Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Essential Dharmic - Part 1: Necessary Conditions

This blog is as always, a work in progress, and will be revisited in the future as the ideas further crystallize. This post is introductory and leaves a few statements undefended and unexplained. This will be revisited in subsequent posts rather than make this introduction a very long one.

Background, Motivation, Preliminaries
a) This brief note was triggered by this tweet by the dedicated blogger @realitycheckind whose analysis and insightful commentary on the Indian education system, among other important topics, has helped shape a lot of minds.

b) This note uses ideas from a prior work that introduced a new modeling interpretation of History-Centrism, a concept introduced by Rajiv Malhotra in his book 'Being Different' (BD). The aim is to reintroduce the problem of 'who is Hindu' as the task of determining necessary and sufficient conditions (N/S), if any to 'be Hindu'. To answer this question, I borrow heavily from Rajiv Malhotra's new book 'Indra's Net' (IN). These posts are a first attempt to look at the ideas introduced in these books from a math-logical angle and see if any novel and useful insight reveals itself.

In the introductory blogs in this space, we saw how dharmic thought systems (DTS) were non-trivially different from history-centric (HC) ones, and the N/S conditions that used to delineate HC, and deemed "secular" and "universal" in nature, are in fact inadequate - they are neither sufficient nor necessary to distill the essentials of a dharmic. We explore this space further using ideas from 'Indra's Net'.

c) Most, if not all, of those who are trying to rediscover their dharma in their own way, belong to science, engineering, and math-based disciplines. Hopefully the language employed here is not so unfamiliar as to make it entirely unreadable.

d) Rather than just examine the Hindu issue, we follow Rajiv Malhotra and address the broader and (more powerful) general case of 'dharmic', which then allows us to treat 'Hindu' as a special/specific instance within this dharmic family.

e) These posts are less about conclusive and definitive answers, and more about getting dharmics to ask rigorous questions and initiate a debate: Who are we?
To begin to know what makes us who "we are",  a good place to start is knowing 'who we are not', so let's begin there.

First, I agree with the depicted tweet.
Reason: Abrahamics are an instance of HC religious membership, and it has been shown before that N/S conditions that define HC do not work for DTS (including Hindu Sampradayas, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs).

This leads us to three questions:
a) Are there essential features that allow a person to even qualify as a potential dharmic, and then
b) go a step even further and ask if we can stipulate conditions that are sufficient to characterize/define a dharmic?
c) What are the benefits and risks of having or not having such 'essentials'?

Separation Rule: Machine Learning Analogy
We will address these three question over the next few blogs, starting with (a) today. In particular, we are looking for a separation rule that allows us to achieve two objectives:
a) The separation rule should bring out certain salient properties of dharma thought systems, and be commonly satisfied by all instances within the system
b) These salient features should not be present in non-dharmic systems.

In other words, identify what is special and common to the dharmic cluster, but is also anathema to non-dharmic systems. This problem can be illustrated via this classical machine-learning picture that classifies incoming data as 'red' or 'blue'.
(picture source: http://glowingpython.blogspot.com/2011_10_01_archive.html)
Imagine the blue dots to be instances of a dharmic system such as Advaita, Buddhism, Jaina, etc., and the red dots to signify instances of non-dharmic systems (including history-centric faiths like Sunni, Mormonism, Protestantism, and new-age systems like scientology, random hippie movements, tree-huggers, cargo cults, etc.). The dotted line represents a machine-learning rule such that any current or future new religion that lies to the left of the line (e.g. answer computes a "YES" to the rule) is classified as potentially dharmic, and instances that fall to the right (e.g. answer computes a "NO" to the rule) is classified as surely non-dharmic. Also the proximity of the observed data point to the line may indicate the degree of violation or satisfaction. For example, an exceedingly adharmic system that permits genocide and slavery of innocents would be "red" and far away from the dotted line while some pagan faiths may be merely borderline red. Therefore, such a separation rule would also prescribe an 'escape route' for a non-dharmic system that allows it to eventually turn dharmic by reforming itself by becoming a "YES" instance. Clearly the presence or absence of such a separation rule has important practical implications in this world.

This allows us to rephrase our questions by asking:
- does there exist a separation rule that allows us to classify an input system as dharmic or not dharmic.
- Is this rule necessary, sufficient, both, or neither?

Rajiv Malhotra answers the first question in the affirmative and specifies an instance of a separation rule in his recent works (BD, IN) by a detailed examination of a variety of historical data and other sources of information.  Whether this rule is necessary and/or sufficient needs to be carefully analyzed.

The Essential Dharmic
There are three possibilities regarding the essentials in (a):
Possibility 1. We can reliably write down necessary conditions to even qualify as dharmic. These conditions may or may not be sufficient.

Possibility 2. We can reliably write down sufficient conditions to even qualify a dharmic. These conditions may or may not be necessary.

Possibility 3. No necessary or sufficient conditions can be written down that qualify or disqualify a person from being dharmic.

1. There are necessary conditions to even qualify as a dharmic. Equivalently, these represent sufficient conditions to disqualify a person from being dharmic
In other words, before we even try to essentialize Hinduism or other members of the dharmic family, we can and must be at least be able to tell what it is not. These conditions include:
- rejection of Karma
- rejection of Punar Janm

A person who rejects Karma or Punar Janm cannot be accepted as dharmic. A rejection of any one of these dharmic beliefs is sufficient grounds for disqualification, and an acceptance indicates a basic and necessary qualification (i.e., in the sense that it does not guarantee anything and in itself is not sufficient to pass the exam, but at least allows you to take the exam). Indra's Net makes innovative use of the terms Nastika, and Astika to distinguish between those who reject, or accept these two truth claims, respectively. HC members, in particular, are disqualified, since Karma or reincarnation are irreconcilable with the N&S conditions (why?) that define their own membership. The reasons for including these two specific truth claims are quite deep and worth studying. These beliefs are shared by all members of the dharmic family, but are not (in fact, cannot be) shared by history-centric systems at least, and some other new-age cults and other historic faiths. Detailed reasons can be obtained by reading the works of Rajiv Malhotra, but we will try to present additional intuition in the next post using the models developed in this space.

What is also important is that this separation rule is derived from dharma and not some secular-western legalese, and are also significantly different from HC/Abrahamic type membership conditions. To see the intuition behind this, let's look at two tweets together:

Again, I would agree with statements in both tweets if it means that essential features of DTS (if any) are not same as that for HC (e.g. Abrahamic). However, given the 140-char limit of twitter, this is a bit terse and is more focused on the legal point of view. I would disagree if the intent of these tweets was 'anything goes for Hinduism'. There has to be certain necessary conditions of elimination that narrow the scope and state a basic qualification for a person to possibly be dharmic, and there can be a debate on what these necessary conditions are. The conditions stated above are based on my understanding of the discussion in 'Indra's Net'. For example:
- a person who believes in any of the truth claims in the Nicene creed would not be able to meet these conditions and thus be disqualified as Nastika from a dharmic perspective.
- A secular person or an atheist who rejects Karma or say, an Islamist or a pagan who rejects reincarnation would be disqualified and deemed a Nastika from a dharmic perspective.
- It follows that a person who is not rejected is an Astika. However, whether these conditions are also sufficient to fully and definitively answer 'who is a dharmic' i.e., is an astika = a dharmic? is a discussion for another day.
- It is also interesting to note that the Astika/Nastika dichotomy and the necessary conditions employed to come up with this classification does not depend on simplistic belief or non-belief in some dualistic 'God'. Evidently, Nastika does not equal "atheist" and Astika does not equal to 'believing in God'. This is not surprising once we see that 'atheism' and 'God' are constructs that came out of history-centric systems that has dominated the airwaves in the west and middle east for many centuries now.

A key differentiation is that HC membership rules (e.g. Nicene Creed) imply exclusivity and introduce a host of duality-ridden binary partitions like us-them, before/after, moral/immoral, atheist/theist, Satan/God, etc. that are of limited use to dharmics. Although these partitions are simple and easy to grasp, separation rules derived from HC are not universally applicable (including in legal courts), and certainly cannot be employed to narrow the scope of who dharmics are or are not. We will conclude part-1 with a case study to illustrate this point.

Case Study: The SGPC in 1925 came up with a definition of 'Sikh'. Here is Arun Shourie talking during the book release of Indra's Net:

" ...People were asked what is your religion. So, 95% of them said we are Shinto, 76% of them said we are Buddhists. It couldn't be: because it was no different for them. It was completely Judaic, Christian, Islamic notion that you can either belong to this or to that. We are Hindus, many of the people, persons like me, all my reading is Buddhist, many of my practices would be from teaching of the Buddha but nobody would say that I am less of a Hindu or more of a Buddhist or vice versa and actually this notion was fomented in India and the first time this happened is in the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee Act. In that Act, ‘Who is a Sikh’ is defined. ‘Who is a Sikh’ – He who believes in the Granth Saheb, He who believes in the Ten Gurus. Most of us could be Sikhs from that point of view, therefore a new clause was added "..and who does not belong to any other religion". You and I may think it is just an administrative thing, but that seed is sown in 1925 and you see it in the agitations of Bhindranwale and others much later... as to what happens when these seeds come into being. "

We can see that the SGPC came up with two conditions
i) the first is clearly a necessary condition: belief in Granth Saheb and Ten Gurus. Seems pretty reasonable and natural. I, like most dharmics, deeply believe in both, and I personally agree that this is an important requirement.

ii) a second necessary condition that in combination with the definition-type ruling on "who is a Sikh", makes their statement taken in totality behave like a sufficient condition for defining a Sikh, and weeding out non-Sikhs:
A Sikh is essentially one who believes in the truth claims of the Granth Saheb and the Ten Gurus, and does not simultaneously belong to any other religion.

The latter clause is a HC-like membership rule that forbids any dual-citizenship, and is likely to be a bitter pill for dharmics to swallow and I personally reject it. Why? (i) in itself is sufficient to reject all HC members (e.g all Abrahamics) who cannot simultaneously satisfy HC's N&S conditions that irreconcilably contradict (i), and have to pick one faith over the other. However, (i) is not sufficient as far as excluding members within the dharmic family who do not explicitly label themselves Sikh. Therefore, the only role of (ii) appears to be to introduce an exclusivity clause to reject those who call themselves Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, etc. Rajiv Malhotra's separation rule does not repeat this sectarian mistake, and returns the focus rightly to the biggest picture there is, the Kurukshetra where dharma battles adharma. This decision may well turn out to be one of the great turning points of the Kurukshetra. It is possibly a side-effect of the mistake by SGPC that Wikipedia today describes Sikhism as 'monotheist' - tragic fiction. Depending on the context and situation, most dharmics today operate like a Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, or Jain, or one or more combinations. Clearly this kind of exclusivity based essentializing is dangerous, misinformed, and adharmic because of the harmful tensions it creates within the society. There may be disagreements within the dharmic family on the nature of the ultimate reality (e.g. Shunya or Brahman) that causes one to choose a Buddhist or an Advaitin perspective, but there was and is unanimous agreement on the primacy of (saamanya) dharma, and upholding its integral unity (ref: BD, IN).

This sets up the ground rules for coming up with such N/S conditions or rejecting such conditions. Any alternative candidate for the separation rule that is put forward to improve upon the necessary conditions for dharmics stated here has to be equally, or more sustainable and must transparently and unambiguously support dharma. Simply put, a viable alternative can only arise from a dharmic basis. Furthermore, dharma, unlike history-centric constructs, is truly universal.

Take Aways
The key takeaways of Part-1 are:
- "anything goes" and some (random) "way of life" answers to who is dharmic is non-rigorous, open to adharmic manipulation, random claims and definitions of Hindu-ness that are neither necessary or sufficient, and is especially unacceptable in a world where the dharmic market-share of demographics, geography, and global influence is shrinking at an alarming rate every year. We can and must do better.

- the presence of a separation rule that narrows down the scope of who is and is not dharmic has important practical implications and value. However, a bad choice of a separate rule brings with it its own negative side effects and risk

- necessary and/or sufficient conditions derived from History-centric theology or secular concepts are unlikely to work for dharmic classification/qualification, are not universal, and hence rejected.

- necessary conditions rooted in dharma are required to narrow the scope on who qualifies to be dharmic, and thus also prescribe sufficient grounds for disqualification.

- Necessary conditions based on the ideas from the book 'Indra's Net' are stated here.

- Note that this response rejects Possibility #3 by clearly stating that there are indeed certain essentials having a dharmic basis, that are at least necessary to be Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, or Jain (or dharmic, in general). However, are these conditions sufficient? What is so special about Karma and Reincarnation? Does having any separation rule invariably come with the burden of risk? We will discuss this in a later post.

thanks to @sighbaboo and @DigestionResist for reviewing an early draft and sending me feedback despite their busy schedules. Errors and shortcomings in this post are entirely mine and bugs will be fixed periodically blogs as more data becomes available and understanding improves.


  1. Well articulated, given the challenging task at hand! May we get to read more of your writings.

  2. Where would vanavaasis/tribals fit in?

    /* There may be disagreements within the dharmic family on the nature of the ultimate reality (e.g. Shunya or Brahman) that causes one to choose a Buddhist or an Advaitin perspective, but there was and is unanimous agreement on the primacy of (saamanya) dharma, and upholding its integral unity*/

    The historical reality is that B,J,S don't accept the primacy of Vedas. in TN, between 3-6 centuries CE, Kalabhras originally Buddhists & Jains, targeted Vaidikas for 'special' treatment. So given a change, B & J have been adharmic though not in the scale of monotheists.

  3. thanks for raising several interesting points.

    1. intra-dharmic family violence to propagate one's own school of thought is adharmic and clearly finds no basis in the texts or teachings of Buddhism and Jainism. I don't think even a single line defending this exists. Many leftists have tried to make an issue of this and similar incidents (Hindu > Buddhist, Shaiva > Vaishnava) but invariably fail, because they are exceptions to the dharmic rule.

    2. "primacy" of Vedas - fuzzy. define "primacy". does it imply it takes priority - then over what when there is a conflict? the Gita, the Granth Saheb, ..? examples. then we have to argue why a person who rejects such a primacy is not dharmic.

  4. 1. "i don't think even a single line defending this exists" - on one hand, we are proud to say dharm is not text book based. Yet when instances of persecution of Vedic followers by B, J , S are pointed out, we take refuge in " nothing in the book says it". Which is it? Are B, J, S book based monotheistic like groups or not? If B, J , S are Dharmic, the animosity of these towards Vedic/HIndu sects wouldn't persist into modern times.

    2. " fuzzy. define "primacy" " for lack of better reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Āstika_and_nāstika#Classification_of_schools

    "does it imply it takes priority - then over what when there is a conflict?" - yes Vedas take priority for Astikas, for nAstikas it was not the case.why so? only nAstikas can answer that, as they came post-Vedas :-)

    " we have to argue why a person who rejects such a primacy is not dharmic." exactly. Instead of that, clubbing together B , J , S along with Hindus ( vedic followers/jathis) under one group of "dharmics & ignoring historical conflicts won't do good. Will only lead to more confusion. For eg. sometime ago there was a report that Sikh groups in US had joined with White Christians (in US) to call for "religious freedom" in India. Is this a Dharmic action from them?

    1. 1. "text OR teachings", not just text. hence does not follow. anyway, this part is a distraction. the second point is more useful to clarify.

      2. simply put, you are missing the forest for the trees. This is not about "sameness" of H, B, S, J. Far from it. Even within Hindu Sampradayas, there are significant differences in the interpretation of the nature of ultimate reality (although the differences here that actually matter are still in integral unity). The focus here is on identifying the necessary conditions that bring out the *common properties* that bind these dharmic schools of thought together, which *simultaneously also* irreconcilably differentiate them from non-dharmic (history-centric) ones.

      Given this, it is not useful for me to spend my scarce off-duty time and research interest debating H vs B vs J vs S, but feel free to carry forward your train of thought along this path. thanks.