Outlines of a Dharmic Grand Narrative

It is fairly self-evident that the world stands at a historic crossroads, when long-suppressed Asia…

It is fairly self-evident that the world stands at a historic crossroads, when long-suppressed Asia is finally re-asserting itself. It is widely accepted that the Atlantic Century is long gone, and that the Indo-Pacific (sometimes known as the Asian) Century is here, or will soon be. In this context, it is worthwhile considering what India’s role should be – and that’s where India’s story becomes important too.

Grand Narratives: Western and Chinese

The narrative that we have been brought up on is that of Western dominance, which seemed to be the proper order of things post World War II, and indeed going back to the Age of Colonialism. White Christians believed in their Manifest Destiny to dominate ‘lesser races’, and their Holy Book assured them it was so. The Protestant Work Ethic was synonymous with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and the superpower bestrode the world like a colossus. All was right with the world.

For those in India in particular, where social classes and snobbishness were primarily determined by how well you spoke English, this myth made sense – after all, we had been conditioned to believe that the West was all-powerful; our ambition was to send our children to Oxford or Harvard so that they would be guaranteed a leg up in life based on posh accents and chummy old boys’ clubs.

But there was a competing myth – that of the Soviet Union. As a child in Trivandrum, I could dimly perceive the propaganda wars between the two sides.

SPAN from the US Embassy, and Soviet Land from the other side. “I saw the moon rock” decals from the US Information Service, and cheap, cheerful children’s books and editions of Maxim Gorky and Mikhail Sholokhov from Prabhat Book House.

I grew up believing that Cold War was unwinnable, and that non-alignment was the proper path, along with ‘bhai-bhai’ with China for India, as ‘chacha’ Nehru assured us.

1962’s India-China war, the Vietnam War, and the collapse of the Soviet Union has changed all that, and the new story was Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” (though he was misunderstood) and the rampant sole hyperpower treating the world as its oyster.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of ISIS.

That hubris led to the nemesis of 9/11, dubious wars in West Asia, and, later, ISIS. Suddenly America didn’t look so invulnerable; and then there was China.

Although we had watched Japan, then South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong emerge suddenly on the world scene, a seemingly unstoppable China was in a class by itself. And the myth of the Confucian Work Ethic was born, apparently the secret of their dramatic growth, and this was enthusiastically propagated by Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew, too.

Now in 2015, it appears China too has been the victim of its own hubris, and has stumbled, especially in the recent past in regards to its slowing economy, ineffectual efforts to contain the stock market slide, and the fall in its currency. In contrast, India is showing signs of growth, and may well be success story of the next few years, primarily due to demographics and new-found leadership.

The Hindu Work Ethic and India’s Own Narrative

In that case, we can expect to see India’s own narrative about the Hindu Work Ethic. Indeed, it has several things in common with the Confucian Work Ethic – a reverence for education, strong family ties, and an affinity towards the group.

In the case of the East Asians, the group is defined as the nation or the ethnic group; the case of India, it is the jati. Joel Kotkin, in his book “Tribes” a few years ago, recognized that Indians (and Chinese, and Anglos, and Jews) form tribal affiliations that are reliable and resilient; although in the case of Indians I suspect it is the sub-tribal jati that serves the purpose.

K Kanagasabapathi, S Gurumurthy and R Vaidyanathan, among others, have shown that jati creates social capital.

Unfortunately, there is a counter-narrative as well, that of the ‘caste-curry-cow’ meme. Rajiv Malhotra articulates this as follows: Western Indologists and their ‘sepoy’ Indian proteges, aided by the far-Left and others in certain networks influenced by religious bigotry or political goals that prefer to have India remain chaotic, have constructed this narrative.

A recent version of this was the pure viciousness expressed in a letter signed by 120 academics with no logic but filled with anti-India and anti-Hindu sentiment. That negative portrayal, while it is bereft of logic, is convenient for many, widely propagated by the mainstream Anglophone media, and needs to be countered.

A positive narrative about the Hindu Work Ethic serves this, and several other purposes. On the one hand, it is an explanation of the ‘secret sauce’ that helps Indian expatriates thrive in comparison to its peers; and Indians have demonstrated competence in successful startups especially in Silicon Valley.

On the other hand, it becomes a sort of ‘foundational myth’ for the group, which, through endless repetition, may well become the truth about it. Indeed, it is only one step away from a benign sort of ‘Indian or Hindu exceptionalism’ in suitable counterpoint to ‘American exceptionalism’.

Perhaps more broadly, a cogent narrative serves two agendas: one as the source of soft power, and two as the glue that attracts others to be its satellites.

The American Grand Narrative is powerful, and its “Land of the Free” meme, as well as Hollywood, rock music, blue jeans, and Silicon Valley, all exert a magnetic attraction for those outside.

The Chinese Grand Narrative, while not quite so appealing, still appears to be a model especially for Asians not so enamoured of the West; and even China’s arrogant bullying of its neighbours in the South China Sea gives it a certain cachet.

Thus, both these nations have started gathering friends and allies who acknowledge themselves as semi-vassals to the imperial metropolitans of the US and China. Thus these two opposing camps are well defined. Their Grand Narratives also have contrasting political systems: one democratic, the other authoritarian.

India, alone among all the remaining powers, has the potential to be on par with these two: that is, a G3 or Group of 3 super-powers rather than the current G2.

Indeed, by some projections, India’s economy will be close to parity to the other two by 2050, and it may even exceed them. Undoubtedly, with economic growth will come both military and cultural (soft) power as well. However, India still lacks a Grand Narrative, and the Hindu Work Ethic is too narrow, as it doesn’t include a political dimension. Hence the need for a Dharmic Grand Narrative.

A Dharmic Grand Narrative

The fact is that all of Asia, especially India and points east, have had a Dharmic core for most of history. In this region, the two major traditions were the Indic and Sinic, but they lived more or less without conflict, largely because they were separated by the large Tibetan civilization. They learned much from each other, although the flow was more from India to China than vice versa.

Bodhidharma statue at Damo Lake, Anhui Province.

In the same manner, almost all of South-east Asia, once known as Greater India or Indo-China, also was a cultural hinterland for India, although there were greater Sinic population influxes. Even North Asia, including Korea and Japan, were greatly influenced by Indic ideas, for instance through the person of Bodhidharma, who founded the Zen school of Buddhism. In general, Buddhism is the glue that holds all of Asia together, or to put it more precisely, it is the Dharmic underpinnings of Buddhism, Hinduism and related ‘religions of the forest’.

Even though Western and Central Asia has now adopted a Semitic core, China hasn’t, despite a few generations of Communism. Fundamentally, the cultural and civilizational values of Indic Asia, Indo-China, Sinic Asia, and North Asia, are quite similar, as there has historically been little or no conflict between Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism and Shintoism – and, as can be seen in Indonesia’s Borobudur or in the Kamakura Buddha Temple of Japan or in the Hindu Irawan shrine in Thailand, they co-exist quite happily.

Thus, an Asian Renaissance can be helped along a Grand Dharmic Narrative. It is true that Japan, for instance, already had a resurgence through the Meiji Restoration, but that was in effect a grafting of Western values onto a Dharmic core.

Even in China, the hold of authoritarian Communism is shallow, and as its economy begins to slow down, the hold of the Party will also diminish. In other words, just as India ‘conquered’ China 2,500 years ago with Buddhism, it may well be possible to create a Dharmic Narrative that will be meaningful to all of traditional Asia.

Since Dharmic traditions tend to be more inclusive and more tolerant, such a narrative may well be good for the world as well, putting behind us the violent and conflict-ridden rise of Europe and its racism and colonialism of the last five hundred years.

What are the contours of this Dharmic narrative?

Its outlines are not entirely clear. Some ideas may hark back to what is common among the Asian Dharmic groups: in particular, qualities of self-sacrifice, obedience, concern for the greater good of the family and the group, respect for education, and humility. They also treat artha or the accumulation of wealth as a legitimate goal, although they hold that the greatest bliss may be that of renunciation of all worldly ties.

It could also highlight that which made these Dharmic societies prosper in centuries past: a social contract wherein the citizen accepted certain limits on his own freedom in return for the protection of the State. That does not, however, mean that the State is imperial, or despotic, or whimsical, but that the social contract is Utilitarian and a win-win proposition.

The Dharmic perspective should not be confused with pacifism, as it seems many in Japan now do, and many in Tibet did to their eventual cost. Dharma needs to be protected and nurtured.

Undoubtedly, there are many such ideas that can be explored. If we succeed in putting together an appealing Dharmic Narrative, it would coincide in with the Asian Century, and the return of India and China to their historic roles as the center of the global narrative.

In the future, even as the importance of the Asian Heartland wanes, and the Rimlands become more critical, and thus the Indian Ocean Rim and Africa take their rightful place in the sun, such a Dharmic Narrative should be able to guide the affairs of nations.

Postscript: This article was written for the Global Dharma Conference, Sep 11-13, in Edison, New Jersey, where the author moderated a panel on ‘Dharma and Media’. More information about the conference is available on dharmaconference.com.

Rajeev Srinivasan is a writer and well-known columnist from India.