Over the past decade or so, a nativist segment – “Right” is such a misnomer – of society has gained a greater voice. The internet has certainly played an instrumental role but with the power of social media to network and promote, views that were considered fringe only in the beginning of this decade are appearing in different guises in mainstream media outlets.
What are these views? Though providing a complete list is a pointless exercise, they, primarily, address the centrality of Hinduism and its experiences to life on the subcontinent. Gone is the inferiority that was once associated with knowing the puranas, and shoddy, acontextual interpretations of dharma do not pass without challenge and refutation. Also questioned is the whitewashing of Islamic atrocities and the nobility of the British civilising mission over the centuries. This new crowd-sourced history has also rediscovered some of the scientific and artistic achievements of ancient India up until the end of the first millennium.
No doubt, the zeal of many of these writers has, on occasion, has resulted in an unduly strong emphasis on certain aspects of their critique of the Marxian normative of Indian history, philosophy, and culture. Yet the same works have also thrown down the gauntlet on even deeper epistemological issues. The roots and underlying assumptions of religion, the Enlightenment, secularism, liberalism, and modernity have been interrogated for their suitability to the Indian condition.
While these are all laudable achievements, particularly so because they have mainly occurred in the public space rather than some secluded corner of the ivory tower, there can be no renaissance of Dharmic India without a demonstration of contemporary relevance. Additionally, a short critique is at best a shot across the bow and cannot stand in permanently for painstaking research. It is this lacuna that must be resolved next.
For example, it has been said that modernity speaks with a Western – Anglo-Saxon – accent. While few would contest that hypothesis anymore, it is not clear if critics of the Western experience have any other model to offer. Our interpretation of society, even priorities, may be imperfect but what improvement has been offered? Without an alternative, this exercise will echo much of modern Western philosophy – analytically powerful yet not prescriptive.
It is not sufficient to regurgitate the prescriptions of the ancients for much has changed in the intervening years, not just technology but also our standards of morality. Aristotle’s democracy, for example, may have been the best wisdom of Classical Greece but simply does not hold in an era in which the city-state – where people had personal ties to each other – has expanded dramatically into the nation-state – where the impersonal bureaucracy has replaced your neighbour; nor do we retain the same sanguine view of slavery. Similarly, a few well-chosen shlokas may lend a false air of gravitas but does little by way of a practical roadmap.
To take up a relatively simple example, politics: the Arthashastra has been lauded as the premier manual for princes bar none. In it, Kautilya, the ancient political thinker, expounds on his theory of mandalas, or concentric circles of enemies and allies surrounding one’s own state. Yet how applicable is this in the era of intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons? Earlier, the mandalas assured rulers of physical distance from allies of enemies; today, depending upon the power to project force, that separation no longer exists and this creates a different pattern of allies and enemies. Similarly, the advent of international organisations and a global community have made possible economic warfare via sanctions. Although this fits broadly under the precept of danda, it is still an evolution unimagined by the author of the Arthashastra.
To compel a genuine public discussion on the plethora of issues that are being challenged – philanthropy, temples, warfare, governance, economics, jurisprudence, education – sustained scholarship is required to present any dharmic opinion in a manner relatable to life today. This could be in the form of direct guidelines drawn from the corpus of heritage texts or it could be logically argued from fundamental dharmic principles. Whether it is genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, or copyrights, there are several aspects of 21st century life unknown to the ancients but which could still be informed by basic ethical precepts. To be entertained, of course, these ideas would have to take modern society as it is, not as it ought to be in some utopia.
There are several hurdles to this endeavour – manpower, cost, language, and most importantly, scope. It would be interesting to see how an Indic-inspired world view would handle empiricism and its corresponding entanglements with issues such as rights and identity. Even more intriguing would be to see how two different modes of interpreting the world would coexist. Would it unravel the illusion and fragment the world into further local expressions of being, or would the present system buckle under its own contradictions?
Regardless, this conversation cannot continue merely on the strength of repeated exertions that India has westernised to its own detriment. A practical alternative must be presented, which moves the debate forward. Even if these alternatives fail to ultimately persuade, they will at least inspire a healthy and much-needed debate about the nature of our society and spark off a re-examination of our core habits. They will also give voice to the alienated that we may forge healthier and more inclusive communities. To make a bold and tall statement, Hindus will have to offer the world a different modernity.