Jayary Newsletter # 91

The M-World

Modernity, the M-word. Or should I call it the M-world? I kind of like the latter. In fact, I am going to call it the M-world from now unless I really need to spell it out.

The M-world's intense relationship with the nonhuman is essential to its shock and awe. It's a paradoxical relationship: on the one hand, we have increasingly accepted how insignificant we are relative to the cosmos. We aren't the chosen species with a special relationship with God. We are just one species on one planet in one solar system in one galaxy. Perhaps in one universe.

On the other hand, we are the masters of the earth, controlling much of its landmass for our needs, replacing forest with farm and factory and wild species with animals reared for our benefit. Human insignificance is clearly compatible with human supremacy. But how?

These aren't merely theoretical issues for the colonization of India was enabled by the mastery of technology, both material and social. No steam engines: no colonization. No steam engines: no climate change. We know at an intuitive level that the founding principles of the m-world are exhausted of all creativity, but what's next?

The honest answer is that we have no way of knowing. What we do know is that in 2016, the m-world is not synonymous with the west: when Delhi is shutting down for three days because of pollution levels that are fifteen times above the acceptable maximum, you know that the m-world is unsustainable in India.

You could say the nonhuman is resisting human colonization through the elements at its disposal: fire, water, wind and earth. If so, the task of digesting the m-world takes on an urgency well beyond the niche of Indian philosophy. The Jaya doesn't tell us how to do so, but by meditating through the m-world with the Jaya in hand might give us a few clues.

The First Interface

By the way, the Jaya also lies at the interface of the human and the nonhuman. It starts with the great snake sacrifice, when Janamejaya decides to kill every snake in the world in revenge for killing his father.

He clearly has the power to do so, the only question is whether he has the desire. That's the general human predicament today - with our coal plants and nuclear weapons, we can destroy most multicellular life on earth if we want. Of course, in doing so, we will destroy ourselves too, but that's not a sure deterrent.

Fortunately for the snakes, Janamejaya decides not to complete the nagacide, though by the time he's done, millions of snakes have perished in the fire. Janamejaya is kinder to the nonhuman world than his ancestors: if you remember, the city of Indraprastha was built on the ashes of the Khandava forest.

Arjuna and Krishna killed beast after beast as they tried to escape the raging fire. Only six creatures survived that burning; a few years later, only seven warriors survived the great war. That should tell you something about the karma.

Indeed, it strikes me that the Jaya is the story of humanity; from the emergence of a distinctively human being from the larger mass of animality to the assertion of human power over the rest of the world followed by the the inevitable collapse of that power in war. In that reading, the snake sacrifice is the last act of power before we come to our senses.

History and Itihasa

Indeed, when I think about the term itihasa, I am reminded that it's a bridge term. Not quite history and not quite a pure description of the passage of time.

History is of course, human history. In fact, for much of the last three hundred years, history was considered appropriate only for western societies, who came into historical being twice: first when Jesus was born and put a permanent marker on time, a marker we still use in the form of the labels BC and AD; and second when the m-world brought progress and freedom to the passage of time.

In contrast, societies such as India were ahistorical and static and other cultures, such as the various native cultures of the Americas and Australia were considered subhuman. History has a strange way of bringing progress to nonhistory: genocide if you're subhuman and colonization if you're ahistorical.

I digress.

Itihasa works better for me than history, for it has room for the nonhuman in it, even as they're being genocided. The nonhuman has a voice, and to speak is to be admitted into the halls of justice. That's why Maya is one of the six who escapes the wrath of Arjuna and Krishna.

In itihasa, the nonhuman can be as powerful or more powerful than the human - consider the story of Garuda, who too has a blood feud with the snakes of the world.

What's my point?

That itihasa is a good genre for exploring the human-nonhuman interface, both in the Jaya and in the m-world.

Itihasmic Style

Philosophy, doesn't come with a strict writing style, or even a specific account of truth. Or even adherence to truth itself. It is the most general discipline both in form and in content. Mathematics, which is the only other modern discipline with the same capacity for abstraction mathematics adheres strictly to the lemma-theorem-proof-repeat genre. Science writing sticks to the hypothesis-experiment-discussion model of communication.

Whatever your talents at calculation, you have no chance of getting published in a mathematics journal if you write your theorems in verse. Vyasa on the other hand, was a very good versifier. Despite what Plato says, poets can be philosophers and philosophers can be poets. Unless you're an academic philosopher: since professional philosophy aims to replicate the success of the sciences, it too hews closely to the dry academic style.

Since academic Indian philosophy is a double derivative - borrowing its intellectual gestures from western philosophy that in turn borrows its gestures from the sciences - the style of presentation is even more exaggerated; writing about Nagarjuna and Gangesa as if they were browner versions of Aquinas and Hegel. While there's no reason to continue the sutra-bhasya style of philosophical writing, it mystifies me that we have shifted wholesale to the western academic mode. It buys us a ticket into the academic rat race, but does it accomplish anything else?

Writing styles are thinking styles too. Philosophical renewal goes hand in hand with textual experimentation and the creation of new literary genres. All the more reason to shift to an itihasmic style, with all the freedom in the world to experiment with fact and fiction, myth and argument.