Western Consumerism and Global Challenges
We are living in very difficult times today and the future is quite bleak despite the best efforts of governments worldwide to sugarcoat the situation. Whether we accept it or not, our entire world is now driven by rampant western style consumerism and some of the major global problems that we are facing today are  :
- Unsustainable Living / Depletion of resource
- Healthcare, Food and water security
- Climate change and pollution
- Violence and terrorism
Rat race for money is now becoming the norm across the world. For example, if all 1.3billion Indians were to follow the wasteful American style of living, we would need more than 10 earths. But we don’t have ten earths, we just have one and we have to change ourselves to ensure a better future for the world as a whole. Clearly western style intervention and attempts at solving issues of poverty alleviation, hunger, water scarcity and education is not helping. I am not saying that such steps are useless, but the expected outcomes are not at all satisfactory. Instead the more undesirable obvious effects are:
- de-rooting of the target civilizations from their indigenous cultures
- westernization and consequent disregard for native sustainable traditions
- civil wars, genocides and separatism (the last one especially in India)
- ideological indoctrination through Western style English education
It is obvious we must give up unsustainable practices and move towards sustainable practices. There is lot of research going on in US and Europe on “Sustainable Studies”. But again the issue is the same. As long as we view the world from a consumerist lens, with a separation between resources and consumption, we will never attain a sustainable solution because ultimately “Sustainable studies” tries to find solutions within the consumerist framework. In case of India, we already have proven best-practices of sustainable living. Unfortunately, after 1500 years of alien rule, we are mentally colonized and have lost our civilizational moorings and do not see the answers staring at our faces. We need to tap into our civilizational assets, and use these universal principles of sustainability, which are already an inherent part of Hinduism, our dharma.
The very word dharma is derived from the root dhṛ, which mean “to uphold”, “to support” and “to sustain”. Anything which does not uphold the natural law, which does not support civilization and which does not sustain life is adharma. There is absolutely nothing wrong with making money or wealth, and it was always encouraged. From earliest times till 1600 CE, India’s contribution to world GDP was on an average above 20% .
Dharma along with artha (prosperity), kama (the proverbial good life) and moksha, the purusharthas, are all an integral part of our social milieu. However from an Indian point of view, western style unbridled consumerism, unending greed and unsustainable living, would be considered adharma. And whenever there is adharma, we must fight back. We must do a dharma-yuddha. It is high time that we wage a dharma-yuddha against unsustainable living stemming from western consumerism.
Only an Indic solution based on Dharmic sustainability, can therefore save the world from inevitable doom. I will try to address this from the following perspectives:
- Indian View of Logic, Mathematics and Science
- Indian View of Medicine and Health
- Indian View of Economics and Consumerism
- Indian View of Secularism
- Indian View of State
Indian View of Logic, Mathematics and Science
In binary systems, a proposition can be either true or false. Binary logic is the foundation of western knowledge system . Western Mathematics is built solely on this notion of binary logic. However Indian knowledge system naturally recognize a wide variety of logic systems:
- Binary logic with two values
- Chatushkoti of Buddhists with four values
- Syadavada of Jains with seven values
This type of multiplicity frees us from the shackles of strict binary logic and we can have many different kind of mathematics, each suited and customized for different kinds of cultures and civilizations. C.K. Raju’s paper “Teach religiously neutral mathematics” discusses this issue in details. 
Again as we all know, mathematics is a notoriously difficult subject for most children, and many children simply hate it. This is because the math that we are taught in schools is western in origin and derived from a way of thinking that is closely tied to Biblical theology and western experiences. Western math relies on eternal proofs – one has to memorize formulas and tables. There is no practical application of mathematics per se, and many people would be surprised to note that applied mathematics or engineering mathematics is a distinct subject in itself, and numerical in nature. So there is nothing wrong with the children who do not understand math, but rather with the subject itself on account of its religious and cultural baggage. The above mentioned paper as well as many of CK Raju’s works talk about this.
Indian arithmetic (ganita) on the other hand had always been algorithm-based. It was a step by step approach to solve practical problems. For example, a king would hire an astronomer and ask him to predict the monsoons more accurately based on observations. As MD Srinivas explains in his paper “The Algorithmic Approach of Indian Mathematics”:
The Indian mathematical texts are not just a collection of propositions or theorems about mathematical entities, they are more in the nature of compendia of systematic and efficient procedures for computation (with numbers, geometrical figures, algebraic symbols standing for a class of mathematical objects and so on) as applicable to diverse problems. 
Similar to ganita, the Indian approach to science has always been practice oriented, focusing on real life problems across diverse domains.
By adopting ganita instead of western mathematics, children in India would be freed from the tyranny of forced memorization of formulas and religious dogma being thrust upon them indirectly. They would gain direct and practical insights into actual application of arithmetic to real-life problems. Along with vocational training and practical science, this would give a fillip to the education system and help create better scientists, engineers and hands-on entrepreneurs.
Indian View of Medicine and Health
Today when someone mentions the term medicine, we automatically assume the western style of medical care or allopathy. Being colonized we refer to our indigenous traditions like Ayurveda and naturopathy as “alternative medicine” or as “pseudo-scientific”. Nobody doubts the advances and efficacy of western medical science, but the view that it is the only valid medical system is nothing but sheer arrogance and incidentally the product of a west based multi-billion dollar drug industry, which relies on molecules, clinical trial and patents. One of the consequences of this is the high prices of medicine, medical treatments and tests in most hospitals and clinics today.
The underlying philosophy of western medicine and Indian medicine are different. The west relies on a one-size fits all approach to medical care. As Dr H R Nagendra explains, traditionally in India we consume ginger (with tea) to prevent cold and cough ailments. That is the holistic approach, where the belief is that the ginger as an entirety and as a unit is helping us. The western approach is to take the ginger, extract a molecule, package the molecule in expensive drugs and market the drugs . After a few years, tests may reveal that the drug alone may have some side-effect, whereas consuming the ginger as a whole may avoid such side-effects.
Even the approach of Indian medical science is holistic as it targets all layers of human body. For example, VYASA, Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana near Bangalore, which is a very successful indigenous Indian medical center, offers treatment based on Indian medical philosophy / Ayurveda philosophy of multiple shariras (gross body to subtle body) :
Yoga and detoxification by Ayurveda and Naturopathy are offered to normal persons to move towards higher abilities at physical (beauty, fitness, immune stamina, eye sight), mental (better concentration, IQ, memory, emotional stability), social (healthy interpersonal relationship), emotional (mastery over anger, fear, anxiety and depression) and spiritual levels (inner joy with right knowledge and confidence). 
Today medical costs are a significant part of an average Indian’s household expenses. An Indian medical system would accept both allopathy as well as Ayurveda and promote holistic benefits, preventive measures and relatively inexpensive treatment. This will free people from the tyranny of big pharmaceutical giants and hospital chains who have come only to mint money and do not care about the quality of life of the patient.
Indian View of Economics and Consumerism
Consumerism is an ideology that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts in terms of economic policies, which emphasizes consumption as if there is no tomorrow. Consumerism is a product of globalization, which in turn is a product of Western world view, which has been in vogue for the past 200 years or so. Generally when we think of globalization and multinationals we think of something that is universal and something that transcends all borders and cultures. Young people salivate at the thought of a cushy job in an MNC, and consider themselves to be part of a globalized elite on entering the MNC workforce. Globalization is neither universal nor benign, and closely tied to Christian theology, and as R Vaidyanathan says:
“From the Church evolved the modern corporations which in the Post 2nd world war wanted to be “global” and institutions like IMF and World Bank were created to facilitate the process. These institutions reinforced the theory of one size fits all…. Ernst Kantorowicz, in his well-argued and celebrated essay The King’s Two Bodies: A study in Medieval Political Theology, analyses how the mystical body of Christ, which is central to Christian liturgy, acquired sociological meaning in the later middle Ages. The corpus mysticum became the organized body of Christian society and created, in due course, the greatest of artificial persons, namely, “the state.” Out of this modular structure or building block, Western capitalism emerged, along with other fictional entities such as the `Joint Stock Company’ and `public corporation’ (Princeton, 1957).” 
In today’s world, unbridled consumerism is a measure of success. Our education system and our corporate system in India, both of which are modeled on Western paradigms, measure everyone’s success based on the same parameter, money and carries a huge “religious baggage”. Dining in expensive restaurants, foreign travels, buying foreign branded clothes, going to snazzy malls, sipping expensive wines, acquiring expensive electronic gadgets and so on, is being portrayed as the normal thing to do. Flashing one’s wealth extravagantly is the fashionable thing to do. Hollywood movies, Bollywood movies, TV Serials, advertisements, lifestyle magazines, and newspaper articles all reinforce and glamorize these notion and stereotypes of a globalized MNC culture and “good life”.
The harmful result of such a lifestyle is obvious:
- Shrinking families, nuclear families and collapsing family values
- Unrealistic expectations and ambitions
- Increased depressions, midlife crises, mental disorders and suicides
- Health issues on account of unhealthy lifestyle
- People who are not able to succeed monetarily are dubbed “losers” and “failures”
- Financial hardships / ruin for people who take loans/ overspend in search of “good life”
The Indian way on the other hand is very flexible in that it does not use the same criteria to measure everybody, and the goals and duties of people are different. For example:
- A Brahmin is measured by his knowledge
- A Kshatriya is measured by his valor
- A Vaishya is measured by his business acumen
- A Shudra is measured by his skill
Historically most Brahmins were poor. At least most of the stories I have read start with “there was a poor Brahmin…” A poor Brahmin was not treated as a failure because money was not his aim; in fact the poorer he was, the nobler he was considered. He was measured based on his scholarship and his dedication towards the study and propagation of Vedas. A rich and uneducated Brahmin was considered a “loser” by the system. In the same vein, a learned but poor Vaishya would not be held in high esteem as a Vaishya unless he transitioned to a Brahmin role.
The point is that the Jaati-Varnashram system ensured that the goal-posts were different and each person was measured according to his nature and his stage in life. Consumption was thus tightly controlled and linked to morality and ethics. Another advantage of this system was that, there was a clear separation of knowledge (Brahmin-hood), power (Kshatriya-hood), wealth (Vaishya-hood) and skill (Shudra-hood). As long as the system was followed judiciously, no single person or group of people could become ultra-powerful and invincible, which is the starting point of greed, evil and corruption which is so rampant in both capitalism and communism.
Today unfortunately knowledge, power, wealth and skill are all bundled in the hands of a select few leaders, politicians, and companies. An Indian approach would therefore ensure:
- Delinking of globalization from businesses
- Separation of knowledge, power, wealth and skill
- Proper career development based on individualized goals
- Reduced consumerism and better lifestyles
- Stable society with lower levels of corruption
Indian View of Secularism
India may be a so-called secular republic, but most Indians do not seem to understand “secularism” which they often think of as a State not being religious. The common definition of secularism is the separation of the state and church.
Since we have inherited and copied western style democracy, we also felt the need to be “secular” in a western way. To understand secularism, we need to understand religion and the history of European “secularism” from which we inherited our “Indian secularism”.
First: In Christianity in Europe, as far as the Catholics were concerned, the Church played a very dominant role in the day to day life of people, and intervened in their lives. The Protestants who did not believe in a central Church rejected the interference of Church in state administration. This was how secularism began, when Protestants rejected the Roman Catholic Church interfering in European politics.  As is obvious, it has absolutely nothing to do with Indian society or polity, yet it was imported wholesale into India.
Second: A religion is a belief system which has three components:
- Belief in a Creator God who created the Universe at some point in time
- Belief in a historic Messenger or Prophet (like Jesus)
- A Holy Book where the Prophet’s conversations with/ instructions from God are recorded
This is the original definition of religion and in this sense Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism cannot be a religion, although later they were forcefully retrofitted into religion framework using useless terms like “polytheism”, “henotheism” and so on. We don’t have Creator Gods who will smite us if we don’t follow them, we don’t have Prophets who alone claim to be the spokesperson of God and we also do not have any compulsory so-called “Holy Book” that everyone must adhere to. However in this scheme of things, Christianity, Islam and Judaism are genuine religions, each having their own exclusive God, book and unique historical events with respect to their Prophets. Now a Christian does not accept Muhammad as a Prophet while a Muslim does not accept Jesus as a son of God. This kind of exclusivity of “Godhead” leads to all sorts of conflicts. Thus, in societies where exclusivist proselytizing Abrahamic cultures are predominant, secularism in the sense of “irreligiosity” and “mutual tolerance” becomes very important, and that’s how secularism later evolved in the western world.
India on the other hand has always been pluralistic, believing in “mutual respect” and hence does not require alien notions like secularism. Different dharmic denominations of Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains have co-existed peacefully and thrived for thousands of years. So did the Jews, Parsis and Syrian Christians. Even Christians and Muslims of today can be a part of this plural society as long as their allegiance lies with India (as opposed to Vatican, Texas or Mecca) and so long as they treat Hindus with “mutual respect” that we afford them.
Thus a Dharmic plural state, rather than a secular state will avoid all the pitfalls of vote-bank politics, minority appeasement in the name of secularism and so on, and provide Dharmic stability which will positively impact all aspect of our lives.
Indian View of State
India is a parliamentary democracy, a system we have borrowed from British. As Rajiv Malhotra explains, one of the biggest disadvantages of such a system (as opposed to say a Presidential system like US) is that it engenders fragmentation, vote bank politics, religious conflicts and corruption. . Over and above that we have imported wholesale, western political frameworks, ranging from absolute free-market capitalism (Right) on one end to complete socialism style governmental control on the other end of the spectrum (Left). Most people expect the government to provide different set of services like defense, infrastructure, education, and health-care and so on. And if experience of the last 70 years is a barometer of success, then the unfortunate conclusion is that government intervention has not really helped, or as some would say, the country has progressed despite government.
The Indian view of the state, which unfortunately we have stopped following, is extremely pragmatic. The Indian state has always been a “strong but limited state” as delineated in the Arthashastra, a model which is optimized for India’s diversity and aspirations. As Sanjeev Sanyal explains in his essay “At 60 – Rethinking the Indian State” :
“I am arguing that the Indian state must be “strong” and it must restore its monopoly over the use of force. This includes the urgent reform of the police, legal system and the administrative apparatus. This is far more important for the country’s economic and social future than spending on various government “development” schemes. As Arthashastra puts it, “Progress in this world depends on governance and on the maintenance of order.”
“The limited state should focus on two broad areas. First, it should focus on framework issues like defence, internal security, policing, justice, foreign policy, monetary policy, financial regulation and so on. Second, it should provide for public goods where market-solutions will clearly not work — environmental protection, public health, and so on. The Indian state should be encouraged to make sure that it does a good job of these before it attempts anything else.”
A Kautilyan state, based on dharma will simply not tolerate violence by any other group within the nation and ruthlessly crush such separatist voices. In other words, the State alone, will have monopoly over violence.
Politicians have earlier tried to explain the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and violence in Kashmir in terms of “lack of opportunities”, “lack of jobs” and so on. Appeasement measures like people to people interaction and engaging the Hurriyat separatists was a norm during the UPA regime. However violence kept spiraling out of control, stone pelting at Indian soldiers continued unabated and so did the attempts by Kashmiri Muslims to disrupt the Amarnath Yatra. Under NSA Ajit Doval, however we have seen the effectiveness of an indigenous Kautilyan approach in Kashmir, where our Army and CRPF are systematically going about eliminating jihadi terrorists and restoring Dharmic normalcy.
An Indian State would therefore be universal, pluralistic, forward looking, pro-science, pro-people, and pro-nature and would support a sustainable lifestyle to ensure a bright future of human society. Consumption of resources would be more equitable based on one’s nature and one’s stage in life, and money alone will not be the driving factor for every person. Carbon footprint and pollution will be curtailed and contained significantly in such a scenario. India has always been a diverse pluralistic society, unlike the west and its institutions (corporations, foundations, Church), which have been hegemonic and whom we are unfortunately imitating. We do not and have never believed in a “one size fits all” solution. So there is no “one model” for education, poverty alleviation and pollution. India had always been a “principle” based society rather than a “rule” based society as in the West . Each person, each group, each region will have its own customized solutions based on Dharmic principles.
An Indian society based on Dharma is thus the perfect response to modern greed and unbridled consumerism, global challenges of hunger, healthcare, pollution, education, and conflicts and is perhaps the only system that can equip us better to face an uncertain future.
References and Notes
- Today of course non-binary logic is also recognized – fuzzy logic, quantum logic and so on.
- The very notion of Law is a product of Biblical Theology
Subhodeep Mukhopadhyay is from a data science background and his research interest includes history, religion and philosophy. He is the author of “The Complete Hindu’s Guide to Islam” and “Ashoka the Ungreat”.