Posts for Tag: Indian Philosophy

The Globe and the Earth, part one

If you have been following some of my earlier posts (here, here and here in case you missed them), you know that I am somewhere between mad and apoplectic about what we humans are doing to the earth and its beings. There's a story behind this epic destruction: I call it the story of the globe and the earth. The globe is the world we inhabit in our cosmopolitan lives, the world of iphones and startups, human rights and fundamentalisms. The globe is centered around the human - even when it pays attention to the non-human (for example, when that dentist shot and killed Cedric the lion) it does so because we are commenting on the human. The earth is the planet that supports the globe: animals, trees, rocks and mountains. 

The earth is profoundly nonhuman. 

Isn't that old news: every biology and physics textbook will tell you the universe is profoundly non-human and humans have occupied this planet for a minuscule portion of its history. We are just one species on one planet in one galaxy. True, but that's pointing out the overwhelming non-humanity of the world of objects. The clash between the globe and the earth is more profound; it's about the profound non-humanity of the world of beings. 

And if you're like me, you agree that the problem isn't purely intellectual - it's existential, for it's clear to anyone who's paying attention that the globe is eating the earth: sometimes literally, when we consume one of the sixty four billion creatures - a vast number that's almost certainly a vast underestimate - that are slaughtered for our palates every year and sometimes metaphorically as we rush headlong into the climate crisis and more general ecological collapse. 

As I contemplated the global feast, I was struck by the thought that this feast is the primary form of dukkha on our blue planet. Way back when the prince of Kapilavastu was exposed to the realities of life and death, he left home to meditate in the forest for six years before he attained Nirvana and became the Buddha. Unlike the Buddha, we don't have a forest into which we can escape: the globe surrounds us on all sides. You need to be a bacterium to live as if the globe doesn't exist. 

If dukkha is the globe eating the earth, we need to update the Buddha's insights for our current condition, don't we? That thought struck me about a decade ago. I believed then and continue to believe now that the categories of Indian thought are the right categories to address the crisis on our hands. Maybe I should hedge it by saying "the right categories for me" but that would be an unbearable dilution. Let's keep it as stated: the globe's conquest of the earth is a challenge for Indian philosophy with consequences for everyone. 

I am equally sure that there's no forest path toward dukkha 2.0; we have to be lost before we can be found. I was reminded of the difficulties of importing our own history into our present during a lecture by a well known academic. I heard her (or was it him?) say "blah blah blah, Derrida dialectical blah blah." Which piqued my curiosity, for we were in Bangalore, not Paris. After digesting that statement for a few seconds, I piped up: "shouldn't you be looking at Nagarjuna as an alternative source of dialectical reasoning?" 

Maybe I didn't make that exact statement, but you know how academics talk. To her credit, the professor gave an honest answer; "I haven't read Nagarjuna," but before she could continue, a voice from the back of the lecture room said with great vehemence "why would anyone refer to Nagarjuna in this context - that would be ahistorical." I felt like saying: "You don't know me at all, but let me tell you something: I like history." The accusation of being ahistorical hurt. Especially because I didn't understand what the accuser meant. Nagarjuna was part of my history wasn't he? It turns out he wasn't. Not in the straightforward way we expect history to work, i.e., a direct line of communication between the past and the present. Time is more alien than space. 

Derrida lived and worked thousands of miles away from Bangalore, but in the twenty first century, he was one flight away. Things might have been the other way around two thousand years ago when Nagarjuna was composing his masterpiece, when a living tradition connected students to their long dead teachers while the palaces of Europe were too far away by bullock cart or horseback to exert any influence. The modern world has annihilated space, but time remains outside its reach. 

I wasn't thinking of space and time while I was seething under the public insult; I just wanted to show that Indian philosophy was relevant to our concerns today. It turns out to be a much much harder problem than I imagined a decade ago. A-historical or not, time is a real barrier, especially when the world has been transformed beyond recognition by forces originating from outside the Indian subcontinent.

Here's a question: do you know when Krishnadevaraya died? Don't worry, I have googled that for you: he died in 1530. Almost modern - a contemporary of Copernicus. Try as I might, I can't imagine myself living like the Vijayanagar king, while I am quite conscious of living in the shadow of Copernicus' legacy. Not only does the earth go around the sun, our modern consciousness revolves around the ideas of Europe.  

What can we do about it?

You could try rejecting the modern world altogether, or at least as much of it as possible. I think Gandhi attempted to do so, but if it was a hard task a hundred years ago, it's impossible now. Plus, it's not clear what that rejection means. History is objective; it changes who you are. Rejecting history isn't as difficult as desiring to be a quadruped instead of the bipedal creature that we are, but it's pretty damn hard. In fact the rejection of history only leads to fundamentalism, which is a particularly modern way of being. Denying our condition leads to pathologies, not a cure.

So thank you anonymous accuser for pointing out a problem I want to address: the problem of history. The problem arrives on our plate in several forms, but here's the version I want to chew on: how to lay claim to an Indian heritage without turning into a caricature? Second, how to lay claim to that heritage on behalf of all beings?

Frankly, I don't think there's any way out of our conundrum without a radical shift in our methods. The conflict between the globe and the earth has reached a fevered pitch. Incidentally, such conflicts are well documented in Indian myths. In another age filled with violence, the unhappy gods and their rivals churned the ocean in their quest for the nectar of immortality. We have to attempt our own version of oceanic meditation. Doing so will throw up all kinds of beasts and poisons, and if we are lucky, will also reveal the nectar of immortality. 

PS: By the way, we Indians have a relatively benign version of this problem. Consider another group of people who were also called Indians, i.e., the various Native American peoples. Their ranks have been decimated, their cities and cultures destroyed. How does a Native American recover their lost world?