India’s Traditional Perspective on Futurology
by Come Carpentier de Gourdon on 18 Nov 2012 6 Comments

Any reference to India’s civilisational contribution to the methods to predict and plan for the future should start from the recognition that Indic culture has kept the memory of very long periods of time, stretching back not just for centuries and millennia as is the case in other parts of the world, but indeed for billions and even trillions of years in a cyclical pattern of recurring, spiralic evolution. The Latin dictum Nihil novi sub sole applies to India’s worldview exceedingly well. “What has been remains and will recur” could be another way to define it, although this circular pulsating revolution of time around an eternal axis does not negate progress anymore than it condemns humanity to fruitlessly going in circles forever as it goes along an ever changing radius which means that no event in its track ever exactly repeats itself.

A spiral by definition grows out of its initial seed while it revolves, and revolutions are embedded within the wider evolutionary process regulated by an immanent and transcendent law: the Rita (four of whose derivatives are the Greek rythmos, the latin rites and ratio and the English rut or route, the Chinese Tao), also alluded to as Dharma: the sustaining principle. The Dharma is represented by a wheel, especially so in Buddhist iconography: the wheel of the Law whose motion can also be seen as spiralic, as and when it grows to encompass the entire universe, like an expanding galaxy.

This fundamental notion is one of space-time as a relativistic fractal framework, grid or matrix which determines all things but is itself embedded in a meta-frame of space-time-lessness (parabrahman, sunya). The larger cosmic cycles are reflected in ever shorter natural and human cycles that are however subject to distortions due to a number of psychological and existential factors. In the Indian perspective, abstract “humanistic” notions like “democracy”, “freedom” or “happiness” are perceptual aspects of deeper needs subsumed in the Indic (and Indo-European) social order founded on the three or four main varnas (colours) of mankind, the four stages of individual life and on the four conditional goals of human life: orderly righteous conduct (dharma), material and intellectual wellbeing (artha), enjoyment in all spheres (kama) and spiritual realisation or liberation from ignorance and from the limiting conditions of phenomenal existence (moksha), the only unconditional and non-relative value.  

It is worth noting that Mahatma Gandhi fought to eradicate untouchability as an evil that ate into the vitals of Indian society but broadly upheld the validity of the varnasrama dharma which expresses a cosmological reality inaccurately alluded to in the West as “the caste system”, as if it were a peculiar creation of what Marx called Oriental Tyranny.

The modern “western” pursuit of such subjective and disputable “secular”, often arguably contradictory objectives as freedom, equality and democracy therefore appears futile in the Indic context as it is disconnected from a metaphysical “gnostic” awareness and takes the individual as the supreme standard in its apparent material nature. What is now generally accepted as democracy is a mainly Anglo-Saxon, culturally determined form of government rooted in the first industrial revolution and the ascent of a liberal bourgeoisie. It was extended to much of the world, at least in theory, not so much because of its innate merits, but rather due to the two century old colonial and financial supremacy of the Dutch and English speaking thalassocratic protestant and merchant societies.

If we look back at the original Greek notion of democracy, we notice that it applied to small urban communities and was never sought to be implemented on a larger framework. Aristotle did not rank democracy above other political systems extant in his time, even arguing that it could be described as a vicious or degenerate form of politeia, symmetrical to oligarchy, the opposite excess. Cities that came together politically formed confederacies (such as “syncretism” on the island of that name), and there is serious doubt that the modern continental or nation-sized truly qualify as democracies in the Hellenic sense, although even there power was shared only between propertied family heads, excluding slaves and menial labour so that almost any sort of polity can be defined as a democracy as long as it can be argued that the people are in some way, at least in principle or in spirit, represented by it.

Yet, there is no proof that the policies adopted by allegedly democratic nations, at home or abroad, reflect the wishes of their popular majorities. Indeed in many cases the opposite is true, since tiny elites draw up or dictate the agendas in all matters important to them as recent history has abundantly demonstrated in such cases as the unpopular and illegal wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, or the ongoing austerity policies enforced at the cost of the weaker sections of the population. In the USA, it is broadly accepted that the state is owned by and run for the benefit of the famed “one per cent”, i.e. the privileged plutocratic elite.

The Indic view is deeply pragmatic because it is rooted in the observation of the natural order within which a sustainable balance is to be kept. It can however be argued that any cyclical vision of time prevents one from seeking to make progress or even from taking an active role in improving society because of the inherent fatalism it generates. Yet, Indic cyclicity which gives a much larger scope to Braudel’s notion of “tres longue duree”, allows for multiple wheels within wheels, or smaller cycles within the larger ones so that not only in an individual life, but also in every period of it, be it a year, a month or a day, a cycle and a new beginning can be made and indeed will be made at the end of every decline. Entropy and negentropy (or syntropy, in the Mahulikar and Herwig sense of “a specific entropy deficit (ie. non Gaussian) dynamically ordered subsystem”, are the two inseparable alternative phases or pulses (centrifugal and centripetal) of the process, similar to the neoplatonic dipole,  proodos-anodos.

Idealism is hence replaced by or at least subsumed within the awareness of a larger immutable but all encompassing and infinitely diverse order which makes all things possible, though not all should be attempted as the Dharma will not allow deviations in the sense that it will both be eclipsed by them and eventually correct course by cancelling them out. Hence the Scripture affirms that “Dharma protects those who protect it and destroys those who destroy it”. This notion of protecting the salvific palladium was present in Ancient Greece and survived in the Byzantine use of the Panhagia or Pokrov and the Maphorion. The emerging environmental awareness reflects that concept that we must preserve that which shelters and protects us and makes our future possible.

The notion of time-space enshrined in Hindu-Jain-Buddhist and other Indic cosmologies can be illustrated by a modern photographic technique demonstrated by Jay Mark Johnson ( in his “slit” high speed camera which depicts events as occurring in a given time lapse, from left to right like a written sentence that is written clockwise, though it appears almost flat or horizontal if we take only a segment of it. The visual sentence is read sequentially, but its understanding is holistic once it has been grasped in full as if the present at the tail of it completed or explained the past (the unfinished sentence). The past of the event-object being portrayed is on the left and its present is to the extreme right where the future begins. The never ending continuity of that ongoing process is most apparent if we continue to follow – or photograph it – along the left to right spiral of its evolution which will come back to the point of departure, but at a higher level according to a logarithmic sequence.

If we take out the time dimension, the photographic series can be seen as a chain or frieze of discrete and yet continuous frozen momentary objects which are all timelessly simultaneous, as the flow of a river in meditation described by the Zen master Dogen in the Shobogenzo or the sculpted panels that run along the pediments and walls of Hindu temples. It is perception in time-space slices by consciousness that generates the impression of motion and chronological succession.

By inferring from the series of scenes kept by our memory or represented graphically, we can know, “foresee” to an extent, what the future is or will be like. Indian philosophy calls this succession of actions of various kinds, including those we call objects, karma, and predicts its inevitable but always modifiable outcomes (karmaphala) according to the sequence that leads to it.

Thus every class of object contains or manifests its own specific dharma or law and every chronological process enshrines its future becoming though the sheer complexity of its components (parameters) and outside factors makes it impossible to describe precisely what its future states are. Therefore we glance at the future “through a glass darkly” and our actions must be performed for their own sake, righteously and fully, and not for the result or reward we may desire. The Bhagavad Gita is forthright on this “Perform action for itself only and do not yearn for the outcome” (2-48). In that sense, the Hindu ethics is quite opposed to the capitalistic or utilitarian worldview which makes self interest and calculation of expected benefits the prime mover of human action. One should do what is naturally and morally prescribed at every moment whereas the future cannot be deliberately planned it as if it could be controlled.

Planning for a particular future at variance with the future expected by others will lead to strife and the failure of at least some if not all those designs. The endeavour to build an ever richer and more powerful state will result in the collateral impoverishment and decline of other states or, if this project is pursued on a worldwide scale, to the fatal depletion of the supporting environment. A society that reaches a high level of material wealth and comparative individualistic freedom systematically decays either into violent anarchy or into an oligarchic tyranny, as the present fate of the USA illustrates. JM Keynes diagnosed “free” or liberal capitalism as inherently unstable and self-destructive, while several social philosophers such as Oswald Spengler and Carl Schmitt analysed democracy as a process bearing the seeds of its own destruction through increasing segmentation, individualism, alienation, strife and anomia which produce an authoritarian reaction.

Harmonious homeostasis should hence be the goal rather than endless carcinogenic growth, once organic maturity is reached. Growth however will still take place in the Natural Order of things, but on the next higher level, intellectual and spiritual, once material equilibrium is achieved. The Indic economic and social doctrine is deeply environmental and it is small wonder that several modern alternatives to currently hegemonic growth economics are embracing those Hindu-Buddhist traditional notions of ecological sustainability in the name of de-growth (decroissance).

According to the varnasrama social order, the manava dharma (human law) bears the legitimate rewards and enjoyments mortal man is entitled to, but his ultimate goal must be liberation from the bonds of mortal, conditioned existence. That attitude defines the Arya, the noble human being, according to a linguistic root which we find in the Greek Arete (virtue) and Aristos: the best of men (purusottama in Samskrit). The Dharma hence defines the real aristocracy, the rule by the best, not based on birth, though birth enshrines predispositions and conducive circumstances, but on hierarchy (“sacred principle” – the spirit is above matter) in recognition of the inner self and temperament. The highest among Aryas are the Brahmins (the pneumatics, who grow ever more spiritually); the root brah (to expand) may explain the name given to Abraham by El Shaddai: “father of many (nations)”: the root is the same, multiplication of the One into the many.

The recognition of natural cycles and of the pendulum like (or revolving) motions they manifest protect Indian traditional thought from absolutist and utopian messianism and allow for the reconciliation of dynamic opposites (conjunctio oppositorum), such as democracy and aristocracy, polytheism and monotheism (through panentheism), transcendence and immanence, free enterprise and social regulation, determinism and freedom and pari passu, ultimately chance and necessity.

The Indic cyclical vision of the eco-social reality hence provides an all encompassing cosmological framework for the theories of economic, technological and monetary cycles demonstrated by Kondratiev, Kitchin and others, consistent with the Fibonacci series, which in themselves expose the limits and flaws of the orthodox liberal capitalist theories while proving to be powerful forecasting tools.

How can this holistic paradigm of self-regulation and development be adopted at a global scale? It is apparent that the largest Asian and Eurasian societies, i.e. China, India and Russia, at the heart of their own respective geo-regions, can take the lead by coordinating reforms in that direction, in tune with the ongoing revival of Confucianism in China, Orthodoxy in Russia and socio-economic Dharmic (Hindu-Buddhist-Jain-Sikh-Sufi Islamic-Indian Christian) doctrines in India. Those traditional spiritual and political systems share essential, basic features in opposition to the Judeo-Anglo-Saxon “secular, liberal, materialistic, individualistic” model revolving on capital accumulation and speculation for selfish gain and “maximisation of utilities”. They can hence catalyse a “fusion without confusion” to produce a viable dialogical, pluralistic and flexible alternative to the failed neoliberal, Imperial “Washington Consensus”.

The author is Convener, Editorial Board, World Affairs Journal. The article is based on a presentation at the Tenth World Public Forum Dialogue of Civilisations; the author acknowledges his debt to the thought of late JC Kapur 

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