A couple of readers asked me why I thought Tagore is more important than Gandhi in this planetary phase of the Indian experiment. I am still sorting out my intuitions on this one, but the one line answer:
Planetary aesthetics is at least as important as planetary politics.
It will take me a while to clarify and flesh out the intuition, and the clarification will take a meandering route. This essay is the first of N (N >2) that starts with the ‘planetary question.’ In future essays, I will contrast planetary politics with planetary aesthetics, bringing in Gandhi and Tagore as models for the first and the second respectively and then finally, makes the case that the latter is at least as important as the former.
The Planetary Question
How should we live a planetary life? And how do we do so in the midst of lives quite unlike ours?
Imagine moving from a village to a city, and having to respond to a host of new smells and sounds, consorting with strangers and trusting their kindness. That planet is a much greater leap in the evolution of our sociality, starting with vast new worlds of time and space and the creatures who inhabit them.
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On the face of it, time and space have very different roles in our planetary lives. With humanity cast as a geological force, time has become incomparably vaster; human history is being supplanted by planetary time and millennia replaced by billennia. If humans are the main actors in the anthropocene, our age stands alongside previous ages of this planet, stretching all the way back to the beginning of life several billion years ago.
As time has expanded, space has shrunk. A click of a button richochets between servers across the world; we hold the earth in our hands as a matter of routine.
Question: The mismatch between deep time and shrunken space is unsustainable - where do we find a spatial vastness that matches that of time?
Answer: In the worlds of other creatures.
The mistake was in thinking of space as a homogenous container the size of the earth; it’s actually fractal and interpenetrated, consisting of the life-worlds of billions and trillions of creatures, both actual and possible. Homogeneity was an anthropocentric illusion — difference is as much a feature of time and space in the planetary scheme as continuity and repetition are.
How to grasp Deep Spacetime?
In one hand we should hold the worlds of non-human creatures and their diversity. The readings I mentioned in this👇🏾 essay are a way to expand the human world to include non-human ones.
With the other hand we should explore and examine traditions that give us a sense of history and sociality beyond the human. That’s where the extended Indian traditions can play an important role.
I will start with an excerpt from the Avatamsaka Sutra, the Flower Ornament Scripture, perhaps the grandest and most expansive of the Buddhist sutras.
Set aside the religious imagery and note how deep space and deep time are evoked throughout. There’s nothing unique about that passage. A couple of pages later:
Doesn’t this passage describe life as lived against the backdrop of deep spacetime? The language of omnipresence and enlightenment could be a distraction but can we take it as a pointer to a bigger realization: planetary life is closer to religious life than it is to secular life. If so, some core features of religiosity have to be imported into our conception of a planetary life.
That’s where Tagore and Gandhi come in to the picture. As their honorifics (‘Gurudev’ and ‘Mahatma’) suggest, they were perceived by others and likely perceived themselves as living a spiritual life even as their primary expressive mode was modern - that of a writer and a political leader.
The two aren’t unique in this respect - this melding of sensibilities was quite common in the colonial era, where the deep horizon provided by religion informed every day action against the imperial power. Our horizon is equally deep, but neither is the colonizer the same, nor is our horizon religious in any sense that would have been available to Tagore and Gandhi (despite the religious overtones of Gaia talk). Neither science nor politics affords the necessary (& radical) shift in perspective; only through an aesthetic transformation of Tagore and Gandhi’s (& others like them) sensibilities can we hope to forge tools and concepts suited to our situation.