east and west
Veera Skanda
Orient and Occident – I
This article originally appeared in centreright.in. CRI content has now been subsumed in swarajyamag.com. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of swarajyamag.com

In the recent years we (many people I came across) have been looking for a work that brings about the foundational differences in the societies of East and West, their knowledge, culture and philosophies. At the most fundamental level, namely worldview and framework, seers like Sri Aurobindo had articulated the differences as they saw – quite accurate, but not quite their main line of work. Hence these thoughts are found in precise statements as part of their other major works. In the next era, ideologues like Sitaram Goel and Ram Swarup had done monumental work, but primarily contrasting the religious philosophies of East against the Abrahamic religious philosophies.

As expected, the next era (present one) of literature should be bringing more foundational work, namely contrasting the societies and civilizations that give rise to these worldviews, their predicaments in those religious, economic, political and spiritual philosophies.

The west had invested more than a century of research to understand the East and its ways, and hence it could comprehensively establish control on the usually tolerant Eastern societies. They had carefully worked out what modes of overt and disguised western machinery and propaganda works in what ways, to perpetuate their control of the East. On the contrary the largely colonized East has only the information that is being presented to it and comes to it through the propaganda machinery – the publications, the news, the idiom. Those ideas and institutions are embraced by the west-educated Asians not because today’s western institutions are ideally suited to human societies, but because those happen to be pushed as part of this propaganda as “fair” institutions as opposed to the “discriminative” and “unequal” institutions of the east. Religion is but one, though very powerful, part of that agenda. It had become a sort of compulsion for the Eastern societies to “choose” those institutions for their societies by a systematic controlling of literature critical of those institutions. Today’s occidental institutions like democracy, secularism, communism etc have not exactly done to the East what they did to the West. Reasons have to do partly with the timely social necessity of those institutions in the west, partly with the compatibility of those ideas with those societies. Still, they enjoy the status of being the most modern and evolved institutions.

In the past two decades, primarily owing to the increasing first hand exposure to occidental societies in the educated Indians, we have just begun seeing through the essentials of the occidental institutions. Although they happen to be already part of India’s polity and society, they came to enforcement as ideals of modern society that India should emulate, rather than as a natural evolution or best solution to the current social circumstance.  Having freed themselves at least in political and military terms, now the oriental societies can and must afford to reverse the gaze, to understand the roots of the western institutions, to understand what they really have to offer to the Eastern civilizations, and suit themselves.

A good attempt in this direction today is Rajiv Malhotra’s Being Different. It draws a fine contrast between the oriental and occidental religious philosophies, but not quite the foundational worldviews. The worldviews of east and west, which are two fountainheads from where the varied ideologies and institutions of occident and orient sprout, need to be understood. And this needs to be understood beyond the scope of religious philosophies. That is because although the religious philosophies also emerge from the same, a large sphere of the world’s activity is consciously moving away from religious/theological connotations. And this sphere is nevertheless influenced by the foundational worldviews of the occident and the orient, and hence will continue to influence the lives of both societies.

While several countries in the east gave up to Islam, India is probably the most affected in the remainder of Asia, which in the recent centuries imported several occidental institutions and concepts willingly or unwillingly – secularism, democracy, affirmative action, communism, feudal system etc. There are other countries too that are affected – for instance communism and atheism made a major impact in China, Mongolia etc.

The purpose of this write-up is however not a criticism of occidental institutions. Every institution/concept has its due contribution and relevance, limited in time and space. Communism, atheism, secularism each has its definite relevance and solution to one or more problems in the society. However none of these contributes to a comprehensive social or political design. They fit into a timely need in a specific phase of social evolution, and are compatible to a particular social design. For instance communism had no case in India at the social level until feudal setup was entrenched. But it became a necessity at one point, and is no more so. However its ill-effects in India had been much bigger than mere side-effects – the biggest being a perversion of public discourse, monopoly of academia and consistent anti-national and anti-Hindu material being churned out with the official stamp of educational and research institutions. Secularism and democracy had similarly not been very beneficial to India, and been used so far mostly to the disadvantage of Hindu society. However in the west all the three ideas had a definitely better purpose served, especially in terms of marginalizing the dogma of Church.

This can be argued from both sides, and one argument is that may be the Indians are not yet ready for these lofty ideas. And that would be valid, if the traditional Indian institutions have no hope of surviving or if they are not inherently capable of solving the problems that these concepts address.

But even a casual observation of Hindu kingdoms shows that secularism is not really something that Indian society ever needs – Hindu ruler ship did much better in terms of religious tolerance and religion-agnostic state organization than today’s secular state. Neither is atheism necessary as an idea – for Hindu society never embraced theocracies. Similarly leftist correction never becomes a necessity in Hindu society because it is not a right-only thought system in the first place. Left and right functions, the ones of discrimination and synthesis (famously called vimarsa and prakasa in Saiva Agamas), always found the right balance in Hindu thought and hence social organization. Whether one says the society is not “prepared” for these ideas or whether the society did not need these ideas, the ill-effects are being borne by the society.

The cycle of importing occidental ideas is not quite over – it is a continuing trend in India. Hence it becomes a necessity to understand each of these ideas and institutions in the setup and times they originated in, and their relevance to the western and Indian societies to be able to objectively own or disown these ideas or adopt them with due deliberation and tailoring.