Jayary Newsletter # 49
|Rajesh Kasturirangan||Jun 21, 2016|
A First Summary
As a graduate student, I attended a talk by an Indian activist who was on a victory tour, i.e., making their way around the United States on the invitation of concerned expatriates. It's easier to sell anything back home - yoga, rainwater harvesting, zero - when it's found some takers out west.
I don't remember who she was or what she said, or even whether it was a he or a she - an occupational hazard for a PhD candidate, but this one wasn't tied to my dissertation (why was I attending the talk then? bad student karma) - but I was struck by one of her lines: if we replaced per capita GDP (Gross National Product) with per capita GSC (Gross Stories Created), India would be the richest country in the world.
Indian stories are seeds that have spread far and wide and sprouted into impressive forests elsewhere. From the Christianized Buddhism of Barlaam and Josophat to the death defying bravery of Scheherazade, kathas have been borne by mental winds to the four corners of the world.
That geographic dispersal is a great opportunity to become a seed collector and invite the tales of the world back to India and refertilize our imagination; since stories are always grafted, the new seedlings need to be grafted onto existing trees. That's the Jaya. I think of the itihasm as a nursery for seedlings within an old forest.
Now I know two things about what needs to be done:
Ultimate Goal: merge with the itihasm.
Starting Point: reading the Jaya.
All that's left is to fill in the blanks between alpha and omega. Should be trivial.
Before I get too full of myself, let me say a couple of lines about what I don't want to do. As any apoha theorist will tell you, concepts, theories and startups succeed - or more likely, fail - because of their discipline, or lack of it, in keeping things out.
An itihasm can't be a blank cheque for anything and everything. That can only lead to spaceships in the Veda and the quantum mechanical Brahman.
Retired Indian physicists aren't the only thinkers prone to overreach. Soon after I started reading Wolfram's “A New Kind of Science,” I realized that he's maximally anti-apohic, since not only does he claim to revolutionize physics (duh!) but in doing so he relaid the foundations of mathematics and computing and by and by also overturned accepted theories of biology, social science and chocolate making.
When you claim everything you convince no one. I am trying to stay clear of two extremes:
There's no pretense that what I am saying is an official commentary in a long lineage stretching back to a prehistoric past.
There's no pretense that what I am saying is a disciplinary exercise which will be published in peer reviewed journals
The Great Wall of India
One of the romantic tropes of modern India is that there's an unbroken line from our current time back to a glorious past. I am not immune from that romance even as I recognize that it's a conservative idea (isn't all romanticism conservative?) with the intent of building a great wall of India, a mental wall stronger than the physical barriers that have failed us again and again over the millennia.
I have a problem with walls. I like being influenced by the outside world. Forget a solid barrier, I am not even convinced by Gandhi's famous claim of wanting to throw open the windows of his home to the winds of the world without being swept off his feet. I want to be swept off my feet. Why walk when you can fly?
The great wall of India spawns some strange dreams - for example, the dream that says itihasa is history, a recounting of facts, so that Rama crossed the bridge to Lanka with his simian cohort somewhere around Rameswaram. That's when you realize that imagination beats knowledge any day.
Of course, a creative approach to history isn't uniquely Indian. We learned how to do so from medieval and modern Europeans who constructed a fantastic history connecting themselves to both the original religion (i.e., Christianity) and the original culture (Greeks). Having saved themselves twice, they set out to save the world by bringing their original religion and culture to all the heathens. We know how that ended for everyone else.
Unsurprisingly, Indians facing this double assault from out west decided to construct a great history for themselves; we beastly people with a beastly religion had to build a great wall between 1857 and 1947, but it needs to be broken down now. Itihasm is a better response than historicism.
The Department of Darsana
The great wall of India was built with the intention of distilling the Indian essence within its boundaries, for buying enough time so that we can build an intellectual and spiritual empire to compete with the western empire that had finally relinquished it's hold on us. Of course, the wall was more a sieve than a barrier but that's only to be expected of such an ambitious undertaking.
Like its industrial counterpart, the high barrier to entry was partly successful and we have created a strong export driven industry of gurus and other spiritual entrepreneurs. Of course, if the idea was to create an entirely new form of civilization behind the wall, the policy has been an abysmal failure.
Meanwhile, a more modest effort was under way to make connections across the mental boundary. Scholars such as Bimal Matilal and J.N Mohanty embraced a disciplinary view of Indian Philosophy. In their marketing campaign, reason - like Dakshayani before her - landed on earth in several locations; not only Greece as the imperial history would have it, but also in India and China.
It's a known fact that reason thrives best in lands where there's tenure, well funded learned societies and peer-reviewed journals, so the discipline of Indian philosophy went about creating all three conditions for success.
Some of my best friends follow reason's traces across the Gangetic plain, but to be frank, I find this departmental model even less interesting than the great wall. At least the wall was an attempt to remake an entire culture in the pursuit of a vanishing dream. Who can get excited about a cross-cultural theory of inference in Gangesa and Hume with an impact factor of 4.3?