Saturday, April 7, 2012

Understanding History: 4. The Future of the Past

Earlier sections of this series have dealt with the claims of colonial Europe to have a unique historical sensibility and the acceptance of that by Indian historians who have generally dismissed their own strong national historiography. This concluding section looks at why a globalizing world must reconstruct its past and how the Indian experience could be a model.

In two landmark essays on Indian history in 1912 and 1923 Rabindranath Tagore contrasted India’s peaceable diversity with homogenous Europe where “entire populations indulge in orgies of wholesale destruction unparalleled in ferocity in the history of the barbarian.”

When faced “with non-Western races in a close contact” Europeans never knew “any other solution of the problem but extermination or expulsion.”

Tagore noted that the Ramayana and the Mahabharata had recorded India’s achievement but beyond pointing to the interplay of the conservative (Brahmin) and dynamic (Kshatriya) elements within the caste system, he did not analyze how exactly India had melded its thousands of tribes into peaceful coexistence. To my knowledge, no one else has done so either.

In part the achievement was conceptual. The idea of a Universal Soul (Paramatma) provided a unifying umbrella for a wide variety of tribal beliefs and established with each of them a mutually legitimizing relationship.

On that shared spiritual foundation the Upanishad (discussion) tradition erected a structure of belief modeled on the easily observed seasonal cycles of Nature. It postulated the immortality of individual souls, all passing through many cycles of life and death in their evolution towards self-awareness and ultimately, the full enlightenment of merger with the Universal Soul.

As the individual's long passage to enlightenment occurred within the matrix of universal law (Dharma) and the moral causality of action (Karma), it emphasized individual responsibility and modulated the collectivist passions of the tribe. That allowed diverse groups to maintain their autonomy of custom and ceremony while settling into functional interdependence. The result was the caste system, a loosely hierarchical order that was essentially obedient to function, although its propagandists claimed it was divinely ordained.

A second aspect of the Indian achievement was the inspired story-telling of its two great Epics. They not only incorporated the complex teachings of the Upanishads into gripping and hugely popular stories, they spun all tribal beliefs into narratives reinforcing a core set of values.

Reworked into local storytelling traditions over many generations the Ramayana and Mahabharata shaped the common denominators of a culture that made India a nation unlike any known to the fiercely tribal nations of Europe.

The British in their efforts to maintain an always tenuous hold on India did much to subvert and poison the relations between its many groups. The caste system was a particular object of malign policy because it seemed to be the bulwark of the country’s resistance to religious conversion and manipulation. In that context it is interesting to note early 19th Century British assessments of the caste system.

Monstuart Elphinstone, who spent many years in the country, described the caste system as without rigor in his 1841 History of India. “The Brahmins claim that they alone now have preserved their lineage in its purity. The Rajputs, however, claim to be pure Kshatriyas. In the main, the Brahmin rules of life have been greatly relaxed. The castes below the Kshatriyas have now become extremely mixed and extremely numerous; a servile caste no longer exists. A man who loses caste is excluded both from all the privileges of citizenship and all the amenities of private life. As a rule, however, the recovery of caste by expiation is an easy matter.”

By the end of the century British writers were presenting the system as irretrievably rigid, ruled by iron custom set in place by the Brahmin caste to maintain its own superiority.
There was indeed an increase in the rigidity of the caste system in the 19th Century, but it had little to do with Brahmins: it was almost entirely the result of the first census of India (1871), which not only enumerated castes but presented them in hierarchical order.

The muddled British understanding of a complex and fluid system caused a great outcry across India but the damage could not be undone. Caste relations were embittered and subsequent British manipulations made things steadily worse. Thenceforth Indian reformers had to take in hand not only the many oppressive corruptions that had fractured caste relations over the millennia they had to wage a constant ideological battle with a Missionary-Bureaucratic combine seeking to divide and rule.

This background is important as we seek to move a swiftly globalizing world beyond the “clash of civilizations” model within which analysts working in the European tradition have conceptualized it. By further emphasizing the tribalism of religious faiths – the opposite of what traditional India achieved – they have made it virtually impossible to build a peaceful world.

In seeking to remedy this situation we must keep in mind the striking differences between the impacts of European and Indian historiography:

1. European historiography has bred unceasing war by accentuating the particularities of competing groups; far from modulating conflict the commonalities of religion have been a potent cause of violent intra-European intolerance and conflict.

2. The Indian approach to history shaped an overall understanding of the human condition that tamped down tribal hostilities and allowed widely diverse groups to coexist in peaceful interdependence.

In a world where hundreds of millions of people deride spiritual faith as delusion and billions frame their religious beliefs with missionary intolerance it will not be easy to construct a modern historiography based on the Indian model. However, the “sitting together” tradition of the Upanishads does offer a way to deal with existing differences.

It could probably be most effectively revived under the umbrella of UNESCO’s World History program. To begin with, a series of structured international discussions could bring into a common frame the different perceptions of the universe as metaphysical and our knowledge of it as phenomena; that is to say, the spiritual and the scientific.

Shorn of its usual shrill juvenile aspects, such a discussion would make clear that there is no fundamental conflict between the two approaches.

Science itself distinguishes between the particle and wave natures of phenomena (the province of chemistry and physics respectively).

Science now also takes it to be axiomatic that neither matter (particle) nor energy (wave) can be destroyed; they can only be converted into the other. This supports the concept of an indestructible soul. The existence of the genetic code further supports the idea of a unique and transmissible individuality.

Scientific acceptance of a "Big Bang" that initiated the phenomenal world and the inability to postulate what went before that “singularity" closely parallel religious views of Creation.

The similarities of Indian Spirituality and Western Science are even more pronounced if we consider that both are based on the existence of universal laws (Dharma) and inescapable causality (Karma).

The great difference between the scientific and spiritual approaches now lies in the concept of divinity: do we live in an accidental or purposeful universe?

Rather than try to resolve that issue at the outset, the new global historiography could make it a key object of study.

Other key aspects of exploration would be the dynamic relationship of many diverse fields of human endeavor. At present historians put political and economic developments within a common frame of reference; we must also bring into an interactive picture a range of other dimensions represented by literature, art, science, mathematics, the use of technology and experience of the sacred.

In such a multifaceted context events and trends will take on entirely new meanings and suggest commonalities and inter-relationships that are now hidden. Tribal consciousness will blur as such understanding grows. (Of course, elite groups that benefit from social dissension will have to be countered.)

The Indian experience suggests also that a moral perspective will emerge from a study of history: some trends will appear beneficial, others demonic in impact. And beyond that duality there is a reality unaffected by either.

The end of the Mahabharata illustrates that reality beyond human definitions by having Yudhisthira ascend to Heaven, where he finds all the evil people he battled on earth; his brothers, the virtuous Pandavas, are in Hell. It turns out to be an illusion and that is the final teaching of the Mahabharata: both Good and Evil are part of Maya, the delusive fog that cloaks the changeless Universal essence. Dispassionate awareness of that reality is the foundation of wisdom.

We can experience a modern approximation of that realization by noting the net results of the terrible period of Western colonialism and industrial civilization.

The genocides of colonialism, the transatlantic slave trade, the intercontinental flows of indentured labor, the planting of settler colonies in the Americas and Africa, and the emergence of global economic and political systems, all have churned the human gene pool into an unprecedented unity.

The revolution in racial attitudes that Mahatma Gandhi initiated and Martin Luther King made global (ironically, with the color-blind help of the mass consumer market), has brought us to a world more unified in its humanity than ever before.

The poisonous nature of industrial society has focused our attention on humanity’s close and custodial relationship with Nature.

Pushed, pulled and prodded, the human species seems to have been prepared for a major evolutionary leap, a new age.

Sri Aurobindo, perhaps the greatest visionary India has produced, touched on the potential of such an age when he wrote of a “spiritual religion of humanity” as the hope of the future. He meant by that not “what is ordinarily called a universal religion, a system, a thing of creed and intellectual belief and dogma and outward rite,” but the growing realization that there is a secret Spirit, a divine Reality, in which we are all one” and “that humanity is its highest present vehicle on earth.”

That would imply that the “human race and human being are the means by which it will progressively reveal itself here … [and] a growing attempt to live out this knowledge … not merely a principle of cooperation but a deeper brotherhood, a real and an inner sense of unity and equality and a common life. There must be the realization by the individual that only in the life of his fellow men is his own life complete.”

I think that passage sets out the overall aim for a modern global historiography.

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