At a time when it is fashionable to attribute the current global economic malaise to Western arrogance, a rising number of Western-educated public intellectuals in Asia are turning the barrels of their guns towards their former school masters. The era of the West has passed, some say. Its system is unsustainable, morally corrupt and even fundamentally flawed, they continue, adding that we should collectively look to the East for ideas about “the next model”.
But can Asia – even if an area of such cultural, religious and political complexity can be described in one word – provide meaningful clues about what that model might be?
Former successful telecommunications entrepreneur, Rajiv Malhotra spends most of his time promoting Indian culture and dharma – the Indian worldview that is radically different from that of the West’s and better too, he believes. In his book Being Different (2011), he claims that the systemic inadequacy of their system has blinded Westerners from seeing the real problem, namely the fact that their worldview is not universally applicable.
There are elements of truth in his arguments. For the past 400 years, the West has pretty much dominated the world geographically, economically, politically and culturally. Its Renaissance marked the beginning of modernity and started a wave of technological and scientific advancement that put the expansionist West at the forefront of world progress. The achievements and values of ancient cultures outside of the West were, dismissed from the increasingly globalised discourse of world governance.
One of the major achievements that came out of the Renaissance was the separation of church from state, at least in theory. But Malhotra asserts that this separation is self-delusionary. He painstakingly points out that the “secular”’ modern society of the West is, in fact, a continuation of its monotheist tradition, with only one God, one truth and one worldview. His argument goes that almost all of today’s conflicts originate from the clash this exclusive worldview has with others, and that geopolitics is really just another name for religio-politics.
Inevitably, the resurgence of the East – especially China and India – challenges the exclusivity inherent in the Western worldview. Faced with the growing presence of alternatives, the West can no longer pretend that the only way to run the world is through the secular and scientific paradigms it has advanced in the past four centuries. The reality is multiple paradigms have grown out of different worldviews. Some have proved potent at bringing order to local societies in defiance of Western logic.
India is a case in point, Malhotra, maintains. Nearly a century of British rule had little impact on India’s teeming chaos. To the West, such disorder in any society is unacceptable, but for Indians, chaos has its own systemic order known as dharma.
Malhotra suggests that dharma is better than the Western worldview because it does not operate on an exclusive basis, and therefore does not demand the kind of universal acceptance that was used as a motive and justification for the West’s imperial expansion. Dharma allows the organic unity of multiples, as well as the secular and the sacred, through inclusion.
There is a whole array of Eastern phenomena that cannot be explained by the standard Western paradigm of “science” (the word’s Latin root means ‘knowledge’), which colonisers and missionaries spread across the globe.
Two examples from China serve to illustrate this point: recent attempts to modernise Chinese traditional medicine using scientific methods, and the “internationalisation of Confucianism”. You cannot cherry pick a single herb, subject it to chemical analysis and say it is good for a particular disease without taking a comprehensive look at the formula, whose effectiveness is based entirely on a complex system of Chinese cosmology and its interaction with the patient. Similarly, you cannot single out the Confucian idea of governance while ignoring its idea of familial web that serves as a stabiliser (and equaliser) of human relationships. In other words, you cannot impose a “one-size-fits-all” principle onto disparate realities.
Yet, it is also true that modern (Western) medicine has cured millions who could have otherwise died drinking only herbal soup, nor can it be denied that an over-emphasis on familial ties has been a stumbling block to economic and political modernisation in many societies. So the right question to ask is not so much whether ‘the East’ – Asia – can provide a better future model for the global economy than the West. It is more about opening up to the best ideas from all sides.
If Malhotra is correct, dharma’s superiority to the Western worldview lies in its inbuilt capacity to renew through constant change. At the same time, we should guard against Malhotra’s ironic tendency to laud the universality of dharma. After all, Heraclitus of Greece and Lao Tzu of China had much the same notions, but stemming from completely different roots.