The spectre of kula-jāti-varṇa (henceforth, KJV) looms large in the Indian discourse. This churn is both – expected and essential. Regardless of expression, it stems from a moral concern and the task ahead for all of us is to make this churn productive. One polarity in particular stands out. On one hand there is a tendency to frame the metaphysics of Hindu cosmology, eschatology and soteriology in exclusively socio-political or literalist terms. Even so, the near total absence of āśrama in the dialogue is conspicuous. This merits attention because any KJV analysis is incomplete and ineffective without the centrality of āśrama.
In this essay, we will parse this through a (seemingly) tangential angle of approach- Game Design. A game needs to respond to the gamer’s motivations and actions. Architecting enduring engagement is a central concern that occupies game designers and developers. Game development teams employ creativity in the service of achieving these goals. Interactive entertainment of the gaming kind is the most immersive experience because it puts the player in the driver’s seat and the game (seemingly) responds to the player’s actions.
Play becomes real through agency.
This is fundamentally different to any other experience, including watching a film where we passively receive and register the creator’s vision but without an input of our own (the feeling of our input is illusory, but it is very effective).
In the spirit of combinatorial creativity and multi-disciplinary thinking, we will draw some aspects to show the congruence in design principles between Dharma and Game Design. From this perspective of designing for collaboration and persistent engagement, we will see that the current debate on kula-jāti-varṇa will fail at aiding meaning-making and societal well-being without foregrounding āśrama.
You see, the neglect of āśrama points to the hijacking of our relationship with time.
A central concern of civilizational thought is the ‘set of ideas that could foster large scale collaboration of an incredibly diverse set of people, operating in the lap of nature, over a large period of time’. This synthesis of bio and socio-cultural diversity with time is Dharma – Dharma is complexity thinking (and being) for sustainable flourishing. This processing is built upon an underlayer of the meta.
The Layer Under the Layer
Macro-actions have micro-foundations. Regardless of who we are politically, socially, ideologically, most of us experience a similar, archetypical flow of life – childhood, adulthood, marital life, parenthood, onset of old age, old age, and ultimately the deathbed. Any philosophy concerned with righteous, meaningful living and social organization must tether to this reality even as it factors cognition, beingness, justice etc.
Our psychological motivations stem from experiences which we rationalize later – in hindsight is awareness and the contentment of being generated. In Dhārmika metaphysics, it is the idea of āśrama which provides a terrain map to navigate through the otherwise bizarre experience of life, saving us from anomie. We understand this even at the forefront of modern cognitive sciences – no study is considered complete (or responsibly conducted) without a sincere debriefing of the participants at closure.
This design finds parallel in the universe of simulation and virtual world creation- Game Design, where the concerns for mass collaboration, engagement sustainabilities and communal responsibility permeate. These are Dhārmika concerns, even if the framing draws from a different pool.
Designing for Engagement:
At their core, all games are a medium for demonstrating our personal skill, and the designer’s job is to give the player an ‘effort-reward’ loop that motivates a long term relationship with the game – towards ‘mastery’.
This leads to a ‘life-cycle’ engagement which is necessary to build a game business and an industry. The Dharma of the game designer is to balance player delight with the mechanics of the game business and industry. The game designer is the link between player and future players, via industry.Now think of the parallel to building a civilizational continuum via guru, family, guilds etc. – what we speak of is co-operating not just across space but also across time. It is how the humans of a ‘today’ can ‘play’ with the humans of a ‘tomorrow.’ Those even cursorily familiar with Hindu ontology can likely understand the concepts of karma and ṛṇa in a new light, with this framing.
‘Level-Design’ and ‘Level-Balancing’ i.e. designing progress through a game in increasing but smoothly curated set of challenges is one of the central and perhaps the most difficult aspects of any Game Design – the primary challenge for the designer is to curate a ‘mass-personal’ experience for a huge audience with extremely varying degrees of skill. It is not enough to get the buy-in of one, or of some. What is being pursued is the buy-in of all, of the Sanskrit सम् .
Good Game Designers (like good civilizational visionaries), obsess over drop-off rates – or entropy. They strive to create a ‘meta game’ linked to the second-to-second experience, but tuned to individual or cluster level skills and abilities – such that the decay and atrophies that inevitably accrue can be offset anew in each new iteration.This overarching metagame generates the multi-level coherence that holds everything together.
Designers build avenues for players of similar skill and ‘play-styles’ to connect and form guilds and tribes while creating solidarity on the final destination. Individual motivations can differ in the micro and aggregate over the macro, but it is in the meta that they find fulfilment proper. These bonds grow into communities, and they self-identify with that community with a lot of pride. The most successful games are those which have a combination of collaboration and competition. There is no fun without challenge, and no deliverance without company.
To seed and trigger these journeys, designers create game-play ‘rituals’ and ‘appointment mechanics’ (harvest a plant, pet a dog, decorate your house etc) to ensure a sustained connection. In games today, these design challenges are addressed by technology that facilitates ‘dynamic-difficulty’ management. Simply put, this is the ability to make the game ‘respond’ to your moves to keep that elasticity between effort and reward at an optimum level. This is achieved by ML/AI algorithms and clustering techniques. In other words, the server helps make the client (the game interface) adaptive by recording our preferences, moves and drop off patterns to ‘personalize’ the experience for us.
On closer observation, we can see some parallels to the fundamental human condition – as humans, we need a macro set of ideas that validate our micro actions and help us deal with our own fallibility and transience. This is the purpose served by metaphysics. Every single aspect of our life is governed and largely dictated by this invisible but all pervading noise.
This noise is the voice in our heads.
Āśrama – The Metagame Principle of Life
If you subscribe to the enlightenment metaphysics of the Self and think of single-life experience, maximizing pleasure via material consumption while adhering to ‘law’ for social order is a perfectly ‘reasonable’ choice. The challenge however is that this breaks away at higher orders of both individual and social life- you cannot play with either your ancestor or your descendant. And without intertemporality, yours is yet another mote at the altar of entropy. At an individual level, it does not help us deal with the inevitability of ageing and death, and at the social level it creates a culture of vanity, of objectivizing and anxiety. Of a social primate gone increasingly psychotic through unnatural solitudes.
In the game of life, we are simultaneously the designer (to an extent at least) and the player. We might therefore ask ourselves:
So, what is then a good ‘meta-game’ of life?
How do we design an effort-reward loop that can lead to lifecycle engagement for joy and fulfillment? What can be a terrain map, how do we evolve a dynamic, responsive client that is in cadence with the inevitable stages of life?
Yogic metaphysics gives us some answers. It maps the indriyās, buddhi, manas, rāga-dveṣas, aham, citta connection. We are creatures of our patterns – our saṃskāras. They determine to a large extent our actions. Contemporary western psychology has come to similar conclusions, albeit without a full grasp of ‘mind’ (therefore no praxis).
To borrow from Jonathan Haidt’s work, the subconscious mind is the elephant that the rational rider holds on to, rather precariously.
In their book, “Switch: How to change things when change is hard” the authors – Chip and Dan Heath – explain this analogy as follows:
“Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He is completely overmatched.”
We act based on our tendencies and then use logic to rationalize. If this is so and we are captive to our raga-dveṣas, how do we play the infinite game? Or rather WHY should we even play that – After all ‘sin’ is certainly more pleasurable and viscerally real.
Once we map the existential conundrum to this fundamental psychology, and validate it in our experience, we can perhaps have a different view of the varṇa-āśrama architecture and see the need for a meta-game like structure.
The varṇa part links directly to the saṃskāras but the grand question that our civilization has already answered is, ‘what might be a self-organizing, functional framework for the multitude with infinitely diverse proclivities and skills to have a shot at reaching their highest potential’
The Transcending Means
The answer goes directly through the concept of āśrama for puruṣārtha sādhanā – in the infinite game of life, the boss battle is the one we fight with ourselves. Āśrama is the meta-game that holds the second to second play carried out by our guṇas/samskāras and everything else that is aggregated as varṇa.
We posit that āśrama is a great starting point for anyone to be connected to the Hindu metaphysics. It ticks the most critical design principle of ‘relatability’. After all, the most intimate component of our experience is the process of ageing and the birth-death cycle. Even short of these polar milestones, our lives consist of a chain of “psychological milestones” where being reminisces and introspects on being. To gather information in the mind is to have knowledge, to distill and clarify it over the continuum of experience is wisdom. And what should this wisdom be preparing us for?
Puruṣārtha sādhanā becomes legible to us in an instant once we grasp āśrama.
It is the recognition of death that animates the process of life. It introduces a vitality into our actions. Similarly, when we grasp the idea of āśrama, the necessity to understand our own svabhāva becomes clear. It clarifies the set of relationships we need to build for our own fulfilment.
It is also an idea that is not tethered to birth. Regardless of which kula-jāti-varṇa one is born into, the goals and essential processes of life are same. We are all born with different qualia, into different conditions, with a psychological and physiological template common to all. In Hindu metaphysics, this is the understanding that each of us is born into our own set of circumstances, but the commonality of our being means that a universal set of design principles can inform our culture positively. And this universality in Dharma culminates at the level of āśrama. It is inadequate to have a conversation of kula-jāti-varṇa decoupled from āśrama.Āśrama provides us a sustainable way to deal with our condition by providing a meaning-making architecture to break our patterns. To move from the compulsive to the conscious,
Āśrama helps us understand the power and wisdom of ‘letting go’. Āśrama balances the inflow with the outflow, to contain the ariṣaḍvargas/ṣaḍripus at a system level. In doing so, it enables the sṛṣṭi-stithi synthesis (the dynamic play of creation and stability to decelerate laya i.e. destruction).
Without a philosophical anchor, creative power ends up making a Yayati out of us. Yayati – the infamous king who despite experiencing all pleasures of life, is unable to let go of his obsession with the pleasures of youth. He cruelly robs his son Puru off his youth, to continue his indulgences.
This story points to the dangers of compulsive behavior – the saṃskaras that are formed by excessive sensory indulgences affecting the ability to move gracefully from one stage of life to another.The lack of this compass is what David Foster Wallace was calling out in that seminal valedictory speech – he explains that the crisis in Liberal Arts education today is not about ‘how to think’ but about ‘what is worth thinking about’.
- It is the āśrama that tunes the consciousness of the creator to understand ‘what is appropriate creation and when is it appropriate to create’ –
- Like a game with an engaging metagame design that ties micro actions to larger coherence, the āśrama system performs two critical functions:
- It provides an intrinsic motivation and habit formation process of restraint for overall sustenance and meaning making.
- It creates a common goal for the multitude with different starting points, abilities, proclivities.
- It is also in the final āśrama of Sanyasa that all differences of varṇa-jāti are dissolved. Of all the kinds of arrogance humans are capable of and enthusiastically cultivate, spiritual arrogance is considered to be the most dangerous. It obstructs the final transition – most beautifully captured in our civilizational board game – Vaikuntapali. Spiritual arrogance is that last snake that pulls one down the most.
Our civilization understood all of these dangers – the myriad ways in which humans fall and fail. Therefore, the cultural wisdom of the land tells us ‘jāti na pūcho sādhu ki’. This indicates that all forms of organization are in the service of human evolution, factoring the bewildering diversity created by nature (for her own sake perhaps and not us tiny specks).
A good game design creates a smooth experience curve by leveraging technology towards an adaptive client. Similarly, the idea and practice of āśrama renders our motivations to be attuned to the natural phases of life. This is the recipe for a stress-free existence, the immunity against existential anxiety that manifests as the mental disorder epidemic today.
In conclusion, Hindu metaphysics is a full system and not an a la carte menu. Together, all of the ideas are all in the service of human well-being through planetary flourishing.
To focus on kula-jāti-varṇa (KJV) and have that discourse without an active reference to āśrama is akin to analyzing Kurukshetra without the idea of Sri Krishna. It is to look at the second to second game play without the grander idea of metagame.
We must strive to recognize the eternal principles even as we synthesize temporal realities.
At Bṛhat, our work on the design paradigm of Ṛta in Design is inspired by this grand philosophical and cultural inheritance.
Aham – Ego
Ariṣaḍ-vargas – Group of six enemies of humans, same as Ṣaḍripus
Āśrama – A holistic and sustainable system for engagement in and passage of human life
Buddhi – Intellect
Citta – “Consciousness”/”to perceive.” It is all that is perceived and all that can be perceived.
Dhārmika – Righteous, following dharma
Dveṣas – Aversions, intense dislikes or prejudices
Indriyās – Senses
Jāti – A group of things or humans who have common characteristics or vocations
Kula – A community, clan or tribe
Manas – Mind
Puruṣārtha- Human effort or exertion, human goals
Puru – King Puru was a Puranic king and the youngest son of king Yayati
Rāga – Attractions, intense likes or preferences
Saṃskāras – Mental impressions, recollections, or psychological imprints
Ṣaḍripus – The six enemies of humans; lust, anger, covetousness, love or affection, pride, envy
Sādhanā – Hindu religious training or discipline through which an individual attains concentration
Sādhu – A religious ascetic, mendicant or any holy person in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism who has renounced the worldly life
Svabhāva – Own-being / Character
Sṛṣṭi – Creation
Stithi – Stability
Varṇa – The classification based on guṇas or essential qualities. Socially, it translates to brāhmaṇa, kśatriya, vaiśya and śūdra
Vaikuntapali – A board game of Snakes & Ladders
Yayati – Yayati, is a Chandravamsha king in Hindu tradition (Father of Nahuṣa)