09 July, 2017

Dharma and Ownership

The Western model of social organization is fundamentally hinged on the concept of "ownership." Despite the several reformations and changes that have characterized Western history, the fundamental driving force for social organization is still based around ownership management.

In the early days, ownership wrested with the kings who basically owned their kingdoms (including its subjects). Changes in the societal structure brought about by the Renaissance, Reformation and the Age of Enlightenment in general, have seriously challenged the way ownership is managed in societies -- not the concept of ownership itself. Hence, democracy is defined as a government that is (owned) "by the people, for the people and of the people". Several other anti-imperial movements like communism, socialism, etc have all primarily challenged the way ownership was organized -- not the concept of ownership itself.

Social organization around an algebra of ownership has specific characteristics. Ownership entails privileges and rights. It also entails responsibilities and liabilities. And more fundamentally, it entails a sense of identity. When we own a home, we enjoy rights over it and get to set the rules within our homes. It also entails responsibilities and liabilities. If while constructing our house we damage our neighbour's property, then we are liable for it since we are the owners of the house. But more fundamentally, at a cognitive level, our home is an extension of ourselves, an expression of our identity and we not only take pride in what we own, but also interpret any assault on our property as an assault on our selves.

In contrast to all the above, Indian worldview traditionally was centered around the concept of "dharma". The term dharma has no accurate translation in English -- not because it is a confused notion, but because the Western world has not thought of this notion or developed it enough to give it a central element of importance in their worldview. The essence of dharma appears in the form of several "conservation laws" in physics and biology -- be it inertia, elasticity, conservation of electrostatic charge, conservation of angular momentum, homeostasis, etc. But these disparate conservation laws have not been studied for the underlying abstract property of sustainability that permeates all creation.

Dharma is loosely translated as "sustainability". It is a systemic configuration, or a state of being, that is robust and impervious to routine challenges. However, the term "sustainability" is not completely accurate either. A dead planet is trivially sustainable and robust. Dharma is a state of sustainability that does not violate properties of liveness or "prana". Dharma and prana go hand in hand. If dharma is a state of sustainability, prana is the capability of the system (or being) in that sustainable state.

Societies that were organized around the concept of dharma, have very different characteristics as compared to societies organized around the algebra of ownership. The dilemma between individual liberty and collective will is not really an issue of contention. The Western world falsely believes that Eastern societies are "collectivist" in nature (they usually give the example of Japan in this regard). But Indian societies are nowhere as collectivist as Japan and neither are they as individualist as the US or Europe. The primary element of contention is not a clash of rights between the individual and the collective will -- but a contention into what is sustainable and what is not.

The dharmic worldview also does not view the Earth or nature as a resource that humanity owns. It views the Earth as a larger system of being, which seeks its own dharma.

Recently, (perhaps unwittingly) a professor from Norway tweeted the essence of dharmic thought, in response to the flurry of tweets around the Icelandic volcano explosion in 2010 that had grounded flights across Europe: "Save the planet! The planet must be saying, 'Save yourselves, idiots! I'm going to be fine!'"

Volcanic eruptions, climate change, tsunamis, earthquakes, are all examples of the planet seeking its own state of dharma -- in response to the system of forces acting upon it.

When a culture of ownership interacts with a culture of dharma, there is bound to be large-scale misunderstandings. The reason why in Indian culture people "poke their nose into other peoples' affairs" is not really because Indians lack an understanding of personal boundaries (just look at the norms in daily lives that respect personal boundaries), but more likely because it has its roots in cultural practices centered around preserving dharma.

Also, a culture centered around dharma is innately more objective than a culture centered around ownership. The virtues of objectivity have been recognized in the Western world only after scientific advancements. However, a culture that puts dharma at the center of inquiry, rather anybody's privileges or rights naturally drives the stream of inquiry towards the system of being rather than towards the individual preferences of any of the subjects involved.

It is ironical that in today's popular discourse in the Indian public mind (in universities, on media, etc.) we greatly lack a sense of objectivity and get into personal affronts all too often.

Ownership in a dharmic worldview is a rather sloppy entity. To explain this, let me take the example of a private expressway built in Bangalore recently (the NICE road). The owners of the road had a tough time when they announced the toll for using their road. They were met with a lot of opposition from commuters that the toll will make it impossible for them to use the road. The commuters didn't understand when the NICE management simply asked them to then not use their road if they can't afford the toll. And today, the toll on this road is tightly controlled by the government.

Generally it is interpreted as a "mob mentality" that is preventing the owners of the infrastructure to be rational about their costs and set the toll accordingly. But what the owners of the infrastructure need to also understand is that their ownership is not a naturally granted privilege. The road is meant to serve a particular purpose and help in enabling a larger system (the city) become sustainable. Just asking commuters to not use the road if they can't afford it, will adversely affect the larger system of being. Costs have to be rationalized -- not just for the owners, but for the larger system of being in which the ownership operates. 

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