Dharma Obscured: A Brief Critical Response to “The Dharma Manifesto”

A Note of Introduction: The following essay was written in the winter of 2013, immediately after my reading of the book in question. I had originally intended it to run on another website, but it was not published there so as not to produce conflict. After that experience, among others, I have largely kept my opinion of the book and its impact to myself, feeling rather alone in my impressions. It was only after a friend and respected teacher of Dharma approached me for my thoughts on the topic that I showed him this article and he encouraged me to make it public. It is with his blessing and support that I do so now, and only in the hope of adding to a civil public discourse.

Politics is a difficult area for me. This is not because I have no political ideas, but because it is especially hard to draw out real, working solutions to complex problems from the myriad of possible approaches to any given situation. In large part, this is due to the fact that people tend to become very attached to their political labels, with more emphasis placed upon ideological purity than upon real, substantive strategies. So, I have been doing a lot of reading, lately, in order to try to broaden the scope of my own thoughts in this area. Śri Dharma Pravartaka Āchārya, in his recent book The Dharma Manifesto: A New Vision for a Global Transformation (2013, Arktos Media), is of particular interest for me. As a Western-born Saiva, I view Dharma as a model for finding solutions to even the most perplexing of difficulties. My initial impression of Āchārya-ji was largely positive; here is a man of spiritual trajectory, rational acumen, and moral passion putting in genuine effort to shape the socio-political world in accordance with Dharma. Whether or not I agree with each detail, his sincerity and dynamism cannot be denied or ignored. I excitedly ordered a copy of the book as soon as I saw reference to it. As it turned out, even flipping through the book raised in me many doubts on particulars. Though the volume is slim, it took me more than a month to complete, as I kept running across points which required much deeper thought on my part than a casual reading would allow.

It is an interesting fact that anyone would even attempt to pen a “manifesto” of Dharma. “Manifesto” is formally defined as a public decree of intentions by an institution, with the implication that the institution in question is an organization or activist bloc with fairly singular ideology, objectives, and methodology. And, certainly, such a united front is presented in The Dharma Manifesto, complete with bullet-pointed policy planks and a fully-fledged strategy for gaining real political power.

The amount of research which went into the project is honestly staggering, and the intellectual effort is beyond admirable. Āchārya-ji refers to, and draws from, sources as diverse as the Buddha, Alain de Benoist, Julius Evola, David Frawley, Lao Tze, Plato, Oswald Spengler, Bhaktivedānta Swāmi Prābhupāda, and G.K. Chesterton. And, just as importantly, at no point does he try to fit any of these thinkers into his own box, rather taking ideas and inspiration from them where he can.

His basic premise, however, deserves examination in light of his presentation. As I have previously observed, disparate sources aside, Āchārya-ji tries to display a unitary Dharma where, in fact, no such thing exists. It may be true that Dharma is ultimately one (or beyond division), but here on Earth it is necessarily seen from a myriad of directions. It is simply not possible — and not useful, in any case — to reduce, say, Samkhya to Vedānta, or Buddhism to Śaiva Siddhānta. To compare them can be very instructive, but to smear-out their distinctions in service to a rhetorical strategy serves only the ideologue.

Hindu Dharma and its close relations — Taoism, Shinto, Buddhism, Jainism, etc. — are neither equitable nor monolithic. Even within Hindu Dharma itself, there are the six āstikā darshanas and numerous schools of admixture, approaches to practice, sects, and lineages. All of these “are” Hinduism, and Hinduism contains them all without prejudice. It is true that certain schools and sects are more statistically representative than others, but that does not imply an institutional orthodoxy in a model similar to the Roman Catholic Church. While there exist many Hindu organizations, and while it may be desirable to have greater Hindu solidarity, it is contrary to the radical pluralism inherent to Dharma to insist upon ideological uniformity beyond a few points of commonality.

This “radical pluralism” is pluralistic in that it demands comfort with ambiguity and mutual respect amidst often irreconcilable differences; and it is “radical” in that it must resist any violence done against freedom of intellect, regardless of the source of the assault. Yet, there is a uniting or organizing function to Dharma in the form of what Rajiv Malhotra calls “integrative unity.” (See Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism, 2011, HarperCollins.)

Integrative unity is the “unity of plurality”, or the conceit that everything which exists — including ideas — has its essence as a part or reflection of an underlying or inherent totality. The “part” may never be fully separated from the “whole”, but is so only as a contingency. This stands in contradistinction to “synthetic unity”, which begins from the “parts” and tries to form from them an artificial unit, often in spite of irreconcilable differences which inevitably lead to dissolution. In this case, the differences are either acknowledged only to subdue them, or else ignored entirely, whereas integrative unity begins with full awareness of differences and distinctions, but sees them as expressions of a profound indivisibility.

The vision expressed in The Dharma Manifesto is such a synthetic unity. Though I am loathe to say that a particular interpretation is not properly Dharmic — the aforementioned radical pluralism demands immense caution in making such declarations — on this particular point, I think it is warranted at least as a challenge. Simply, Dharma cannot be expressed by bullet points. This brings up an interesting question: either Śri Dharma Pravartaka Āchārya does not know this, or else he knows it and is intentionally ironing-out the nuances for rhetorical purposes. Quite honestly, the first possibility may be dismissed out of hand. Āchārya-ji is too obviously intelligent and well-studied for me to take such an idea seriously. The other possibility has the unfortunate implication of sinister motive, but I adamantly do not mean it in that way. I believe that Āchārya-ji is very sincere. However, that sincerity does not guard against the fact that oversimplification is often a natural part of constructing a political ideology.

It is true that Sanātana Dharma necessarily addresses the structure and functioning of a healthy society. Dharma is all-encompassing by nature, and so has lessons for every avenue of thought and activity. There are Dharmic law books with specific guidance for leaders and rulers, such as the famous Manusmŗti, but even these acknowledge that they cannot possibly apply equally to all places and times. In other words, Dharmic political thought is certainly possible, but Dharmic absolutism is a contradiction in terms.

Not that absolutism and relativism did not have their representatives in past ages, but the partisanship which now attends them is an outgrowth of modernism. As the dissolution that is relativism became the going cultural assumption throughout the industrialized world, the formerly dominant ideologies began to express themselves increasingly in terms of ideological purity. This sort of absolutism came to be seen as the only alternative to total relativism, so that even those who may have preferred a different solution had to frame their ideas in terms of either relativism or absolutism. To this day, “Progressivism” is generally an expression of relativism, while “Conservatism” is absolutist in nature.

Āchārya-ji, like most political thinkers influenced by Traditionalist thought, tries not so much to “steer a middle course” between these poles, but turns to possibilities well outside of them. That said, he applies an absolutist “hard line” approach which instantly petrifies the ideas and strategies into uncompromising dogma.

A good example is his discussion of atheism (pp 73 – 74). The typically Dharmic approach to atheism is to dispute its fundamental premise as an intellectual aberration, but to admit its necessity as a possible position for the sake of freedom of intellect and conscience. Āchārya-ji, however, paints atheists with the brush of false consciousness, implying that atheists are sub-human by default:

Inclusion in human classification is predicated upon the ability of the individual human entity to both understand, and to subsequently choose to conduct his life in accordance with, the natural ordering principles of morality and nobility.

[…]

Since atheism intellectually disputes the existence of Natural Law, atheism is itself, subsequently, an attempt to negate the morality, ethics and legal norms and behavior that are predicated upon Natural Law.” (pg 73)

So we have a two-part process of dehumanizing those with whom we disagree. We first say that one is only human who adopts a certain ideology, and then demonstrate in what way our opponents are not doing so. Of course, we leave a paragraph in between so that this dehumanization is not totally obvious and may be softened, but it is certainly still there.

And this turns us back to the problem of oversimplification, inherent as it is to absolutism of any sort. Āchārya-ji says as part of the same argument that “[the] existence of moral principles is a disjunctive proposition: morality either is or is not. There is no grey area. The unequivocal capacity of morality is rooted in its transcendent provenance.” (pp 73 – 74) All Dharmic thought is willing to agree with the latter proposition, but the former is a decidedly Abrahamic assertion. It is true that Dharma sees all true ethics and morality as arising from transcendence or absolute inwardness. But there is the key, and there is the contradiction. Frithjof Schuon makes the point thus:

The Hindus and Far Easterners do not have the notion of ‘sin’ in the Semitic sense; they distinguish actions not according to their intrinsic value but according to their opportuneness in view of cosmic or spiritual reactions, and also of social utility; they do not distinguish between ‘moral’ and ‘immoral’, but between advantageous and harmful, pleasant and unpleasant, normal and abnormal, to the point of sacrificing the former — but apart from any ethical classification — to spiritual interests. They may push renunciation, abnegation, and mortification to the limits of what is humanly possible, but without being ‘moralists’ for all that.” (Spiritual Perspectives and Human Facts, 1954, Faber and Faber, pg 58, as quoted in Evola, Ride the Tiger, 2003, Inner Traditions International, pp 74 – 75)

Of course, there are what we would recognize as moral and ethical considerations in Dharma, or else we would not have the yogic yamas and niyamas or documents like the Tirukural of Saint Valluvar, but even here the discussion is always centered in action and reaction, with consideration of others as persons who can be known as such, rather than the intrinsic value of a given thought or action. Dharmic ethics are founded in absolute principles, but are applied according to present need rather than abstractions. What is often referred to as “Hindu idealism” is thus more of a “metaphysically-oriented realism”.

Throughout The Dharma Manifesto, Śri Dharma Pravartaka Āchārya translates Dharma as “Natural Law”, not just linguistically but also conceptually. While this is one sense of the term, it serves as neither a full definition nor an accurate translation. “Dharma”, as a word, is strictly untranslatable; every translation of it, then, is no better than an approximation — a point which many writers and translators on Dharma not just admit, but actively point out for the sake of clarity and accuracy. Often, the same author will employ a variety of words or phrases by way of a translation in different contexts for maximal precision. But, at least in the present book, Āchārya-ji never deviates from the phrase “Natural Law”. I bring this up as another example of boiled-out complexity.

We may also bring into question Āchārya-ji’s assertion that practically all non- or pre-Abrahamic religions are inherently Dharmic in the same way. This, along with the artificially constrained definition of Dharma cited above, begins to take on the tenor of a rhetorical strategy more than an actual ideological plank. Without speculating any further into motive, we are still left with a drastic simplification. Can we really relate every single one of the many and varied Native American religions and say that they are the same as Taoism? And is the purely political state polytheism of imperial Rome in the same category as state-independent Hinduism? It is certainly true that an incredible variety of religious and philosophical practices and orientations already exist within Sanātana Dharma, but even then their distinctions and differences are every bit as important as their similarities. It is not enough simply to declare them allies in a common cause; they must recognize themselves as part of an integral unity which exists prior to them and persists after them.

Finally, for all the accusations made against the Abrahamic faiths’ regressiveness and inhumanity throughout the book, there are many examples of similar inhumanity in Āchārya-ji’s positions. The aforementioned dehumanization of atheists is a good example, but there is also a policy of downright cruelty toward homosexuals. To quote:

Both gay and straight citizens are encouraged to observe sexual fidelity and sexual continence as much as is within their power and within the confines of the law. [!] For straight citizens, this means that sexuality should only be expressed within the vows of marriage. For gay citizens, this means that sexual expression should only occur within the context of a monogamous and committed relationship, and from inside the closet. Sexuality is a purely private matter, and must not be intrusively displayed to the public for personal gain or as a social statement. (pp 124 – 125, emphasis added)

It should go without saying that Āchārya-ji is opposed to gay marriage.

More to the point, he seems to be missing centuries of history, especially recent decades. While acknowledging earlier (pg 124) that Dharma does not consider homosexuality to be chosen behavior — and thus, by implication, not immoral — he goes on to treat it as a disease and a source of shame. If homosexuality is natural and not sinful, of what social value is it to force homosexuals into secrecy? The only purpose such a policy serves is to socially isolate and psychologically alienate every single homosexual in the society. And the not-so-subtle accusation that the entire gay rights movement has been for personal gain is nothing short of crass cynicism, or at least the projection of crass cynicism upon a misunderstood minority. The attached notion that public admittance of one’s sexuality for social change is somehow not different from using it for personal profit crosses into the absurd. While I agree that sex is a private matter, many things best kept private must sometimes be discussed in public fora, not to become rich and famous but to ensure that oppression does not persist in silence. Āchārya-ji’s sort of “middle ground” approach to LGBT issues accomplishes nothing worth accomplishing, being an essentially Old Testament attitude with the overt threat of violence softened to a purely psychological threat.

All told, Śri Dharma Pravartaka Āchārya’s The Dharma Manifesto is impressive in the scope of the author’s ambition, and his evident sincerity. I cannot help, however, but be skeptical of any attempt at forming a political movement of whole cloth. In this particular case, my skepticism is only intensified by the use of Dharma to justify any number of policy planks and strategies which vacillate between the perfectly sensible, the terribly cynical, and the puzzingly absurd. Quite frankly, Sanātana Dharma has much more to offer even within the purely socio-political sphere.

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Books That Blew My Mind: “The Transcendent Unity of Religions”

[In] the case of intellectual intuition, knowledge is not possessed by the individual insofar as he is an individual, but insofar as in his innermost essence he is not distinct from his Divine Principle. Thus metaphysical certitude is absolute because of the identity between the knower and the known in the Intellect. ~ Frithjof Schuon

By the time I stumbled into Frithjof Schuon, I had been reading into esoteric practice from various angles for a long while. Yet, somehow, I had almost entirely missed the Traditionalist/Perennialist approach. When reading Huston Smith’s memoir, Tales of Wonder, the author mentioned his own initial run-in with Schuon’s work, dropping the title The Transcendent Unity of Religions as his first foray. Despite Smith’s warning that the book is deceptively difficult for its page count, I immediately ordered myself a copy and excitedly began to read as soon as it got to me.

For those unfamiliar with him, it needs to be said that Schuon is a very difficult writer, whether one is reading one of his English volumes, or a translation into English. This is not because he is a bad writer. In fact, the complexity of his subject matter is such that I am inclined to say that he is one of the greatest essayists who ever set pen to paper! It is that very complexity which can make his books slow going. But, by God, are they worth the time and effort. The Transcendent Unity of Religions struck me the same way René Guénon’s books struck a young Schuon: “At last, a man who sees it the very way I do!” may have been words spoken, once in German and once in English, separated by decades, yet converging in a single instant of recognition, eyes locking across a gulf of eternity’s mercy. I was refreshed, exhilarated, and exhausted by the read (and constant backtracking, to make sure I was following).

The sophistication of the metaphysical observation made again and again throughout Schuon’s catalog is astounding, yet altogether obvious for a man or woman of a certain intellectual temperament. There is no attempt at making the shallow claim that all religions are identical, nor even the more interesting but equally wrong claim that they all make use of the same moral lessons and methods to reach the same Goal. He instead recognizes the distinction between exoteric religion and esoteric Dharma. Though the esoteric paradoxically transcends the exoteric — in the sense that practitioners of exoteric religion may be permitted, as the fruit of their sincere growth of character and worship, into the Holy of Holies — it must anchor itself to the world, and to humanity, by way of the formalisms of religion. It is thus that Sanatana Dharma, or sophia perennis, is seen as the transcendent-immanent Law and Wisdom that it is, while the revealed faiths of the world are given their place as gateways which may lead us inward to meet it. It is thus not at the level of name and form that the religions converge — often in fact opposing one another in necessary, though contingent, ways on this plane. Rather, it is only at the Heights of verticality (or the Depths of inwardness) that they become transcended, and, having gone beyond them in their limited forms, that they find their Goal in the Self or Divinity.

It is this point which liberal universalists and religious partisans miss alike. To the religious partisans, we may say that it is worthless to argue over who has the monopoly on Truth, as Truth defies merely mental and sentimental attempts at codification. To the universalists, we retort that we are well within our rights to defend our religions against assaults from outside and to stick closely to our traditional practices, for it is only thus that we retain our centrality — our humanity, in the fullest sense. In either case, we assert that the revelations and religions of the world cannot be understood “academically”, from the outside, but that Tradition-as-such can only be understood from inside a tradition. Similarly, religious traditions cannot be merely cannibalized for “techniques”; they are not golems or robots, but organically grown, distinct “personalities” unto themselves and, just as with animals, to analyze is to kill. Out of the killing ignorance, both mistakes arise naturally and inevitably, yet we must avoid falling into them ourselves.

Not much of this was news to me upon reading Schuon for the first time, but finally I did not feel quite so isolated in the observation and, just as importantly, I now had language with which to speak of it! Aside from this one overarching metaphysic, however, Schuon delves deeply into the esoterics of religious doctrine and practice and surfaces with treasures of the Intellect which take many lifetimes to discover for oneself. These lessons have had just as much impact upon me over time, and each re-reading of a Schuon book brings fresh rewards.

For as much as I love The Transcendent Unity of Religions, I probably should have listened to Huston Smith and gone with one of his other books first. With that in mind, if you’ve never read Frithjof Schuon before, and you want a good place to start, please allow me to suggest you begin with either Language of the Self or Survey of Metaphysics and Esoterism.

“Is Hinduism Rational?” on People of Shambhala

The first part of a two-part article of mine is now appearing on People of Shambhala. You may find it here: http://peopleofshambhala.com/is-hinduism-rational-part-i/

Please read and let me know what you think! Part 2 should be up next weekend.

Seeds Sprout in Dirt

Father, You have done me a bad turn —
You have given me to know that my
people suffer, that all animals suffer,
that the world itself dies but cannot die.

Father, what is it You want me to do?
I have no power, but entire trust in You.
But this great faith, this trust which You
bless, Your holy knowledge now feels infernal.

It burns deep to hear their cries and
to see the nations crumble, the stench of
rot as the great flies swarm through
Your Temple at the center of the wide world.

The Tree must bloom again, O Father!
The flower-nectar must drip into our mouths
as we lay starved and weeping beneath its
outstretched boughs, for we cannot ourselves reach up.

Let us be made awake by the sweet perfume
that we may finally pluck the ripe fruits
of Heaven’s Tree, take a bite, and pass it
outward, planting the seeds to make the world whole.