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The Dharma of India

The Dharma of India
by Raimon Panikkar

The multi-millennial Indic cultures impose on India the burden and responsibility of following
her own dharma even if difficult and against modern winds not for her alone but for the whole world.

There are already a number of perceptive books and articles on the Indic situation, and we should profit from them. The author deals
with the metapolitical aspect of the problem. India represents an urgent and important challenge not only for itself but for the world at large. This malaise that characterises the Indian scene is also an expression of the world situation. Today’s crisis is the culmination of at least the last half millennium of western civilisation. It extends over the whole planet because this civilisation has spread all over the world, even more than during the era of western colonisation. A contact with other cultures has produced what could be termed a conflict of kosmologies.

We are assisting the End of History (Cf. Panikkar, (1983/XXXIII, Raimon Panikkar, 79-133), using this phrase with a different meaning than later popularised by Francis Fukuyama (cf. The End of History and the Last Man, London, Penguin, 1992). By this is meant the end of historical Man, the end of the dominion of historical consciousness, the end of the temporal future as a paradigm for human life on earth. What is at stake is no less than the last 6,000 years of human adventure. It is important to distinguish between two levels: Modernity and Historicity. I shall concentrate on the first level, while remaining conscious of the background of the second level.

The Indic adventure is a major event in the History of Being. Either Indic Man is swallowed by the “forgetfulness of the Whole” (Being ?), (and he increases the ranks of the soldiers defending Modernity) or he allows for a new disclosure of the Whole (Reality?) opening a new avenue for human life, or rather for Life as such. Although the Indic problem cannot be isolated from the world situation, I shall abstain from general considerations and limit myself to the concrete Indic problematic.

An underlying assumption behind “scientific and technological modernisation” is the belief in the linear cultural evolutionism of humanity. India today is modernising in the direction of science and technology not because she consciously condemns her three millennia of Indic culture, but because she tacitly assumes that this very culture, well steered, leads to the adoption and recognition of the “universal values” of the technological society.

My submission, on the contrary, in agreement with an increasing number of voices, is that if we take Indic culture seriously, and do not reduce it to mere folklore and window dressing, it will disappear from the continent once human life becomes computerised. A corollary of this is the prediction of increasing discontent, resistance and bloodshed all over the world (…since 1958, 87 per cent of the very poor nations, 69 per cent of the poor nations and 48 per cent of the middle income nations suffered serious violence. Out of 120 armed conflicts which took place after the Second World War, not less than 115 occurred in the developing Third World.’ (Poulose, 1986, p.23). This is particularly acute in India. (Here we have to underline that in an increasing number of regions of the subcontinent revolts and violence are the outcome of an acute identity crisis. (Cf. Vidyadharan, 1988, pp.8-17).

The author maintains that the destiny of Indic culture has a paradigmatic function to perform in the world scene, because many other nations who have already succumbed to that type of modernisation, are too small to resist the avalanche of technocratic colonialism or do not have our strong cultural roots. Of course, I am not minimising the role and importance of other world cultures (Chinese, African, Amerindian, etc). They have an important part to play, but there is a special feature to take into account regarding the Indic vocation. The redemption, transformation, or even peaceful, though painful dismantlement of the System can be lastingly effective only if it is an endogenous movement, although perhaps triggered from outside, capable of forging a new style of life for human conviviality. Otherwise, there would only be the victory of one ideology, and victory never leads to lasting peace. India is certainly a mosaic of cultures and religions. Her two oldest strata, however, are the Aryan or Indo-European and the autochthonous or Dravidian – without entering into the necessary qualifications that modern scholarship and present-day political awareness have introduced. In spite of her partial Indo-European roots, India has remained conspicuously outside western cultural history. (I would substantially qualify the late Nirad Chaudhuri’s thesis that India is Europe, although corrupted by the tropical environment, Cf. Chaudhuri, 1978). It is enough to recall her many languages. But she did not undergo the European process of the technological revolution of four centuries ago. By remaining outside this process, she has retained in her myths and traditions which in the industrial West has almost been swept away. This fact makes the Indic culture both more liable to fall into temptation and better prepared to overcome it than many other world cultures. The Indic world has a medial position between the “Far-west” and the “Far-east”.

Incompatible Kosmologies

Under the name kosmology, I do not understand what is generally understood under the spelling cosmology. This latter word stands for a reflection of our logos about the cosmos, for a worldview according to the paradigm of the modern “scientific” cosmology. Kosmology, on the other hand, is not a cosmology in the scientific objectifiable sense of the word, but a kosmos-legein, a reading of the cosmos as the cosmos manifests itself to us, more passive onlookers and hearers than active calculators and “experimentors”. Kosmology is the world-myth of a particular culture, not a doctrine of a rationally articulated vision of the universe.

In our particular case, I detect the radical incapacity of technological civilisation to satisfy the aspirations of the Indic psychê. This is not the place to elaborate on a general critique of techniculture, (Techniculture suggests the cultivation of the machine, which, being inanimate, can only be the object of human exploitation for human benefit or rather profit. While homo faber (technê) is the first sign of homo sapienshomo technologicus is a hybrid between reason and machine. Cf. Panikkar, 1964/1); I shall limit myself to the Indic context.

Perhaps I could put it like this: India’s karma is not in harmony with the genius of the technological vision of the world. Technology is far from being as universal as the new elites claim (“So many of us fail to realise that – whatever its origins, and they are spread over many continents and centuries – the modern industrial culture is a world culture”, Moddie (1968) 3).

It is not difficult to realise why western-born techno-civilisation does not fit every culture. There is certainly enough intelligence among the races of the world to understand the “know-how” of mechanical processes. It is not a question of non-western peoples being too stupid to master modern technologies. The question is whether there is a basic incompatibility between the kosmology of traditional India (including all dharmas which have flourished in the subcontinent) and the kosmology underlying technological civilisation. Modern techno-science is the Trojan horse which will destroy those cultures that uncritically introduce “modernity” into their midst.

Traditional Man considers the world as a holistic, though hierarchical and living reality. All is interconnected: the realm of the Gods with the world of Man and the field of Nature. Everything is alive. There is a cosmotheandric solidarity. Nothing is purely objective, nor exclusively subjective. This entails a fundamentally different attitude from the one in which modern scientific civilisation can thrive.

I would call it a transcendental attitude, which does not necessarily mean an explicit belief in transcendence. It means an awareness accompanying every action, that life on earth is only a kind of “comedy”, “divine” or not, a sort of × l (play), a re-enactment of something bigger than ourselves and yet taking place within ourselves. Rebirth and transmigration, heaven and moral responsibility, whatever religious underpinnings they may have, entail a firm sentiment that we are not private proprietors of our life, but actors and spectators of it. We live as if we were performing a role which is greater than us, transmitting a little worse or a little better of the life which we have received.

The most common way of explaining this transcendental attitude is by pointing out that the Sacred (in whatever form) is an essential ingredient not only of the World, but of Man and all human actions. In contrast, modern cosmology, while respecting private beliefs in God, Gods or Sacredness, functions with total independence of such convictions. God is a scientifically superfluous hypothesis, and the Sacred a hindrance to clear and precise scientific thinking. It is not the place to criticise either modern science or the old conception of the sacred. Probably both require transformation, and to some degree therefore, the scientific interlude may be a healthy intermezzo, although if we get stuck in it the result could be lethal to the human species.

The traditional implicit kosmology of India reveals itself in many ways, of which I will mention only three. First, a certain indifference, lack of seriousness, playfulness, carelessness, diminished sense of responsibility, even a childishness regarding the world of labour and machines. (It is enough to hear typical comments on Indian workers in the world of industry, commerce and politics from a western perspective to realise how uncongenial the Indic genius is to the technological world. Writers like Naipaul (1977), N C Chaudhuri (1978) and others betray their bias adopting unconsciously western cosmology as the normative paradigm). Traditional Man does not want to dedicate his most important creative forces to the pursuit of earthly comforts, especially in a proleptic fashion. The danger of a future atomic disaster is a powerful deterrent for a western mentality, but is not specially frightening for a typically Indic mind – making allowances for the over-generalisation of “eastern” and “western”. What counts for Indians is mainly the present. ‘For it is another person who dies / and another that will be reborn’. The linear temporal future is not a main concern.

This leads to a second aspect of this attitude: Real human activity is experienced not so much as a means to produce something but as an end in itself inasmuch as any single action is directly related to mok.a (Moksa) through the modification of karma. In this way, any human activity has a repercussion on the ultimate meaning of life – in whatever sense one interprets it. This attitude is at loggerheads with the modern obsession with production, which is how practically all activity of modern life is measured. Traditional Man, on the other hand, is not “efficient”, not obsessed with making the future better than the past. He thinks the modern fad of progress and production causes the fateful neglect of the present, and thus the incapacity of actually enjoying anything. This also explains the often heard complaint that modern “Indian goods” are not well finished, in sharp contrast with the classical êilpa§Œstra(silpasastra). The moment that a “product” is considered only a means, it no longer matters much how well it is finished.

It is matter of a technê mentality versus a technological one. Technology is conceived in view of production. This is why quantity, efficiency and acceleration matter: the more and the quicker the better, the effort and toil will be taken care of by means of machinery. On the other hand, technê aims at the harmonic relation between the doer, the doing and the done. Otherwise, it is not worth the effort.

Technê or art, wit, ingenium, ingeniosity, craft, manufacture is not technology. The difference is specific, not just of degree. Technology intends the most efficient way to reach the end product, the multiplication of the items produced and the acceleration of the process, because time is an economic commodity. Technê, on the other hand, is concerned with immediate use, inherent beauty, and the intrinsic relationship between Man and the thing made. One cannot separate the ends from the means. No total objectification is possible.

On the other hand, only one culture has developed technology as the application of a measuring, deductive reason in order to accelerate and multiply products and thereby control events, that is, the future. This demands a very specific mentality, which after a long period of gestation, was born in sixteenth century Europe. Without Galileo, Descartes is unthinkable, and without Descartes there could have been no Newton or modern science.

Just as there is a fundamental distinction between technê and technology, I would like to stress the difference between technology and technocracy. Technology, in fact, has two main meanings. The first, and more literal one, is the science about those human constructs which we call technological achievements. This already leads to the second meaning, technological civilisation, connoting the set of values manifested by the dominion of technology over people’s minds and lives. To avoid this ambiguity, I propose to use the word technocracy as indicating the actual “power” of the technological worldview. (Interestingly enough the Greek krátos has a double meaning: power and hardness – software and hardware?). And even more symptomatically the Sanskrit kratuh besides meaning power and force, also denotes understanding, judgement, will, shrewdness. Technocracy, therefore would suggest the hard power acquired by the will to power triggered by the force of a certain type of shrewd skillfulness).

third difference could be expressed in the telling simile of êŒntideva (Santideva):

‘Where would I possibly find enough leather with which to cover the surface of the earth? But (wearing) leather just on the soles of my shoes is equivalent to covering the earth with it.’

Likewise, he goes on to say, we cannot change the external course of things, but we can control our minds – and in doing this perhaps we can be more capable of contributing to the world’s welfare, not just because of inwardness but also because we will have eliminated all fear and cowardice.

The technocratic mentality dreams of covering the whole earth with roads, frigidaires, air-conditioners, videos and travelling waves on satellites and otherwise. (The launching of the Indian Remote Sensing Satellite, from a Soviet cosmodrome, on March 17, 1988 has generated much legitimate pride and the hope that this “new eye in space” will contribute to a better ‘development’, Cf. e.g. R. Ramachandran (1988) 13-14; Sachitanand (1988) 17-18. It is easy to flatter national pride). It is bound up with objectivity, and will search for “objective” solutions to any problem. The traditional mind is bound to subjectivity and will first look inside and realistically consider ways to dissolve the problem that lies in our power. This look outward and inward is not only methodological, but corresponds to an altogether different kosmology. The real world is the world discovered by a total human awareness not by calculus. Modern cosmology looks at the world as a great mechanism, and the human task then consists of oiling it when rusty, and in devising new machineries which may be more comfortably used by human beings. Technological civilisation has an underlying mechanistic cosmology. The universe appears and is experienced as a sophisticated organisation.

Traditional cultures have a vitalistic kosmology. The universe appears and is experienced as a living organism. Of course, the traditional universe does not need to be “animistic” in the pejorative sense, any more than the scientific world needs to be atheistic in the pejorative sense, but they certainly are basically different ways of experiencing reality and thus of being in the world. Can the two be combined?

Let it be conceded that one attitude may be as religious as the other. Both have an ultimate concern, both present a set of rituals, use a world of symbols and have a system of beliefs which allow them to be called religions. The difference is not one of being more or less religious. Both are religious in their own ways. The difference lies in a radically different experience of reality. It could be formulated as a different temporal experience of the real. The experience of time is paramount.

Modernity, in the western-current sense of the word, represents a mutation in human consciousness. However, no mutation appears as such until a few generations have elapsed, because it is a change of mythos, and mythos defy the dialectic of the logos. It comes about imperceptibly in the very effort at making sense of human existence. The importance of modern science should not be minimised. The consequence is that it has changed the entire symbolic fabric of modern civilisation and, therefore, we force a momentous dilemma: Progressism, in spite of its good intentions, will lead India and the world to a disaster. The experience of half a century prove that the possibilities for peace, justice and well-being diminish with the technocratic progress. Patch-work and half-measures will not do.

Conservatism, on the other hand, will create greater harm if they dismantle the dominant system creating chaos and suffering besides not having the power to do so. We are on a way of no return.

If we proceed in this way, there is no place for traditional cultures and religions. The fabric of the last 3000 years, and, if we reckon the ŒdivŒs’s (adivasis) and Œd’Dravidians (adidravidians), 6000 years, are being called into question and forced to collapse. We see here once again the decisive importance of a theoretical worldview on immediate political decisions.

To advocate compatibility may show good intentions, but implies a very superficial idea of both traditional and technocratic cultures. There are not just two ways of doing things: they represent different worlds, different basic experiences of reality, and different ways of thinking, feeling, and living. Is there any way out?


To ask for an alternative amounts to falling into the same technocratic mentality. There is no one alternative, but there may be alternatives. Yet, most alleged alternatives, however, are only reforms. They are different modes of solving a particular problem, accepting by and large the vision of the technocratic world, forming part of it or idealistic dreams. The real question is not the solution of the problem, but the problem itself. On the other hand, a radical alternative would be incomprehensible within the parameters of the very system of which it purports to be an alternative. It would be immediately discarded, since it would destroy the very foundations of a possible change as seen from the point of view of the status quo. Democracy, for instance, may accept a democratic change but does not tolerate a modification of its ground rules. The problem is delicate.

I repeat: to accept one possible alternative is already to fall into the trap of the technocratic view of monistic thinking. Sheer dialectical opposition and much less violence are not solutions. Even if the other party could overpower technocracy, the remedy could turn worse than the malady. After all, not everything in technocracy is negative; indeed, it has already pursued a process of adjustment to human conditions. The roots of technocracy are much deeper. It is not a question of right or left, socialism or capitalism.

There could be alternatives. And the reason for this is deeper than the obvious strategic observation that, since we cannot solve everything, it is better that some groups tackle the ecological problems, some the political, while others the economic ones. This is to believe that cutting the problem into smaller portions, following the well-known (and fallacious) cartesian rule, we may come to a solution. To want to make things easy, so as not to discourage people, is wrong in itself as well as a bad policy. The human predicament today can neither be minimised nor compartmentalised. Reality is not the great machine that a mechanicist worldview would have us believe. Reality is a whole, and as a whole not equal to the sum of its parts. In this way there are no alternatives either, precisely because there is no alternative. There may be options which pave the way for a transformation by means of a provisional emphasis on another side, not of the problem (which does not need to be the same) but of the overall state of affairs. Any alternative which is not capable of discovering the other side is not an alternative.

Using the word alternatives in the plural, we understand that the alter may have many sides of which our option is only one side. This is another name for pluralism, that is, the recognised co-existence of mutually exclusive styles of life, views of the real, opinions about things and systems of thought. Not aliud (in the sense of the other), but alter (in the proper meaning of the alterity inherent in any experience of otherness – which is reciprocal). Ultimately what is at stake here is the ontological status given to the epistemological reductio ad unum, as if what is necessary for the intellect were also a necessary axiom for reality. We cannot understand without reducing the known thing to a certain unity, but this does not prove that reality should be intelligible.

Cultural Innovation

The question of modernisation has been a slogan in India and abroad. Most studies, however, accept the “realistic” position that “there is no way back” and try to find solutions within the technocratic complex of the prevailing socio-politico-economic system of qualified capitalism and reformed socialism. The only voices many hear that speak against the status quo are revivalist fundamentalisms of all sorts.

I would like to look deeper into both tradition and modernity in order to discover a middle way, and perhaps find the roots of the problematic. I should mention here the recently reintroduced Hindutva ideology which we tackle without its political implications.

It has been rightly pointed out by many sociologists ‘that the dichotomous nature of tradition and modernity is really untenable in the light of reality’ (Damle (1983) 7, The author quotes M Singer, E Shils, the Rudolfs, P N Mital, and, of course, Max Weber, among others). For the sake of linguistic clarity, I propose to introduce the notion of innovation. One could then claim both that every living tradition contains a thrust towards innovation, and that all forms of modernisation have traditional roots. Furthermore, each tradition, inasmuch as it is not stagnant, tends to innovate itself not only from within but also by accepting inspiration from outside. At the same time, modernisation has an exogenous element which is successful only inasmuch as it finds resonance and acceptance in the heart of the very situation it attempts to modernise.

For India, however, Modernity instead of representing innovation, has mostly meant imitating the model of western technocratic society. The official “modernisation” of India does not follow a symbiotic pattern, but rather the model of an electronic civilisation.

What Indic culture needs is a conversion into the deep recesses of her soul, while simultaneously turning towards the spirit of the new situation of humanity. India is proud of having achieved its political independence without a formal war with the colonial power, which speaks highly for both sides. But this accomplishment also has its dark side. Partition produced lakhs of victims and other unsolved plagues, such as, communalism, the appalling predicament of the dalits, and the dire poverty of the masses. Besides, in the absence of a founding “revolution”, a native government became the successor of the colonial ruler. Practically everything that makes India a modern nation was inherited from Britain. The rajas, ranas and maharajas, for all their anachronism and perhaps corruption, represented a certain autochthonous way. Unfortunately, they were stripped not only of their power, but also of their authority and symbolism. This did not happen, however, with the symbols of the British Raj. Architecture offers an interesting illustration. Most of the palaces of the ‘princes’ of India are now in ruins, others became private mansions or, more tellingly, hotels for tourism. Yet most of the buildings of the Raj are now government mansions. Our parliamentary democracy, legislature, judiciary, and military, administration, economy, commerce, industry, and education – the entire machinery of the modern state, is a replica of the western or rather the Anglo-Saxon paradigm. (The present writer, in collaboration with the ambassadors of two Spanish-speaking countries, developed a project for an Indo-Latin Institute of Culture to be established in Goa, drawing on the Portuguese heritage of that State, when Pandit Nehru was still the Prime Minister. Apart from technical problems, Nehru could not see any point in having any other cultural bridge with the West than the British-American one. Apart from some literary achievements, what else we were given to understand, has the rest of the West contributed to world-civilisation?).

This has had a rather important consequence. The “natives” of India, mainly the villagers, the overwhelming majority of the people, feel strangers in their own country. When the British Raj was in power, the Indian peasant knew that it was a foreign domination. Once the “colonialists” left, however, their successors behaved in a similar way as the former rulers.

In other words, the majority of our people feel estranged, almost out of place, since they are unfamiliar with the official language, manners and customs. In a word, our native culture has become the tolerated culture. The culture of independent India was the imported one. The English-speaking elite dictated the rules, and imposed the “democracy” to be followed (R Kothari (1976) points out that immediately after Independence India developed a “typically Indian response” to handle political issues which had been prepared during the struggle for Independence. But he also describes how “an imported institutional framework” which he calls “the Westminster model of Government and politics” took the upper hand, and especially after 1967 developed the “administrative state” according to the “Anglo-Saxon model”). The Parliament, allegedly representing the people, speaks mainly a language which the majority does not understand. Of course, it does not matter much in a technocratic system, because technocracy also speaks a language that the majority cannot grasp.

This state of affairs is prevalent not only in the political field; education, too, shows an amazing forgetfulness of traditional schemes. In spite of a few token symbols here and there, indigenous values have been consistently downgraded. The elite have become more and more westernised, while most people feel more and more displaced.

In general, the Indic indigenous cultures are strangers, often cajoled guests at television and when elections are approaching, but nevertheless strangers in their own land; grafted, as it were, on the main culture of the future: technocracy. The ordinary people unconfessed but patent inferiority complex, when told that they are uneducated, illiterate and uncultured, they internalise this judgement of a foreign culture.

Native values, when acknowledged at all, are justified because they are at the service of the “national goals” which are measured in terms of the modern western set of values. Indigenous culture is valued inasmuch as it is at the service of the technological scale of values. Except for some private recent initiatives, Ayurvedic and Unani medicines, for instance, are revalued because allotropic science now affirms that they may help in certain cases and complement its weak points. India is proud of her engineers and medical doctors who are present all over the world, but not in her villages! Since they earn too little in the villages, they prefer to emigrate.

By and large, India is officially following the model of the western civilisation, presented as a universal paradigm, thus creating the myth that “progress” means to get rid of the “backwardness” of traditional ways, while modernisation calls for the “hard labour” of a modern (technocratic) society. Culture is reduced to arts and crafts, cosmetic aids, harmless anachronistic customs, folklore and amusement; culture as entertainment.

This is the prevailing myth that pervades the entire world, and not just India. To change the present state of affairs does not mean substituting one system for another, but something much more radical. We are in need of cultural innovation, not aesthetic surgery.

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