Retaining Balance: The Eternal Way. M R Venkatesh. KW Publishers Pvt Ltd. 2021. Page 484. Price Rs 780.
At its most sublime, Dharma is not religion. It is a pursuit of higher and better truths. At its widest base in society, Dharma is about maintaining a balance — in perspective, words, actions and ideals. Without balance and a degree of self-restraint, civilisation would not exist.
This preamble sets the stage of what I consider one of the handful of books published this year that everyone should read, regardless of whether you belong to the Dharmic tradition or the Abrahamic one. The book is M R Venkatesh’s Retaining Balance: The Eternal Way, which holds a mirror to all the follies of Western civilisation which we are now mindlessly trying to ape.
A lawyer and chartered accountant by profession, the core idea contained in Venkatesh’s book is simple: civilisation is held up by human institutions, and the most fundamental institution holding up the superstructure is the “family”, which can be loosely defined as one household unit under which not just two spouses and children reside, but also their progeny, and sometimes the progeny of the progeny (the now rapidly disintegrating joint family, so to speak). And the core of the core is the partnership between two genders: woman and man. Civilisation is built on the shoulders and balance between these two genders, though one can today take the position that families can be considered families even if the two partners are from the same gender.
Much of this is commonsense, for the family is the oldest of human institutions, the one which made humans colonise and dominate the living world. So, one would presume that in any policy-making effort, whether it is in economics or in other fields, the family would be the primary unit of study and focus. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Macroeconomics is failing today not for want of mathematical models or long-term funding — the opposite is the case — but because it has failed to incorporate the family household in its calculations. According to Venkatesh, the West is eviscerating the family partly because of the dogmas inherent in Christianity, even though the church sees itself as a defender of family values.
Families are falling apart not because the church is de-emphasising family, but because the basic ideological postulates of Christianity logically lead to wokeism, communism, extremism and feminism of the kind that destroys families by pitting spouse against spouse. A corollary of pitting the individual against the family and other social institutions is that state and markets become the default institutions needed to safeguard the rights of individuals. The individual, in this view, is seen to be driven by purely materialistic and biological impulses, which need protection by the state and fulfilment of desires by consumer markets.
Islam, even while formally emphasising family values, puts religious duty above all else and destabilises society in two ways: one is by sanctioning polygamy, which is a threat to the balance between genders in a family, and, secondly, by making its dogmas applicable not only to believers, but kafirs — through intimidation and violence, if necessary. Any religion which believes that its job is to fix other people cannot end up being a factor for peace and stability.
As for Christianity, its dogma starts with the idea of man as “fallen” and “broken”, born in “original sin”. Hence salvation is through the only 'son of god'. Man cannot lift himself by his own efforts. In religion, you need a specific god to help you uplift yourself, and if you don’t have religion, there are creeds like Marxism and liberalism which will develop theories like dictatorship of the proletariat, critical race theory and intersectionality to deny you your power of agency. All these ideologies are inimical to the idea of families and balance in perspective, seeing them as the biggest threats to liberalism and utopian “emancipation”.
Venkatesh’s book is divided into 10 chapters, in which I would pick chapter one, which deals substantially with the issue of monogamy and polygamy, chapter 4 (Culture — Emerging Frontiers of Economics), chapter 8 (Needed: Economic Reforms or Reforms in Economics?). The last two chapters — The Power of Restraint and Ram Rajya Is Less of Lord Rama, More of Rajya — summarise the author’s views on the importance of family and balance, and how the state cannot be the ultimate answer to a society’s needs.
Venkatesh is particularly harsh on polygamy, which is not only sanctioned in Islam, but now finds intellectual support in the West, where some intellectuals now claim that the next frontier of liberalism is challenging the one-man-one-woman norm. The author is clear that even if polygamy is not as widespread as feared, by leaving many men without mates, society will face violence from this cohort. Over and above that, it damages the idea of family, as women feel devalued and disowned whenever a man takes another wife.
While there are obviously more liberal Muslim societies and less liberal ones, I did a small check on Saudi Arabia (where polygamy is practised more than in other Muslim countries) and found Venkatesh’s proposition to be valid. According to a study published last year, some 66 per cent of young Saudis in the age group of 15-34 were unmarried, and — no surprise here — the percentage of unmarried men was much higher than the percentage of unmarried women in this group (75.6 per cent versus 56 per cent). Another study, done a bit earlier, found that there were half a million Saudis with more than one wife, with one particular man having married 58 times. He does not remember most of their names, and has lost count of the number of children he had with them.
The chapter on economics is particularly riveting, for it questions the basic assumptions of both Keynesian and Hayekian economics, one favouring a larger role for the state, and the latter markets. Venkatesh believes that economists have sold their souls to the financial services industry and have been producing “research” that effectively backs the increasing financialisation of most economies. One negative fallout of this domination of finance over economics is the 2008 crisis, with the Covid-19 crisis only reinforcing the same vulnerabilities.
Venkatesh quotes many studies in the West to show how economics has been corrupted by high finance. When economics becomes the hand-maiden of financial services — and not the other way round — the world will indeed lurch from crisis to crisis. The efficient market theory, often used to justify over-liberal monetary policies and cheap money, has not only proved to be a hoax, but is now widely accepted as unrelated to reality.
In this chapter, Venkatesh also shows how even reputed economists —from Raghuram Rajan to Manmohan Singh — lost their way. The former is widely credited with having forecast the 2008 crisis years in advance, but when he was part of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) think-tank and governor of the Reserve Bank of India, he did little to prevent banks from lending to even more to bankrupt sectors like infrastructure. Manmohan Singh, as Secretary General of the South Commission, told us in a 1990 report that massive financialisation was destabilising the world economy, but as the architect of the 1991 liberalisation and as prime minister from 2004-14, his views changed 180 degrees. Finance ultimately manages to pull wool over the eyes of economists by its powerful presence.
The responses to financial and/or economic collapse often boil down to only one thing — printing more money and making interest rates very low. Venkatesh is clear that the remedies will prove worse than the disease as such policies destroy the credit culture and decimate the value of people’s savings. The world is now unable to distinguish between a financial crisis and an economic crisis.
Now, why does it need a non-economist to tell economists that they don’t know their backsides from their elbows? And what does Venkatesh see that economists have missed?
Two simple answers: sometimes, it takes an innocent child to exclaim that the emperor has no clothes. And two, the missing element in all economic analysis may be an inability to understand the impact of culture on economic behaviours and outcomes. Economists simply assume away, or wish away, what they cannot understand or find difficult to measure.
Summing up, Venkatesh says that family is a key balancer in civilisation. It acts as a balance between men and women, individuals and society, savings and consumption, progress and security, liberty and equality, and rights and duties, among other things. The world has forgotten that balance is the key to civilisational survival, and extreme ideologies, whether emanating from religious dogmas or academic papers and intellectuals, spell doom. Dharmic balance is the key to human survival. Thank you Venkatesh for reminding us about commonsense.
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