In my book, Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism, I have discussed how a constant striving for balance and equilibrium between the forces of “chaos” and “order” (rather than the complete annihilation of chaos) permeates Indian philosophy, art, cuisine, music and erotica, distinguishes Indian culture from its Western counterpart and avoids the absolutism of Western sacred literature that views the two poles locked in a zero-sum battle in which only order may triumph. This perpetual reordering, fundamental to Indian culture and religion, has privileged dynamism and creativity, and yielded the diversity evident in Indian life and cultural artifacts.
The difference in attitudes toward order and chaos is one of the chief differences discussed at length in the said book. It is worth considering why the Indian religious imagination so unequivocally embraced the notion of diversity and multiplicity while others have not to a similar extent. Since all civilizations have tried to answer such existential questions as who we are, why we are here, what the nature of the Divine and the cosmos are etc., why are some Indian answers so markedly different from the Abrahamic ones?
Sri Aurobindo offers us a clue. In Dharmic traditions, unity is grounded in a sense of the Integral One, and there can be immense multiplicity without fear of “collapse into disintegration and chaos”. He suggests that the “forest” with the “richness and luxuriance of its vegetation” is both an inspiration and metaphor for India’s spiritual outlook. A quick look at world cultures and civilizations reveals how profoundly the geography and the human response to it affected those cultures. So it may well be that the physical features and characteristics of the subcontinent, once lush with tropical forests, also contributed to its deepest spiritual values (in contrast to those that were born, as the Abrahamic religions are, in the milieu of the desert).
The forest has always been a symbol of beneficence in India – a refuge from the heat, and abundant enough to support a life of contemplation without the worries of survival when worldly ties had to be severed for the pursuit of spiritual goals. (The penultimate stage of life advocated for individuals in Dharma traditions is called “vanaprastha” or “the forest stage of life”). Forests support thousands of species that survive interdependently and contain complex life and biology that changes and grows organically. Forest creatures are adaptive; they mutate and fuse into new forms easily. The forest loves to play host; newer life forms migrate to it and are rehabilitated as natives. Forests are ever evolving, their dance never final or complete.
Indian thought, analogously, favors plurality, adaptation, interdependence and evolution. Diversity is natural, normal and desirable, an expression in fact of God’s immanence. Just as there are virtually unlimited species and processes in the forest, so there are infinite ways of Dharmic practice including communicating with God. The plethora of scriptures, rituals, deities, festivals and traditions are not seen as “chaos” but harmoniously interwoven, reconfiguring themselves quite organically as time and place dictate. Life-giving forests and nature are not intended for man’s “dominion” (as they are in the Abrahamic religions) but are part of the same cosmic family as man. Sri Aurobindo emphasizes this natural predisposition to pluralism in the Indian mind where “the Infinite must always present itself in an endless variety of aspects” and contrasts this to the religious mindset of the West which has privileged the “idea of a single religion for all mankind […], one set of dogmas, one cult, one system of ceremonies, one array of prohibitions and injunctions, one ecclesiastical ordinance”.
In Being Different, I posit that just as forests may have inspired and shaped Dharmic thinking, so too have deserts, the dominant landscape of the Middle-East where the Abrahamic faiths arose, left their imprint on the ethos of those faiths. Deserts can be hostile places and are not places to easily dwell in permanently, or to marvel at the diversity of life. The vast emptiness and unique beauty of a desert does instill awe and humility, but also fear. Deserts generally connote starkness, a paucity of life, harsh environs and danger. The desert has fewer types of life and less multiplicity in general. Desert dwellers look to overcome their harsh circumstances by turning to a God above. The Abrahamic religious ethos is built on this sense of awe and fear. Nature is not supportive but profoundly threatening – an enemy to be tamed, civilized and controlled. The divine is less a nurturing mother than an austere and oftentimes angry father. The desert, like its climate, seems to lend itself to extremes of religious experience. God rescues man by offering strict and immutable do’s and don’ts – the Ten Commandments. For their obedience, He confers grace and mercy on men but expects the deepest repentance and atonement. Those who disobey get punished in draconian ways, and there is only one life in which to prove oneself with no second chance through reincarnation.
Geography however, is only one contributor to the differences between Indian and Western thought. Refer my article no. 4 Dharma Bypasses ‘History-Centrism’ wherein I have discussed how attitudes toward history further differentiate India from the West.
Published with permission from Shri Rajiv Malhotra
Author Rajiv Malhotra Born in 1950, Rajiv Malhotra is an Indian American researcher, writer, speaker and public intellectual on current affairs as they relate to civilizations, cross-cultural encounters, religion and science. He studied physics at St. Stephens College in Delhi and went for post-graduate studies in physics and then computer science to the USA.
Rajiv served in multiple careers, including: software development executive, Fortune 100 senior corporate executive, strategic consultant, and successful entrepreneur in the information technology and media industries. At the peak of his career when he owned 20 companies in several countries, he took early retirement at age 44 to pursue philanthropy, research and public service. He established Infinity Foundation for this purpose in 1994.
Rajiv has conducted original research in a variety of fields and has influenced many other thinkers in India and the West. He has disrupted the mainstream thought process among academic and non-academic intellectuals alike, by providing fresh provocative positions on Dharma and on India. Some of the focal points of his work are: Interpretation of Dharma for the current times; comparative religion, globalization, and India’s contributions to the world.
He has authored hundreds of articles, provided strategic guidance to numerous organizations and has over 300 video lectures available online. To best understand Rajiv’s thoughts and contributions, his books are a good resource. Besides Invading the Sacred, in which Rajiv is the main protagonist, he has authored the following game changing books:
Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism
Breaking India: Western Interventions in Dravidian and Dalit Faultlines; and
Indra’s Net: Defending Hinduism’s Philosophical Unity
The Battle for Sanskrit: Is Sanskrit Political or Sacred, Oppressive or Liberating, Dead or Alive?
Academic Hinduphobia: A Critique of Wendy Doniger’s Erotic School of Indology
Currently, Rajiv Malhotra is the full-time founder-director of Infinity Foundation in Princeton, NJ. He also serves as Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Center for Indic Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, and is adviser to various organizations.
Infinity Foundation has given more than 400 grants for research, education and community work. It has provided strategic grants to major universities in support of pioneering programs including: visiting professorships in Indic studies at Harvard University, Yoga and Hindi classes at Rutgers University, research and teaching of nondualistic philosophies at University of Hawaii, Global Renaissance Institute and a Center for Buddhist studies at Columbia University, a program in religion and science at University of California, endowment for the Center for Advanced Study of India at University of Pennsylvania, lectures at the Center for Consciousness Studies at University of Arizona.
Rajiv Malhotra inspired the idea of Swadeshi Indology Conference. The first ever Swadeshi Indology Conference was held at IIT, Chennai from July 6 to July 8, 2016. This conference hosted well-researched papers that highlighted the discrepancies and mistranslations in the studies of Indology done by Prof. Sheldon Pollock. This conference is the first of a series of conferences that have been planned to address multiple issues raised by Western Indologists requiring astute examination, analyses and rejoinders, culminating in a published volume with a selection of papers.
Another major initiative of the Infinity Foundation is the HIST series. The HIST (History of Indian Science and Technology) series is a compilation of multi-Volume History of Indian Science and Technology based only on solid academic scholarship, and not on wild extrapolations. To accomplish this, each volume was subjected to rigorous peer reviews. The following volumes have already been published and printed as part of this IF project:
- Marvels of Indian Iron Through the Ages
- Indian Zinc Technology in Global Perspective
- Water Management and Hydraulic Engineering in India
- History of Metals in Eastern India and Bangladesh
- Harappan Architecture and Civil Engineering
- Beginning of Agriculture and Domestication in India
- History of Iron Technology in India
- Indian Beads History and Technology
- Himalayan Traditional Architecture
- Animal Husbandry and Allied Technologies in Ancient India
- Harappan Technology and Its Legacy
- Reflection on The History of Indian Science and Technology
- Chalcolithic South Asia: Aspects of Crafts and Technologies
- Traditional Water Management
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