13 March, 2016

How the twain shall meet - I: The false dilemma

Quite regularly, on the "mainstream" media and social media, some spiritual guru makes news -- often for all the wrong reasons. This news is followed by a coterie of skeptics heaping mud on the "self-styled godmen" and often silently wondering how the heck did these people get so rich, when they don't feature on stock markets, business news or politics.

Indeed, there are several spiritual movements and spiritual heads in India that are extremely rich. India hosts the world's richest deity -- some of its spiritual gurus have their own air fields, islands, and so on. The skeptics often see these as evidence of foul play and often conjure elaborate theories.

No doubt, there are unscrupulous elements in the "spirituality industry" who often use their organizations as a front for something else.

However, there are ample examples of spiritual movements in India which enjoy a vast global following, with ample donations and volunteer services. Many of these movements are so large that they have a complete ecosystem under their umbrella -- supporting not just individuals, but also businesses and organizations like hospitals and universities. Surely, there must be something to such "pseudo-science" if it can garner such a huge following?

How do these "pseudo-scientific" movements gather so much momentum and support from so many people across the world? For the "mainstream" it appears baffling that there could be so many irrational and gullible people all over the world.

However, we only need to adjust our vantage point and question our axioms a little, in order to see what really is happening.

Rudyard Kipling once said, "East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet."

Sadly, it is this "Western" kind of thinking that still runs our "mainstream" institutions the world over, because of which, this false dilemma refuses to budge.

It is also like this video by Mark Gungor who has a theory about "male and female brains" -- where the "male" brain supposedly organizes the world into neat little boxes and thinks only inside a box; while in the female brain on the other hand, everything is connected to everything else, and is run with an energy called emotion.

Somebody should tell Mr. Gungor that his theory is a "male" theory, which classifies brain types into neat little boxes called "male brain" and "female brain", while a "female" theory would not see such water-tight distinctions in the first place!

The Western model of thinking, which largely drives our institutional lives today has its roots in ancient Greece, where philosophers looked at the physical world outside of us and tried to build models to understand its phenomena. They invented a lot of underpinnings that govern Western thought today -- mechanics, physics, geometry, meta-physics, and so on.

Such a thought process was driven by a process of articulation -- or breaking up a complex system into smaller parts for the purposes of understanding. It was also instrumental in discovering several other important elements that form the underpinnings of our intellectual lives today like objectivity, stoicism, critical thinking and so on.

In contrast, the East had a much stronger focus on exploring the world within ourselves. These thought processes took root in lands that were rich with biodiversity, with several life forms often interacting and competing with one another. There was a strong impetus to understand what life is all about and how can different forms of life coexist peacefully.

Exploration into the inner world revealed early on to the Eastern philosophers that our intellectual selves are only a small, conscious part of who we are, and for most of our lives, we are driven by our emotional selves. This thought process also needed another important skill -- harmonization.Our emotional selves are not monolithic entities. They are in turn, driven by several autonomous cognitive centers (called "chakras" in Eastern thought), which often interfere with one another. The problem of harmonizing between different life forms in the outside world, manifested itself as the problem of harmonizing the different chakras in the inside world.

Also, unlike physical objects in the night sky, it is very difficult for us to be dispassionate observers of emotions. We are hard wired to catch emotions from elsewhere, and our own emotions can grip our minds so that we "become" our emotions. We are our emotions and when we observe ourselves, the observer is not completely disjoint from the observed.

So just like critical thinking became the ideal cornerstone of Western thought, Eastern thought developed a cornerstone called stithaprajna (often known as "mindfulness" in the West). It refers to a state of mind where we observe ourselves and our emotions without judgment and without letting them become us.

Just like the Western world developed several laws of physics over the centuries, the Eastern world developed several theories of the mind addressing elements like consciousness, self, identity, awareness, etc.

Just like the Western world likes to believe that everything is ultimately physics, the Eastern world believes that everything is ultimately mind. Processes and phenomena that posed challenges in the world outside, also existed in the world within. This lead to modeling the universe itself as a life form, comprising of several autonomous elements. The sense of self for the universe became the universal soul (Paramatma) of which our own souls (Atma) or sense of self were mere elements.

One of the early discoveries of the Eastern thought is the discovery of invariants that determine life and ecological processes. This is called "dharma". Dharma manifests as homeostasis in the biological realm, and the notion of "sustainability" comes closest to the concept of dharma in the ecological realm.

Translation of the concept of dharma by the Western mind as either "religion" or "ethics" or "righteousness" or "discipline" or "duty" has rendered a great disservice towards understanding this important concept. Dharma is far more fundamental -- it is the essence of life, of habitability of Earth and of sustainability of a complex ecosystem.

The concept of dharma is so fundamental to Eastern thought, it drove collective thought in a large part of the world that now comprises of the region involving Pakistan to South and South-east Asia. Dharmic cultures are what are equated with "religions" in today's narrative. What is today called the "Hindu religion" denotes a vast array of dharmic subcultures, including Buddhism, which the Western world encountered independently in other countries and seeks to distinguish from Hinduism (which itself does not mean one thing).

At a fundamental level, the East never really saw themselves as different from the West -- all of us are humans, driven by the same algebra of emotions and driven by dharma. But for the West, in order to understand something complex, they needed to articulate and break down the universe into neat little boxes, thus creating a huge chasm between the East and the West.

The East tried to reach out to the West using the epistemological tools at their disposal. This instantly made them into quaint and exotic mystics in the eyes of the West. The West in turn used its tools (meant for understanding physics), to understand the mind. And ended up boxing psychology and humanities into a category called "soft sciences" or in the words of Dr. Sheldon Cooper of the Big Bang Theory -- the "doofus of the sciences."

It is hence difficult for them to understand how these scientific doofus are able to "command" a huge following all over the world and create such big "empires" including high profile followers who are known to be scientifically minded. As long as they try to understand this phenomena using the mental model that is used to understand physics, they will remain perplexed and suspicious.

In contrast, the East is increasingly exposed to the Western way of thinking -- so much so that several folks take pride in treating their cultural moorings with contempt by trying to understand it from a framework that is inadequate. However, it is not before long that many of them get driven towards genuinely understanding Eastern thought looking past the labels, stereotypes and one's own paralyzing sense of contempt.

4 comments:

Grumbledore said...

"Surely, there must be something to such "pseudo-science" if it can garner such a huge following?"

Isn't this kind of the argumentum ad populam fallacy?
But then, it's logical argument, so can be bracketed as western.

Are you suggesting the use of axioms that do not involve logic?

Srinath Srinivasa said...

*grumble* *grumble* Try using some logic next time.

"Isn't this kind of the argumentum ad populam fallacy?"

Only if I had asserted that this huge following is indicative of inherent scientific merit. All I've stated that there should be "something" to this, for it to gather so much following.


"But then, it's logical argument, so can be bracketed as western."

The idea of Bracketing itself is a Western approach to thinking, so..


"Are you suggesting the use of axioms that do not involve logic?"

D-uh.. where exactly have I done that? What does that even mean to say use of axioms does not involve logic? Questioning of axioms is different from questioning the concept of axioms itself! :)

vensine said...

This is a fascinating treatment, examination and explanation of Dharma as I have never heard or read before. There is a lot here to think about, understand and digest. Thank you for venturing into this area of complexity and sharing your thoughts. I look forward to reading more from you and perhaps even seek some clarifications,

Srinath Srinivasa said...

Thank you!