Sunday, April 14, 2013

The "Chaos" of India

Thanks to the person who pointed me to an interesting article in some online magazine called "livemint" : "Why Rahul Gandhi has understood the chaos of India"

As the 2014 General Election in India approaches, and pro-establishment journos crank out essays defending their favorite candidates, the author of the above article attempts something truly brave: resurrect a universally panned speech by a leading politician of the incumbent ruling political party. In particular, this paragraph caught my attention:
"... There are two things that stand out in the speech. The first is Rahul’s recognition of the chaos of India, for which he used the image of the beehive. I think this is wonderful realism, and excellent imagery."

As a keen India observer and commentator pointed out on twitter: "....beehive is nt chaotic"

Is India really chaotic?
To many a visitor from the west, it has appeared so. A vast section of India's English media who have worshiped at the altar of Western Universalism and return to lecture India's unwashed masses, may readily concur.

India, for a long, long time, has functioned as a highly decentralized system - in virtually every aspect of life. It's workforce contains among the highest percentage of entrepreneurs in the world, and traditionally possesses a remarkably decentralized economic model. It's indigenous religions are decentralized and base on empirical self-realization. There is no single holy book or authority (there is an entire reference library, with scope for new books to be written). However, this lack of a central authority does not imply chaos or that India was never a nation. It is more likely that what is perceived as chaos is in fact a cognitive overload on the part of the casual observer - as noted in Rajiv Malhotra's book "Being Different". The best example for this apparent chaos that actually produces incredibly effective results is the Kumbh Mela (the largest human gathering on earth, which has been recurring for thousands of years now) that recently concluded in India. Several observers from Harvard and other big-brand western institutions showed up this time to analyze this amazing event. Here's what Rajiv Malhotra says about the Mela:

"....India's Kumbha Mela amply demonstrates that diversity can be self-organized and not anarchic, even on a very large scale. Held every twelve years, this is the world's largest gathering of people, attracting tens of millions of individuals from all corners of India, from all strata of society, and from all kinds of traditions, ethnicities and languages. Yet there is no central organizing body, no 'event manager' to send out invitations or draw up a schedule, nobody in charge to promote it, no centralized registration system to get admitted. Nobody has official authority or ownership of the event, which is spontaneous and 'belongs' to the public domain. Since time immemorial, numerous groups have put up their own mini-townships and millions go as individuals just to participate in the festivities."

How and Why? Rajiv argues in his introduction to the chapter "Order and Chaos":
"Indians tend to be more relaxed in unpredictable situations than westerners. Indians indeed find it natural to engage in non-linear thinking, juxtaposing opposites and tackling complexities that cannot be reduced to simple concepts or terms. They may be said even to thrive on ambiguity, doubt, uncertainty, multitasking, and in the absence of centralized authority and normative codes. .... In the vast canon of classical writings in Sanskrit, we see many context-sensitive and flexible ways of dealing with chaos and difference. The search here is always for balance and equilibrium with the 'rights' of chaos acknowledged. On the other hand, in the creation stories in Genesis and in the Greek classics, there is a constant zero-sum battle between the two poles in which order must triumph."

Interestingly, the socio-biological systems of beehives and ant colonies, which may appear chaotic to the casual observer has an underlying order. In his brilliant book 'Traffic: why we drive the way we do', Tom Vanderbilt quotes studies that note how vast numbers of ants move without colliding (without a centralized traffic cop ant), which is certainly worthy of emulation by human car drivers. The author notes "looking at the swarm as a whole, one might not see what is driving the movement". The insects have their own Kumbha Mela going, perhaps.

Rahul Gandhi's 'beehive' metaphor may not be unreasonable, but it appears to have been chosen based on an entirely shallow reasoning due to his inability to decipher India's apparent "complexity", which he contrasts with China's 'simplicity'. India can be plausibly compared in certain contexts to a beehive or an ant colony not because of 'chaotic frenzied activity', but because of an certain well-functioning harmonic order underlying the apparent chaos.

The lesson here for those of us wishing to properly study India is to look beyond the obvious, look deeper, pay attention to context, and there are amazing discoveries waiting to be made. When Rahul Gandhi, the 4th edition of the Nehru dynasty and potential contender for the post of prime-ministership in 2014 compares India to a beehive for all the wrong reasons; when sections of the Indian English media jump in to spin this into some 'deep thought', it only betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of the essence of India: pluralism, diversity, and cooperative decentralization, blissfully unaware that at its deepest philosophical levels, dharmic India is bound by what Rajiv Malhotra terms an 'Integral Unity'.

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