Friday, March 31, 2006

Dr Lehmann's article on Polytheism and Tolerance

I have known Professor Lehmann's work since about 1977 and greatly respect the work he has done in Japanese studies and, more recently, in business and management.

However, in his article on Polytheism and Tolerance in this week's The Globalist, he is stepping into an area where he knows little. His basic argument is that monotheistic religions have made for intolerance, while polytheistic India is tolerant. Therefore polytheism must make for tolerance!

This has some face value and some superficial validity.

However, the fact is that tolerance in India was not built by polytheism.

Polytheists killed each other just as effectively and massively as monotheists did.

It was secularism that created a safe space for people of different views.

This happened in a sort of passive way under "Hindu" and Mughal rulers earlier in our (Indian) history.

However, what one may call "active secularism" started only under the British who for the first time in our history actively disregarded the religious views of people in terms of employment and in terms of where they lived in the new urban spaces the British created (cities such as Calcutta, Madras, Bombay and New Delhi). The British were interested only in whether the people they employed were competent, and in whether people had the money to live in the wealthier areas.

Up till the time of the British, employment and residence were dictated by one's religion and one's caste (they are still dictated by one's caste, in all Indian villages and pre-British towns).

Perhaps my point becomes clearest when one compares another polytheistic country (Nepal – the only officially Hindu country in the world) with India. Nepali polytheism did not lead to any tolerance (there was no religious freedom for people to move from one religious system to another even within "Hinduism", let alone outside it; people who did so had no civil rights at all, and were killed, imprisoned or beaten up in order to persuade them to return to their traditional social group and so preserve the stasis of Nepali society).

Basically this was because Nepali polytheism was and is part of a religious system that oppresses the common person (that is why there is such a strong Maoist movement in Nepal, responsible for the current political stalemate with the King).

British India, however, building on the work of William Carey from the eighteenth century and of William Wilberforce and the Clapham Group in the nineteenth century, created the sort of political space which not only gave equal respect to all religions, but also the political context in which the excluded classes could be (gradually) included in economic and human progress.

Had it not been for British education, for British values, and for training offered by the British to Indians in modern administrative methods from the late nineteenth century, it is doubtful if India would have been able to survive as an independent secular country till now.

Professor Lehmann is perhaps not aware that there is now a strong "Hindu fundamentalist polytheist" movement in India, which wants to take India back to our "previous Hindu" values. This movement has in fact nearly come to political power recently (it was the senior partner in the coalition government previous to the current one).

If this Hindu fundamentalist polytheistic movement does come to proper political power without depending on coalition allies, the future of India is an open question from a political and social point of view – though, in India, those have till now been a separate matter from the economic progress of the country.

I do not see many threats to India economically if the politicians keep themselves to themselves.

Regretfully, fundamentalist politicians rarely keep themselves to themselves and usually insist on using state power to browbeat (and sometimes physically attack) people who disagree with them. Under the government which included these Hindu fundamentalist polytheists, we saw plenty of evidence of both browbeating and physical attacks against not only Muslims and Christians but also against the excluded ("lower" or "dalit") castes and against "upper caste" Hindus who disagreed with the polytheistic fundamentalists.

I conclude that tolerance in the public square arose and arises neither from monotheism nor from polytheism. The first movers for political tolerance of religious and intellectual differences were the "Radical Reformers" in sixteenth century Continental Europe, then the Clapham Group in nineteenth century England, and their spiritual and intellectual heirs, initially in the United States and now of course in the whole world.

However, in the whole world now, we are facing a new intolerance against debate, against genuine intellectual disagreements, and against the monotheistic religions.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Abraham Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs" and the question of how much is "enough"

A reader responds to my piece on "enough":
"I am not completely convinced that "enough" is primarily related to contentment, philanthropy, spiritual, cultural, or economic factors. It seems to me that the concept of "enough" has several levels and that Abraham Maslow's "hierarchy of needs" serves as a good initial classification scheme. For all living entities, the satisfaction of primary physiological needs of the organism, enabling the maintenance of the normal homeorhettic processes of life, define the first level of "enough". The next level would then be the satisfaction of those additional physiological needs required to propagate the species, but not required for individual survival. The introduction of species survival adds the factor of time, in that "what is enough" changes with the (often implied) duration under consideration. Without at least the satisfaction of these primary, physiological needs, "enough" is meaningless, hence the satisfaction of these needs is, in mathematical parlance, necessary."

He goes on to say many other useful things, but I thought it might be worth discussing his point about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs which, it seems to me, has been drilled into everyone who has studied any field connected with Psychology (and therefore shapes the thinking of most educated people who are either Westerners or Western-educated).

Maslow's first proposed the "Hierarchy" in his 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation. It posits that human nature first seeks to satisfy 'basic needs' before it seeks to satisfy successively 'higher needs': the four lower levels are grouped together as deficiency needs associated with the body. The lowest level is needs such as food and water, the next level is safety, then love or belonging, next esteem and finally what he called "self-actualisation" (which might also be called self-fulfilment). He called the higher levels growth needs as they are more associated with the mind or the psyche.

The "Heirarchy" has the advantage of intellectual elegance, and it certainly has some initial or superficial appeal.

However, anyone with any experience of the world, or even the willingness to reflect on the news headlines each day, will be aware, for example, that parents are often willing to go without food so that their children can be fed (which violates Maslow's point about his most basic level): something "higher" drives them to abandon their "most basic" needs. Similarly, people are often willing to sacrifice the level at which they live in terms of their physiological needs in order to live in a better house. Others are willing to sacrifice both their physiological needs and their housing needs in order to gain love or belonging (think of people who join gangs). Again, consider people who, for love, are even willing to give up their own lives (Dickens's novel, A Tale of Two Cities, springs to mind from the world of literature, in case readers have not come across this in their own experience). Similarly, anyone who has experienced the ghettoes of the West or life in Southern countries will know of millions of people who give up everything at "lower" levels in order to win esteem. You, dear reader, might want to reflect on whether you really eat "enough" or too much or too little – the psyche or mind clearly plays tricks with us even at our "most basic" level.

In other words, Maslow's theory suffers from the usual challenge that faces intellectuals: what is theoretically elegant and, on the face of it, plausible, is not necessarily the case in reality.

The fact is that humans are complex and contradictory. Who of us understands her or his own heart and motivations? How then can we accurately understand the hearts and motivations of others?

Let me tell you a story from my life. When I was around 12 years old, we lived in a tiny house along a little lane in the centre of Delhi. Our next door neighbour was a widow who earned an occasional living as a cleaning woman whenever she could find work. Dependent on her were her father-in-law and her two grown-up sons, none of whom seemed able to find work even as often as she did. The four members of that family had a total living space less than would be occupied by the bathroom in most middle-class families in the West. They usually slept in the lane outside their home: there was certainly not enough space inside, so they slept in the open, summer and winter. However, whenever my siblings and I returned from school, if my mother was absent (which was often the case, as she had to work to bring in the bread for our family, my father having died when I was eight), this neighbour, one of the poorest people in the world, would ask how we were doing at school and make sure that we were fed and watered till my mother returned - usually, five hours later. We were not rich enough to pay for this service and she would have been quite offended if we had attempted to compensate her in any way: she did this out of love for us, and indeed for everyone she came across.

You see why I think that the question of how much is "enough" is vitally connected to the question of how much we love others. Possibly, you see also why I was, and am, not impressed with Maslow's hierarchy.

This woman had learned to live not only within her ridiculously limited means, but learned to live so well within it that she was able to give away not only food and water but also affection. She certainly knew the meaning of "enough".

Maslow claimed deliberately to have studied ideal people such as Albert Einstein, and Eleanor Roosevelt, rather than mentally ill or neurotic people, on the basis that "the study of crippled, stunted, immature, and unhealthy specimens can yield only a cripple psychology and a cripple philosophy" (Motivation and Personality, 1987).

Possibly, Maslow might have come up with a more adequate description of human needs (especially from the viewpoint of our discussion of "enough") if he had widened his understanding of exemplary people to include folk such as my neighbour. By the way, there are millions of such people right across the world. Have you ever asked yourself why it is that people in the so-called "developing world", people with apparently NOTHING, are so often happy, whereas so many of the rich are so miserable? Has it ever struck you that world's highest rates of suicide are in the world's richest countries (Sweden, Switzerland, Japan and so on)?

In any case, I regard Maslow's Hierarchy not only as totally false, but also as quite perrnicious - it has now influenced for the worse the self-understanding and behaviour of the best-resourced and educated part humankind for something over half a century.

Is it possible that, if Maslow's theory had never been propounded, the level of philanthropy, charity, affection and joy might have been much greater in the world?

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Dalai Lama, Buddhism and Neuroscience

His Holiness the Dalai Lama recently addressed, amidst much controversy about the invitation to do so, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.

His remarks there raise important questions regarding Buddhism and science which need to be considered, in a scientific, in a historical, and then in a future-related context.

A. Science: His Holiness called for a dialogue between Buddhism and neuroscience, on the grounds that the two traditions have a lot to contribute to each other. For example, His Holiness points out that "the effects of mental training, such as simple mindfulness practice on a regular basis, or the deliberate cultivation of compassion as developed in Buddhism", brings about observable changes in the human brain correlated to positive measurable mental states. If so, this is of course to be welcomed. However, from a genuinely scientific point of view, the question should probably be posed differently: "Is the effect of such "mental training" any different from that of prayer in other world religions, or secular singing, or any enjoyable form of aesthetic or even physical exercise? If so, how?". In declining to raise such genuinely scientific questions, His Holiness's address descends to the level of mere propaganda on behalf of Buddhism. By contrast, a call for a dialogue between neuroscience, psychology, and what we might call the different aesthetic and spiritual traditions around the world, would have been very welcome.

B. History: One of the reasons that Alexander the Great wished to conquer India was because he wanted to meet the famous "gymnosophists" (yogis) of India at the Buddhist universities of Taxila and Nalanda. That is why Alexander brought with him not only soldiers and generals but also historians, doctors, philosophers and so on. The interaction between the Greek world and the Buddhist world resulted in the Indo-Bactrian Kingdoms, on which so much knowledge is now available, not least from art historians in terms of the Gandhara School of Art (which produced the distinctive Buddhas that are so famous today – including those that were blown up by the Taliban in Bamiyan). In contemporary India, the still-living mark of that interaction is the Yunani (Ionian) School of Medicine, which is officially recognised and patronised. To my knowledge, India is the only country in the world which is still sponsors research into the old Greek systems of medicine. No other country does so, not even Greece, so far as I know.

So the interesting question is "Why did Buddhism, with its world-renowned universities, not only fail to give birth to modern science but why has Buddhism remained, in those countries where it has the majority, so resistant to scientific thought and civilisational progress?"

The full answer may be difficult to find. However, I suggest, inter alia, the following:

B1. For Buddhism, this world is not only unimportant, it is an illusion and a distraction from one's "real calling and purpose" which is to escape the trammels of this illusory world. The most intelligent and sensitive Buddhists have always therefore been focused on trying to escape the world, while providing some emotional and spiritual guidance to lesser mortals ("ordinary people") who are, for whatever, uninclined or unable to pursue their "real calling". This is of course very similar to the notion of monkhood and priesthood in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christianity, which appear to have borrowed these notions from Eastern religious traditions, even though there is nothing to justify such ideas in the Bible, as the Protestant Reformers (magisterial and radical alike) demonstrated.

B2. Similarly, one's sense that one is a "person" ("I")is essential to human development in the whole understanding of Western psychology and neuroscience as a result of the Reformation. However, this sense of being a person is for Buddhism an illusion, from which one's highest calling is to escape. Such an orientation has not provided, and does not provide, any motivation or basis for individual excellence in relation to things of this earth, whether athletics or aesthetics, cuisine or community affairs, business or politics – as can be seen in any Buddhist-majority country throughout history right up to today.

BTW, it is probably worth observing that, unlike Buddhism, science does accept as fundamental that there is a real world which can be observed, however much it might be influenced by the process of observation, and that there is a real "I" doing the observing.

It is not surprising, then, that Buddhism played, eventually, a negative role in terms of preserving (let alone developing) the pre-Buddhist Indian understandings of medicine, sanitation, town-planning and so on. In fact, the civilisational decline of India from say the 1st century BC to the time of the development of what we today call Hinduism (say the sixth century AD) is at least partly due to the influence of Buddhism (and the related but different religious movement called Jainism) – even though both movements made various highly important positive contributions to which I have drawn attention in my little booklet, Indian Spirituality (Grove Books, Nottingham, 1984, but now out of print and available for free download from my website: The main culprit for that civilisational decline, however, was the peculiar and repulsive movement known as Tantra, which developed as a reaction to Buddhist rationality, but as a result also of Buddhism's emphasis on experience. As Buddhism had no reason to reject Tantra, it eventually ended up accepting Tantra, with all its deleterious consequences for individuals and society.

C. The future: His Holiness's remarks raise the question of whether the Buddhist categories of "compassion, tolerance, a sense of caring, consideration of others, and the responsible use of knowledge and power" are sufficient to provide an ethical basis for science. I will collapse all those terms into "compassion", though of course we could take each of those terms and use them for similar analysis as that which follows, though these are merely first thoughts:

C1. As there is no adequate or sufficiently precise definition of "compassion" in Buddhism or in ordinary English, it might be as "compassionate" to prolong the life of a "terminally-ill" person, as it might be to end it (so the notion of "compassion" provides no substantial guidance to dilemmas posed regarding euthanasia)

C2. Similarly, "compassion" provides no guidance at the other end of life, in relation to the question of abortion – is it the life of the foetus that should be the object of "compassion" (so abortion should be banned?) or is it the feelings of the mother that should be the focus of our compassion (so abortion should be permitted and perhaps even encouraged in certain cases?)

C3. One can go on to discuss other specific examples of modern ethical dilemmas in relation to science (e.g. cloning), but we should perhaps consider more overarching issues, such as whether the notion of "compassion" provides any basis on which to decide whether, and if so at what scale, to continue to fund the kinds of scientific research which take up an overwhelming proportion of the money spent on scientific research at present – which we might describe as "science for the rich". A simple illustration is the amount of money spent on researching the diseases of the rich versus the amount of money spent on researching the diseases of the poor. Again, from a "compassionate" point of view, is nuclear research justified? At what scale? Is space research justified? If so, at what scale? And so on. Such questions have historically been, and continue to be, outside the frame of reference of Buddhism.

In other words, "compassion" is good and necessary, but it is insufficient to tackle the complex issues (or are they really very simple issues?) of modern society.

So it may not be merely Buddhist cosmology that needs to be modified in order to provide a basis for living in the modern world, as was argued by His Holiness at the Annual Meeting, but it may be the entirety of Buddhism that needs to be brought in line with Jewish and Christian understandings, for example of "holiness", "personhood" and "reality".

India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, once said that he was a "Hindu by birth, a Buddhist by philosophy, a Muslim by culture, and a Christian by ethics". He said this because the first was a fact, but the rest represented, in his view, the best in India. I would only slightly modify that: Buddhism knows more about psychology, but Jainism has a more consistent philosophy.

In any case, the above may perhaps go some way to explaining why I am not a Buddhist, though I retain the highest respect for His Holiness as a Head of State, as a religious leader, and indeed as a person for all his work and his many contributions to modern society.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , href="" rel="tag" target="_blank">measurable, , ,
, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Too soft on the Anti-Cartoonists?

Danish PM Rasmussen recently attacked people in the media, business and society for not having provided him with sufficient support during the "Cartoons Crisis". He charged them with being hypocrites, obsessed with profits, and even with being "unprincipled". Dismissing protests against him as "hatred" towards his government, he compared the situation at present to intolerance during the Nazi occupation.

By contrast, some Danish business leaders are outraged by Rasmussen's tirades and suggest that he has "lost touch with reality". Cabinet members, including Environment Minister Connie Hedegaard and Defense Minister Soren Gade, have publicly distanced themselves from Rasmussen. Friends within his party, as well as his government's conservative coalition partner have warned him against using "unecessarily strong rhetoric" and "stoking a domestic political crisis". The leader of Denmark's opposition Social Liberal party, Marianne Jelved, called Rassmussen "arrogant, dangerous and holier than thou."

So who is right: Rasmussen or his critics? And why is Rasmussen continuing down his colourful path?

Possibly because he really believes in democracy. But it can't have escaped his attention that support for the right-wing Danish People's Party has gone up from 13.3 per cent at the time of last year's general election, to 18.2% according to a recent poll. In the Danish context, that's a Himalayan upsurge of support for a party that is just about as virulently anti-immigrant and Islamophobic as it is possible to be among the normally remarkably mild-mannered Danes.

So I conclude that the Muslim furore over the cartoons has enormously strengthened the hand of the right wing which is anti-immigrant and Islamophobic.

I haven't seen the results for other countries, but we should not be surprised if the reaction is the same around the world.

The result is that it is much more difficult to be genuinely liberal today (as distinct from being merely an appeaser) than it was before Fatwas started being issued against supposed blasphemers such as Salman Rushdie and the Danish cartoonists.

So much for the crazy antics of certain Muslim politicians who are trying to bolster their own base by pretending to their followers that they can get the West to live by Shariah rules if they boycott European businesses, burn Western flags and declare "War on Denmark".

Talk about unintended consequences!

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Micro-lending in Practice: Usury; Property Rights, Culture and Responsibility

A friend from a Northern country writes:
"I am likely going to the ABC Republic in the summer and we will be talking with people about Micro Enterprise Development. I’ve been thinking about your comments on usury. Micro lending could fall in that category! What is the alternative? It seems to me one is trying to get them to gain ownership of the business, and our taking a stake in that business might be counter productive? Any thoughts you may have?"

My reply:
On financing without usury: an interest-free loan is fine, a grant is fine (to a group, so that they can recycle the money between themselves and grow it through productive enterprise). Also fine, as you suggest, is your folks actually taking a stake in the local businesses – which could be counter-productive if your stake is too large. But if it is less than 50%, and if you continue to support the business with skills, expertise, contacts... then that could be very beneficial. Naturally, you don't want the local folk to feel that it is "your" business, and the level of involvement that is appropriate for your team depends on their skills/availability, but it depends much more on the local culture (as that determines whether they feel it IS "their" business)

His response:
Thanks, Prabhu. The challenge, as I understand it, is to even do an interest free loan in the area we are going because there is no sense of the responsibility to pay it back. I have lots of reading to do before the trip, but am looking forward to it, Lord Willing. Where we are going is very primitive,….

I replied:

I know these sorts of situations well from my own experience in India.

Usually, the sense of responsibility is lacking for 2 reasons:
(1) because the immediate needs for survival are so great that people
cannot think any further than that, and
(2) because there is an inappropriate sense of responsiblities – e.g. responsibilities to relatives and friends come before responsibilities to strangers, even though the strangers are actually giving them money and the relatives are, parasite-like, taking money….

Logically speaking, (1) needs to be addressed before (2)…. but in fact the two are tied long as poor people don't save and invest productively they will never come out of the poverty trap…

What seems absolutely obvious to you and me, brought up as we are in a culture that was built by the Bible (even though people may choose to reject it), is basic notions such as the right to earning, buying and using property, and keeping your word (all this is of course declining, as the culture decays, as it must do if the Bible is rejected)….

In any case, before the money will make any difference in practice, they need instruction on what the Bible teaches about property rights, about keeping your word, about breaking with the negative aspects of the current culture while preserving the positive aspects of the current culture, and so on.

People don't have to be followers of Jesus to do this, and not all Christians are good at such things: In Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox countries, for example (not to speak of Hindu, Buddhist and tribal societies), there was till recently very little sense of everybody's obligation to work, of the duty to save and to apply resources wisely, of creative hospitality and philanthropy but not to people who don't deserve it if they are lazy or spendthrift. By contrast, the resurgence of Japan from the middle of the 18th century, and specially after World War II, and the current resurgence of China, is testimony to the fact that any society can put at least some Biblical principles into practice and prosper….


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , Sphere: Related Content