Feb 20, 2013

Psychohistory vs. Dumb Dialectics

In the Itihasas and Puranas of India, history is treated in a way that befuddled Western historians 200 years ago. The time-linear historical vector was only one thread, which was woven into an epic narrative, which in turn had its origins in a faraway but all-illuminating mythos. Western historians like Max Mueller initially rubbished this as fecund imagination not fit for historical data - after all, he pointed out, its absurd that they speak of an ancient history stretching far earlier than 5000 years (when the world was created according to authentic Biblical scholars)! That's become a joke now, but little has been done to re-evaluate this civilization's heritage from its own point of observation. Further, this innovative treatment of history is not an eccentricity unique to India. The great Persian poet and historian Ferdowsi, author of the epic Shahnameh, also speaks of these three threads: tareekh - time-linear historical events, hamaaseh - the epic heroic narrative between good and evil), and the asaateer - the mythological legends that encapsulate the collective psychological source of his civilization. This mythology sits on the horizon of conscious memory and time immemorial. Taken together, they help the civilization evolve by carrying forward the lessons of historical experience while maintaining its own essence and integrity, its soul.

Psychohistory is a modern discipline that attempts to study the psychodynamics behind historical patterns, past and present. Using the insights of process philosophy and psychotherapy, along with the research methods of sociology, anthropology and ethnology, it tries to understand the emotional origin of the behavior and choices made by social and political groups and nations as they happened in the actual context of their own times and places. A special angle of analysis is interpersonal relations according to the culture of that time, place and technological environment. Gender relationships and social divisions are re-organized differently based on the technological and cultural horizons in which society has to survive and operate most efficiently.

Psychohistory is fairly common sense, and is important because all too often we wrongly superimpose present day values onto a past circumstance and make an emotional judgment about it. A poetic observation that evoked religious awe in geocentric minds in millenniums past may prompt a supercilious wisecrack in classrooms today - but that would be a willful failure to appreciate the context and therefore the substance and validity of that work emerging on a different horizon. Its similar in the case of interpersonal and social relations in different eras and climes. A hierarchical social division that served well and harmoniously in feudal-agricultural times will certainly become unjust if it persists beyond its usefulness into the present day and age, but that doesn't mean it had the same effect in that earlier age.

Needless to say, one's Point of Observation can make all the difference in one's own affective states, and the cognition and action that can proceed from it. Awareness and education, as well as a general sense of contentment, self-esteem and detachment about life goes a long way into being able to find the optimal Point of Observation in any situation.

The present dispensation in India and the system it has nurtured is not just nationwide but pan-subcontinental and even international in terms of its primary dynamics. Its Point of Observation is not Indocentric. Chacha Nehru uvaacha: "I am an Englishman by education, a Moslem by culture, and a Hindu by accident." Fortunately or unfortunately, he was a child of the times for someone from his background. (Fortunately or unfortunately, other leaders like Ambedkar, Mahatma Gandhi or Sardar Patel were of a different hue and had a different perspective, though they didn't live to personally steer the Executive happily ever after.)

The current dispensation uses the same political methods that survived from the British colonial machinery and the Islamist powers that went before: extra-national allies, subversive elements, internal wedges and  external buffers to contain any resurgence of the core. Moreover, it tries to ideologically and culturally inoculate the civilizational core against its own essence; sort of 'Bollywood'-izes it. It thrives on perpetuating general poverty while encouraging the formation of rich new oligarchies and interest groups that pledge loyalty. This leads to competition for resources and quotas, amid widening inequality. Its ideological moles then frame a victimhood narrative to deepen the cleft, and its other allies use it to win converts from the core toward the cultural periphery, or towards a subversive movement, or to the outright antithesis.

The typical Communist ideologue (generally mistaken for a 'historian' at all our elite universities) uses a dialectic based on a deeply flawed psychohistory: It takes something that is an oddity or injustice in Present Time context, and superimposes its present sense of absurdity, grievance, or deprivation on history in a way that completely distorts the vastly different circumstances of that historical process. This retrospective distortion magnifies the grievance or ridicule, and makes the "burden of history" too painful to bear. The resentment is then used for push-button politics, mobilization and social engineering. Without a doubt, this social "reformer" is actually the angel of death as far as the civilization is concerned. Since he can't pick up the threads of the past in present time, he cannot help it evolve into the future. He can only try to nullify it as a step to "year zero".

More insidiously, after allowing the body politic to be periodically wracked by violence, the dispensation then encourages a maudlin sentimentality and a wishy washy "synthesis" culture from the thesis and antithesis. What's interesting about these periodic bouts of 'Aman ki Asha' is that it always initiates this "synthesis" by using the cultural preferences, dogmatic core and hackneyed accusations of the periphery and the subversive as the starting point (thesis), with the native core viewpoint (usually a travesty of psychohistory) framed as the flexible, fungible, or downright illogical and unjust 'other' (antithesis).

But this is a devious misapplication of dialectics: It is an epistemological observation that if the human mind is first possessed of an untruth, and is then confronted with a truer piece of data (true to the self), it first rejects it via a process of Othering. Any synthesis subsequently formed is of less truth value than the newly introduced data, though it may be better than the untrue figment that was used as the starting point. Its a positive outcome for the less civilized parasitic horde, but a net negative outcome for the more civilized host nation if it internalizes this "syncretic" culture.

If the ruling dispensation primarily addresses the periphery, the subversive and the outright antithesis of the Dharmic core as the point of departure for the evolution of Indian civilization, what occurs is not evolution but devolution. This social-engineered punctuated equilibrium is a slow death spiral for Indian civilization in stages...wherein the final nails in the coffin will be hammered in by enthusiastic and well-intentioned native deracinates who consider themselves as belonging to the core, but don't know any better.

Perhaps the first task is to reorder the political and educational discourse, and capture the dialectic initiative with a vigorous purva-paksha (clear statement of difference, what we are not). The work of people such as Rajiv Malhotra is very relevant in these times. Along with that, the core Dharmic forces need to create an all-inclusive and all-encompassing responsibility for society that outflanks the periphery and reduces it to an island, that pulls the carpet from under the feet of the subversives, and that defeats the untrue antithesis on the strength of demonstrated evidence.

Some related thoughts in this speech by Swaminathan Gurumoorthy on globalization and India:

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