Saturday, June 14, 2014

Reading Guide: 1B. Pattanaik. Business Sutra.

Be sure to check out the Business Sutra Overview for more information, and you can also review Reading Guide 1-A. DP stands for the author's name, Devdutt Pattanaik:

The chapter begins with the story of the race between Ganesha and his brother Kartikeya, the sons of Shiva and Parvati. This is a story illustrating the difference between objective truth and subjective truth, and it is a story that DP often invokes as an example of "your truth" and "my truth" (remember the discussion of subjective truth in Part A?).
You can see a cute animation of it here; it's not in English, but you can follow the story easily: Narada arrives and provokes a contest between the elephant-headed Ganesha and the six-headed Kartikeya. They decide to have a race to see who can go around the world three times the fastest; Kartikeya flies off on his peacock vehicle (vahana), while Ganesha instead goes around his father and mother, Shiva and Parvati, three times — they are "his world," and so he wins the race. Bal Ganesh:

DP then speculates about the different "subjective truths" of Western, Indian and Chinese cultures. These are "sweeping generalizations" as he admits, so you might even find it most useful to see in what ways you resonate with these different types: the literal truth-seeking type (Western), the pragmatic and orderly type (Chinese) and the peace-seeking, contextual type (Indian).


DP breaks down the Western type into Greek and Biblical streams of thought; these two streams are both similar but also different: "What separates the two belief systems is the value they place on the individual over the collective, on defiance over compliance. What unites these two belief systems is belief in one life, and hence the sense of urgency to do the great thing, or the right thing, in this—our one and only—life."

Some of the Greek stories that DP invokes are Achilles, Odysseus, Theseus, Jason, Perseus, and Sisyphus, along with the Olympian gods and the Titans.

For many people in the West, the Islamic world is "the other," but for DP, the Islamic world belongs to the West: "from the Indian point of view, Western thought stretches beyond Europe and America to include the Islamic world, for the quest for objectivity shapes Islam too."

DP describes how this insistence on objectivity leading to conflict among the Western religions, and also the conflict between science and religion: "Every side believed in one God, one life, one way of living life, but they differed violently over who had the patent over the right way."

DP sees a merging of religious evangelism and materials in Western management science, and his comments apply to education also: "The innovator is the Greek hero, standing proud atop Maslow's hierarchy of needs, self-actualized, and secure in Elysium. Every advocate of any idea from greed to good governance is convinced they know the truth, hence the moral burden to evangelize and sell."


DP sees connections between modern and ancient China: "The mythological lens reveals that China functions today just as it did in the times of the Xia and Shang dynasties, over five thousand years ago, with great faith in central authority to take away disorder [luan] and bring in order. A pragmatic culture, the Chinese have never invested too much energy in the religious or the mythic."

On the contrast between China and the West: "In the West, nature is chaos that needs to be controlled. In China, nature is always in harmony."

Just as there were two different streams of thought in the West that DP highlighted, so too with China: "the more sensory, individualistic, natural way of Tao proposed by Laozi and the more sensible social way proposed by Confucius," which is based on relationships among people (guanxi or gwanji).

As Buddhism moved from India to China, the Confucian stream emphasized the Bodhisattva as Kwan-yi, while Zen Buddhism shared similarities with Taoism. DP also briefly discusses the Chinese novel Journey to the West; you can find out more about that in the Monkey-King unit of the Myth-Folklore UnTextbook.

DP also includes a story about Sun Tzu, the author of The Art of War. When Sun Tzu became famous after writing the Art of War, the King of Wu wanted to test him by asking if Sun Tzu could lead an army of women. You can read a more complete version of the story here: Anecdote about Sun Tzu.


The first encounter DP describes is the famous one between Alexander the Great and the Indian "gymnosophist" (naked wise man): "Alexander asked him what he was doing. The gymnosophist replied, "Experiencing nothingness. What about you?" Alexander said he was conquering the world. Both laughed. Each one thought the other was a fool."

You can read more about the Gymnosophists at Wikipedia; in addition to DP's story here, you will find lots of story material in that Wikipedia article. See also the article about the remarkable Indian wise man named Calanus who traveled with Alexander.

Although reincarnation was known in the West (as in the Pythagorean tradition), it was not widely believed. DP emphasizes this contrast: "Rebirth means the denominator of your life is not one but infinity. When you live only once the value of life is the sum total of achievements, but when you live infinite lives, no matter what we achieve, its value is zero. The point then is not to control life but to understand it, not achieve but introspect. [...] Rebirth demands we accept the existence of infinitely diverse, even paradoxical, contexts existing simultaneously as well as sequentially."

I love the way this illustration captures the contrast in perspective:

As a result, DP sees India as place where "there are no fixed goals." Instead, there are "continuously changing plans [...] and a reliance on reliance on resourcefulness that gives rise to contextual, non-replicable improvizations: the jugaad." You can read more about the jugaad ("hack") at Wikipedia.

DP sees this accommodating diversity in the religious and mythological traditions of India: "India celebrates both the rule-following Ram and the rule-breaking Krishna  [...]. India celebrates both the royal Vishnu and the ascetic Shiva."

Likewise with the realm of the goddess: "In India, nature is both danger and power. Embodied as the Goddess, she is wild as Kali and demure as Gauri. For Ram, she is Sita. For Krishna, she is Radha. For Vishnu she is Lakshmi, for Shiva she is Shakti."

Because DP is most interested in mythology and stories, he is going to focus more on the saguna tradition of the epic Ramayana and Mahabharata plus the Puranas, as opposed to the Vedic tradition that is more abstract, or nirguna.

DP also notes the contrast between the astika traditions of the brahmins and the nastikas (both Buddhist and and Jain, striving for nirvana or kaivalya as a Buddha or a Jina) "who believed more in austerity, meditation, contemplation and experience rather than transmitted rituals and prayers favoured by priests known as brahmins." What unites both the astika and nastika traditions is a belief in rebirth and in karma. DP provides an incredibly elegant chart that shows the relationships between these interrelated traditions:

DP also discusses the emergence of Sikhim as a faith in the Punjab, where there was the influence of Islam along with the bhakti movement.

He characterizes all of them as follows: "These religions that value rebirth can be seen as fruits of the same tree or different trees in the same forest. All of them value thought over things, the timeless over the time-bound, the infinite over the finite, the limitless over the limited."

DP also makes a wonderful contrast between "truth that is bound by space, time and imagination (maya)" and "truth has not such fetters (satya)."

All these traditions and truths fall under the label of sanatan, which means "timeless" or "ever-lasting."

 You can read more about sanatan at Wikipedia; some people have proposed the use of this term as an alternative to "Hinduism," which is a European, non-native term.

DP values the diversity of sanatan: "Unfettered by history and geography, sanatan is like a flowing river with many tributaries. At different times, at different places, different teachers have presented different aspects of sanatan in different ways, using different words."

There is a contrast between the impermanence of nature (prakriti, the world of the Goddess and of karma) and the world of human beings (purushas, separate from nature, imagining their own worlds, walking the dharma path).

The role of imagination is key to this concept... and so the great affinity between DP's approach and imaginative storytelling! "While truth in the West exists outside human imagination, in India, it exists within the imagination.In the West, imagination makes us irrational. In India, imagination reveals our potential, makes us both kind and cruel."

Animate beings (sajiva) fear death, but for humans, imagination adds another dimension to that response: "Humans are special as they alone have the ability to outgrow the fear of death and change, and thus experience immortality. He who does so is God or bhagavan, worthy of worship. Those who have yet to achieve this state are gods or devatas."

DP briefly introduces some terms from Indian philosophy, as these same questions can be explored not just in mythology but also in philosophy.

In terms of stories, DP sets up a contrast between rule-following heroes like Rama but also rule-breaking heroes like Krishna, and rule-following villains like Duryodhana and rule-breaking villains like Ravana. What do you think about that? One possible storytelling experiment this week would be to explore one of those heroes or villains, picking an incident where you see DP's theory being really true, or maybe you will have a different perspective of your own based on how you see these characters.

DP then provides a details discussion of the difference between the related terms brahman as the "infinitely expanded mind" (which is also swayambhu, self-contained), Brahma the god whom you know from mythological stories, and brahmanas or brahmins, the priests (these form a class, which you can see as a jati or varna; DP will have much more to say about jatis and varnas later in the chapter).

DP also discusses the sons of Brahma: devas, asuras, yakshas, and rakshasas. These are also characters you meet in the epic stories. There are also the rule-enforcing prajapatis and the rule-renouncing tapasvins.

DP then overlays this concept of brahman (fearless) and Brahma (fearful) with the characters of Rama and Krishna (who are Vishnu ~ brahman) and the sons who descend from Brahma like Ravana and Duryodhana: "Fear makes Ravan defy other people's rules. Fear makes Duryodhan pretend to follow rules. Both are always insecure, angry and bitter, always at war, and trapped in the wheel of rebirth, yearning for immortality. This is rana-bhoomi, the battleground of life."

DP notes that it is fear, not evil, that drive these villains: "The point is not to punish the villains, or exclude them, but first to understand them and then to uplift them. They may be killed, but they will eventually be reborn, hopefully with less fear, less rage and less bitterness."

Rama and Krishna, avatars of Vishnu, are different: Vishnu offers "the promise of ranga-bhoomi, the playground, where one can smile even in fortune and misfortune, in the middle of a garden or the battlefield."

Another theme is amrita: "Amrit, the nectar of immortality, takes away the fear of death."

You can read about the famous churning of the amrita here (DP will have a lot to say about this story later in the book): Churning the Ocean of Milk.

For DP, the amrita is a powerful symbol: "Both the brahmanas and the shramanas knew that amrit is not a substance, but a timeless idea. This idea cannot be forced down anyone's throat; like a pond in the forest, it awaits the thirsty beast that will find its way to it, on its own terms, at its own pace."

The rest of the chapter is a really powerful exploration of the way that the colonization of India led to many negative consequences, still felt today: "Indianness today is understood within the Western template, with the Western lens and the Western gaze."

The study of Indian religions and mythology has been eliminated or constrained: "Indian universities dare not touch mythology for fear of angering traditionalists and fundamentalists who still suffer from the colonial hangover of seeking literal, rational, historical, and scientific interpretations for sacred stories, symbols, and rituals. Western universities continue to approach Indian mythology with extreme Western prejudice, without any empathy for its followers, angering many Indians, especially Hindus. As a result of this, an entire generation of Indians has been alienated from its vast mythic inheritance."


I hope you will also want to read the postscript to this chapter which is entitled, "Caution!" — DP's discussion of caste in terms of a contrast between jatis and varnas is really fascinating. For those of you who have been learning about growth mindset in this class, it might remind you of the distinction between fixed mindset (jatis) and growth mindset (varnas): "Jati is tangible or saguna, a product of human customs. Varna is intangible, or nirguna, a product of the human imagination. Jati is fixed by virtue of birth but varna can flow and rise, or fall."

In this section, DP mentions a story from the Mahabharata in which the sage Markandeya tells the story of a butcher and a hermit; this famous story is known as the "Vyadha Gita," or "The Butcher's Gita," and you can read about it at Wikipedia: Vyadha Gita.

There is also a wonderful story at the end of this section about a teacher and a chandala, someone who works in a crematorium (shmashana): because of his wisdom, "the chandala clearly belonged to the brahmana varna. But because he belonged to the shudra jati, he was shunned by society."

In addition to making a sharp social critique, DP also calls for personal transformation: "The time has come to realize our evolutionary potential, open our eyes once again, and do darshan. Darshan means looking beyond the measurable. [...] Trusting human potential is not easy. Including other truths is not easy. But to rise in grace, we must outgrow gravity."

As you read the rest of the book, you will learn much more about the possibilities of darshan and imagination, expressed in the traditional mythologies of India.

No comments:

Post a Comment