[Being Different by Rajiv Malhotra (published by Harper Collins, 2011) is a must read not only for young Indians of modern India, especially those who are ashamed of being Hindus, but also for the followers and disciples of Sri Aurobindo, who have sometimes the misguided notion that Sri Aurobindo rejected Hinduism. The first effect the book has on you is that it makes you proud of being a Hindu, of Being Different from what the West wants you to be. One of the frequent accusations of Westerners on India is that it is a Chaos not only materially but also spiritually, and that there is no Order, which is so prominent in the West. Rajiv Malhotra brilliantly explains this point and analyses the nature and reason for this difference between Westerners and Indians. The Chaos, he says, is only apparent for people who look only for one Order whereas Indians have learnt to live with multiple orders from times immemorial, and have therefore acquired a far greater complexity of mind and attitude than Westerners. I reproduce below an excerpt from Being Different by Rajiv Malhotra. -- by Krish Patwardhan]
Dharmic Forest and Judeo-Christian Desert
The attitudes towards order and chaos discussed above are influenced by attitudes towards nature. The ‘forest’ and ‘desert’ are used below as metaphors to illustrate the differences between dharmic and Judeo-Christian civilizations.
In the West, the forest is often seen as a place of chaos, confusion and bewilderment; it is the ‘dark wood’ of Dante, the place where ‘the straight way is lost’). The desert is the place of illumination, where truth in all its black-and-white absolutism and starkness is revealed. It is also empty, barren and flat. In contrast, the forest in dharmic traditions is a place of refuge, hospitality and profound spiritual inspiration.
Sri Aurobindo uses a forest analogy to show some essential differences between Indian and Western spiritual philosophy:
The endless variety of Indian philosophy and religion seems to the European mind interminable, bewildering, wearisome, and useless; it is unable to see the forest because of the richness and luxuriance of its vegetation; it misses the common spiritual life in the multitude of its forms. But this infinite variety is itself, as Vivekananda pertinently pointed out, a sign of a superior religious culture. The Indian mind has realized that the Supreme is the Infinite; it has perceived, right from its Vedic beginnings, that to the soul in Nature the Infinite must always present itself in an endless variety of aspects. The mentality of the West has long cherished the aggressive and quite illogical idea of a single religion for all mankind, a religion universal by the very force of its narrowness, one set of dogmas, one cult, one system of ceremonies, one array of prohibitions and injunctions, one ecclesiastical ordinance.
(Collected Works of Sri Aurobindo: The Renaissance in India 1997:186)
The forest has always been a symbol of beneficence in India, perhaps because the lush vegetation of the subcontinent (now mostly denuded) offered refuge from the heat. Some of the earliest spiritual classics of dharma are called aranyakas, or ‘forest discourses’, and their exemplars, the rishis, are known as ‘forest dwellers’. Among the stages of life advocated for individuals, the penultimate one, in which the individual severs the bonds of family to pursue spiritual goals, is termed vanaprastha, which literally means ‘the forest stage of life’.
The forest can be a place for balancing order and chaos. Its thousands of species of animals, plants and microorganisms are interdependent. A square foot of ground can contain the equivalent of a whole city of different life forms, including microscopic life. The microcosm, at any given level, is always connected with its enveloping macrocosm, and so these worlds-within-worlds are not separate and isolated. The forest contains enormously complex biomass that is constantly changing and evolving. Forest creatures are immensely adaptive to one another; they mutate and fuse into new forms easily.
To an Indian, a forest suggests fertility, plurality, adaptation, interdependence and evolution. The forest loves to play host and is never closed to outsiders; newer life forms that migrate to it are rehabilitated as natives. It grows organically, with new forms coexisting without destroying prior ones. It is never final and complete. Its dance is ever evolving. Indian thought, analogously, is largely process-based. For Buddhists, the interdependence of the forest mirrors the interdependence of everything in the cosmos.
The forest’s diversity is an expression of God’s immanence - as bird, mammal, plant, and so forth. Just as there are infinite processes in the forest, so there are infinite ways of communicating with God. Indeed, India’s spiritual outlook rests on this very principle: that the divine is immanent and inseparable from life and nature in all its forms. The forest, like the human body, provides a context for the relations between the outside and the inside, between wilderness and humanity. The various dharmic texts and rituals flow into each other in complex ways that defy being ordered into so-called ‘critical editions’ or linear chronologies. Dharmic traditions reconfigure themselves dynamically, often creating discomfort in the Western mind, which is used to everything being in its proper place.
These traditions took root on the banks of rivers with sacred waters flowing, rivers which symbolize change and evolution. The experience of endless organic evolution was integral to the various schools of philosophy, scriptures, deities, rituals, spiritual practices and festivals. The idea of harmony arose from the forest and its interwoven-ness. Forest dwellers respect nature and do not imagine that God made the world for humanity’s dominion, as their Judeo-Christian counterparts believe. Nature and its creatures are part of one cosmic family.
It is the milieu of the desert, on the other hand, that has shaped the Abrahamic faiths. The desert can be hostile and is not a place to dwell permanently or to marvel at the diversity of life. Its vast emptiness instils awe but also fear. The desert connotes starkness, a paucity of life, harsh environs and danger. The Judeo-Christian ethos is built on this sense of scarcity and fear. Nature is not supportive but profoundly threatening — an enemy to be tamed, civilized and controlled.
To overcome these circumstances, the desert dweller looks for relief from a God above. The divine is less a nurturing mother than an austere and oftentimes angry father. This God rescues him by offering strict and quick dos and don’ts. God gives him only ten commandments by which to live! In return, God expects the deepest gratitude, repentance and atonement. The desert seems to lend itself to extremes of religious experience; it is a place of repentance.
After the exodus from Egypt, Moses and his people were tested by the harsh conditions of the desert for forty years before reaching the Promised Land. John the Baptist went into the desert and practised austerities before returning with a message of repentance of sins for the people of Israel. Jesus, too, while undergoing his initiatory forty-day fast in the desert at the beginning of his public life, struggled to resist the temptations of the Devil before surrendering to God. (Contrast this image with the Buddha in a forest of bodhi trees mastering the middle way.)
Related to the metaphor of the forest is the banyan tree, beloved in myths and stories across Asia. The banyan is unique among trees in that the branches sprout first and eventually bow down to the ground and become the roots of a new tree, each providing nourishment and stability to the entire tree. The tree is a single structure but functions like a complex, decentralized organization, providing shelter and nourishment to birds, beasts and humans. Its multiple roots and branches represent multiple origins and sources — all part of the same living organism, even if the whole cannot be comprehended at one glance. Each of the separate roots feeds every trunk, and hence every leaf is connected to the entire root system. There is no centre of the tree, because its multiple roots, trunks and branches are all interlocked and inseparable. It is polycentric. Likewise, Indian civilization is a network with no central control, an open architecture intertwined internally and externally. It is naturally assimilative, and this makes it a highly efficient system for adaptation and for the fostering of diversity.
Besides being majestic and beautiful, the banyan tree is home to all kinds of life and activity. It offers shelter and shade to travellers. Monkeys make it their home. Yogis meditate under it. Village shopkeepers sell their wares beneath its canopy. Villagers gather under it, sharing community news and events. The tree is gigantic, complex and old, yet its size and complexity have coherence and grace.
The desert is incapable of sustaining the banyan tree and its complexity. Turning a forest into a desert is destructive, whereas to flower a desert is to enrich it. Desert people crave greenery so much that it is their sacred colour (as in Islam). The oasis, a small life-sustaining forest in their midst, is their destination. All their notions of eternal paradise are forests. But the converse is never true: forest cultures do not crave deserts. Forest-dwelling civilizations did not turn into world conquerors looking for alternative pastures; they found contentment at home.
A forest sustains quantitatively many times the populations of deserts; hence, the ancient civilizations around the world were tiny in size compared with the Indus-Sarasvati civilization in India. The desert has fewer types of life and less multiplicity in general, and correspondingly, the desert dweller has fewer objects of cognition and so is less experienced in dealing with complex relationships and contexts.
The forest functions well as a metaphor for context-based cultures, revealing why people living in dharmic cultures are more comfortable with cognitive complexity. Of course, those who love the desert believe it can inspire awe and worship. Still, for many, it is easy to see the desert as a place of extremes - deep cold or burning heat, hunger or food, water or sand.
(Rajiv Malhotra, Being Different, published by Harper Collins (2011), pp 212-16)