Terrestrial Science

Ocean clouds seen from space
Photographer: NASA | Source: Unsplash

Buddha before Theology

If you have read some of my other writing, you know that the Buddha fascinates me. I am not the first person to be so fascinated; after all, Buddhism was the first organized religion and until the mid-twentieth century, it was the world's largest religious tradition. That's almost two thousand years of spreading the Dharma in a mostly non-violent manner.

But it's not the Buddha as the Buddha who fascinates me as much as the Buddha as Siddhartha. The Buddha is the enlightened one who found the ANSWER. Siddhartha was the sensitive prince who left a comfortable life in search for answers. The Tathagatha worshipped by billions is cool, but not available in any creative sense. I mean, how can you draw inspiration from a semi-divinity? Like Jesus as Christ, it's possible to admire the son of god but it's harder to see how a human being could model her or his life on the one being who's both human and divine.

I am going to stick with the fully human pre-divinity instead. Looking at the afflictions of our age, I don't ask: what would the Buddha do. Instead, I ask: what would Siddhartha do? He was a clever guy, channeling the intellectual and spiritual currents of his time into a coherent view, and creating a social structure – the famous Sangha – that replicated his insights over generations.

Also, he wasn't a theist. He created a religion without belief in god. I got to say, the idea of a divine being separate from his creation doesn't appeal to me. In fact, the idea of a divine being doesn't appeal to me. Before we get all excited:

  1. That doesn't make me into an atheist. Atheism is structured around the refutation of the existence of divine beings, while I find divinity irrelevant to questions of religion. Strange, right?
  2. I am not an agnostic either, for an agnostic either ignores the question of divinity or is undecided about its merits.

What's left?

We can't stop asking ultimate questions, but we don't have to invoke a deity (or demolish one) in order to answer them. Isn't that what the Buddha did, charting a middle way between agreement and denial? If Siddhartha were to be born today, he would reject the pursuit of theology in both its religious and its scientific versions.

For much of the last two thousand years, theology was considered to be the first science, for the study of the divine being precedes the study of all his creations.

That was then.

Theology had a good run, first as religion and then its science (see below) but it has reached a creative dead end.

Why so? Read on….

Theological Science

All human societies are knowledge societies and our modern society is no different, but you have to be careful about how you count knowledge. Here's a common philosophical definition:

Knowledge is justified true belief.

Some beliefs are more justifiable than others. Open any science 1o1 book and it will tell you that the earth rotating around the sun is justifiable true belief while the sun going around the earth is not, even if it might have been the status quo for centuries. The Copernican shift from geocentrism to heliocentrism is considered to be the defining mark of the scientific revolution, with science replacing religion as the definitive source of knowledge.

I have a slightly different take: instead of marking the division between science and religion, the Copernican shift marks the division between Theological science and Theological religion.

Q: Isn't theology associated with religion by default? A: Yes, but I am playing with words, so humor me.

I am using 'theology' in a metaphysical manner, as a way of knowing ultimate and absolute truths. In this scheme, theological religion hypothesizes the divine as the ultimate basis of reality; theological science hypothesizes natural principles as the ultimate basis of reality. In other words, theology places itself at the roots of the tree of knowledge – god in religion, fundamental principles in science – and says everything else is an outgrowth of what's at the bottom.

But there are trees and there are trees. What if the tree of knowledge is a Banyan tree?

In contrast, there's everyday religion where a community might worship local deities and spirits without attributing any ultimate significance to those deities and spirits. Similarly, in everyday science I might investigate the medicinal value of a local herb without attributing ultimate significance to that herb.

Historically, Euclid's Elements is the archetype of theological science, since it develops geometry from a few self-evident principles. Never mind that one of those principles turns out to be not-so-evident, leading to the explosion of non-Euclidean geometries, and a theological style of writing that was copied by Newton in his Principia, Spinoza in his Ethics and even leaves its traces in the American Declaration of Independence which starts with "We hold these truths to be self-evident," about as Euclidean a framing as one might imagine.

Aside for another occasion: What is self-evidence?

In the modern era, physics is the theological science par excellence and the Copernican revolution followed by Kepler, Galileo and Newton firmly established the science of mechanics as the theological science of ultimate reality – the physicist's dream being the complete "theory of everything" that explains all natural phenomena as being the outcome of a few physical principles.

Lake Tekapo in New Zealand is one of the best places on Earth to see the night sky. Boy where we in for a surprise, with no clouds and sub-zero temperatures, the milky way just seemed to pop like I have never seen it before.
Photographer: Graham Holtshausen | Source: Unsplash

Theological religion is a faded carpet. Yes, there still are people writing books about the divine nature of reality but to a substantial extent, theological religion has lost its hold upon our sense of the ultimate. Especially among the elites who have always dominated theological activity, whether in science or in religion.

I wouldn't weep too much – theological religion had a long run; several thousand years in several civilizations. Not too shabby. What happened with religion is now happening with science. In my view, theological science is entering a period of terminal decline. Some signs of why the dark ages are imminent:

  • if the physicists arrive at a string-theoretic theory of everything the quest will end – no more work left to be done.
  • if the current debacle of "fundamental physics" continues the field will lose interest and funding.

Meanwhile, a terrestrial science is emerging as an alternate articulation of our deepest knowledge needs. Its conception of knowledge isn't justified true belief.

Brown and green fields
Photographer: elizabeth lies | Source: Unsplash

Terrestrial Science

Very few of us practice theological science or theological religion. They have always been a specialized fields of expertise. If you take theological investigation as your model of knowledge seeking, you will condemn most human activity as being inferior, or in Rutherford's infamous words "all science is either physics or stamp collecting."

By way of comparison, almost everyone practices everyday science, seeking answers to questions that range from "how do I make money by playing the stock market" to "what do I need to do lower my plastic consumption." These are practical questions with practical answers that can make you rich one day and ruin your retirement the next.

Until recently, these practices of everyday science were local: the herb that cures fevers in my village isn't the same as the root that cures fevers in yours. What's happened over the last two hundred years is the integration of these local practices into a global system of knowledge that's the beginning of terrestrial science.

The process by which local knowledges have been integrated into a global system goes by many names, but I will use the most provocative: capitalism. That name may not cover every mechanism through which knowledge is integrated (what would you call Wikipedia for example?) but it covers the most important cases and illuminates the underlying means of knowledge production and accumulation.

Ever since the industrial revolution, there's been a continuing process of capitalist integration through which local knowledge practices are absorbed within the capitalist system so that local Indian strains of rice become globalized and one Chinese breed of banana becomes the de-facto fruit everywhere in the world. As Branko Milanovic says in his important new book "Capitalism Alone," we now have a universal system of knowledge driven production with the only variations between liberal capitalist models of which the US is the most important exemplar and authoritarian capitalist models of which China is the most important exemplar.

Unlike the theological tree of knowledge that aims to be a pine, the capitalist tree of knowledge is a banyan tree, taking root in multiple places and bringing them into the orbit of the tree as a whole. No wonder, many people think capitalism is the ultimate answer to the questions of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. State socialism certainly appears to be less efficient than market capitalism in providing those benefits. Of the various problems with state socialism, let me point out one: the Soviet Union was an exceptionally inefficient emitter of carbon, with its emissions per capita of GDP much greater than those of the US. The same pattern is replicated in China since state enterprises don't have the same incentive to be efficient as private enterprises.


I am reluctant to nominate capitalist modernity as the end of history. We make a mistake in thinking state socialism or socialism of any sort is the real challenger to capitalism as the most important system of terrestrial knowledge. The real challenge comes from ecology, not from economy. To give just one example: the mania for growth built into capitalism isn't compatible with the steady state nature of ecological systems as a whole.

The conflict between economy and ecology is a symptom of a bigger problem: capitalism is an anthropocentric discipline at its core. It's only concerned with human life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. However, humans aren't a divine abstraction unconcerned with the other beings on this planet – we are entangled with all of them.

Capitalism is fast approaching its Copernican moment: just as theological science replaced theological religion by rejecting geocentrism, I believe that a true terrestrial science will start with replacing anthropocentric capital with something else. For example, consider the rushing development of Artificial Intelligence (AI), which is likely to be one of the dominant forms of knowledge production in the near to middle term: what's the current "Holy Grail" of AI? It's Artificial General Intelligence, or AGI, i.e., a robot that's intelligent in the ways we are.

Isn't that anthropocentric? Why is intelligence synonymous with certain kinds of human cleverness?

This child was delighted when a butterfly landed in her hands.
Photographer: David Clode | Source: Unsplash

Instead, let's also note that AI might help us inhabit the minds of other creatures way better than we have been able to so far. In the famous Turing test, the Computer Science and AI pioneer Alan Turing imagined a world in which we won't be able to differentiate humans from computers if we only had access to their behaviors.

Instead, imagine a world in which we won't be able to tell the difference between a monarch butterfly and an artificial butterfly based on their behaviors. Even better, imagine a world in which monarch butterflies aren't able to tell the difference between other monarch butterflies and a robotic butterfly.

Popular Buddhism spread through stories as much as high minded philosophical doctrines. The Jatakas recount the previous lives of the Buddha. It's amazing how often that prior birth is as an animal; the literature of that time was keenly aware how human beings are deeply entangled with other creatures. What would a modern day Jataka look like? How can we travel in and out of the minds of other creatures? This strikes me as a pre-eminent problem for terrestrial science.

Of course, emulating the minds of other creatures will be one of many future challenges. Much more effort will be spent on ensuring the viability of the various ecologies that currently support life on earth and are increasingly under threat because of climate change and general ecological collapse. Also, the Turing test is too low a bar. We are easily convinced by seemingly trivial displays of intelligence. There's no reason why monarch butterflies are better than us: perhaps they too will be easily fooled into treating a robot as a conspecific, a fellow butterfly.

Those problems lie in the future – for now, let's just acknowledge that we need to imagine a new terrestrial science that embraces all the beings on this planet and launch a million speculations on what it's like to go beyond the human world.


Settled Unsettling

Leave taking

I have always wondered why the Buddha left his wife and child and went into the forest. The usual explanations are pretty patriarchal aren’t they, e.g.,
– that he was escaping from the bonds that tie us to this earthly life.
– Attachment brings suffering. etc.

Here’s how that story is told: A sensitive young man is brought up in the lap of luxury. He is the favored child of his father, who doesn’t want him to be exposed to the cruel ways of reality. A new father, he goes for a ride with his charioteer, and is exposed to disease, deprivation and death. What does he do? He goes back home, takes leave of his sleeping wife and child and heads off to the forest, to meditate and to end the cycle of suffering. Six hard years of practice and asceticism later, he becomes the Buddha, the Tathagatha, the Enlightened one.

Something does not compute.

Why would a sensitive man, a royal to boot, flee upon seeing disease and deprivation? Why not stay and work for the welfare of his subjects? I know that his father was not a king but the tribal chief of a republic but still, Siddhartha had the mandate to change the world and not just study it.

Further, why did Siddhartha leave his family? No royal personage has ever had childcare responsibilities. When was the last time you saw the Dalai Lama changing diapers? How many religions have been founded by women leaving their families behind?

Tennis on the Outside

There’s also the possibility he never went into the forest. My mother wanted me to play tennis. I wanted to play cricket. So I used to wear my tennis uniform every evening, walk around the corner and take a long detour to the park where my friends were putting bat to ball. Tennis on the outside, cricket on the inside. Everyone was happy.

Perhaps the Buddha also switched cricket for tennis, and went to study theater at the Pataliputra School of Arts and came back six years later with a dramatically better ability to deliver his lines. Or perhaps he was struggling to write a PhD thesis on Postvedic studies. Six years is about the time it takes to get a doctorate and it’s easy enough to confuse passing one’s defense for Nirvana.

Settled Unsettling

We can’t really imagine what it’s like to escape civilization. Maybe there’s a place or two in the Amazon or the forests of Borneo where you can check out of Hotel California, but most of us can’t leave. Settler civilization is a world spanning enterprise.

In contrast, the Buddha’s world was still learning the ways of settler humanity. The forest started at the outskirts of the city, sometimes right in the middle. Which also means that alternatives to settlements were right there, requiring no more than an hour or two of walking.

We are taught the Buddhist path as a series of insights into the nature of reality: impermanence, dependent origination etc, but in human terms, the greatest achievement might have been the creation of the Sangha, the first major monastic tradition in the world.

What does it mean to create an institution around traveling monks?

It’s a strange combination. Large scale institution building is a settler thing; who else would agree upon the rules for coordinating actions of people who don’t see each other? But the early forest monks, including the Buddha, were unsettlers by definition. In combining the rule making of institutionalized life and the leave-taking of forest life, the Sangha created an interface between the settled world and the unsettled world, an existential Narasimha.

Zen takes that merger to the extreme – rigid discipline combined with koan practices of unsettling every belief. People create the most amazing things.

The sangha is an experiment in settled unsettling. But now that experiment has run its course. Capitalism, i.e., the supreme achievement of settler humanity, has absorbed all traditional forms of unsettling: creativity has become innovation, dhyan has become mindfulness.

The only real alternative to settler humanity in the last two hundred years has been politics and revolution, but even that dream is attached to the hip to the nation state, the second most important achievement of settler humanity.

How can we unsettle the state and the market? Which forest will teach us that trick?


The Form of the World

A glimpse in Korea
Photographer: Heather Lo | Source: Unsplash


India has a renewed government with a few new faces, the most unusual of whom is the new minister for external affairs, Subramanyam Jaishankar, a career diplomat who is now in the Cabinet Committee on Security, which instantly makes him one of the most powerful people in the country.

He’s known to be an incisive thinker, an important quality at a time when India faces many external challenges — from the vagaries of the Trump era to the rise of China to international negotiations on Climate Change. It’s a tough neighborhood that’s only going to get more complicated.

I was reading an article about the challenges the new MEA faces when I ran into:

China sees Modi as a decisive leader and supported him by throwing him two pre-election lifelines. First, a day before the commencement of the Second Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing on April 25–27, China removed the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir in the north and Arunachal Pradesh in the northeast of India from the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) map on its website. New Delhi has boycotted the forum since China launched the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which New Delhi says violates India’s territorial integrity.
Second, China reversed its decision to oppose the designation of Masood Azhar as a global sponsor of terror, which is an emotional issue for Indian voters. Azhar, the founder and leader of the Pakistani militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed, has been active mainly in the Pakistani-administered part of Jammu and Kashmir.

I am not a fan of the current Indian PM, or of Xi Jinping, but the Chinese “adjustments” reinforced my belief that the 2019 election was an international event. If you set aside specific governmental structures — multiparty (authoritarian?) democracy in India and single-party authoritarian rule in China, what I see is a return to the historical norm where the Eurasian landmass is governed by one of four civilizational configurations: China, India, the Middle East and Western Europe. If you add Russia as a distinct configuration different from Western Europe (being Orthodox rather than Catholic-Protestant) you get five.

Surely each configuration has its theory of statecraft; both the formal institutions that guide the configuration (constitutions, parties, elections etc) and the day to day intuitions through which decisions are made. Should we make a deal with the protestors on the street or send men in tanks to shoot them? History matters while making these choices. Of course, configurational influences are only one among many — the psychology of individual leaders matters, who they trust matter. The configurational culture is just one among many influences.

Whatever happens in one of these configurations impacts the others. Russia, China and India straddle the old and the new — they are civilizational configurations that also happen to be nation states. Western Europe was inching towards that goal for a while but recent events are working against increasing political unity. Like every other aspect of the networked era, size matters when it comes to geopolitics. It’s not clear that the nation state is a viable political unit in the long run, but to the extent it is, India, China and Russia have an advantage over the other two in that they have the political heft to resist the vagaries of globalization and climate change.

A configuration is a loose unity: its parts come and go. They are also porous — both historically and contemporaneously — and by marking these distinctions, we aren’t committing ourselves to a clash of civilizations thesis. Nevertheless, each configuration gives us access to distinct perspectives on the pursuit of life and liberation. I believe the keystone concepts of every configuration are of importance to the others. Equally importantly, every configuration can use its engagement with other configurations to develop and transform its keystone concepts. Kautilya would have learned a lot by reading Aristotle. Aristotle would have learned a lot by reading Kautilya.

We can learn a lot by reading both of them. Like Gandhi said:

I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the culture of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible.

He also ended that quote with

But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any

We will ignore that ending; it’s OK to be blown off our feet every once in while. But not at gun point and not for five hundred years. European domination saw certain keystone concepts such as democracy and capitalism spread across the world. Has the time come for keystone concepts and ideas from other configurations to travel the world? If so, which ones?

I am keeping my eye on two Indian concepts circumnavigating the earth:

  1. Dharma.
  2. Samsara.

Perhaps I should say: navigating the world once again, since both of them are central to Buddhadharma and have inspired poets, philosophers and yogis from India to Japan for a couple of thousand years. We can learn a lot from that era of globalization of Indian ideas when Buddhadharma was transformed in China and Japan.

Photographer: Ray Hennessy | Source: Unsplash

Beginner’s Mind

It’s a pity that Indians don’t know much about China. We keep looking west. I wasn’t exposed to Chinese ideas or literatures growing up: no Romance of the Three Kingdoms, no Dream of the Red Chamber, not even Journey to the West, despite it being a mythologized version of Xuanxang’s (Hiuen Tsang) trip to India way back when. I had a vague impression that Vikram Seth had translated Chinese poetry and that the beat poets were inspired by Zen, but that was the extent of my understanding.

I read Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind sometime in the mid nineties, a couple of years after I left India for graduate school. It blew my mind. Here was a book written in precise, modern language talking about ideas originating in my part of the world, ideas that I had imbibed as a child but didn’t know how to articulate as an adult. Suzuki Roshi taught me that Dharma has a way of transcending its spatial and temporal boundaries. Since then Zen has been replaced by Tibetan Buddhism in the march of Buddhadharma in the modern world. While I deeply appreciate Tsongkhapa, I like the beginner’s mind even more.

ZMBM also introduced me to an East Asian sensibility, the cultural watershed of Chinese civilization. That aesthetic has a long shadow from literature to painting to the design of the Mac. I am particularly attached to classical Chinese poetry. These lines of Tu Fu (in David Hinton’s flowing translation here):

So different from the images in classical Indian texts, spare rather than flowery, minimalist design a millennium before the Mac. Buddhadharma’s encounter with China birthed a subtle beauty. Makes me think it’s smart to use another tradition’s classics to clean my glasses than to wipe the dust on my own.

But you need a lineage worth reorganizing first. I am fortunate in having two. From my grandmother I inherited India, faith and stories. From my grandfather — numbers, bookkeeping and argument. They were both obsessed with form: the shape of things, sitting up straight and when to eat a ripe mango. More than enough material even after the dust is removed.

I believe philosophy is created in the street, in the hustle of ideas. Some of those ideas make their way into the tower where they are bottled and sold to the whole world. Makes money for some but boring for the rest of us. Indian philosophy has spent too many years in the tower. It needs to travel to China and America, not to Harvard and Tsinghua but the streets of Shanghai and San Francisco.

Photographer: Ismael Paramo | Source: Unsplash


Inherited words bite you young and recruit your brain into singing their tune. The womb precedes the street. I have a couple of those: Dharma is one, Samsara is another. More may be lying dormant, waiting for the right moment to capture a brain area.

Samsara is an interesting term. It’s simultaneously concrete and abstract. Concrete because it’s a word for the world around us, the world of heart breaks and passion and dew drops reflecting the morning sun. Abstract because the word comes packaged inside a theory that claims a cyclical pattern of existence trapping us for eternity.

Why was I born human in this lifetime? Now that I am here, what will make me thrive?

Those are some questions about Samsara people from my part of the world have asked over the years. They are natural questions; questions about our fate, about the human condition. You may not be interested in multiple lifetimes. Fine, stick with this one. Still: why the human birth? What makes the ape go nuts?

saguaro iii
Photographer: Karl Magnuson | Source: Unsplash

Which is why Samsara is eminently suited to replace the universe as the object of intellectual concern.

  • Why eminently suited? Because it is a collective term for all the beings who occupy a portion of our reality.
  • Why replace? Because the universe is the world seen through the eye of god, the view from nowhere. The universe belongs to no one. Samsara, on the other hand, is our world. It belongs to all of us.

Here’s this rather wild idea I have: why not study the form of the world, i.e., the contours of Samsara just as scientists have studied the forms of the universe, especially through mathematization?

It’s not an outlandish idea if I may say so myself. I can even think of a couple of reasons why it’s an idea worth exploring. . A line from the Heart Sutra ( Prajnaparamitahrdya Sutra in Sanskrit) says:

Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is form.

Let me offer a quick pointer as to why I find this phrase an important entry into the form of the world. Consider how “form” is used in two important modern knowledge systems:

  1. Form as in formal, as in the formal sciences such as logic and mathematics.
  2. Form as in information.

In both of these uses, form denotes a way of “capturing” the world, or what’s known as carving the world at its joints. In formalizing the world, we believe we have distilled its essence. That’s the dream behind the physicist’s “theory of everything” isn’t it, of a small set of laws that captures everything there is. It’s the human version of god, who doesn’t need laws because he can see the whole universe. We get the second best experience: as his chosen species, humans are allowed to grasp the code of creation.

But emptiness in the Buddhist usage of that term points to an entirely different insight: that there’s no possibility, even in principle, of capturing everything. It says that nothing exists on its own; it’s always dependent on something else. Combining emptiness and form leads to a radical claim: not only is it impossible to capture everything in a single law or set of laws, it’s in the very nature of form to be elusive.

Finding my roots
Photographer: Jeremy Bishop | Source: Unsplash

The formal sciences fail at the task of capturing the world not because they have reached their limits but because form resists capture at its core. And form eludes capture because the world eludes capture — the view from nowhere can never succeed. The Buddha used that argument to deny the existence of the self. We can use a variation of the same argument to undercut the foundations of the formal sciences and venturing further, to undercut the foundations of all science.

I find that interesting.

The first sign that forms might be empty is noticing how many there are. In Darwin’s famous words:

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Traditionally, biology is a science of form, of which there are many even as all organisms share a genetic code. Why are there are so many forms? What makes some thrive and others disappear? How does a form of life fit its circumstances? This is the question of Samsara in evolutionary disguise. As far as I know, there are two deep, scientifically grounded approaches to these questions:

  1. Statics. The approach favored by D’Arcy Thompson in his monumental “On Growth and Form.” Thompson’s approach is to explain the form of an organism (say, the shape of an Amoeba) as an equilibrium of forces that impinge upon the organism. The static theory is centered on matter and forces.
  2. Dynamics. This if of course the far more famous answer, the one initiated by Darwin in his Origin of Species. Darwin focuses on change, i.e., how does one type of organism arise from another? In the gene centric view, the theory of change is primarily one of information and how it’s transmitted.

So there you go: two theories of form, one privileging matter, the other privileging information. Can the two be combined? If so, how? That’s the question.

The architecture and interior design of Shanghai Baoye Center are both designed by LYCS Architecture. The interior design shares its architectural clue, which penetrates both its content and context, interweaves with its spatial logic. The inherent beauty of architecture is deliberately planted in its interior space as one of the most significant interior elements.
Photographer: LYCS Architecture | Source: Unsplash

Forms show up in the social sphere too, where they manifest as new institutional structures: startups, networks, companies, platforms and variations on those themes.

If anything, we underestimate the diversity of social forms, confusing labels for the underlying structure. Consider the all too common question: why do some companies thrive while others fail? Why did Microsoft beat IBM? Why did Google beat Microsoft? And so on. The assumption being that all companies have the same form, like teams playing a cricket match.

Is asking “Why did Microsoft beat IBM?” the same as asking “Why did CSK beat KKR?” Of course not. Sports teams are constrained to having the same form. We don’t have eleven member cricket teams playing twenty one member cricket teams. Companies aren’t like that; neither are organisms. They differ in size, shape and structure. Amazon is a company, Walmart is a company and Costco is a company but one is a platform while the other two are not.

What happens when two forms collide? Who wins? Is it possible for multiple forms of social organization to thrive simultaneously?

Wooden path to the beach
Photographer: Aleksandra Boguslawska | Source: Unsplash

The Road Ahead

That’s it for today’s tour of endless forms most beautiful. I am not interested in finding the one form that rules them all; much better to sketch the forms of the world and trace their connections with a light pencil.

Sorry if it meandered from one topic to another and even more sorry if it introduced abstract arguments without substantiating them. There’s a method behind the madness. Imagine phenomenology if it arose in Gaya instead of Gottingen and you are halfway there.

I wanted to give you sense for the landscape I am going to cover over the next few months — future essays won’t be as scattered. I also expect to add a podcast at some point.


Imagining Dharma

At the end of a vicious battle against the Kalingas, the Mauryan king Ashoka surveyed the carnage. Stricken with remorse as he surveyed the dead bodies strewn on the field, Ashoka dedicated himself to creating a just kingdom, a regime in which justice would be extended to all beings, human and non-human.

Chances are this story is apocryphal; that the extent of the violence was exaggerated in order to highlight the emperor’s subsequent transformation. It is likely that the promise of justice was greater than the actual achievement. Ashoka’s ideals didn’t survive through the centuries. India remains a country of prejudices and systematic inequality. That said, Ashoka’s actions give us hope. A wheel was set into motion. The framework he was drawing from remains powerful, a leap of the moral imagination that continues to inspire. That imagination revolves around a single term: dharma.

Why Dharma?

Teachings on Dharma- the order and harmony in nature and commensurately, actions that follow and uphold this universal order- abound in Indian thought and literature. The idea of a universal order tied to one’s conscience isn’t unique to Indian traditions; poets and philosophers have always speculated about the relationship between the inner world and the outer world. For example, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant once said “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within.” Still, few traditions have explored the connection as deeply and as thoroughly as the various Indian traditions and their cousins in the rest of Asia.

What’s the nature of that truth and how should we understand it today?

Perhaps the ancients captured a universal reality unchanging through time and space. If so, our quest has ended; our ancestors stumbled upon a remedy for all of the world’s problems. But we may not want to limit our imagination to the discoveries of the past, howsoever brilliant they might be. It is also entirely possible that today’s reality is very different from any that our ancestors might have imagined. Instead of following the Dharma by accepting the past’s hold on the future, we should reenact it and in doing so make it alive.

If the past is to inspire rather than restrict we should look at our history objectively; not just to uncover the facts, but to discern norms and values that have changed and are no longer acceptable. An uncritical adoption of our past and its lessons is at best simplistic and at its worst, dangerous. While classical texts can act as signposts, ultimately, we have to lean upon our own conscience as a guide to our modern predicament. Our goal is simple to state if staggeringly ambitious to achieve:

How do we bring an ethic of nonviolence and respect for all forms of life on this earth and weave it into our everyday being while making it a part of social policy?

In addressing this question, we have embarked upon a cosmopolitan re-imagination of Dharma, that which offers a liberating vision for all sentient beings. Dharmapolis is an exploration of our collective conscience.

The Dangers of Sectarianism

“Dharma” is a Sanskrit term; its use can easily be construed as tacit support for a particular religious tradition. While Latin terms have become secularized and are safely universalized across nations, Sanskrit terminology still inspires suspicion. We are conscious of that dilemma. While we are clear that dharma transcends specific cultural or religious boundaries, there’s no easy path towards universal values.

We are aware there is immense uneasiness with Hindu majoritarian values taking centerstage in India and we share that discomfort. Apart from the obvious social problems created by majoritarianism, there’s the increasing danger of irreversible harm to an entire intellectual tradition. By very association with a sectarian ideology, it stands to be dismissed by progressives. We worry about making Dharma too narrow, for example, by equating it with any particular religion. There’s a strand of contemporary Hindu discourse that simultaneously tries to construe the entire world as part of one family and to restrict full belonging only to certain people and practices. They aren’t willing to admit the existence of clearly anachronistic elements, including the treatment of lower castes and women. We find this contradiction difficult to sustain. We cannot be universal and partisan at the same time. There is no glorious, unblemished past; only the long history of India, with both good and bad and there are definite lessons in the past that can lend to a framework for our ethical and moral journey in today’s world.

Dharma itself risks this very fate. The pitfalls of letting sectarian elements appropriate Dharma and consequently all Dharmic thought and history are aplenty. Sadly, and almost signalling complicity, the intellectual left has all but agreed to this takeover by the right without a murmur otherwise. Dharmapolis is a direct response to this dilemma; we aren’t ready to surrender these terms to a fractious movement and the only way we know to tackle sectarian concerns is to show how these ideas can be truly liberating.

That said, we aren’t interested in taking a defensive posture vis-a-vis the past. We are happy to admit there there are no easy answers; In fact, we don’t take our role to be that of providing answers at all. Instead, we want to open a space for new questions, which is why we are focusing on the moral imagination rather than moral reality. It is through the exercise of the imagination that we can forge a new path. Our success lies in persuading you that the future of Dharma lies in its vision for the world that’s arising, rather than its evocation of a perfect past. Borrowing another term from ancient India but pleading separation from all religious connotations it holds, we are adopting a Middle Path that we call Dharmapolitanism.