The Dawn of Dharmatva

The Dawn of Dharmatva Benzaiten, Kangiten, Tamonten in Japan; left to right - corresponding to Saraswati, Ganesh, Kuber - but not in any way less sacred. (Wikimedia Commons)
Snapshot
  • For Peace, Prosperity, Purpose and for a Pluralist Universalism we must integrate Dharma and Democracy.

    India can be that Vishwa Guru (World Teacher) but only if we become Vishwa Shishya (World Student).

Today is the auspicious occasion of Ganesh Chathurthi. I humbly pray to Him, the Vignaharta, the remover of obstacles, to bless this undertaking (my second Substack - the first being Long India, both building further on my last book, A New Idea of India)

Also, on this sacred Paryushan Parv, I sincerely ask for the forgiveness of all who I have knowingly or unknowingly hurt, through deed or action or even thought. Michhami Dukkadam.

Penultimately, I would like to express my deepest condolences for all those who lost their loved ones in the horrible attacks of 9/11 whose 20th anniversary is tomorrow.

Finally, I also note with sadness - even if it is certainly more abstract - that on another 9/11 - this time in 1390 - the Teutonic Knights terrorised yet again the people of Lithuania, which was till a few years ago the last pagan country in Europe.

Contents:

- Pax Deorum

- The Great Reversal

- The Beauty of Smarta

- The Vaccine is not the Virus

- Forgotten Fraternity

- Imagine

***

Pax Deorum

The Roman Empire at its peak was so powerful that we sometimes refer to that period with respect to the Greater Mediterranean region as Pax Romana, which translates as the ‘Roman Peace’. Of course, there was not much peace for slaves and “barbarians”, but these ‘pagans’ built on other pagan achievements - Greek, Egyptian, Persian and even Indian - and created something that was a significant improvement on what existed (and what would continue to exist for a long time).

At a larger scale, but with a doffing of the cap, we also hear of Pax Britannica earlier and now Pax Americana, the latter gradually coming to an end as we speak. But there was something different about Pax Romana which the other two colonialised or racialised “peaces” could never imitate, though in some very under-appreciated ways both of them, especially Pax Americana for all its severe faults, actually did and even surpassed the original.

The reason I mention Pax Romana as an example to begin with is two fold: first, I deliberately want to start with a non-Indian example in this first of hopefully many posts, but equally importantly we forget that this much-discussed Roman Peace was deeply linked to something absolutely fundamental: Pax Deorum, or the ‘Peace of the Gods’. Romans fought each other and with others; others became Romans, and sometimes Romans became others. Yet the Gods were absorbed - and worshipped - no matter who won.

The Gods mixed, mated, mutated. The pantheons of different regions overlapped, and changed with time. But this syncretism, this Interpretatio Romana and Interpretatio Graeca, kept the peoples together even as some of them fought and killed for power and pelf.

Roman God Neptune, corresponding to the Greek God Poseidon (Wikimedia Commons)
Roman God Neptune, corresponding to the Greek God Poseidon (Wikimedia Commons)

And then, seemingly suddenly, it all changed - the Dark Ages began, or as some call it The Darkening Age.

Europe and the Greater Middle East (later Americas, Africa, Australasia as well) were forcibly absorbed by the two universalist monotheisms which call all other Gods - and each other, indeed all other sects internally as well - to be False. That is an accurate, strict definition of monotheism: all Gods except One are False and the One Only Truth has been fully Revealed; hence concepts such as Blasphemy, Apostasy and Schisms are inevitable. Therefore, monotheism should not be confused with monism or panentheism or even henotheism - but more on this later.

The great American writer Gore Vidal once provocatively said, while rightly calling most practitioners fundamentally good humans like any other, “I regard monotheism as the greatest disaster ever to befall the human race.” Vidal perhaps overstated his case - Naipaul once said “It may be that these two revealed religions have done their work and have little more to offer” though I have a quibble there - nonetheless there was a lot of truth in what Vidal said.

The Great Reversal

Yet a monumental change is underway again, the mother of all changes - comparable only to the quickening of global growth in the last two centuries or the Great Convergence (of which India is likely to be the leading example in the coming generation), and in fact deeply related to it.

Despite many setbacks, yes, it is finally happening. The Old Gods are indeed coming back after centuries and millennia.

It is only dawn to be sure but we can almost whisper ‘God is Dead, Long Live the Gods’. Or as one can put it more starkly: “ISIS to Isis.”

Again, these are early days but this is a reversal long awaited in billions of hearts and souls. The long road from monotheism to polytheism often goes through sectarian violence, formation of modern states, then plays up ideas of deism, agnosticism/atheism and ‘secular humanism’ and it is absolutely, perfectly fine if many choose to stop just there. Non-believers and seekers are perfectly and completely welcome, without any patronising whatsoever, under the Umbrella of Dharma.

But it is human nature - as we face trials and tribulations in our lives, as we in a silent way battle our own selves daily - that many will explore further for Solace, Peace and Purpose. The revival of the Ancient Gods - from ‘Christian’ Europe to ‘Atheist’ China to ‘Liberal’ America to ‘Indigenous’ Africa - will gather momentum. I do not want to be a historicist hence strict certitude is out of the window, but let us just say it is very likely. I swear by the Gods, if you will, that it is so from my vantage point - you will just have to wait for future posts.

Facilitating this transformation where needed, and graciously stepping back when required, never looking for credit or glory for its own sake, and never quibbling on semantics - will be the grand narrative of the comeback civilisation par excellence in this century - perhaps the last global superpower - India. But she will not do it alone. Working with Japan, America, Europe (perhaps initially just France) - and in the end Africa above all others - will be critical to this enterprise. Finally, even as we remain very hawkish on foreign policy when it comes to Communist China and parts of the Islamic world - good people there too will be absolutely critical to this mission.

The pandemic has reminded us, what the Cuban Missile Crisis and the World Wars showed us more starkly, that we cannot take our collective survival for granted. We must co-exist in peace. And peace has to be more than skin-deep, it must be soul-deep. At the end of day, mutually assured destruction is, well, mad. It may work for now but we have to keep trying for something better.

It is then India’s destiny to be a Vishwa Guru (world teacher) this century, but for that she must first be Vishwa Shishya (world student). And simultaneously, she must become prosperous - whether we like it or not, the obvious question in the mind of others whether they articulate it or not is “if you are so great, why are you so poor?” Yet money is not everything. India will have to study the world with humility and objectivity, and we will have to use the same critical sight on ourselves - something much more difficult - owning up and correcting our own faults as and when needed.

The Beauty of Smarta

India is the civilisation which invented and institutionalised Pax Deorum if you will with far more finesse than any other civilisation - the essence of Dharma is mutual respect; you do what is right for your moksha, and I for mine, and we do not insult each other - then our Panths (paths) can beautifully coexist. All Dharmic traditions incorporate this but no other tradition exemplifies this theological - if not always social - mutual respect more beautifully than aspects of the great Smarta tradition, in whose Panchayatana Puja we worship five Gods, even if we prioritise one.

It shows clearly that one can worship or elevate one’s Ishta-Deva more than other Gods - so long as we do not falsify them. It is another matter that all such Devas may be considered Forms of the same Saguna Brahman, which in turn may represent the underlying or ultimate Formless Reality - Nirguna Brahman. Though to be sure, one does not have to agree on even this formulation. Nonetheless, sectarianism just cannot flourish in such a spiritually elevated context. For example, the Ramanandi Sampradaya - while being Vaishnav - celebrates Shivaratri with a lot of devotion. The bhaktas of Madhusudan happily worship Rudra, and vice versa.

This pluralism, this diversity and above all this mutual respect is so obviously embedded throughout Dharma - that it is the core of Dharma. That essence is Dharma-ness or Dharmatva. There will be thousands of smaller d-dharmas globally, but I see Dharma as the superset and Dharmatva as its unalterable or Sanatana feature.

In turn, “Hinduism” can be seen as the subset of a universalist Dharma - a subset with significant links to the Indian subcontinent but I do not think that this definition should be forced on anyone. Dharma itself contains all “pagan”, “heathen”, “kaffir”, “polytheist”, “henotheist”, “tribal”, “monist”, “dualist”, “indigenous” spiritual traditions of humanity.

To paraphrase what is said about the Mahabharata, all truly spiritual experiences are within Dharma and what is not in Dharma is nowhere else. This is what Swami Vivekananda said, this is what Sri Aurobindo understood, and indeed this is what the revival of Graeco-Roman traditions in Christian Europe achieved: modernity.

The Vaccine is not the Virus

With the help of the inevitable violent schisms within homogenising universalisms - sectarian warfare was especially brutal after the “Reformation”, with glimpses of the Modern Middle East if you will - Europe eventually created the modern state. Industrialisation, state capacity when it comes to finance, trade, a monopoly on violence followed by some accountability.

But a vaccine is not the virus. The vaccine (modernity) is meant to disarm the virus (exclusivism) even if it uses the virus in that fight. Secular modernity and the modern state system it spawned are not Christian, it was created - with blood, tears and sorrow over centuries and millennia - against Christianity.

Now, Western supremacists come in various forms - but let us take the example of two here. The first can be called a civilisational supremacist though in the end still a religious apologist, while the second is an outright apologist.

First, Tom Holland, who thinks Modernity (that has brought us to striking distance within the end of mass absolute poverty globally) is somehow completely Christian while all the ‘Bad Stuff’ like Hitler etc is of course Heathen, even if there is a long European Christian history of anti-Jewish violence that was explicitly religiously motivated.

The other example could be that of Eric Sammons who thinks that Christianity in general - and Catholicism in particular - is suffering precisely because the Popes have partially given up their exclusivist Truth Claims, at least in the western public domain, and that we should go back to a world where the Heathen had to be civilised. In other words, Modernity is deeply anti-Christian as per Sammons.

While we civilisationists in India generally tend to focus on Sammons-type arguments, and rightly so, the Holland-type arguments are even more insidious. And more to the point, inaccurate. The gradual de-sacralisation of exclusivist Christianity in the public sphere, even though it obviously did not follow a straight line, happened due to scholars such as Poggio Bracciolini and Gemistus Plethon - and many, many others - reviving the philosophical and artistic heritage of the ancient Pagan Mediterranean world, sometimes as sincere but heterodox Christians and sometimes as outright crypto-pagans.

The birth of ‘philosophical modernity’ where it was acceptable to ‘pursue happiness’ happened not because of Christianity but despite it. Nothing illustrates this better than Plethon who brought back neo-Platonism to Western Europe, and was a secret polytheist. The Platonic Academy in Florence which in some ways kickstarted the Renaissance was inspired by him.

And where can we trace the philosophical lineage of neo-Platonism? From Iamblichus to Porphyry to Plotinus - to Ammonius Saccas who likely had deep Indian influences! This is not to make the contra-supremacist argument that all pluralist thought originated in India but just to acknowledge influences - like we would do in the case of zero, say - and that a simplistic Eastern-Western binary is problematic and essentialist and too coloured by recent colonial atrocities. The final tragicomic parting shot of colonialism then is that the formerly colonised who now imagines himself or herself to be decolonised does not have the intellectual or spiritual courage to put forth his or her own universalism, even if it is explicitly pluralist!

Forgotten Fraternity

To conclude with a provocative statement more than a summary, the biggest problem with modern liberalism is that in its quest for ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’, it has forgotten about the third stand of the triad - ‘fraternity’. It has in effect converted a three dimensional immersion into a two dimensional one taking away all the texture. You only ‘free’ people and make them ‘equal’ if they can largely live with each other with respect, not just tolerate each other at repeated pain of penalty.

This applies of course within nations - which is the basis of our welfare state, interestingly some who oppose ‘nationalism’ do not understand that without a national or civilisational community there can be no real support for even efficient redistributionism - but to a lesser extent also across nations. Liberalism has in effect assumed a Homo Politicus much like certain materialistic strands of Economics assumed a Homo Economicus - completely devoid of any spiritual or transcendental longing, the longing which makes people gather in communities, new or old.

In fact I would argue that the clash of civilisations is nothing but the globalisation of the Westphalian state system followed by the eternal Leninist question of now “what is to be done?”. Here is where the connections of Dharmatva can play a major role for peace and progress in this century and beyond by organically inter-connecting all of humanity.

Abrahamism created Organisation (not Equality as is wrongly understood), and the success of that Organisation (or sense of the Other) led to violent schisms, which in turn led to the creation of the modern state where in turn Abrahamism was compartmentalised and then marginalised.

One challenge in front of India, Japan and then the entire world actually is to re-imagine this necessary compartmentalisation - because an exclusivist memeplex will always remain in some form - where Dharmic harmony can nonetheless get beyond the definition of “religion”. But we must remember that the modern state is the enemy of exclusivist proselytisation domestically - though it can be a friend on foreign territories. Iqbal understood this, Maududi understood this, and the recently deceased Geelani also understood it very clearly: which is why the “Islamic world” is in a deep crisis causing much misery to innocent Muslims first and foremost.

For sovereign, strong states - and India, Japan and perhaps even the European Unions are becoming so - the right idea is to expand, not cower in fear. And to expand, the strategy is completely different from when you defend.

Imagine

Imagine a revival of the Old Gods all over the world. Imagine the festivals - a Holi (actually Vardavar) in Armenia, but under the Hetanism rubric, not Hinduism. Now imagine that combined with the revival of Egyptian Gods but celebrated in say Milton Keynes, England.

Imagine a thousand such combinations, done respectfully and aesthetically creating their own new Sampradaya branches. If we can disconnect Dharma from birth lineage, we can expand globally - without trying to assimilate anyone. We will become Them, and They will become Us. Like sugar in water.

Imagine also - just like Kameshwar Chaupal, a Hindu Dalit, who laid the foundation stone of Ayodhya’s Ram Mandir - if we also respectfully include just a few Native American, African, European, Chinese and Middle Eastern Gods in the corners of the temple complex (in the beautiful spirit of our Smarta tradition). The grandeur of the temple will of course be about Shri Ram first and then Sita, Laxman, Hanuman - but if we opened our hearts further, we could send a profound message to the world.

Not many Dharmic places of worship have been reclaimed globally (Somnath is the other obvious example, and many forget Hagia Sophia for all its intra-Abrahamic contestations was originally a pagan temple). Imagine if we could completely change that.

Imagine if next time someone says “Black Lives Matter”, one replies saying “Yes, I fully and unambiguously agree - but Black Faiths Matter too”. The spiritual denuding of vast parts of the world has to be reversed creatively, humanely and peacefully. In that lies our greatest service to humanity. We protect Dharma, and Dharma protects us. In that, is our Dharmatva. And far from being dismantled, it is just getting started.

Harsh is an investor, and the coauthor of two books - latest being 'A New Idea of India'.
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