28 September, 2016

On declarative social orders

EDIT: Some Related Literature about the interpretation of dharma as sustainability:

Dharma, Brahma, Rasa 
Dharma as Universal Principle of Equilibrium 

Over the last few months, I have been increasingly posting about the concept of dharma and other notions that are found in South Asian thought. Not surprisingly, I've promptly earned the label of a "Hindu Nationalist" (whatever that means) from some section of my reading population. One even went to the extent of hoping that I would "allow" others express themselves, given that I am now a Hindu Nationalist.

Not surprisingly, I've often choked on the overload of irony in such situations.

Firstly, a brief look at my posts over the years would make it apparent that if there is one thing that I fundamentally value, it is liberty. A liberal society is any collective that designs its norms and laws based on the legitimacy and integrity of the individual.

And the reason why I find the concept of dharma so fascinating is that, it perhaps holds the key towards building sustainable, liberal societies. Let me try and explain why I think it is so.

Sure, because of the current political circumstances, it is likely that dharmic thought has got a louder voice in Indian public discourse, because of which I was able to better understand this concept. But my interest in dharmic thought has got nothing to do with my political preferences, and it is also unfortunate that I need to give this disclaimer to talk about what is essentially an interesting notion about systems.

Much of our current misconceptions about dharma, stems from South Asian worldview being classified into the box called "religion" in the more powerful Western worldview, which is disseminated all over the world. As noted by Maria Wirth in her blog post about becoming a Hindu, she says that she did not "convert" to Hinduism, but liberated herself from the system of conversions between religions. If religion is defined as a belief system, Hinduism and dharmic thought in general, are certainly not religions; and if religion is defined as a quest for understanding the universe, then both Hinduism and Science are religions.

I used to say that my research interests are about semantics and systems. But after understanding dharma, I've raised my research interests one notch meta -- I'm now interested in the philosophical notions of meaning and being. As noted in an earlier post, we think of systems as a composite entity only when we examine them from the "particle" worldview of the West. Here, the building blocks of the universe are static particles, on top of which, dynamics are imposed, typically by the algebra of energy.

Eastern thought on the other hand, is based on a theory of "Being." The entire universe is said to be built from "beings" -- which are basically entities that can have different states. A being is an atomic encapsulation of particle and dynamics. When several beings come together, their affinities and disaffinities (as defined by their dynamics) result in the emergence of a larger being with its own set of dynamics. The entire universe is of course a being -- the Being -- the biggest possible being. This composition however, is not linear, but circular. The biggest possible being -- the Being -- is the essence of all beings.

The core element of Hinduism based in the Vedas basically posits a universal Being called Brahman, which forms the essence of all beings; and consciousness as a graded function of the awareness of this universal essence in oneself. The ultimate state of consciousness is when we discover the essence of the universe within ourselves.

The society that created and operated along the above line of reasoning, tended to think in terms of beings, which loosely maps to "systems" when viewing it through the Western lens.

A characteristic concern of all systems is optimization. When viewing the world through the Western lens, we first learn about particles and energy, then about systems and finally about optimization. But when viewed through the theory of Beings, optimization is a most basic, characteristic property of being.

All systems found in nature are perennially executing a process of optimization all the time. If we excite an electron with some energy, it will soon shed the energy to settle down into a low energy "stable" state. "Noble" gases are so optimal that they don't react to anything. A fight for survival by an animal, is fundamentally an optimization process. Rationality is a process of optimization. Even spiritual quests are about understanding something that lies beyond our epistemological capabilities, in as clear a way as possible within the framework of our epistemics -- an optimization process. Management is about optimization, as is governance and administration. Even evolution is a process of strategic optimization -- evolution tries to make the next generation more "fit" than the previous generation, in other words, it strategically primes the next generation to survive better than the previous generation.

Optimization can be driven by several objectives like efficiency, throughput, cost, etc. But nature by far, favours one optimization objective over all else -- robustness. Robustness is the property of a system (being) to survive or sustain itself, across disparate, unforeseen circumstances and contexts.

For instance, nature prefers legs over wheels for its animals for their locomotion. Wheels may be more efficient and may need lesser energy to move, but legs are more robust and can sustain the animal across different kinds of terrain.

In essence, that is the concept of dharma -- sustainability or robust optimality.

Dharma is a declarative or a "what-is" notion. It tells about the property called sustainability of a system. It is not an imperative notion -- it does not tell us what to do or "how-to" lead our lives. It is for this reason, all the usual stereotypes about Hinduism like patriarchy or arranged marriages or whatever else, are all fundamentally incorrect. Dharmic thought does not impose any kind of imperatives on how one should lead one's life. Understanding dharmic thought is basically about understanding systems. And the concept of dharma, or sustainable robustness, is an important tool to understand how systems function. It gives us a handle using which we can build models and theories over very complex systems.

Dharma is also not a moral concept. In fact, morality is a dharmic concept. Morality refers to a system of hermeneutics that is conducive for sustenance of life -- dharma in other words. Morality is typically applicable only to human societies, while dharma is applicable to all systems, including non-living systems. Noble gases are in a state of dharma -- sustainable robustness. But there is nothing moral about being neon gas!

Dharma is also not a delusion (a deeply embedded thought pattern in our minds.) In fact, delusion is a form of dharma. A delusion is a thought pattern that our mind thinks is very important to our survivability and hence embeds it deeply in our minds. Be it paranoid delusion or delusions of superiority -- they are all embedded in our minds in response to circumstances that have challenged our (or our parents' survival). Delusion is hence, a form of dharma.

Of course, in order to explain the concept of dharma, several philosophers provide several examples and even codified rules applicable for specific contexts to uphold dharma -- or to make the system robust and sustainable. But these examples and codified rules are not the essence of dharma in itself. When someone says being a vegetarian is dharma, it simply means that (in some context) being a vegetarian makes them and the system there more sustainable and robust, compared to a meat-eating lifestyle.

There is a saying called "Ahimsa paramodharmah" (non-violence is a prime dharma) and also a notion of "dharma-yuddh" (dharmic war). They are not contradicting one another. The first one simply says that non-violence is a fundamental element of building sustainable societies, while the latter is the concept of war that is waged in order to bring sustainability back to a system.


When we study systems theory today, we are usually taught about eigenvectors or invariants in a system and how complex systems can be understood by locating their eigenvectors. (The term eigenvector is a German term which literally means "self vector" -- it represents a state of the system that can be called the "self" of the system.) Eigenvectors are usually an advanced mathematical concept and anyone who has not studied advanced mathematics or engineering would have been unlikely to have encountered this concept.

But imagine a civilization who use eigenvectors as the fundamental building blocks from which the entire universe is understood. Imagine a civilization where one of the first things children are taught, is the concept of eigenvectors. If we can imagine how such a civilization would pan out, we have started to make some progress in understanding South Asian worldview.

So, nope. I'm not apologetic about my fascination with the concept of dharma and I'm not a Hindu Nationalist (whatever that means).

Gosh, I'm sounding like the protagonist of "My name is Khan" movie!