand, like Christianity before it, believes in heaven, a place where we can have it all and give nothing in return. Christians believed that heaven was elsewhere. Western and “westernized modernists” believe that we can make heaven here on Bhu Devi. They do not see that as our muscles grow, our hearts shrink, our nerves fray, and our bones splinter.
World War II? No Problem. Holocaust? No Problem. Chemical and atomic weapons? No Problem. Shall we introspect? No way! Let’s repurpose all those fluoride factories into selling toothpaste. Let’s repurpose all those chemical weapons factories into making fertilizer. Let’s invent TV for thought control. Let’s send people to space. Let’s start the Cold War and threaten each other with annihilation. Sounds great! And in a few decades let’s do gain of function research, kill ten million people with a virus, lock seven billion people indoors, and transfer wealth from small businesses to global behemoths. Wow!
But the real wow-factor is “us”. Watch as we ourselves accept every step of this mad sequence of actions as “history”… as something inevitable, as “human nature”… as “progress”. And every year there are more and more of us who buy into this story. Every year we take one more step towards undisguised Matsya “Machine” Nyaya.
In my opinion, it’s time to engage seriously with the true nature of the technologies and the systems of the World-of-Human-Artifice… to get a grip on the extent of psychological and sociological loss that we face in exchange for the (temporary) security it provides. It also appears that we are not in control of it. It also appears that there are many among us (politicians, scientists, technologists, and artists) who wish to sacrifice humanity itself at the altar of the octopus’s unknowable heart. And there are many among us who in naïve enthusiasm cheer on the takeover of our human essence by the miraculous monsters of our own making.
The Metaphysics of the Machine — A Causal Map of the Western Moral Edifice
The white man is not ignoble because he fails to follow our values; he is ignoble because he fails to follow his own. His seemingly noble ideals of Liberty and Equality have brought us only hell because they are parsed through his Active Principle (“the Market”) and judged in reference to his Transcendental Principle (“the Machine”). That is why the pursuit of “liberty” perversely led to slavery, genocide, and colonialism while the pursuit of “equality” perversely led to the massacre of a 100 million people this past century. As they say on Twitter – “feature not bug”.
Many believe that the secularized world that the Western Man inhabits today has no sense of the sacred because it lacks a transcendental principle, but this is a false understanding. As Elon Musk reveals inadvertently in this interview (>16.30), the Western world does have a transcendental principle, and it is the Machine. Westernized Man wants to transcend his human condition, not by striving to become divine but by becoming the Machine. From this implicit but seldom declared fact flows the entire downstream debris of Western society.
Just like we use our Active Principle, Dharma, as a guide, so too does the white man use his Active Principle, the Market, as his guide. And just as our actions are tempered by our association with our Transcendental Principle, Moksha, so too are his actions intensified by his Transcendental Principle, the Machine. Western Post-Enlightenment Man has stepped into a chakravyuha of his own making from which he cannot now exit. All his art, literature, and science fiction cry out the story of his pathos.
So, let me draw you a causal map with words.
- From the enslavement of West Africans, the genocide and theft of the Americas, the robbery of Bharat, Africa, and South-East Asia came the wealth that built the West. It is this wealth, and the power that it brought, that has served as the self-justification for the white man’s immoral actions over the past five hundred years. “Oh, if we too become like him, we too can become rich and powerful like him” we think, as well as, “Let us simply ignore his depravity. To hell with the sacrifices made by our ancestors.”
- From that ill-gotten wealth was built the World-of-Human-Artifice, the cities of Western Europe, the cities of North America, and the winding tentacles of highways and pipelines that brought resources from all corners of the globe to keep those cities vital. Surplus.
- From the continued rape of Bhu Devi and the displacement of traditional peoples all over the world, the World-of-Human-Artifice has spread to every continent. Today, enormous western-style cities exist everywhere… Mumbai, Tokyo, Shanghai, Lagos, Sao Paulo, and innumerable others. Each of these cities sits in the centre of a vast catchment area that supplies it resources and people… food, water, cement, steel, wood, lithium, coal, farmers, carpenters, sweepers. A total and complete refashioning of reality….
- From the ubiquity of that World-of-Human-Artifice has come the possibility that some of us can be Supermen. And from the example of those men have come the stories, and TV shows and movies that have encouraged us to internalize the idea that Individualist Autonomy is our birth-right… that each and every one of us can be Supermen… one day. Apna time aayega. But this is not true at all… billions languish in the cages of their unmet expectations, living their lives vicariously through the lives of TV stars.
- From this universalization of the Western principle of Individualist Autonomy has come the widespread acceptance of the twin Western ideals of Liberty and Equality. Think about it… without the internalization of the principle of Individualist-Autonomy it would be impossible to imagine such a thing as Western liberty. The “I want”ness of it all. And without the ideal of liberty, it would be impossible to imagine such a thing as Western Equality (which is nothing but a demand for equal liberties). Individuality, Liberty and Equality are a triad, and they are deeply connected.
- With the growth of the idea of Individualist Autonomy our ability to see relationships recedes, and we start to see ourselves as atomized entities. Individuals without relationships slowly start to disengage from the idea of culture, shared values, and the sacred (this is happening as we speak, in Bharat). Instead, we begin to direct our loyalties towards the Machine and the Market. Traditions fall apart and we start to generate secular ideas to bind us into groups, to make us recognizable to each other. Nationalism was one of the first such glues that the white man invented and supplied to us. Once the borders were settled (more or less), other ideas took the place of nationalism… ideas that are still being churned out, like “Free-World”, “One World”, “Liberty”, “Equality”, “Social Justice”, and “Human Rights”. These ideas are supplied as binding material, without which the system cannot maintain coherence. And as we, ordinary people, absorb these ideas, we begin to use the adherence to these ideas as a metric to judge ourselves and other people. “What?! she agreed to Kanyadaan? She’s sooo regressive!”
- From the application of Liberty and Equality as judgemental tools has come the idea of “rights”. Is my life condition “Free” or “Equal”? If not, I am being denied “rights” and the law should move to rectify my condition. Nothing organic, evolved, or naturally human can exist… all must be processed and re-presented. In reality there is no such thing as “rights”. It is an entirely manufactured concept based on reference to certain Western ideals which themselves grew out of industrial surplus propped up by slavery, robbery, genocide, and the rape of Bhu Devi.
This is a remarkable edifice and its one that we take for granted today. But by prising it apart like I have done above, we see that it is but one among many routes that humanity could have taken, and indeed people all over the world have always travelled upon many, many roads. It is only now, at this unique moment in history, that we are being told, that this Western moral road is the only legitimate path we ought to walk upon because to take any other would be immoral! Not only is that coercive and false but it obfuscates the roots of this particular moral road. Those roots, that lie in slavery, genocide, and colonial robbery, should be unacceptable to any dharmic person and perhaps any decent human being. Furthermore, the fact that this model rests on the expectation of continued and indeed, eternal, supply of surplus should have the sceptics amongst us alarmed.
Did you know that cement has a lifespan of sixty years? Every building, bridge, road, house, tank, dam… in fact the entire World-of-Human-Artifice must be built again in sixty years, every sixty years, forever! Forever being a very, very long time. Does anyone seriously think that this is going to be possible, that the world as we know it will continue to exist in status quo or in an improved condition even a hundred years from now? One only has to look at Kolkata… the shining jewel of the British Empire, to know how everything is going to be in sixty years’ time. It’s like sitting in Anantapur in the month of May, eating ice-cream all day and saying that it’s actually not too hot… until the moment when the ice-cream runs out.
The West had Africa, Bharat, and Native America to subsidize their development journey. Russia had Siberia and the “Stans”. China had Tibet, Xinjiang, and vast tracts of Africa. What do we have? Who do we ravage but ourselves? And more importantly, what next? What most people don’t understand is that the creation of the world of surplus, otherwise called “development”, is not a destination, but it is merely the first step in a prohibitively expensive annual maintenance contract that we sign on forever. The more developed one is the more maintenance one needs. Every single casino in Vegas uses more electricity that an entire Indian town. The faster the treadmill, the faster one has to run. Initially, it feels like we’re getting fit, but in due course, we realize that we’re heading for a burst aorta.
And last but not least, we need to pay heed to the catastrophic consequences of this model for human health and well-being… Autism, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes, allergies, dementia, bi-polar disease, manic, auto-immune, sociopathic, psychopathic conditions. These consequences are inherent to this model of “progress”, to living within the metaphysics of the Machine and in the slipstream of the Market. It is the price we pay for our greed and hubris. It appears to me that this edifice rests upon a very shaky foundation indeed.
A Path Diverges in the Woods
There appears to be only four ways ahead:
#1. The return to “community life” in the World-of-Nature as many on both the Far-Left and the Far-Right theorize. Many proponents of intentional community-living imagine that this movement can be made now, consciously, or later, when we are forced to do so, post-collapse.
#2. The continuation of the current trajectory into an AI inspired, space-faring, chip-wearing, bio-manipulative future as the technologists and many ordinary people dream. Many like Elon Musk are aware of the dangers of this Matrix-like future but continue to champion it because they feel it is inevitable. The risks of collapse, if we blindly follow such a model, are great. Covid has already given us a glimpse.
#3. A Dharmic cultural victory and take-over of the means of production leading to a qualitatively different set of technologies. This course is almost impossible to imagine at this moment.
#4. Reaching a fine balance between the World-of-Human-Artifice and the World-of-Nature as many with a “Small is Beautiful” bent of mind imagine.
Personally, I know that #2 is where we are at because that’s where our adharmic rivals are at, and we have no choice than to go head-to-head with them. #3 seems utterly impossible at the moment. But I hope for #4, and I prepare for #1.
Regardless of one’s position vis-à-vis development and progress, many of us need to understand that “Individualist Autonomy” is not the moral good that it is advertised as, that the rights and equalities that we fight for on the streets and courts today are not God-given, and the merely seventy-year-old, ever-expanding World-of-Human-Artifice that supports these ideas rests on very, very thin unsustainable ice. In other words, we must face up to the fact that “Individualist Autonomy, Liberty, Equality and Rights” all rest on the continued, unsustainable rape of Bhu Devi, without which, the surplus generated by the ultra-technologized world would simply disappear, and along with that world the ideals that were birthed and maintained by that world too would vanish. We need to consider again that a society built on the values of community, collaboration, compassion, duties, and sustainability still sounds like it will serve human interests in the long term better than the cocktail we currently have.
So, let me start by setting aside the value of “Individualist Autonomy” and let us consider again the idea of “Community”.
1. “The World Until Yesterday”, Jared Diamond, 2012
2. “The Wayfinders”, Wade Davis, 2009
3. Elon Musk on the Joe Rogan Show, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ycPr5-27vSI
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy of any information in this article.