Book Review: How Dharma Can Be The Basis For Coming Up With An Alternative Measure To GDP

Book Review: How Dharma Can Be The Basis For Coming Up With An Alternative Measure To GDP  The cover of Pankaj Jain’s book Science and Socio-Religious Revolution in India: Moving the Mountains.
Snapshot
  • Pankaj Jain’s book fills an important gap and is a must read for the dharmic fraternity cutting across sects, communities and even nations.

Science and Socio-Religious Revolution in India: Moving the Mountains. Pankaj Jain. Routledge Focus. 120 pages. $57.53.

There are many books on science and religion, but there is hardly a book on dharma and science in academia.

There is also no serious study on how dharma and ecology or dharma and any other branch of science interact.

Dharma — not as religious doctrine, societal rules, or ethics — but a thoroughly alive principle permeating the traditions of a billion people is an idea that is yet to be studied, or understood in a holistic manner.

We could maybe call this the ‘dharma gap’.

The category of 'religion' is often prioritised over dharma and in this, there is a clear theo-bias.

In the book under review — Science and Socio-Religious Revolution in India — (Routledge, 2018), Prof Pankaj Jain, who had earlier come out with the book Dharma and Ecology of Hindu Communities (Ashgate, 2011) points out this issue in the very beginning:

Although academic literature on themes such as “religion and ecology” and “religion and science” has been actively produced in the last several decades, there is hardly any academic book or article on the themes of “dharma and ecology” or “dharma and science.” Even with the multidimensional and multivalent interpretations of dharma, ranging from religion, ethics, virtues, physical characteristics, nature, cosmic law, and sustaining force, the category of “religion”, with its different semantics, continues to dominate English discourse about Asia.

The book provides a brief account of the way science education, which was once integral as vijnana, became a separate domain called 'science' and here, we are provided a bird’s eye-view of India’s science history — from Atharva Veda to Meghnad Saha and more.

Here, Prof Jain points to an interesting fact.

Despite the domination of colonial or Western categorisation of science as a separate domain, the creative tension between that and Indic vijnana did produce some very refreshing and positive effects:

For example, in 1923, a Sanskrit scholar, Srinivasamurthi, focussed on indigenous medical systems, especially Ayurveda, and incorporated Hindu Caraka and Muslim medicinal practices into the modern paradigm of health management. Being critical of Western germ theory, he formulated a new paradigm of chemistry and changed Indian medical science forever.

In this book, Prof Jain studies two environmental organisations. One is the Himalayan Environmental Studies and Conservation Organization (HESCO), founded by Dr Anil Joshi in the 1970s.

This organisation works towards bringing socio-economic development of Himalayan rural communities in India through harnessing of local resources.

Then, there is Baba Balbir Singh Seechewal of Punjab, who restored the river Kali Bein to health with community participation of Sikhs.

It is a sacred river. According to Sikh tradition, it was from the womb of this river where after immersing himself for three days Guru Nanak arose with his message of universal oneness of godhead.

Here, dharmic reverence to the project is even more visible and vibrant.

The book describes the threat that the endangered sacred river faced and the challenges her rescuers faced. Dharma comes out in force in the activities of the rescuers, who were motivated and organised into seva by Baba Seechewal.

Prof Jain quotes the sacred Sikh texts, which have an uncanny resonance with the Vedic verses in bringing out the divine permeating all of nature. Let us consider a few:

The corn is sacred, the water is sacred, and the fire and salt are sacred as well. When the fifth thing, the ghee is added, the food becomes pure and sanctified. Air is the Guru, water is the father, and earth is the great mother of all. The air that we breathe in, that is the basis of our life and through which the Word is uttered, is called the Guru in the Gurbani. Water is called the father and the earth the mother.

In the next chapter, Prof Jain highlights the gross economic product (GEP) which Dr Anil Joshi had argued should be a co-indicator with gross domestic product (GDP).

Prof Jain implies an underlying Dharmic component to GEP. Dethroning of GDP with more holistic indicators is an effort that has been happening with various groups mostly advocating an alternative economic model.

The success obtained is more a matter of opinion. Still, GDP reigns.

This is despite the fact that even a mainstream economist like Paul Samuelson, decades ago, in that famous textbook on economics, had pointed out the need for a measure of net economic welfare of ‘NEW’ in place of GDP.

What Pankaj Jain suggests here is of importance. He points out how inclusion of dharma in such an exercise as an underlying substratum and framework can be of great use in developing such an indicator.

As this review is being written, the much-awaited economic report on biodiversity (the famous ‘Das Gupta review’) has been published online by the UK government.

Deep inside this report, as a footnote in page number 367, is an interesting research find (which was incidentally made in 2016). It states:

If the average North American diet was adopted globally, 178 per cent of current agricultural land would be required to feed the world’s population, whereas, if the average Indian diet was adopted, only 55 per cent of current agricultural land would be required.

The report also deals with common pool resources (CPR). These are important support bases for humanity. They are fragile, yet paradoxically enduring in the sense that where they exist, they reduce the harmful effect of income inequalities (Das Gupta Review, Page 209).

It is needless to say that in all these aspects of Indian life, particularly in Indian village communities, the dynamic role of dharma has not been studied, for various reasons including the colonial-psychological inhibitions our academia has for the very word 'dharma'.

Today, as pointed out earlier, the Western world is struggling to dethrone GDP, despite knowing fully well that the concept is not a complete one and this incomplete indicator can do harm to the health of society in the long run.

Actually, this provides Indian academia a great opportunity.

By tapping into the conceptual as well as living world of dharma as it manifests itself in ecological relations as well as economic activities of Indian communities, they can provide a very strong working alternative to GDP.

Prof Jain observes that the “non-Western traditions and communities, such as those of India, are much better positioned to provide an alternative to Western dualistic thinking”.

For this, we need dialogue and synthesis at various levels.

Through his study of HESCO, he points out what he calls the “hybridity of Indian modernity" as a positive factor in the synthesis of Western technologies for local needs for sustainable development:

As the projects and experiments described suggest, HESCO does not advocate that non-Western cultures in effect “delink” from Western sciences and develop regional sciences out of the fertile ground of their own traditions. On the other hand, Western technologies can be radically transformed through integration with regional legacies to enable the flourishing of a multiplicity of knowledge-traditions and the societies that depend upon them.

The West, even as science expands and evolves and probes deeper, faces a challenge.

The Cartesian vision still dominates the West. So, there is a deep conflict between the Cartesian and anthropocentric doctrinal base of the West and the vision that science unveils since the Copernican Revolution.

But post-colonial ecological movements in India like HESCO and movements like that of Baba Seechewal can tap easily into the post-Copernican science revolution, which has been increasingly making us move away from human-centric approaches, which are highly responsible for the present ecological disasters and threats we face.

With the intrinsically unique positive attitudes, and the openness towards the kind of vision of the universe modern science is unveiling, dharmic culture and society enjoy an advantage.

The intrinsic pluralism of the Hindu family of religions and the absence of centralised authority, enable India to be flexible and open, which is very much needed for such a synthesis, Prof Jain points out.

The book is not a self-congratulatory or self-glorifying one. The book shows us the tip of the iceberg of the work that has to be done.

Dharma has the capacity, but do ‘dharmis that is, you and I, have that in us to use dharma to heal the world and save humanity — not as a religious doctrine, but as the framework for sciences inner and outer, economic theory and practice, as well as environmental protection?

That is the question the book communicates.

If the book is in itself a valuable and timely addition to the Dharma-centric academic approach to science, the foreword written by philosopher and professor of comparative religions, Prof Purushottama Bilimoria (despite this reviewer’s strong differences of opinion with him on certain aspects) is a treat for every student of Indian culture and spirituality interested in engagement with science — particularly his critique of Meera Nanda.

It is a classic, in its own right.

On the whole, this book, along with the previous book on science and dharma, definitely fills an important gap and is a must read for the dharmic fraternity cutting across sects, communities and even nations.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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