Bṛhat

quest for harmony
Quest for Harmony
In our introductory essay, Pankaj Saxena tells us what the cultural imperative is, and the redemption it provides.

1- A Civilization of Imbalance

One of the most fundamental quests of human life is to be happy. One can debate on the meaning of the word ‘happiness’ but the quest itself remains indisputable. All human actions pivot around this central quest. While individuals want to be happy, institutions rush to fulfill this ‘need’. Almost all of contemporary relations between the individuals and the institutions can be seen through this relationship whether the institution is the State, the free market, or a religion. So the question to ask is: are we happy today?

The Faultline of Use-Values and Consumption of Commodities

There are two ways to assess happiness. One is the way of metrics, of numbers. One can count how much a person earns; what is the HDI of the city he lives in; how politically stable the country is; what is the status of the economy; the ease with which the public institutions work; the status of healthcare and education and various other metrics that constitute the surveys which measure ‘happiness’ and ‘standards of living’ today.

All of these markers illuminate the aspects of life which can be easily measured, recorded and analyzed in numbers. But it is hardly a secret that life is not limited to that which can be measured. Some of the most fundamental aspects which characterize human life defy all metrics.

These aspects of life are more experiential than metrical in nature. They tell us whether someone feels lonely and alienated or is happy in a web of relationships; whether he finds meaning in life or feels aimless; whether he feels in control of what happens around him or feels just a cog in a massive global machinery; whether he finds his life acutely imbalanced in the fulfillment of different kinds of needs and desires or whether he finds it in balance; whether he finds satisfaction in community and use-values or just in the consumption of commodities.

When one tries to assess this ‘second’ nature of aspects in human life in contemporary times, one finds a deep dichotomy of results and a divergent graph of happiness.

In things that are measurable, it is easy to chart a general and global increase in ‘standards of living’ where individuals find it easier to spend their daily lives. Seasons are easier to bear with all the modern equipment. Life is much less given to hard work with all the machines to assist. Communication and transportation is far more frequent and affordable. And there are more and more goods that are being consumed by an increasing number of individuals in almost all corners of earth.

Life reduced to just metrics, is singing a happy tune right now. There are innumerable books, research papers and studies charting this ‘happy journey of humanity’ in the ‘peace decades’ of the post war world, the era which boasts a continuous war on poverty and a war of rights in a world increasingly given to the twin engines of ‘progress’ and ‘development’. If man was just a machine, this tale would be sufficient enough to tell the human story. But this is not the case. Human beings are more than just units. There is another graph, another story which is far more important for the overall well-being of humanity.

This other graph charting happiness based on use-values and experiential quotients tells a very different story. Individuals find that there is a huge gap in the way the consumption of goods in their life is increasing on one hand and the way their overall happiness is increasing on the other. They find that while their income is increasing all the time, their life is becoming much harder than before in several aspects with the overall quality of life decreasing in so many cases. While the overall GDP increases, private incomes soar, the consumption of goods increases, the traditional structures like religion, family and marriage break down. Gaps created by the breakdown of the traditional order are unsuccessfully attempted to be filled by an increasing consumption of goods as per the needs that institutions assign to individuals. And it is all in vain.

According to Ivan Illich, modern civilization overwhelmingly stresses the production of commodities as the sole means of finding happiness. Commodities are of course necessary but so are use-values which are defined by Illich as duties and chores that humans do on their own, in their homes and communities with no involvement of the commodity market. The kind of ‘free’ services that the family, community and such natural institutions provide can be defined as use-values. Only a balance of commodities on one hand and the use-values on the other can create a harmonious and satisfied life. But we find that the modern civilization has gone into an overdrive of creating and consuming commodities. And after a limit, this has become counter-productive.

We must come to admit that only within limits can machines take the place of slaves; beyond these limits they lead to a new kind of serfdom.
TOOLS OF CONVIVIALITY 12

According to Illich this overwhelming stress on consumption of commodities has resulted in an oxymoronic civilization with disabling professions, impoverishing wealth, time-consuming acceleration, sick-making healthcare, stupefying education and disabling enrichment. All modern institutions suffer from deep iatrogenesis which means their net contribution to society is now negative. Illich says:

Cultures are programmes for activities, not for firms. Industrial society destroys this centre by polluting it with the measured output of corporations, public or private, degrading what people do or make on their own. As a consequence, societies have been transformed into huge zero-sum games, monolithic delivery systems in which every gain for one turns into a loss or burden for another, while true satisfaction is denied to both.
THE RIGHT TO USEFUL UNEMPLOYMENT 27

This imbalanced tradeoff of use-values for commodities is ubiquitous. What is the most curious aspect of this dichotomy is that it is not necessary to chart two different countries, societies or economies to see this faultline. It runs right through the modern individual. You will find that often it is the same individual who is doing quite well on the metrical chart and very bad on the experiential one. Metrically he is doing very well and emotionally very bad.

Dichotomy of Desires

Bearing all these dichotomies inside him, the modern man leads a Kafkaesque existence, unable to make sense of the world around him. The story of unlimited progress and development is sold to him and he is told that it can be verified by anyone. The methods of verification, however, metric in nature, are created by the same institutions which sold him the story in the first place. While technology becomes a handmaiden of politics, science too does not offer much respite for in absence of Nature-conducive culture, all it offers is objective knowledge of the world around man, but nothing about the workings of the internal cosmos, the cidākāśa. As Loren Eiseley, one of the greatest thinkers of our times says:

The western scientific achievement, great though it is, has not concerned itself enough with the creation of better human beings, nor with self-discipline. It has concentrated instead upon things, and assumed that the good life would follow. Therefore it hungers for infinity. Outward in that infinity lies the Garden the sixteenth-century voyagers did not find. We no longer call it the Garden. We are sophisticated men. We call it, vaguely, “progress”, because that word in itself implies the endless movement of pursuit. We have abandoned the past without realizing that without the past the pursued future has no meaning, that it leads, as Morris has anticipated, to the world of artless, dehumanized man.
Eiseley 130

This faultline, though most striking when it runs through the individual, is quite evident in various other spheres. The binary of Culture and Nature is also where this faultline is seen manifesting most tragically. While human culture as defined by the modern globalized world is making great progress in science, technology, and ‘standards of living’, Nature in total is suffering immensely.

As studies after studies proclaim great victory of prosperity over poverty; healthcare over diseases; abundance of food over hunger, we find that eco-systems collapse right, left, and centre. We are in the middle of the great ‘sixth extinction’ where habitats are being destroyed at an ever increasing rate, species go extinct in hordes every day, and climate changes for the worse visibly and palpably. While the human world has more ‘resources’, and more commodities to consume, the rest of the planet suffers. Mother Gaia groans in pain while one of her children is going on a merry-go-round albeit thinking they are hurtling through space in ‘progress’ and ‘development’.

This is not where the faultline stops manifesting. While most of the modern products and services are sold in the name of empowering individuals, we find that the individual is more and more at the mercy of monstrously huge institutions which are in charge of imputing and then fulfilling needs to individuals who are increasingly powerless to change the situation. At the same time these supra-national institutions and organizations run campaigns arguing for the dismantling of all traditional small-scale institutions like dharmic sects, family, local community etc. The argument is that these institutions prevent individuals from attaining freedom, while the truth is that with the disappearance of all the traditional intermediary institutions, the individual is more and more helpless and powerless against the supra-national and global institutions which make individual action against them almost meaningless.

For advanced industrial society, the modernization of poverty means that people are helpless to recognize evidence unless it has been certified by a professional – be he a television weather commentator or an educator; organic discomfort becomes intolerably threatening unless it has been medicalized into dependence on a therapist; neighbours and friends are lost unless vehicles bridge the separating distance (created by the vehicles in the first place). In short, most of the time we find ourselves out of touch with our world, out of sight of those for whom we work, out of tune with what we feel.
THE RIGHT TO USEFUL UNEMPLOYMENT 11

A huge battle of sorts is going on between material prosperity and emotional/ spiritual happiness; between institutions and individuals; and between culture and Nature.

The modern civilization which has resulted in such deep dichotomies and sharp fault lines is a civilization of imbalance more than anything else, where one aspect of the individual, social and global life is in heavy imbalance with the other. The Earth in total is in serious imbalance.

But was it always like this? And is there an alternative? Do we have answers in traditional cultures all around the world? Do we have a civilizational narrative of balance as opposed to the modern global imbalance

2- Two Paradigms

Culture was not always pitted against Nature as it is in today’s modern world. Nature-conducive cultures existed all over the world, but its most expansive expression was seen in Bhāratavarṣa dictated by the values of Sanātana Dharma.

Conflict Paradigm

Culture in various modern definitions is seen as a tool of man to mold Nature for his own needs. In this Man vs. Nature narrative, culture and technology are always pitted against the forces of Nature. It is a patently Judeo-Christian and Biblical narrative where the entire Earth and all its inhabitants are given in dominion by God to man for his personal use. According to this narrative, there is an eternal struggle between Culture and Nature. Culture is actually a tool of man to help win this battle and make a conquest of Nature. This paradigm of culture is better understood as the Nature-Culture Conflict Paradigm.

Continuum Paradigm

This is not how culture is understood in a dharmic society like Bhāratavarṣa. The word for culture is ‘saṃskṛti ’ संस्कृति, while the word for Nature is प्रकृति. saṃskṛti is the refinement and elevation of prakṛti. Culture is an elevation of Nature.

In the Judeo-Christian paradigm Nature is pitted against Culture in an eternal struggle. In Bhāratavarṣa, Culture goes in harmony with Nature and even improves on it, not by destroying it, but by observing its physical rules while spiritually transcending it. Dharma, the carrier of saṃskṛti, overseas the balance of Culture and Nature and keeps them in harmony and not conflict. This paradigm of culture can be called the Nature-Culture-Continuum Paradigm.

This paradigm is seen in various disciplines and dimensions. For example, while the language of the Vedas and the language of the cultural elite in India was Sanskrit, the language of common people was Prākṛta. The word Prākṛta simply means, ‘that which is natural’ and referred to the common language/s which came naturally to people. Saṃskṛta was the language of the gods, language of the ultimate knowledge, and language of high culture, and that is why it was called ‘Saṃskṛta’, which means ‘that language which has been refined and made perfect’.

In the West, classical languages, like Latin or Roman have always been in conflict with the vernacular languages, while in India, no such struggle has historically been witnessed.

Similarly, the vernacular culture is pitted against the national culture in the West, while in India, the mārgiya/ national culture does not oppose and in fact enriches and elevates the desīya/ folk culture. The same is true about the Loka and the Shāstra. While the scripture in the West has declared the folk literature as evil and base, in India, Saṃskṛta literature has enriched the folk literature and has been enriched by it in return.

By acknowledging the vernacular traditions, customs and languages, Sanātana Dharma made sure that Bhāratavarṣa would never generate universalizing theologies which were dehumanizing and destructive of native diversity and variety. On the other hand, they created one of the greatest mārgiya/ Saṃskṛta cultures which made sure that the vernacular cultures do not become anarchic and the spirit of Sanātana Dharma unites them all.

If one were to use just a single expression to explain the civilization of Sanātana Dharma and Bhāratavarṣa then it would be a civilization of balance, where Culture and Nature; individual and institutions; national and vernacular culture; Saṃskṛta and vernacular languages; material and spiritual progress are in balance. Dharma is the wheel of balance, where even the opposites find a harmonious co-existence.

This balance was achieved by paying equal attention to various aspects of life as seen in the vision of varṇāśrama dharma. Artha and Kāma, the pursuit of material prosperity and pleasure was not discouraged in Bhāratavarṣa at all. Instead they were two of the four pillars of a dhārmic life. But they were balanced with the goal of mokṣa and the path of dharma. A dynamic balance was created in which one aspect of life did not overwhelm the other. Culture in such a setting acted as a thermostat which kept human life in a perpetual dynamic equilibrium.

Breaking of the Second Order

In a nutshell, we can say that almost all modern problems that we discussed above exist because currently the Nature-Culture Conflict Paradigm reigns supreme, and is trying to completely obliterate cultures, societies and institutions which espouse and propagate Nature-Culture Continuum Paradigm.

We know that the natural order no longer binds man. The natural order was broken when man’s ancestor broke out of the food chain by discovering technology and becoming the apex predator. But there was something different about this new apex predator. All species in a food chain are limited by their natural environment, even the apex predator. The new technology that man discovered allowed him to thwart most natural rules. The natural order was the First Order, which man broke.

Initially there was much destruction of Nature, eco-systems and habitats. But gradually an arbitrary system rose in human society itself which re-instated the natural order by mimicking it in social laws and customs. This system in human society came to be called as Culture. Culture was stand-in nature, it was the scaffolding which patched up the gaps that had opened up by the breaking of the First Order. This Nature-conducive culture was the Second Order which created balance in society.

The tragedy of the contemporary world is that in the global society created after the post-industrial world man has broken both the orders of Nature and Culture. As Loren Eiseley says:

Man’s second rock of certitude, his cultural world, that had gotten him out of bed in the morning for many thousand years, that had taught him manners, how to love, and to see beauty, and how, when the time came, to die – this cultural world was now dissolving even as it grew. The roar of jet aircraft, the ugly ostentations of badly designed automobiles, the clatter of the supermarkets could not lend stability nor reality to the world we face.
EISELEY 129

This destructive paradigm is the Conflict Paradigm and under the garb of globalization it comes in conflict with all traditional orders and systems. Working through the institutions implanted on native cultures during colonial times, policy in most of the world today furthers the Conflict Paradigm, destroys Nature, dehumanizes man and destroys avenues of artistic redemption.

The Conflict Paradigm was germinated in the Judeo-Christian world; came to perfection in the creation of the modern post-Enlightenment West; exported to the entire world during the heyday of European colonialism; and universalized during the post-war era in the name of liberal democracy, globalized planet and the bill of individual human rights. The State, the market, and all the attendant institutions of global democracy collude in the continued imposition of the Conflict Paradigm over the rest of the world.

Culture Against Policy in Traditional Societies

In the case of countries like Bhāratavarṣa this conflict can be seen very sharply as most of its society and most of its individuals are still governed by traditions of Sanātana Dharma. Meanwhile all of its modern institutions including the State, the market, the media, the academia and the healthcare system are all governed by imported institutions which are part of the global West. There is a direct clash between Indic society and culture on one hand and all its modern institutions on the other. Its Culture is in deep dissonance with its Policy.

While the policies of the Indian State further the Conflict Paradigm, its Culture tries to scramble defense against it. But being excluded from power it is at a serious disadvantage, and continuously pushed to margins, it is eventually headed for complete dissolution if there is no course correction and the dissonance between India’s Culture and Policy isn’t solved.

Bhāratavarṣa undoubtedly had one of the most evolved cultures in the world but it was not the only one. Almost every region across the globe had an indigenous knowledge tradition which existed in harmony with Nature and guided the daily lives of its inhabitants. These knowledge traditions got destroyed one by one under the onslaught of universalizing theologies which first came in the wake of religious conquests, then European colonialism and finally as globalization. India apart from a handful of other cultures still boast of a living knowledge tradition, although it is heavily under attack from the universalizing global forces.

3- Art as a Redemptive Force of Culture

As discussed above, culture in India existed in harmony with Nature and did not seek to destroy it. Instead social laws imitated natural principles and individuals were exhorted to transcend the material limitations spiritually by walking the path of self-realization. What is important for us here is the fact that this spiritual quest for freedom from natural constraints was imitated by art in its own sphere. Art acted as a redemptive and elevating force in the life of man.

Coomaraswamy said that the fundamental quest of an Indian artist is not to just imitate Nature, but to improve upon it by imparting spiritual meaning to it by using artistic license. That is why the gods have many hands and feet. They display attributes and convey different bhāvas of the artist and the yogī. They are meant to educate and elevate the viewer to a higher plane of consciousness and not just imitate Nature.

The Artist and the Aesthete

Art in India is used to elevate the consciousness of the individual to a higher plane so he cultivates higher pleasures. By doing this, he makes his path towards self-realization easier and also makes his life in this samsāra more pleasant and full of aesthetic experience. In fact, the theory of aesthetics of Indian art was developed by keeping this goal in mind. As Harsha Dehejia says:

While the artist occupies an exalted position in the Indian tradition, the aesthete is charged with an equally heavy responsibility. Art in the Indian tradition is not merely ornamental or decorative, not just an idle pastime or sport, not as outpouring of a superficial state of mind; and the aesthete in turn was not a mere spectator or voyeur but one who was expected to apply himself seriously and deliberately in the enjoyment and understanding of art.
DEHEJIA 2

The aesthete is as important as the artist. Bhartṛharī maintains that meaning and beauty reside not in the text itself but in the act of reading. Applied on art, visual and otherwise, it means that it is the act of darṣana by the aesthete when the creation of beauty takes place. All pieces of art need an aesthete to appreciate them and that is why the moment in which meaning and beauty arises, the phenomenon which takes place inside the mind and heart of the aesthete is very important.

The job of the artist is to bind the formless into the form. The job of the aesthete is to decode the form and reach the formless. The whole circle is a meaning-making process. The goal of such an artistic exercise is nothing short of mokṣa or at least proceed on that pathway, as Shri Aurobindo said:

The whole basis of Indian artistic creation perfectly conscious and recognised in the canons, is directly spiritual and intuitive.
SHRI AUROBINDO 198

In this way, by making the aesthete as important as the artist, the Hindu tradition provided art as a means to transcend the limitations of daily life. Art not just provided a happy respite from the drudgery of daily life, but also elevated the aesthete or the enjoyer of art to a higher plane of consciousness, thereby enriching his life in more than one way.

Seeking Harmony, Balance and Creative Redemption – Bṛhat

At Bṛhat, we take inspiration from the Indian Knowledge Systems. By using art we aim to re-establish cultural wisdom in society and polity by influencing policy. And we aim to make a tradition of this by training thought leaders continuing this goal of Bṛhat.

Culture Creatives

Dharma becomes manifest to us in the form of tradition which takes tangible forms as customs and rituals. Customs are the language of dharma. Similarly culture talks in the language of symbols. And these symbols are conveyed through art and literature. While art encodes this wisdom, the act of decoding its meaning leads the aesthete, the onlooker, onto a cultural journey. Going on this journey he comes across various stories, epic and short, religious and folk.

These stories pack great cultural wisdom in small capsules of stories, idioms, phrases and aphorisms. This is how Indian Knowledge Systems filter down to every nook and corner of the society through the agency of cultural storytelling. It is the most powerful way of spreading cultural wisdom and making everyone fall in harmonious rhythm with Nature and with our own selves. And it does not involve any top-down method of orthodox imposition against ‘heretical practices’.

In an ideal setting this filtering down of culture would ensure the demand generation for a culture-conducive policy. But something has broken down in our contemporary times, which has disrupted this civilizational process. India like all other great civilizations was more of an oral culture. And it had deep implications. As opposed to the ‘People of the Book’ and their insistence on passing knowledge only through Scripture, an oral culture relied on oral and personal means of communicating culture and its wisdom as is described above. Through the agency of great kathā vāchakas, roaming bards and mendicants, the stories contained in the Vedas and scriptures would be taken to every part of the country. And then these stories were imbibed and embodied by members of the family who would transfer this encapsulated wisdom to the next to next generation in the humble and cozy setting of a home.

It is this process of cultural continuity which has broken down. Modern civilization is not conducive to an oral culture and often ignores it completely and in the process denies its very existence. Modern education, state, and market all favor written knowledge over oral culture. Modern living and housing makes it impossible for the old story tellers to reach everyone. The atomization of society and family means that the story-tellers at home, the grandfathers and grandmothers, are no longer there to pass on cultural wisdom to the generation of their grandchildren.

This is how the beautiful tradition withers. The link with the past disappears, the communication of cultural wisdom through story-telling breaks down and we arrive upon a society of atomized individuals at the mercy of global institutions and universalizing theologies.

This is why at Bṛhat, we aim to fill this lacunae by reviving the art of cultural story-telling adapted to contemporary needs through various media formats. We wish to harness the great redemptive power of art to tell stories about various nuances and subtle aspects of culture.

The infusion of this cultural wisdom in personal life will lead to psychological comfort and an ability to find solace in hardships and adversity. Culture so infused will be the cushion of the individual against the vagaries of life. At the level of society and state, this would result in a culture-conducive policy and consequently a Nature-conducive culture, once again establishing the Continuum Paradigm, resulting in sustainable living, personal well-being and ecological harmony.

Notes:

1. Eiseley, Loren. The Firmament of Time. Bison Books, 1999.
2. Dehejia, Harsha. The Advaita of Art. Motilal Banarsidas, 1996.
3. Sri Aurobindo. The Hour of God and Other Writings. Centenary Edition, Volume 17, Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library, 1971.
4. Illich, Ivan. Tools for Conviviality. Harper & Row, 1973.
5. Illich, Ivan. The Right to Useful Unemployment. Marion Boyars, 1996.
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Pankaj Saxena

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Co-founder and Director at Bṛhat, Pankaj is an author on Hindu temples, arts, literature, history and culture. His writing explains the beauty of Sanātana Dharma through stories about traditions, communities and culture. He has a deep interest in cultural anthropology, evolutionary biology and ecology, and has visited more than 1200 Hindu temples.

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