[The way forward is not about going back to some hypothetical golden age or denying that we have real problems to solve today. But our problems appear unsolvable because we have failed to understand ourselves in our own language, on our own terms.]
Some years ago I was out on a date with an American woman and she asked me why I came to the US. “For cultural anthropology of the natives,” I said. She started laughing but I was only half-joking. My reason to go to the US was to study American society. This was a country that dominated the world both economically and culturally in recent times. Much to learn there was, as Yoda would have said. It’s nice they gave me a scholarship.
So I loved and lived America. I participated in the American dream. Live-in relationship, shotgun Vegas wedding. Home in the suburbs with 2.5 children (apparently that’s the average) and American-style divorce. (Half of American marriages end in divorce) I volunteered for their folk festivals, skied, kayaked, became part of a conga-playing band, joined an esoteric Christian group, and ate steak. I was asked one time in my Christian group when I stopped being Hindu. I was surprised by the question. I told them I never did. I was there to learn.
One time, when working as a manager in a large software company, I was faced with an unconventional challenge. One of my employees, an engineer I will call Fred, stabbed another employee. Fred was a bright guy, a UC Berkeley grad, though quite introverted and shy. He had finally managed to get a girlfriend. He, his best friend John, and the girlfriend Sally would regularly hang out together. One day he went home a little early and found John and Sally in flagrante delicto. Fred lost it, at having been so betrayed, got a kitchen knife and stabbed John. Luckily it was a flesh wound, John was not hurt much, but Fred was in a pickle.
My manager Greg called me. I was told that Fred had to be fired because John had registered a complaint against him. Yes, of course, I thought. There is no law against sleeping with your best friend’s girlfriend and against causing the grievous hurt of betrayal. Fred could have killed himself and that would still not implicate John. But there is a law against Fred getting angry and stabbing John. I defended Fred but was overruled. Fred was fired.
What is legal and what is moral is different. In American society, the two are often conflated. There is a reason for this. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, (the Christian) God is the lawgiver. God gave the law to his people in His Book. Though this has been secularized, and the Book has been turned into the Constitution, this relationship with law still remains. Americans are law-abiding. They take the law very seriously. Law-breakers are criminal and evil.
Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. (Ecclesiastes 12:13). Fear of the Lord has now become fear of the law. Though this is not apparent in a superficial look, America is virtually a police state. It has the highest incarceration rate in the world. While the US is only 5 per cent of the world’s population it has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Over 2 million Americans are in jail. Felons are dis-enfranchised even after their sentence is over. They can no longer vote, so lose the basic right of citizenship. The consequences of breaking the law are huge.
By contrast, India has the lowest rates of incarceration in the world (apart from few very small countries of population under 10 million). It also has one of the lowest numbers of police per capita. The police that is there is not very effective. It comes from a colonial setup that works on the behest of the powerful and treats ordinary citizens as lower life forms. India’s judicial system is also notoriously slow and inefficient. Cases drag on for years. Relatively speaking, it is a lawless land.
But, here lies the rub. Even with an incarceration rate that is nearly 20 times that of India, per capita police more than twice that of India, and an efficient judicial system, the US murder rate is higher than India’s. Homicides are usually not dramatically under-reported, as rapes or other crimes with social stigma, so are a good measure of crime. Why is it that India, with very little law enforcement, has a lower crime rate than the US with its formidable law enforcement system?
The short answer is that India is a society that does not work on the basis of law. We have no lawgiver in the sky. Indian society operates on dharma, on conscience. I am not making the case here, at least yet, that one is better than another. The American system is highly organized and well-run. It works well for many of its citizens. I am saying it is different from how India works.
How does the difference between orderliness due to fear of law and due to dharma show up in real life? Western society operates very well as long as the external organizing systems are in place. It is when that external system breaks down that the problems arise. Society goes into lawlessness. The book ‘Lord of the Flies’ tells the story of stranded English schoolboys who descend into barbarity, when removed from law. Man is a sinner. In the absence of the patriarchal Government (literally from the Father, in heaven), all bets are off. Civilization is a thin veneer.
To see this in practice, let us compare with Japan, another dharma-ordered society. When hurricane Katrina happened in New Orleans in US in 2005, the city quickly descended into chaos. Looting remained “rampant and out of control” even a year after the hurricane. By contrast, after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, there was a marked absence of looting and society remained cooperative and orderly. This orderliness and mutual support was also seen in the response of village communities in India after the 2004 Tsunami.
Social theories from a Christian law-based society cannot easily be transposed to a dharma-based society. They yield nonsensical results. Unfortunately the bulk of social theory within India uses Western derived theories. Which is why Indian social problems appear permanently incorrigible and our social scientists ineffectual.
So how can we apply this understanding to societal problems like rape? Firstly, once we understand that Indian society is not law-based, promulgating more laws will generally not solve anything. Nor will increasing the number of policeman or blaming culture or patriarchy, another term we have recently copied from Western scholarship. The Pope, the same root as ‘father’ is the ultimate patriarch. Christianity is rooted in patriarchy, including the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost (As erstwhile-Catholic Jeffrey Armstrong says humorously, they killed their mother so only the ghost is left). Eve, created as an appendage of Adam, is the cause of original sin. No wonder their feminists were up against the patriarchy.
This does not mean that men are not chauvinists in India or that women are not discriminated against in India. Even while we have celebrated Mother Divine we have treated women badly. There are historic reasons for this (Veena Oldenburg’s Dowry Murder is a great start to understand how the status of women in India decreased during British Times.) That historical study is useful in that it can help us craft better solutions to problems, not as an excuse for doing nothing. But when we DO something we must come up with and user our own models for understanding our society and how it works.
Some Western studies show, for instance, that pornography does not lead to increased sexual crimes. This may be true for a law-governed society where crime is largely managed by fear of law. However that may or may not hold for dharma society. We need to study it. In our own models sanskara and vichara are both very important. As we think, so we do. The development and training of good habits of the mind, sanskara, help in the cultivation of good conduct, vyavhara.
This is not about superficial ideas whether women should be ‘allowed’ to wear mini-skirts or Western clothes or not (allowed by whom?). They should be able to wear what they wish. We do not want to turn to burkha solutions. In fact, traditional Indian society was far freer with the human body and with sexuality. Heck, the sari with the waist showing is still more revealing than a T-shirt over jeans and, and many Indian men would happily attest, far more sexy. The Indian solution was neither to put women into burkhas or put ‘the fear of god’ into men but to culture the mind, to make it samskrit, so it could be disciplined. When the mind is disciplined, it does not need to put others into burkhas. That is the path to freedom, for ourselves, and for others. Yoga Chitta Vritti Nirodah is the first line of the yoga sutras. Yoga is (self) control over the tendencies of the mind.
The highest forms of our civilisation were aimed at taking us to this higher mind. It was true of our dance, our music, our art, and our architecture. It was true of our food and our systems of medicine. It was true of our entertainment, of our kirtans, bhajans and epics. This had space for both artha, pursuit of material well-being and kama, the pursuit of aesthetic pleasure, sensuous and sexy, rich and poetic. It worked when done in accordance with dharma and never completely losing sight of the aim of moksha, or true freedom.
But when kama becomes a coarse and gross titillation; when it is manipulated in advertising towards the pursuit of artha, the mind is not moved towards the higher. We import a low-grade consumerism where sultry models sell cheap gadgets and expensive cars. We make it into some kind of ‘advanced’ high culture, while it is really the primitive culture of an unrefined mind. Porn is available at the click of a button but the cultivation of dharma has become an “unsecular” afterthought. At the same time we keep Victorian laws and are stuck to a Victorian morality that we call our traditions. We look up to a civilisation deeply conflicted about sin and sex and kept intact by the police force of law, without taking the time to study if it is an example worth emulating. Our media has turned into trash rags. Just pick up a recent issue of Times of India as an example. Here is a recent screenshot from Rediff, the top Indian news site.
“Sports” is about “Brazilian Prostitutes”, ironic when our Victorian morality makes prostitution illegal in India. And since when did it become sport? “Getting ahead” is about “Yummy Mummies”, sexualizing mothers. Then we have a photo of barely clad beach girl to “celebrate summer.”
The point is not the amount of flesh at display. Our temple dancers and sculptures had fewer coverings and greater voluptuousness. Remember, these figures were on and around our temples. The point is that we have lost the cultivation of the mind that made this openness possible in our culture.
These popular images—on billboards, in the media, in our item numbers, are no temple dance. They are simply the cheap thrills of a primitive mind. They do not help cultivate the mind but leave it agitated. Women are agitated with the unobtainable body image, all the better to sell artificial beauty aids to and men with the airbrushed unobtainable female. So instead of cultivating the mind, we have adopted cheap titillation of the mind with low quality impressions and think this is part of being “developed” and “advanced.”
Then we wonder why rapes are increasing. We are a society based on dharma, not law. Dharma rakshati rakshitaha. We repeat aped Western social science wisdom that rape has nothing to do with sex, but we have never scientifically verified this independently in an Indian setting. To top the hypocrisy, on the same few square inches of the Rediff website we have the pontification of the social scientist on how “women are being used to create ideas of Indian identity.” We do not see our contradictions.
The way forward is not about going back to some hypothetical golden age or denying that we have real problems to solve today. But our problems appear unsolvable because we have failed to understand ourselves in our own language, on our own terms. We can learn from the West. We can emulate aspects of their well-functioning systems of local government and law and marry it with dharma society to create a better world. Japan has dharma and well-functioning law, resulting in one of the lowest homicide rates in the world. But even to learn from others we must study them on our own terms. But how can we do that when our entire academic social disciplines exist on borrowed terms and borrowed theories?
We need to move forward using our own highest knowledge and combining it with the knowledge we choose to use from others. The first step of this research is in refining the chitta, our own mind, through the practices of sadhana and satsang. Without these our own tradition is incomprehensible to us, no matter how many texts we read. My own personal journey combined this sadhana with a study of the West since the shiny appearance of the success of Western civilisation had left us blinded. I travelled far and am learning every day. The more I travel the closer I find myself to home.
(Sankrant can be followed on twitter @sankrant)
This article is slightly edited from original published at NitiCentral.com