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The Raja Dharma Series – Scope Of Smṛti And Nature Of A Dhārmic State – Part 2


Nature as Teacher and the Trustee

One of the most important aspects of dhārmic thought is seeing Nature as the ultimate teacher. It is not just about understanding Nature and Her workings, but about basing the design of the most evolved human institutions on such lessons. 

The philosophical schools see matter and consciousness as the two primal principles of creation, and nature to be the primal mother of all beings – the sustainer, the giver of upādhi-s or faculties of experience, the provider of phenomenal experiences that beget beings the three-fold experiences of life. In the capacity of the primal giver, She is also the primal teacher, the giver of the most instinctive to the most sublime knowledge. Thus the knowledge that man gains from his experience of nature, forms the basis both for the knowledge system and the social institutions that he creates and keeps refining. 

For instance the principle of complementarity as learnt from nature, from phenomena like day and night, male and female, matter and consciousness. It is then articulated as nyāya-s like pangvāndha and daghdhāśva-dagdharatha, and applied at all levels of the Hindu knowledge. At the level of epistemology and spiritual philosophy, it is employed for deductively establishing the premises of philosophical schools like Sānkhya. At the theological level it is seen as the complementarity of head and central deities. At the micro level in society it is seen as the complementarity of head and center of family. 

What changes and what does not change, and what should be the basis for a permanent institution and what not, is something that is learned from the transient and intransient phenomena of nature. The longevity of Hindu institutions is owing to the fact that they are based on unchanging principles of world such as consciousness and not on ideals. This is precisely the reason why it is called the eternal order or the Sanātana Dharma. Hinduism reposes trust in Nature and the intrinsic nature of beings. So the Hindu institutions are fashioned after nature – to be self-sustaining, self-regulating and evolving. 

Hindu worldview not only sees nature as a teacher, but sees human as an indistinguishable element of nature. Evolution of human society is a fact learned from the bigger system – evolution in nature. Natural order is inherently “just” (by the principle of dharma), although means employed are just and unjust, moral and immoral, fair and unfair – towards the ends of serving the evolutionary and ultimately just cause. Thus Hindu worldviews trust human nature as much, and assume that if founded on principles close to nature, human society is capable of evolving itself into the highest possible civilized order. Collective morality is a consequence of this, and builds from the individual. 

In stark contrast, the occidental institutions inherently distrust nature. They primarily believe in envisioning a human system that makes use of and exploits nature rather than trusting its inherent fair or moral nature. Ideals like fairness, freedom and equality are sought to be achieved in the western institutions by controlling the society and running it with those ideals. This precisely is the reason why state in the west assumes so much of control over the nation while a Hindu state merely kept facilitating the nation. Thus regulation in occidental societies is imposed by state and not through society’s inherent self-regulation. Ideals are temporal manifestations of the dynamic principle of truth. Western institutions are based on evolving ideals, hence remaining only temporally applicable and valid. So we see new ideologies and institutions emerging, one to fix what the other broke. 

The reason for this is that the west sees nature primarily as a form of matter rather than a form of consciousness. Hence only the cruder and physical aspects are learned from nature, as a physical mother. This concept does not permeate the deeper layers of consciousness, since they are not sought to be seen in the nature. 

Social Order and Morality

In dhārmic worldviews, being is seen as having concentric layers or sheaths, and goals of life are four-fold and orthogonal to these sheaths. Dharma or righteousness forms the bottommost and first to be achieved, based on which any other goal or fulfillment is made possible. This makes dharma an obligation for every fulfillment, for all the pursuits corresponding to all the layers of hierarchy. In dhārmic societies, the consciousness quality and moral scheme form the basis for the social design. 

Dharma is not based on ideals but on nature, and thus defines the functions of each role that beings involve in at different levels of collectivity. As an individual, as a member of a family in different capacities, as a member of society, as a sustaining element of several institutions, he has varied roles, and through all these he is ultimately fulfilling himself and bringing completeness to his being through his experiences. Thus dharma builds from the individual, and does not flow from top as ideals like freedom and equality do. While needs are hierarchical according to Maslow, it does not really mean human pursuits are hierarchical – they are constrained by several factors, situational or otherwise. What ensures the fulfillment of these needs, is the stratification of pursuits corresponding to these needs and creation of spheres where such pursuits are possible. This happens with the definition of goals of these pursuits – which in the Hindu context are the four-fold purposes of life, three-fold experiences, three-fold states and the one experience that underlies all this – happiness. 

Goals of Life

Dharma aligns the being, its aspirations and capabilities with the infinite possibilities of fulfillment of potential of the being. The fulfillment of one’s Dharma results in striking rhythm with one’s true nature. Striking rhythm with the individual’s true nature is the way to uncover the immense potential of the being. Hence Dharma is the first goal of life, whose fulfillment forms the basis for fulfillment of higher goals. It positions people for the highest goals by aligning with the evolution of beings. The more evolved people are, the less personal and more impersonal their pursuits are. Maslow attests this fact too when he says “self-actualizing people…are involved in a cause outside their own skin”. They are driven by needs in the early stage, then by ego, and then by truth-consciousness. 

There are two main phases in life and evolution. The first phase is a growth phase – which is essentially materially enriching. Artha and kāma, the two goals contingent on Dharma, are the ones pursued in this phase. This is the pravṛtti phase. In this phase man not only caters to his self-esteem and other desires, but primarily contributes to the creation of wealth/resources and sustenance of social institutions. The second phase is essentially internal enrichment and outward detachment. Moksha or the state of highest happiness is the goal of human pursuits in this phase. In this phase man continues to contribute in the creation of knowledge. In our worldviews goals are not seen as hierarchical, but as phased. 

The possibility of pursuing goals arises from (1) capability and potential of an individual (2) social opportunity. In dhārmic societies, the higher the goal is, the lesser is the dependence of man on external means and social opportunity.  Thus, there is a detachment of social opportunity which makes higher goals reachable for society regardless of its stratification in terms of power and economy. 

While there is a natural requirement of qualification for persons to certain offices in the state hierarchy or specialized social functions, the pursuit of highest goals of life does not require any such qualification. Thus unconditional happiness or moksha sādhana is a birth right of every being, regardless of capability, quality of birth (even species of birth as a matter of fact). 

Individual and Society

The way an individual is related to society and state in a dhārmick society is based on an ideal resolution of the vyaṣṭi-samiṣṭi dichotomy. Man’s concentric life layers are well acknowledged – individual, family, community, nation, state, universe etc. In the form of multiple levels of collectivity, there is a graded guard of individual freedom – both in terms of enabling and constraining it. Power is also accumulated at different levels, thus empowering the society without excessively empowering the state. Thus a more intimate and aware collectivity continuously helps individuals guide their lives, while at the same time enabling them to execute social functions with a collective instead of individual capital. The immense social strength that this arrangement gives, can be seen from the resilience of India in the face of relentless attacks on its civilization for centuries – something hardly visible anywhere else in the world. For the most part societies can retain only that identity which the state foists on them – as can be seen all over the Middle-East and Europe for instance. But in India even after centuries of alien state and a currently prevailing proxy-colonial state, the society’s identity remains what her national and social identity had been for ages. 

Concepts of nation and state

The traditional idea of Bhārata has two aspects, the rājyaand rāṣṭra. Rājya corresponds to state (polity, administration etc), and rāṣṭrato cultural – social-national aspects. 

Bhārata – The Rāṣṭhtra

Rāṣṭra is approximately nation-culture, which comprises of 56 geo-cultural units traditionally called the chappan(na) deśa-s (though some of these fall outside present Indian borders). Understanding these deśa-s is essential to understand the diversity and stratification in Indian culture. While the layout of rājya-s kept changing with political vicissitudes, while the rājya-s kept merging and breaking up into different empires, the deśa-s remained to be regarded as the units that comprise the nation/subcontinent (varsha/khanḍa). The practice of describing the span of empires in terms of deśa-s, goes to show the significance of deśa-s in the basic understanding of the subcontinent. Able emperors could control more than a deśa, and a deśa could also have multiple small kingdoms at times. But the deśa as a basic unit transcended the more transient and constantly realigning rājya-s. This is the reason why the stream of civilizational and cultural enrichment continued uninterrupted in the subcontinent irrespective of political realignments. The presence of a strong empire resulted in patronage and high points of civilizational pursuits. However there was rarely any destructive effect on cultural diversity or identities of these deśa-s. 

Importantly, the deśa remained a well-defined concept which is almost agnostic of the rājya. For all non-political purposes, Bhārata’s geography has often been described in terms of deśa-s. For instance Varahamihira in his BṛhatSamhita categorizes the deśa-s of Bhārata into different seismic zones. More on this can be seen in the paper “Earthquake prediction in Ancient India” by Prof. RN Iyengar. Lawgivers dealt with validity of local customs and practices based on deśa-s. Panini alludes to rules of grammar with respect to local language practices based on deśa-s. Thus understanding of deśa is fundamental to understanding Bhārata. 

The cohesion of peoples in the subcontinent and their cultural affinities in the diverse landscape, need to be understood on the basis of these deśa-s. It also needs to be understood that these deśa-s were regarded as part of Bhārata. This tells us the nature of oneness of Bhārata ingrained in the Indian mind for ages. The cultural affinities between peoples of the same deśa are pronounced, and it is easy to find more similarity between cultural units/jāti-s (belonging to the same strata) of the same deśa than people of same jāti of different deśa-s. This is the reason we prefer the word geo-cultural unit for a deśa. 

Besides, an integral view of the entire Bhāratavarsha as a rashtra is visible from several integration themes – for instance the Saktipeetha-s and Jyotirlinga-s, the spiritual unification centers that people cover. What more concept of geo-religious oneness does one require to see, than the sthala-purāṅa of Kanyākumāri saying the Devi waits to get married to Śiva coming from Kailāsa of Himalayas? The landscape covered by Pānḍavas during their exile or Śri Rāma during his exile are other classical integration themes. 

Thus in the traditional Bhārata, the different collectivities like jāti, deśa, sampradaya acted as a web of interrelated unifying themes, comprising the rāṣṭra. History of Bhārata stands witness to the fact that such unity proved to be more powerful than political oneness in keeping the society united. Wherever and whenever this web of unifying motives was torn,, due to political, religious, cultural or social disruption, India suffered. 

Thus Bhārata had an evolved concept of orthogonal institutions of nation and state which give far greater autonomy to the nation than a nation-state does. Geo cultural and Geo political are distinct, as depicted in the figure below: 

Figure 4Cultural-political vs Political geography

The geo-cultural, though it is predominantly about the habited civilization of 56 deśa-s, expands all the way up to khanḍa, dvīpa (continent) and vasundhara (the earth) and gives the sense of vasudhaiva kuṭumbakam (global family of mankind). The inherent openness of Bhāratīya traditions and people, be it in readily accepting other peoples or their ways of lives or the diversity of thought and life systems and worldviews, reflects in and is made possible by the separation of geo-cultural and geo-political. The principle is universal and applicable for all times: be accommodating at people level, at polity level be shrewd and discriminative mindful of nation’s interests. 

Our society runs on the basis of a complex set of institutions with due checks and balances. Hence it has the vitality to self-regulate, self-correct and evolve with times. Most of the course corrections in our institutions came from within the society in the form of seers, teachers, scholars and samskarta-s (civilizers/refiners, not reformers). Thus this nation is used to a far higher degree of freedom (given by responsibility) than a nation-state gives its nation in the west. 

Figure 5Macro view of institutions of Bhārata

Society in India is strong and this is the reason individual enjoys much greater degree of liberty compared to west where state has much larger control over the families and individuals. Whether it is allowing kids to sit in the parent’s lap in a car or choosing the emphasis of “formal” literate education the state decides a lot more about individual lives than the real stakeholders in the individuals’ lives: family community etc. Indian society feels scuttled and its liberties snatched by the present state, as it legislates matters that society is capable of taking care of and make more balanced and calibrated corrections than state can. State/law is a last resort and cannot act as nation/character builder. Society with its self-regulation and cultural-spiritual traditions alone can do it. The case for restoring the nation’s self-control is a significant part of our freedom struggle, whether or not it is well articulated before independence. Post-independence in 1947, state defined by our new constitution has only very partially and unsuccessfully fulfilled this craving. 

India the nation state

Given the original Hindu understanding of Bhārata, it is easy to notice that the organization of India since independence is not exactly in line with the former. To be fair, the post-colonial Indian organization was an uphill task of integrating hundreds of princely states (which themselves have nothing to do with the deśa-s). And they were subsequently organized into 25+ states, some of them supposedly on the basis of language. While the choice of Hindi instead of Sanskrit as a national language had its issues, the main problem in linguistic division is that it revolts against the very concept of cultural diversity represented by linguistic diversity. For instance, the Hindu rājya-s preserved cultural and linguistic diversity while the states of today impose a single official state language. This is an anti-thesis of the cultural unity-diversity that prevailed in the nation for centuries. 

The post-colonial nation-state is merely a geo-political concept that does not take any cognizance of the original concept of geo-cultural units that built the civilization of this great nation. 

The political organization becomes basis for law, and landscape for such organization in turn is described entirely unrelated to geo-cultural units. This is in sharp contrast to the way kingdoms described their landscape based on geo-cultural units and towns/villages belonging to those units. This is a primary distinction between a nation-state and rāṣṭra. The former is only political in nature whereas the latter is cultural in its essence, and defines political with respect to the cultural landscape.  The implications of such definition are many. In the rāṣṭra, the variety of life, customs, linguistic and cultural preferences, social practices of these landscapes form part, and even drive to a certain extent, the state policies and lawmaking. They do not merely become accommodated factors to an otherwise sought-to-be-uniform union policy pervading the entire nation. Civil and social liberties are not accommodated but drive the policy. 

The education designed by the post-colonial state machinery do not teach native culture or geography or natural resources or civilizational story related to these units which remained a permanent feature of this nation for ages, right from pre-Vedic times to pre-independence. This makes the Indians view the nation through colonial and political prism, in contrast to the way this nation has always seen and identified itself. This colonial consciousness is not merely a hangover of colonial period but a persistent feature of the geo-political concept of nation-state. The education does not teach the essence or nature of the institutions of nation and society, and as a result of this the experiences of one’s society and surroundings is not shaped in consonance with the workings of those institutions. The various integration motives that act as a web, acting in the society, are not taught as a web of motives since the cultural view of nation is not taken cognizance of. Simply put, post-colonial education de-Indianizes one’s experiences of India. 

For instance jāti is presented not as a unit of cohesion but as a unit of rivalry. However, the fact is that multiple jāti-s of the same deśa have greater cohesion than people of same jāti across deśa-s. But unless this is taught in perspective neither kinds of cohesion are treated as cohesion: both are seen as “caste” and “regional” prejudices. Thus the immense positive potential, a real and social experience, presented as a negative feature of the society. Similarly the fact that master-disciple lineages are primary reason for our civilizational continuity, are presented as some sort of principle of exclusion. The fact that extraordinary skill and perfection was achieved in the skill group guilds is presented as a sort of imposition and lack of civil liberty: a notion easily negated by the very fact of excellence achieved. Thus the non-cognizance of cultural view results in seeing as negative even the most positive aspects of the institutions of society. 

Thus in the current arrangement all those collective arrangements that earlier acted as integration motives, are now seen as, hence even acting as disintegration motives. Religious, cultural and linguistic bonds are way stronger than regional urban-rural cultural bonds, and this explains why India today suffers more lack of unity at people level than in the pre-colonial times. Caste, language, region based rivalry and jingoism are essentially colonial and post-colonial phenomena. This is because rāṣṭra the web of integration motives is not taken cognizance of by the nation-state, nor does it form the basis for understanding the nation for which the state is being defined. 

Geo-political linguistic states that bind one language-one polity do not take cognizance of the deśa-s and their cultures and languages. Hindu rājya-s explicitly described themselves as a collection of these cultural units and designed their policies per them (the deśa-kAla layer of constitutions is designed thus), the post-colonial states that unified princely states aggregated themselves into single-language states which caused active discouragement to the development of cultures and languages. While Sanskrit as a link language integrates and does not stifle the development of regional dialects and languages (which is how Indian languages flourished in the first place), English-Hindi as union’s link languages hardly helped such harmony. 

A few prominent examples of conflict because of nation-state’s monolithic political nature can be listed here. 

  1. Vidarbha grievances under Marāṭhā state. Marāṭhā Empire was a collection of several deśa-s, vidarbha being one of them. In contrast Maharashtra the post-independence state is a Marathi state not defined as inclusive of these deśa-s and their languages or cultures. 
  2. Telangana grievance under Andhra Pradesh: the landscape traditionally is Andhra-Trilinga-Kalinga deśa-s which was unified into Andhra Pradesh, making it a geo-linguistic entity. 
  3. Excessive emphasis of Dravidian distinctiveness right from influencing foreign policy 
  4. Konkanis grievances under Kannada state: Today’s Karnataka state encompasses konkaNa and karnATa deśa-s, while officially accommodating and pushing Kannada language. 
  5. Gorkha grievances under Bangla state, which are again ethno-linguistic-cultural. 

The derecognition of a cultural landscape that can exist agnostic of state conception, and more importantly a proxy-colonial state which is not founded in the long known Hindu ideals, resulted in a near-complete curtailment of Hindu culture and civilizational progress. It can be argued that these grievances are resulting in formation of smaller states which may eventually align with the deśa-s. However, that does not explain why a political entity like state should be unable to, by its design, ably and harmoniously govern a landscape that consists of multiple deśa-s or cultural units and why such grievances should arise in the first place. The answer is the fact that nation-state is about one language-one nation-one people and this does not by design accommodate a multi-cultural multi-language multi-people system like Bhārata.

The nation-state defined by our constitution is thus fundamentally incompatible with Bhārata.

Continued ……

Image credit: The Hans India

The Raja Dharma Series


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