24 July, 2017

The limits of Syncretism

In the study of human societies like religion, politics, culture, etc. a commonly occurring tool of inquiry is Syncretism. It refers to the process of computing equivalences between disparate belief systems and hermeneutics to look for underlying unity and promote dialogue across hermeneutics.

No doubt, the intention of Syncretic studies is noble, but as always, the devil lies in the details. Some time ago, I had written a post on the limits of "informed consent" -- which is seen as the cornerstone of liberal, consensual relationships. The incident that started me to think about the limits of informed consent, was a study I'd come across about "productivity enhancement" that required a 360-degree collection of "Big data" from employees. Stuff like what time they get up, what time they come to work, how much time they spend at the water cooler, what sites they visit, what is their emotional state, what is the state of their marital relationship, etc. were all collected and given to a "Big data analytics" engine to give actionable insights.

The primary defense the authors had about the use of such intrusive data about the employees' personal lives, was the axiom of "informed consent". The employees were told what data would be collected and they consented to it.

The only problem in this argument is that the employees likely had no recourse but to give their consent -- or else, face the wrath of upper management and possibly end up losing their jobs. Informed consent, in a state of power asymmetry is just a fait accompli.

The same thing is true of Syncretism. Let us assume two hermeneutic systems A and B wanting to understand one another. Syncretic interpretations are directed relationships. There can be a Syncretic explanation of concepts of B in terms of A, as well as concepts of A in terms of B.

In an egalitarian world with similar levels of strength from both sides, we would probably see equal numbers of interpretations in either directions.

However, the literature pertaining to interpreting culture, religion, arts, etc in the English-speaking world is hopelessly one-sided. It represents the interpretation of other cultures and hermeneutics from a European (later American) hermeneutic framework.

Hence, we see a non-existent religion called "Hinduism" that is boxed in as the predominant belief-system in India and it is neatly separated from other similar "-isms" like Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, etc. Even concepts of this "Hinduism" like dharma, atma, prana, vidhi, etc are all mapped to mostly Biblical concepts (since "Hinduism" was considered a "religion") to find some kind of a subgraph isomorphism.

With a good enough interpretation, several "Indology experts" have emerged who use the Syncretic interpretation to suggest political, social and cultural interventions into what they see as social evils or superstition.

It also helped that Indian society was reeling from different forms of collective trauma when the Western explorers set out to study and interpret the culture. Reactions to trauma often take extreme forms ("sati" and "jouhar" for instance, were not social practices characteristic of "Hinduism" representing some sick notions of male dominance; but were traumatic counter-reactions against invaders who were killing men and enslaving the women.)

The power asymmetry that still exists between India and the Western world, have ensured that the Syncretic narrative about Indian thought is fast becoming the "mainstream" with the actual thought getting sidelined and faces a real danger of becoming extinct with the emergence of the generation of the English educated, digital natives whose primary source of worldview is Wikipedia.

Syncretic interpretation of Indian culture, which forms the basis on which children in the West are taught about India and "India experts" base their political advice, is wildly way off target. And what is worse, is that even in India, especially since Indian (dharmic) thought is not studied in the formal education system, and many students are growing up speaking and thinking in English (because of the greater opportunity it provides), the only source of material for them to understand Indian thought is the Western syncretic interpretation of it.

I've extensively written about the misinterpretation of dharma as either religion, law, ethics, norms, duty, etc. when it actually defines an abstract, conceptual notion of sustainability -- or the universal principle of equilibrium. Indian thought postulates the existence of dharma (which can be independently verified in various ways), and there is no question of "belief" in dharma. Dharma, like gravity, exists regardless of whether we believe in it.

Imagine a mind that has concepts like "ethics", "law", "religion", "duty", etc. but no concept for the universal principle of sustainability, interpreting the term "dharma" based on the different contexts it appears in. The actual meaning of dharma gets hopelessly distorted when equated with any or all of these concepts.

Similarly, the term "Atman" or "Atma" is interpreted as "Soul" -- a primarily Biblical concept. Atma is is the essence of "being" or the "beingness" that manifests dharma (among other things). Atma is not limited to humans and animals -- it is there in every object. In fact, there is no difference between "living" and "non-living" beings -- they are all basically beings. The fact that Atma is characteristic of even non-living objects is interpreted to mean that "Hinduism" is somewhat like "Animism". All we can say in response is -- sigh.

In dharmic hermeneutics, the entire universe is a Being that is made up of beings. The primary contention was on the relationship between the universal Being (Brahman) and its constituent beings (Atmans). It is somewhat analogous to (but not identical to or syncretically similar to) Cantor's paradox -- that tries to establish the set of all sets as a set and ends up in an existential dilemma.

Hence, there are theories that are based on non-separation (Advaita) between the Atman and Brahman (which again, is not the same as or syncretically equivalent to monoism of Western philosophy) and theories that posit a graded relationship between beings (Atmans) and the Being (Brahman).

As I see it, there is a pressing need for reviving dharmic hermeneutics (not just preserving it as a dead relic in a museum).


Existence is basically defined by three fundamental processes: creation, sustenance and death/transformation. Different cultures have emphasized these fundamental processes with different levels of importance.

Western culture as we know it today, has its roots in Europe and West Asia, both of which were characterized by scarcity. The cultures are forged by war and struggle, over several centuries. Survival was not a given. As the saying goes: "A man said to the universe: Sir I exist! However, replied the universe, The fact has not created in me A sense of obligation."

In such cultures, creation and transformation are central elements. The emergence of modern science and technology are all founded upon the fundamental process of creation and building of "stuff".

In contrast, Indian thought was largely founded in a place that was resource rich and benign. The world is seen as a nurturing mother, rather than an adversary in such cultures. The primary objective of this culture was to "sustain" what nature has already given us. Cultural practices evolved that promoted humans to blend into the environment and become a part of the ecological process of sustenance, rather than view nature as a resource. There was also no concept of a "food chain" with predators on top. The entire ecosystem was seen as a system of being, whose dharma (sustenance) was a function of the interaction among its various constituent beings -- be they predators or non-predators.

As I see it, with an increasingly connected world, sustenance is one of the most important characteristic that is largely ignored. We think of sustainability only when it comes to big issues like climate change that makes us feel good, virtuous and erudite, to talk about. We do not acknowledge the importance of treating sustainability as a first-order concept in every aspect of our lives -- be it business, family or governance.

Hence, my promotion of dharmic hermeneutics is by no means a promotion of "Hindu" "religion". Dharmic thought has nothing to do with holy cows or vegetarianism or the myriad rituals, festivals and practices that are associated with "Hinduism". Yes, these practices manifested in a culture that was based on dharmic thought, but the concept of dharma itself is more fundamental and universal.

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