An investigation into Hinduism as a Complex, Adaptive System
Sanatan Dharma or Hinduism has long suffered from a very basic problem – the difficulty of defining it. One can describe a particular sect, or philosophy, but it is not easy to explain the whole. Thus, it is not uncommon for people to ultimately fall back on saying that it is a “way of life”. Unfortunately, such a definition is neither a meaningful description nor of analytical value. If anything, it causes a great deal of confusion by suggesting that Hindu religion is identical to Indic culture – the two are obviously linked but not exactly the same. The purpose of this article is to investigate the systemic logic of Sanatan Dharma as a whole and the process by with it evolves. It is not concerned here with the philosophical content or daily practice of any of the constituent sects, traditions and philosophies.
Most world religions, particularly those of Abrahamic origin, are based on a clearly defined set of beliefs – a single god, a holy book, a prophet and so on. These are articles of faith or axioms from which each of these religions is derived. This why the terms religion, belief and faith can be used interchangeably in these cases. In contrast, it is perfectly acceptable in Hinduism to be a polytheist, monotheist, monist, pantheist, agnostic, atheist, animist or any combination thereof. Thus Hinduism is a religion but not a faith, although constituent sects or philosophies can be termed faiths or beliefs. Instead, it should be thought of as an organic, evolving ecosystem of interrelated and interdependent elements that are constantly interacting with each other (and with the outside world).
There are many systems that fit the above description – financial markets, economies, cities, the English language, ecological systems and so on. These are all examples of “complex adaptive systems”. Note the contrast between the organic and evolving dynamics of such systems and the static laws of Newtonian mechanics. In turn, this has important implications for how we understand Hinduism and manage it.
Not the Sum of its Parts: One of the most obvious differences between complex adaptive systems and Newtonian mechanical systems is that the former is not the sum of its parts. A mechanical system like a car is the sum total of all its parts as put together to an “intelligent design”. In contrast, a city is more than the sum of all the buildings and a biological ecosystem is not just the sum of all the plants and animals. This is why complex adaptive systems cannot be described neatly from any one perspective. Thus, English language cannot be defined through even the most detailed description of its grammar. Similarly, the most detailed description of the Taj Mahal would not define the city of Agra. Yet, speakers of English -and the citizens of Agra have little difficultly identifying and using the language and city respectively. The same is true of Hindus – their seeming difficulty in defining Sanatan Dharma poses no problem in recognizing and practicing their religion.
Moreover, the evolving and mutating nature of complex, adaptive systems implies that even the most detailed description is not just insufficient but fundamentally wrong over time. For instance, given the constant absorption of words and usages into English, an exclusive reliance on Wren and Martin’s grammar to understand the language would miss the point. This is also true of Hinduism where even the most detailed reading of Dharma Shastras and Smritis would not give you the correct picture of the lived experience of the religion over time.
History Dependent but not Reversible: One of the common characteristics of complex adaptive systems is that they are path dependent i.e. they carry the imprint of their historical evolution. Thus, most cities, biological ecosystems and living languages will show the layer-by-layer accumulation of their history. Readers will no doubt recognize how this applies to Hinduism. Notice how this is distinct from Newtonian mechanics. Two identical footballs, in identical conditions, will behave in exactly the same way if exactly the same force is applied to them. There is no historical memory in the system, and it does not matter what was done with the two balls before we subjected them to this experiment.
Complex adaptive systems, however, have an additional property – irreversibility. This means that the system will not reverse to its origin even if all historical events were reversed. Thus, reversing history will not take English back to Old Saxon but to some other language. Reversing the events of human evolutionary history will not take us back to our ape-like ancestors but to a new species. Similarly, reversing urban history will not take a city back to the original village settlement. More likely one will get a deserted city like Detroit or a museum city like Venice. Again notice the difference with Newtonian mechanics where a perfect reversal of factors will take the system back exactly to its origin.
An implication of these characteristics is that Hinduism carries its history within it but cannot return to a pure origin or “Golden Age”. It is necessarily about constantly evolving and moving forward even as it draws inspiration and ideas from its past. The holy books, traditions, customs and tenets of Hinduism should not be seen as a path to an ideal “Kingdom of God” or “Caliphate” to which everyone must revert. Rather they are the accumulation of knowledge and experience. Critics may argue that idea of “Ram Rajya” contradicts this point but this is a misunderstanding. Hindus draw inspiration from the idea of Ram Rajya as a time of prosperity and rule-of-law, but it is not vision for a return to the Iron Age.
No Equilibrium State: Yet another characteristic of complex adaptive systems is that they do not have an equilibrium or steady state in the long run. Again, note the contrast with Newton’s laws. Thus, the English language will keep adding words and usages with no tendency to stop. Similarly, successful cities will keep changing and/or expanding. However, a corollary is that if the system begins to contract, it can keep contracting with no tendency to self-equilibrate. Thus, a city like Detroit kept declining even though theory would suggest that falling real estate prices would attract back people. Financial markets too behave in this way – they will keep rising past what people think is a “fair value” and then fall back well below – hardly spending any time at the so-called equilibrium.
This behavior has important implications for how to manage complex adaptive systems. First, it means that managers should not attempt to hold the system at some preconceived steady state. Rather they need to accommodate the fact that the system is characterized by “increasing returns to scale” which can push the system into spiraling expansions or contractions. This does not mean that one should not attempt to manage such ecosystems – far from it, financial markets, cities and even ecological systems can benefit from active management. However, the management should allow for constant movement. A city mayor or a financial market regulator who insists on holding the system to a static equilibrium will either fail or effectively suffocate the system.
Although Hinduism does not have a centralized leadership, the above characteristics have many implications for how Hindus think about their religion and manage its future. For instance, they suggest that Hindu leaders refrain from being too prescriptive of where Hinduism should go in the long run. Much better that they focus on continuously updating and reforming the system on an ongoing basis while taking care to maintain internal diversity. The lack of uniformity may seem like a disadvantage in the short-run but is a big advantage when dealing with an unpredictable long-term future. This is analogous to a species maintaining genetic diversity as a bulwark against epidemics and other shocks.
Another possible implication of this intellectual framework may be that one needs to be less enthusiastic about “anti-conversion laws”. These have been proposed by some activists as a way to “protect” Hinduism in some Indian states but these laws are based on an idea of static equilibrium. Our analysis, however, suggests that such laws will have little benefit if the Hindu community is shrinking for whatever reason. In other words, a defensive tactic cannot work if the community is in a downward spiral in a particular area. It would be far better to focus on expansionary strategies to re-inflate the system. These could include intellectual and cultural innovation, social and missionary work, building alliances with other like-minded religious traditions and so on. Some of these efforts can be derived from the past, but it is perfectly alright to use completely new strategies.
The Importance of Flexibility: One of the learnings from the study of complex, adaptive systems is that flexibility will always triumph over brute strength in the long run. Indeed, inflexible systems can sometime disintegrate very suddenly even if they look outwardly strong. Take, for instance, the evolutionary history of life on earth. The dinosaurs were big and strong, and dominated the planet for millions of years. Yet, they suddenly disappeared as they could not adapt to changed circumstances – except for a few species who adapted to become birds! Similarly, the Soviet empire, for all its nuclear warheads, simply collapsed overnight because it could not adapt. China adapted and thrived. A similar story can be told of cities. Once great cities like Birmingham, Detroit and Kolkata were unable to adapt to deindustrialization. In contrast, by repeatedly reinventing itself, London has not only survived deindustrialization and the loss of Empire, but had been able to retain its place as the world’s financial capital.
This has very important lessons for Hinduism. Indeed, the religion has survived for so long because it was able to continuously evolve though internal reform, innovation and absorption. Sometimes it was the slow accumulation of small changes, sometimes it was a rapid shift led by a reformer like Adi Shankaracharya or Vivekananda. There were also many instances where Sanatan Dharma absorbed a foreign idea and made it its own – Hindu temples and idol worship is possibly inspired by Greek influence (Vedic Hindus only used fire alters).
Interestingly, Hinduism’s flexible, adaptive architecture may not have appeared entirely by chance but may have been deliberately set up by the ancient Rishis. Thus, Hindu scriptures are divided into Shruti and Smriti. The former are said to have been “heard” from the gods and consequently are canonical. Strictly speaking, only the first three Vedas – Rig, Sama, Yajur – are considered Shruti (although many would also include the Atharva Veda). All other sacred texts, including the much revered Bhagwata Gita, are considered Smriti. The Smriti are “remembered’ and therefore considered of human origin – the works of great thinkers, compilations of traditions, and so on. Some of them may be highly regarded but they are not canonical.
This architecture has had important implications for Hinduism. The Shruti texts may be canonical and provide general principles but they are wonderfully open-ended (just consider the Nasadiya Sukta or Creation Hymn in the Rig Veda to understand what I mean), whereas the Smriti texts are more specific but not canonical. This means that one can keep adding new texts and ideas forever, including texts that contradict previous Smriti texts. The much criticized Manu Smriti, by definition, can simply be replaced or revised if Hindus so wish.
To conclude, analyzing Hinduism as a complex adaptive system provides many important insights into the functional architecture of Sanatan Dharma. It shows that the key strength of Hinduism has been its ability to evolve, adapt and innovate. This ability needs to be actively enhanced and strategically deployed in order to keep Hinduism healthy. For instance, it may be time to revive the tradition of writing new Smriti texts, a practice that went into decline in medieval times. Some orthodox Hindus may consider this presumptuous but, as already discussed, it would be in keeping with the inherent logic of Sanatan Dharma.
This paper merely illustrates some of the possibilities presented by the systemic approach to understanding Hinduism. It is not meant as a comprehensive treatise but an attempt to initiate a new way of thinking about Sanatan Dharma. The author hopes that others will build on it.
(A version of this article will be published in “Probodhani”, a collection of essays on Hinduism edited by Saradindu Mukherji, published as part of the World Hindu Congress, New Delhi, 21-23 November 2014)
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