Fractal Mandala
The Fractal Maṇḍala, Part 1
The Fractal Maṇḍala is Indian civilizational consciousness: multi-level coherent. Here we draw from Indian macrohistory to evidence this.

Humanity’s route to ‘progress’ has been a faustian bargain. Every next level of organization, co-operation and productivity has mandated new choices, new sacrifices and new problems. In the Purāṇas, humans are listed alongside cattle, goats and horses as “domesticated animals,” implying that ancient Indians too perceived this bargain.

Every civilizational trajectory is different, but all deal with some common and fundamental problems. This is better understood when we realize that civilization is to the collective what consciousness is to the individual, and history is to civilization what memory is to consciousness. While our individual memories are different, and produce distinct felt-experiences, our consciousness works on a shared template and gives rise to common experiences. Similarly does history define a civilization’s character, but there are commonalities to the civilizational experience across space and time. All civilizations are fated to face the same problems, bottlenecks and existential dilemmas. What differentiates them is how they react to them.

These problems must be addressed for a civilization to progress or sustain itself. When viewed from this lens, we will find that there is a good case to consider that the Indian civilization is furthest ahead on ‘trajectory’, having already resolved problems that other civilizations continue to face and struggle with. For this very reason, the inherent and specific problems of the Indian civilization are for it to solve on its own. Civilizations like the West, which are behind us in trajectory, can give us no real solutions. This argument acknowledges that civilizational-India is today in an advanced state of decay, but makes the point that our reviving wisdom will come only from within, not without.

We should begin with a working definition of civilization, and understand what makes it different to culture, clan, tribe, country and/or family. Civilization is an aggregation of humanity with distinct features absent in lesser cultures- monumental architecture, writing, organized agriculture and industry, long-distance trade, a common unit of weights and measures. Not that lesser cultures cannot have one or more of these elements, but that the full combination compounds to a civilizational condition of existence. In some cases, a culture may turn into a civilization pending further discovery. Take the example of the Ochre-Coloured Pottery Culture (OCP) found in parts of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan. Though it is still called a culture, new findings lead us to believe that it was as fledged a civilization as its contemporary- the Harappan- and even that the two need not be considered mutually exclusive. On occasion we may find a singular artifact, like the monumental megalith of Gobekli Tepe in modern Turkey, but till we know more we have no way of identifying what ‘civilization’ it was a part of.

And yet this is but the external definition of civilization, or how it would be defined from outside. As a felt-experience, Yasuda Yoshinori provided a different definition of civilization. He asserted that a principle to identify civilization was a respect for and co-existence with nature-

Civilization begins to appear when a workable system for living, that is a proper relationship between man and nature, is established in accord with the features of a given region.

Viewed this way, it should not be too difficult to see how the capitalist-consumerist-materialistic-individualistic model of Western civilization is unsustainable, and does not possess a true workable system for living. If nothing else, Yoshinori’s definition reminds us that a civilization is not measured by its shiny objects, rising towers and fast modes of transport, but by how it has solved fundamental problems of co-existence with the rest of reality (or nature, in the local sense)- both for society and individual. We may create technical definitions like ‘negative externalities,’ ‘carbon-offset’ and even ‘sustainability.’ But these more represent desperate coping mechanisms than workable systems.

As its most fundamental unit, civilizational proto-trajectory begins at the individual. But given that our species is a social animal from the eras of primate ancestry, we can bypass the individual unit for a macro historic exercise. Understanding even the family unit this way, we arrive instead at the smallest treatable unit- the clan or tribe. This is an aggregation of families, united through common descent and consequently a shared ancestral memory. Inevitably, a shared ancestral memory implies a shared belief system, or worldview. It also includes a harmony of vocations- defined and complementary roles for different members of the tribe. From the POV(point of view) of civilizational trajectory, no fundamental problems arise for a single tribe, united by blood and ancestry. Leadership structures and hierarchies are relatively simple, and there isn’t much complexity or variation in vocations. The group size is small enough for conflicts to be transparently resolved, and competition is managed within a healthy intra-tribe ecosystem.

The problems begin when we deal not with one but at least two tribes.

What we have in this situation is two separate ancestry sets, and likely separate deities, values and vocations. Now fundamental questions arise- how are these two tribes to interact? What ought to be the power equation? Given their interaction they are now likely upon a common resource pool- how should it be shared? And to put it realistically- how are multiple tribes to interact in these circumstances?

1: The Fundamental Problem of Multiple Tribes

Viewed in very broad strokes, humanity’s solution to this problem has been ethnocide, slavery, and genocide (though the problem does not disappear). The history of homo sapiens begins not only with tribal genocide but the eradication of entire human species, so at the earliest layer we must concede to amorality and not hasten to judge. But clearly by ~2000 BC our species had figured out other solutions, workable enough to allow for grand civilizations to exist in India, Sumer and Egypt. If we are being honest, we only have guesswork to explain how these civilizations organized themselves, and we simplistically prop imperial monarchy as the route. The standard explanation is this- as humans began to grow crops, granaries were needed to store the surplus. In turn, armies were needed to protect these granaries. The armies would have to be paid and fed, and this was done by the king- the imperial authority.

The explanation skips past the important part. Why were armies needed to protect granaries? It alludes to the fundamental problem of multiple tribes- of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ in-groups and out-groups. Clearly, the mainstream model has this problem solved through imperialism, force and military. But is that the only solution?

Indian civilization acutely remembers the fundamental problem of multiple tribes, and in Paurāṇika tradition the memory is captured in twelve Deva – Asura wars. Beginning in the 1st manvantara with the belligerent Daitya brothers, Hiraṇyākṣa and Hiraṇyakaśipu, our early history is the story of amoral, bloody, visceral and gory battles between the many nomadic tribes of Mesolithic and proto-Neolithic India. We call them amoral because, at the earliest stages, there is no binary divide of good and evil between Daityas and Ādityas. On more than one occasion the Ādityas resort to underhanded means to gain the upper hand, and indeed in the association of Śukra with Daityas we may speculate that dhārmika order first arose among them- while the Ādityas remained amoral for a longer time. But we also remember novel, alternative solutions, so distant from today that they are parsed only as mythology.

An early example of this is the Samudra Manthana myth, and the larger story around Mahābali and his conflict with Mantradruma Indra. Given in genealogy as the son of Virocana and grandson of Prahlāda, Bali is born in the line of the Daitya greats- Hiraṇyakaśipu and Diti. Each of his named ancestors, sans the matriarch, died in previous wars or to avatāras of Mahāviṣṇu. Among the Ādityas, Śakra Indra gave way to Śatakratu who rivaled Prahlāda, and by Bali’s time the position was held by Mantradruma. Ancestry on both sides is rife with near-ceaseless conflict, not excluding a range of other named tribes- Dānavas, Gandharvas, Yakṣas, Kinnaras, Kiṃpuruṣas, Piśācas, Uragas, Siddhas, Caraṇas, Rākṣasas and more. Paurāṇika tales of the eras preceding Bali show a clear engagement of ancient Indians with the fundamental problem of multiple tribes- and no lasting or non-violent solutions.

Samudra Manthana shows an attempt to come up with a sustainable, working solution- a sharing of resources and ownership. It shows a stage in our civilizational past when the proto-Neolithic tribes, finally tiring of war, tried to sit down and work it out among themselves.

How can we say this? Even singular, literal examples such as Mantradruma taking Airāvata (domesticated elephant?) and Bali taking Ucchaiśravas (domesticated horse?) indicate an agreement of sharing (Aryan migration enthusiasts may note that Indra chose elephant, not horse). The conflicting tribes together negotiated halāhala, or proto-metallurgical ash and lava, and their disparate worldviews were reconciled by the ‘priests’ among them- Śukra and Bṛhaspati. This represents a unique, antique and continuing Indian ritual tradition. When there are two ways of doing things, the representatives among us talk it out and agree on the common way together- one that gives requisite accord to both ways. It is found even in modern Indian marriages, between any two people who hail from different regions. More fundamentally, in context of civilizational trajectories- the solution is not predicated on the eradication of one by the other, whether through genocide or through conversion. This is not to say that India bypassed the genocidal phase. Only that it eventually did look beyond, long back in our history.

Given the same vein, the final conflict over amṛta tells us that this attempt, though ancient and memorable, was neither lasting nor satisfactory. And this is the expected situation. Leveling-up on a civilizational trajectory isn’t a one-hit solution. There are false starts, broken attempts, lost opportunities and underlying it all- a macro historic critical path. How is organization and agreement to sustain itself in a world where communication takes months and years to spread? If at all an enforcing agency develops, how could it actually enforce itself in eras without efficient transport? How could cultural continuity even embed itself if record-keeping, writing and preservation were not yet extant, organized or patronized endeavours?

No doubt, these are problems that humans have grappled with across time and geography. It is rarely introspected upon that anatomically modern human beings are known to have walked this planet from at least 3,50,000 years ago. An ‘anatomically modern’ human being implies the same level of capability, complex thought and conscious reflection that any among us can muster today. However we may articulate fundamental questions about life, the universe and everything, we should realize that these questions have been articulated by homo sapiens for hundreds of thousands of years. If a homo sapien near 8000 BC could look at a round object and conceive the utility of a wheel, his/her ancestor in 250000 BC was no less capable of this realization. And these implications compound at the level of organization and large-scale co-operation, such that our conditioning to dismiss the notion of ‘kings’ and ‘rulers’ in the ancient eras is unfounded. The reality is indeed as Nicholas Kazanas put it:

There is nothing remarkable about a tribe of gatherers and hunters having a ‘monarch’ in 6000 or 60000 years BP. If there is a group of people, someone of necessity will be ‘first among equals’ and if his leadership proves good he is bound to pass into history/legend.

It bears consideration at this point that a myth like Samudra Manthana clearly speaks of a proto-Neolithic era, which asserts a continuity of civilizational wisdom in India not attested anywhere else on the planet. We need to break this point down to disassociate it from the appearance of chauvinism. Macro historically, the memory and experience of multiple tribes (conflicting interests) trying to negotiate a peaceful co-existence no doubt existed in all parts of this planet where homo sapiens have been extant. But by the year 2022 of Gregorian Common Era reckoning, our species has only the Indian tradition for any continuing memory on this matter. As a species, we can accept intellectually that ancient tribes realized that coexistence is the way forward. But in records, this handed-down wisdom has the most ancient continuity in India. So the point is never whether the final, great, totemic tribal leaders were literally named Mahābali and Mantradruma Indra. It is that even in a pre-Neolithic, or pre-‘civilized’ era, ancient Indians had realized that the solution to the fundamental problem of multiple tribes is assimilation and syncretic harmony, based on deeper and more common values.

In the modern world too we understand this problem, which is why we cherish ideas like ‘free speech’ and ‘secularism;’ or why a Shermer talks of the “moral arc.” The ancient, totemic and ancestral tribes may have disappeared, but humankind appears no lesser a tribal creature than its ancestors of millennia ago.

Now, all said and done, what if this harmony does not last? If it dies with Mantradruma or Bali? If the cultural continuity established between Śukra and Bṛhaspati disappears a few generations later? The fact is that it takes great leaders, great personalities and civilization movers- or cakravartins- to establish authority and legacy. And neither authority nor legacy can have existence without leadership. Modern laudations of democracy hide the deeper questions, for they pretend that the only thing of importance is that we choose our leaders (through a convoluted democratic process). Instead, beyond how we choose the leader(s), more important is how the leadership authority conducts itself. The Western civilization has understood this, even as it retains pride and possessiveness for its solution called democracy. This is why the great Western hero, Churchill, said that “democracy is the worst system there is. Except for all the others.” More fundamentally, this is why all modern democratic systems try to enshrine what they call “checks and balances.”

2: The Fundamental Problem of Leadership

Before we dive into the Indian trajectory on this fundamental problem, let us assess where the modern world stands. We have the Western solution of democracy, which argues that there is a way to select leadership that reflects what the citizenry wants. Further, the vesting of power and authority isn’t absolute. Thus, all democratic nations have some kind of separation of power and/or functions. But we live in a world where a democratically elected president of the USA was hounded for all the years of his presidency, and banned from the world’s foremost social platform while still in office. In this same world, the democratically elected prime minister of India can be accused of trying to overthrow democracy and bringing in fascism. This indicates that for all its gloss, democracy tends to exist in our minds only when we agree with its decisions.

A different solution is one being followed by China, or arguably manifest through Putin in Russia. This is one of absolutism, though democratic cultures prefer calling it dictatorship/tyranny/fascism. We examine the notion only for civilizational trajectory, so we leave judgemental nomenclatures aside. The fundamental difference between China and the West here is in their approach to civilizational leadership. In China there is no separation of powers, and no checks or balances. There is one authority, presenting itself as being in service to the cause of nation-state and civilization-state.

To find the positives accrued to China under its incumbent model, we must leave aside the incalculable human misery behind its imposition of the one-child policy. We would have to delay the consideration that is due to eradication of local traditions in service of national infrastructure. What this tells us is that the leadership/authority problem, from within, is about the balance between group-benefit and individual-autonomy. This part is important, for we need to assess even democracy through the same lens.

Think what you may about the economic implications of this, but fact is we now live in a world where the nation-state can invalidate a form of currency overnight- as did happen in 2016 with demonetization in India. We now live in a world where when to stay home, when to mask up, and how many booster shots to take is determined for us, in effect, by state authority. The point isn’t what we think about the effects/intent/impact of demonetisation. The point isn’t even whether we all ought to cooperate with each other on being safe and responsible during a pandemic.

The point is that we are at a critical flashpoint between group-benefit and individual-autonomy. Put more broadly, the entire financial-wealth system of modern civilization favors the benefit of power groups over the autonomy of individuals. This is why debt traps like credit cards can be portrayed as financial instruments, and sovereign wealth like Bitcoin can be defamed from 2009 to now. It is also why we are supposed to mask up while entering a restaurant, but once inside we wine and dine masks off, with reutilised cutlery, while masked up servers cater to us.

That digression done we return to the fundamental problem, which the digression lays bare- Who is in control? Who gets to decide? Who validates and invalidates? As is evidently clear by 2022, neither the Western nor the Chinese civilizations have a working solution to this. But now we may think of a new civilization, the latest entrant to the scene- Islam. What answer does Islam give to this problem? Put simply- a Higher Order. Remember again the macro historic lens. Our question isn’t whether Islam’s higher order is right or wrong. Our question is whether adherence to a “Higher Order” can solve all problems. In fact, Islam gives the answer- No. The higher order of Muhammad and Allah has not prevented a deep and violent schism between Shias and Sunnis. Further, in using Higher Order to solve this problem, Islam regresses on the previous problem of multiple tribes. In all the centuries of its existence, the religion of peace is yet to prove that it can coexist with other tribes when it is in control. In the Higher Order that Islam establishes to solve the fundamental problem of leadership, there is neither a place for any other “tribe,” nor any dimension of individual-autonomy.

Our examination of civilizational trajectory so far summarizes to this:

Modern homo sapiens, once they had eliminated all competing human species, were left to deal with competing tribes of same competence/ability/motivation. In broad, our history on this emerges violent and genocidal. But surely humans across the planet attempted peaceful solutions- ones that recognised both shared interests and differing paradigms. The Indian civilization contains vivid records of this.

But a deeper problem is of control and authority- for who is to enforce any and all agreements made in the previous stage? We have extant examples through the West, China and Islam. To the West the answer is democracy, and Indians too live under this solution. But anyone honestly observing trends in democratic countries can conclude that it is the system itself that’s failing- not the threat of “fascists” like Trump or Modi. China has a solution, yes- but it involves the death of individual autonomy- a faustian bargain so steep that our morality insists it cannot be imposed. The Islamic solution, when examined to detail, is no solution at all. On this problem, the Indian experience is now to be visited.

It is good to be reminded here that Paurāṇika tradition remembers Mahābali as a generous and benevolent king. In fact, his rival Mantradruma Indra contended with a general decay in Āditya culture (and a curse from ṛṣi Durvasa to boot). The preserved tradition of Indian civilization is trying to tell us something here. It tells of Bali’s ancestry, so we know of his distant patriarchal uncle, the brutish and destructive Hiraṇyākṣa. His own patriarch, Hiraṇyakaśipu, evidences the early schisms between conflicting belief systems- a fundamental problem we will get to. The death of his genealogical grandfather, legendary Prahlāda, in ordinary battle tells us something about the material manifestations of even Mahāviṣṇu’s beatitude. Bali may be born to a line of ‘rulers,’ but he is made to submit to a higher order of duty and responsibility.

His guru, Śukrācārya, teaches him to be benevolent and indiscriminate. He cannot be rapacious like Hiraṇyākṣa, nor bigoted like Hiraṇyakaśipu. Appropriately enough, he worships both Devī and Mahāviṣṇu, and conducts himself with generosity. This shows to us that by his era, a deeper consciousness had arisen on the ‘responsibilities’ of a ruler. Also crucial is the fact that Bali is informed in this by his guru, and one of Dharma’s most ancient known ṛṣis- Śukrācārya, a Bhārgava.

But of course, few among us would truly have a problem with dictatorship if it were benevolent, and further- if the son of the benevolent dictator were not a tyrant. Indian civilization remembers this problem. Some time after the era of Mahābali, still in the 6th manvantara, the ruler turns tyrannical- Veṇa. Complacent and arrogant, he bans the study of Vedas and rituals of all kinds (the reference to Vedas here is retroactive, and does not mean that the Ṛgveda existed then). He commands his subjects to pray only to him, and denies ancient tribes like the Ādityas the use of soma. In other words, he acts in contradiction to how a ruler ought to conduct himself. The distraught citizenry appeals to the ṛṣis to intervene, and under the latter’s leadership a rebellion foments. In the coup that follows, Veṇa is deposed and a boy named Pṛthu is established on the throne. The Purāṇas describe that Pṛthu is formed from Veṇa’s thigh, and list him as the latter’s son.

There is a memory of civilizational trajectory in this story.

For one, it reiterates that solving the first fundamental problem of multiple tribes is only the beginning of a journey. The second, a problem of leadership, even if solved momentarily needs to be rooted to something deeper if the solution is to be sustained. And so the replacement to the incumbent, Pṛthu, arrives to his position not through divine right or ordained birth. Two aspects are important here. For one, Pṛthu is fashioned from Veṇa’s thighs by the ṛṣis- indicating that he was selected by a group of elders. Second, the ṛṣis are moved to do this by the appeal of common people- indicating the salience of citizens’ will. This is why Pṛthu emerges from the thigh- the same part of Puruṣa’s body from which emerge the Vaiśyas. Veṇa is remembered by tradition as an example of the dangers to embedding leadership and/or power in one source. It tells us that even the supreme ruler must submit to a core duty, one enshrined not in the personality but the position. This is not the Western coalition between ‘priestly’ and ‘royal’ classes (or Church and King), and neither is it the Islamic derivation from a higher order/bloodline.

Yes, the ruling authority must submit to a higher order. But the order is one emergent from below, and thus placed as the ideal. At its focus is the society, the larger population, and their many needs. The Purāṇas tell us that before Pṛthu there was no organized agriculture, no large towns and no markets. This is to be expected, for the Neolithic trajectory begun by the Samudra Manthana needed further development. The ocean churning represents the emergence of animal domestication and proto-metallurgy, but Pṛthu’s era represents the arrival of true civilization- the kind seen at Mehrgarh, Bhirrana and Rakhigarhi by 6000 BC.

Also notable is the rare title afforded to Pṛthu, making him the first of that name- cakravartin. The Purāṇas, for all their chronologies of thousands of years, for all the genealogies they give from various Manus, and for all the kings and rulers listed of dozens of tribes, list only sixteen cakravartins- or civilization movers. This tells us that even as notions may form around how one ought to rule or lead, not all live up to the ideals. Veṇa was by no means the last ‘evil’ ruler in Indian memory, and in the 7th manvantara we are met with names such as Kārtavīrya- a ruthless conqueror who violated all rules of war and conquest.

When we look at modern democracy, we want to believe that we have found the perfect working solution. We think of the primitive eras of the past- when kings ordained divine rights to rule, and their sons inherited it from them. We think that those in the past were ruled against their will, exploited to the hilt, and possessed none of the fierce desire for autonomy that we of the modern era do. Now, one need not give too large a list of political dynasties in USA and India- the world’s largest democracies- to make the point on children inheriting the right to rule from their parents even today. In reality, our hyperfocus on the ‘process’ of selecting leadership has blinded us to the ‘qualities’ required of it. And on this count, we need look no further than an Indian hero par-excellence, a veritable maryādā puruṣottam. As culturally embedded as the Rāmāyaṇa is in our civilizational consciousness, it is but a small part of Rāma’s full tale. In fact it ends where the imperial journey begins- at Rāma’s coronation. It thus tells us little about the man that tradition remembers as a cakravartin.

Rāma’s imperial record comes to us from the Purāṇas, where at the end of long reign he advises Lakṣmaṇa on the qualities of a king. We may replace king with ‘democratically elected government’ here, but the requisite qualities hold salience nonetheless. Rāma advises-

A king should acquire wealth only by rightful means, develop it, guard it, and give it to the deserving.

He should possess humility in statesmanship, knowledge of the scriptures and control of his senses.

He must contain fortitude, dexterity, proficiency, reticence, energy, eloquence, generosity, endurance, amity, truthfulness, good conduct and self-control.

He must denounce lust, anger, greed, delight, pride and arrogance.

He should abstain from causing injury to living beings, be courteous in speech and show compassion to all.

A poor man in anger can kill the king, so a king must be doubly sure to keep the least privileged in his kingdom happy.

He should guard to his best ability the seven parts of a kingdom- king, ministry, territory, fortress, treasury, army and allies.

Ministers should be native to the country and at least a few spies should be from foreign lands.

The kingdom itself should have good crops and plenty of water, sacred sites, wildlife and water courses independent of rains.

The sermon runs long, listing not only the kinds of kingdoms but the kinds of allies, enemies, treaties and war. When to conduct what treaty, and when to conduct war. How to motivate an armed force, and when to negotiate peace with the enemy. And now we can bring in the great running thread through the entire civilizational journey so far.


It is the endeavor to conduct life and society in harmony with ṛta- the eternal order of reality. It is a naturalist civilization’s character.

It is the means, formulated over countless generations, to navigate the absurd life. To deal with the fundamental problems faced by individual and collective- both. And thus when the ocean was churned, when the ancient tribes attempted truce under the spiritual preceptorship of Śukra and Bṛhaspati, what they finally churned out was Dharma. It was the means to prevent mṛta, or the unbecoming/crumbling of ṛta. They called it a-mṛta.

Through amṛta they learnt to share. To co-exist. To assimilate each other’s cultural practices and find deeper synthesis. They learnt how to conduct themselves- whether as a ruler, a teacher, a tradesman or a workman. They had embarked upon a dhārmika path. But these were still the tribal times, and the focus was on the collective. The jana, not the jīva. Not yet at least. But jīvas deviating from the jana dharma highlighted the problem- dharma needs to be maintained, and in the sense of collective-security and well-being it even needs to be imposed. So it is doubly problematic if those charged with doing this stray themselves.

But if the dharma-vṛkṣa is strong, if the leaves and branches are well-rooted, then it is jīvas who bring us back to dharma. We call them cakravartins and avatāras. Through them we learnt that dharma needs to be embodied in the jīva too. By the time of Rāma, he- the rājā himself- would expound on rāja dharma- the code to appraise him against.

Thus develops a mesh network of ideas, synthesized over many millennia, layers built atop layers into a fractal maṇḍala, and decentralized among the collective.
It is called Dharma. It is the Bhāratīya Ethos. But more problems await the civilizational trajectory.

In the next and concluding piece we will examine three more fundamental problems, and the Indian engagement with them.

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Amritanshu Pandey

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Amrit writes on history, civilization and design. He has come to understand Bhārata as a civilisational consciousness with multi-level coherence, and his work is to uncover the tale of this emergence.

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