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.
  • vpnc

    for the last few weeks i too have been thinking of a narrative – the indian narrative – currently so skewed by colonialists/secularists. first we need to fix our own narrative – from the defeatist/depressing portrayal of our history to a more positive/optimistic one which highlights the positives and successes and resiliency of our own traditions. once we get that right the pan asian dharmic narrative (stretching from gujarat to japan) will be easier to shape. india is the cultural mothers of all east asian countries (affirmed recently by the japanese ambassador in amaravati) and needs to have its story right.

  • Santi Dash

    The current science is based on linear thinking. It is equivalent to understand place value system and the concept of zero through abacus (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eS4xM-vyeSg) . It took centuries to understand these concepts. As long as we keep trying to understand vedic knowledge system and philosophy the current science, sociology and anthropology we will never understand it. The understanding of this grand narrative must be done in the context of it’s own knowledge system. The current form of science engaged in digesting it to it’s own framework. This is a loss to the humanity.

    • Capt.Ajit Vadakayil

      Do you know what a huge Disservice your doing by posting these videos?C.K.Raju and Claude Alvares real Scientists unlike me who goes around blabbering about his 12 strand DNA.Do you know my Target Audience the followers of Moronsmriti also known as Vadakayilians will stop following my works and start reading and viewing theirs.How could you be so ignorant and insensitive towards me and my loyal followers?This guy C.K.Raju is one who helped India make a Supercomputer so what i just repaired my Dabba TV by tapping it on the head twice or thrice am I not better than him and whats this thing that he keeps talking about how the Gregorian Calenders wrong and how Hypatia is the real Mother of Geometry and not Euclid.So what if he has written books which someone like me will never be able to do so?And this Claude Alvares big deal he got his PHD from France and worked with a scholar like Dharampal and knows very well about Agriculture and seeds and things I can not in my wildest imagination comprehend.You should stop talking or viewing or posting their works you know why coz these ppl are Jewish Rothschild Zionist or else how do these guys know so much about Science and Maths.

  • Zen

    This is all nonsense writing, logic & science have contributed towards world growth & development which our DNA does not do well, simple example is how many of our present ideas or works have been built or developed by us. Our spirituality and culture bias does not lend to growth narrative and to mix the two and write some grand stuff looks very seminal but it is plain nonsense. We are growing faster purely due to demography and numbers on our side by building on the ideas of others and has to do zilch with our DNA. Good work ethic does not make the world grow, brilliant ideas is what makes the world grow and prosper!!!

  • Brabantian

    One important symbol of the renaissance of the Dharmic Grand Narrative, would be for nations of South & South-East & East Asia, to again do what they were the 1st to do in the world:

    Abolish the death penalty, as Indian nations began to do much more than 1000 & perhaps as much as 2000 years ago, with Japan & China at points following India to also abolish capital penalties in 1st century CE. India especially needs to totally abolish its continued use of slow-strangulation-torture British-colonialist hangings.

    One of the EU’s major virtues is that of recently imitating ancient India in completely ending this horror, which itself is a result of Dharmic inheritance, passed on through Pythagoras & Greek stoics, till it bore fruit in the European Enlightenment, which was only a successor to the Enlightenment of ancient India. India also needs to grow up beyond its Muslim- & Christian-influenced puritanism, & become once again the nation of Kama Sutra & the wisdom of the temples of Khajuraho.

    • Santi Dash

      Please read the book “Breaking India” by Rajiv Malhotra. Even if the book is related to India, it is applicable to most of the developing countries.

  • srikrishna sadula

    If english were successful in taking over china and other eastern parts of the world, they would have become more successful with much planted aryan invasion theories etc. In fact whole west or middle east civilizations are nothing to do with sanskrit literature and its philosophical evolution. Apparently, its funny that some authors in India refer/cite those people who doesn’t have core idea of what it is. The more world evolves the more truth comes out, the more advance we make, and we become more learned.

    • Santi Dash

      The current science is based on linear thinking. It is equivalent to understand place value system and the concept of zero through abacus (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eS4xM-vyeSg) . It took centuries to understand these concepts. As long as we keep trying to understand vedic knowledge system and philosophy the current science, sociology and anthropology we will never understand it. The understanding of this grand narrative must be done in the context of it’s own knowledge system.

      • Capt.Ajit Vadakayil

        Santi Dash you must be Pan Chewing Bolshevik loving Bengali Communist Jewish Zionist Rothschild or else why do you keep posting these authentic scholars videos.You should only give reference to my works for that Punch Google Ajit Vadakayil on “Why Captain Ajit Vadakayils works are used as a STICK by Secularists to beat up other Hindus with ”
        and when I say punch you need to make a fist and punch your screen so hard that it breaks only then can you attain a 12 strand DNA like me which will enlighten you to the point where your friends and family completely disassociate themselves from anything remotely to do with you.

  • Capt.Ajit Vadakayil

    The Grand Narrative must at any cost mention about the 12 strand DNA with which we can fly our Pushpak Vimana.Also it must include that Jesus was in India eventhough there is no evidence of it and also Christianity is Krishna-niti and Muhammad was basically worshipping Lord Shiva and we too should not mind conversion to ISLAM since Muslims are after all worshipping Lord Shiva also being the great Conspiracy theorist and Father of Moronsmriti I must inform all ignorant Non Vadakayilians that KABBA is a Shiv Mandir.The Vatican in Rome is Vatikka and hence we should not mind even conversion to Christianity or Roman Catholicism.Punch Google Ajit Vadakayil on “Why am I such a Moron to believe this Moron Vadakayil “and when I say punch you need to make a fist and punch your screen so hard that it breaks only then can you attain a 12 strand DNA like me which will enlighten you to the point where your friends and family completely disassociate themselves from anything remotely to do with you.This author here might be way more well read than I can ever be and has contributed to the cause of Dharmik scholarship way more than I can ever think of but I know he is a co-conspirator of Jewish Zionist Rothschild because he has not gone CUCKOO like me.

    • sa

      what have u been smoking?