In this essay, I will reflect on Voegelin’s Introduction to Order and History a five-volume tome that seeks to understand the order of history through a study of the history of orders. The Introduction provides a conceptual framework and it is important to be clear in this matter to derive benefit from the rest of the work. I will also try to approach this knowledge based on what I have learned about the Indian views which bear upon the subject. I have tried first to discover the bare essence of what I think Voegelin has sought to convey in his Introduction and then elaborated it with the relevant descriptions given by him as well as my own reflection on the subject.
First of all, we need to get our heads around the concepts of “existence” and “being” which I suppose Voegelin presumes we know from his other works (Anamnesis maybe?) for he has not explained them here. As far as I understand from his usage of these terms, “existence” and “being” are related to each other as a thing and an idea of the thing, a specific and concrete instance of a general and abstract class. Existence is, put simply, participation in being. However, Voegelin is explicit in treating being as a mystery about which there is essential ignorance. In other words, there is a consciousness of a participation in something but it is not evident what this something is but this is what is called as being. While Voegelin does not make this distinction, I read this as an external mystery whereas in Indian thought we find the predominance of an inner mystery. As self-conscious beings we are aware of a self whose reality is not evident to us. I am not sure if these two mysteries are connected and are simply different way of approaching the same problem but it appears that the vocabulary we find in the Indian “spiritual” discourse is not inapplicable here. Existence and being can be understood as bhāva and sat respectively and the latter is recognized as the substratum (adhiṣṭhāna) of the former. The popular Indian metaphor of the ocean and the waves also comes to mind where the former refers to being and the latter to existence.
Voegelin says that there is an “order of being” and a “community of being” consisting of God, man, world and society. I read these categories in the following way: man as the individual spirit, society as a collection of men, the world as composed of organic and inorganic matter and God as a reality transcending man, society and world. These are what would be called in Sanskrit as the fundamental tattvas and in Indian thought they are usually three – iśvara, prakṛti and puruṣa corresponding to God, world and man. I don’t think the Indians conceived of society as a tattva at all which is an omission of great significance.
Now, while there remains essential ignorance about being, man does gain access to some knowledge of being and he expresses this knowledge in the form of symbols. This also has its parallel in Indian thought where the self is not regarded as completely unknowable but partially evident to all as the conscious self. As the Advaita scholar, Śaṅkara famously said: na tāvad ayam ekāntena aviśayaḥ ‘first of all, it is not absolutely a non-object (i.e. an unknowable).’ Interestingly, Voegelin also refers to God, etc. as partners in the “field of being” and man as the “knower” in this field. These two terms have their precise equivalents in the Gita as kṣetra and kṣetrajña. But Voegelin is concerned more with the nature of symbols man creates “purporting to render intelligible the relations and tensions between the distinguishable terms of the field” and how they change over time. In fact, as its subtitle ‘The Symbolization of Order’ suggests, the main subject of Voegelin’s Introduction is the historical process in which the order of being is symbolized.
To understand this process, we take note, first of all, of the concepts of sameness and difference within the community of being. The sameness is expressed in terms of the essential consubstantiality of things in the stream of being in spite of their separate existences. We are interconnected by a commonality of substance, a universal substratum, and thus can affect each other in ways unbeknown to us. “The underground sameness of being is a conductor for magic currents of good or evil force that will subterraneously reach the superficially unreachable partner. Things are the same and not the same, and can change into each other.” I find all of this irrelevant because really we are interested in the consubstantiality of man, society, world and God which, unfortunately, Voegelin does not discuss at all here, which is odd. After all, Voegelin’s essay is about how men have symbolized the relations between the community of being, whether man has sought to connect with God through world and society, or seen God and man as connected with each other and different from the world and society. These symbolizations turn on notions about the consubstantiality within them but Voegelin has not discussed consubstantiality in this manner, at least not in this essay.
The difference, the sense of radical separateness, arises from the incommensurability with regards to lasting and passing. The constituents of being can be organized in a hierarchy based on their longevity and Voegelin shares the insight this offers about order in being, namely, that “more lasting existences, being the more comprehensive ones, provide by their structure the frame into which the lesser existence must fit.” This difference of longevity has implications for “the role of man in the drama of being” which is that of “attunement to the more lasting and comprehensive orders of society, the world and God.” Attunement is a very important concept which I understand as a critically serious form of participation, by existence, as the passing form, in being, as its lasting essence. Voegelin has connected the ideas of gain and loss of being with it and I am reminded of gaining and losing the world of ātman and abiding in it in the state of samādhi. Existence is understood as a fall or separation from being and the concern is not so much the passing of existence in the form of death but the loss of being forever. Attunement then is existence which participates in being such that it eventually returns to it.
It is interesting that the idea of attunement was introduced by Voegelin in the context of difference and not in the context of sameness, of which he has spoken before. It is not that sameness does not involve attunement but it is not seen as such. As we have said, all existence is participation in being – but what being? In case of consubstantiality we are saying that man, society, world and God are essentially one and therefore participation in one is, in an ultimate sense, participation in the other. In this situation, substitutes are possible. But this is not possible in case of difference. To participate in what is passing and claim thereby that one is participating in what is lasting, on grounds of consubstantiality between them, becomes a trivialization which one must avoid by discriminating between the two and consciously eschewing the former and espousing the latter. It is such a participation in being which is entailed in attunement. This is the crux of the matter because it is the basis on which emerge the two kinds of symbolization of order, which Voegelin’s essay is all about.
They are identified as compact and differentiated forms of symbolization. These two terms could be read in the sense of synthesis and analysis respectively. In the former case, there is a tendency to integrate symbols, to tolerate differences between them, to gloss over their mutual contradictions, and so on, while in the latter case there is a tendency to distinguish between them in terms of what fits and what does not, to question them in terms of the role they are supposed to play as symbols, to reject the invalidated symbols, and so on. Such a critically serious approach towards symbols in the differentiated form of symbolization is indicative of a quest for superior attunement – remember symbols are nothing but our expression of the knowledge we have gained of being. Another way to understand the difference, is to consider “compact” as the binding of divine and mundane (world and society) into one divinized mundane being on the basis of consubstantiality, and “differentiated” as the separation between the two or the de-divinizing of the mundane. In the former case, attunement involves a participation in divine being as mediated through the mundane being whereas in the latter case, attunement involves a more direct participation in divine being while participation in mundane being becomes a double-edged sword: it is a necessary support but it can also cause to stray.
The aspect of being which is variously symbolized in these two forms of symbolization is society and its order i.e. how should society be ordered in terms of participation in being. In the compact form of symbolization, society is symbolized as a “microcosmos” and the social order is modelled after the cosmic order. The structure and functioning of society is harmonized with the rhythms of plants, animals and seasons, and the revolutions of the celestial bodies. The ancient Indians called such order ṛta and established correspondences or bandhus between the elements of the different constituents of being. In the differentiated form of symbolization, society is symbolized as a “macroanthropos” and the social order is modelled after “the order of human existence that is well attuned to being.” Voegel suggests that the compact form of symbolization is chronologically prior and what gave rise to the differentiated variety was the loss of trust in the cosmic order which occured as an effect of the breakdown of the “cosmologically symbolized empires.” He gives examples from ancient India, China, Greece and Egypt but also warns against considering it as a sort of historical law citing Babylon and Israel as exceptions to this rule.
Two features that characterize the microcosmic symbolization are comfort with the analogical nature of the symbols and tolerance for rival forms of symbolization. Thinking in Vedic India, characterized by ṛta and bandhu, suggests a microcosmic society and the famous principle of ekam sat viprā bahudā vadanti ‘reality is one, the wise declare it in various ways’ also fits this view. Analogical symbolization can be done in a variety of ways depending on the various knowledges of being and they can be treated as complementary forms which can be synthesized to arrive at a better participation in being. Hence the epithet of “compact” form of symbolization. “Every concrete symbol is true insofar as it envisages the truth, but none is completely true insofar as the truth about being is essentially beyond human reach.” Hence, this kind of symbolization is characterized by “a pluralism in expressing truth, a generous recognition and tolerance extended to rival symbolizations of the same truth.” Myths in which the fates of humans and gods become inter-twined are the staple form of knowledge in this society. “There is a magnificent freedom of variation on, and elaboration of, fundamental themes, each new growth and supergrowth adding a facet to the great work of analogy surrounding the unseen truth.” This thinking is most clearly manifest in India in the literary genre called itihāsa-purāṇa and the characteristic tolerance arising from the analogical nature of symbols is evident in the Hindu conception of religious tolerance based on the view of different paths leading to the same eternal being.
However, while it may appear that symbols are treated playfully in microcosmic societies, they are created and maintained “for the purpose of making the true order of being transparent” and not just for fun. This means that while, on the one hand, the repertoire of symbols in the form of deities, narratives, practices, etc. are constantly swelling, on the other hand, they also have to be brought into order to uphold some kind of semblance with the underlying order of being. Thus, attempts may be undertaken to bring them into a rational, hierarchical order through methods of political summodeism – “interpreting the highest local divinities as aspects of the one highest empire god” – or theogonic speculation – “letting the other gods originate through creation by the one truly highest god.” Common examples of symbolic ordering we have in India are of Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Śīva united in the form of Dattātreya and of the Bhagavat refrain sarva deva-namaskarā keśavaṃ pratigacchati ‘the adoration rendered to all the gods proceeds to Kṛṣṇa alone.”
However, Voegelin warns, and rightly so, that such attempts should not be interpreted as monotheistic tendencies because “a rigid difference between polytheism and monotheism does not exist. In all polytheism there is latent a monotheism that can be activated at any time if the pressure of a historical situation meets with a sensitive and active mind.” Indeed, we find this to be true in the 19th century when the pressures of Christianity and foreign rule pushed many Hindus into interpreting their religious traditions monotheistically. But this is not true of the foregoing cases of Dattātreya and Kṛṣṇa where the motivation appears to be completely different. Here, it could be aimed at reducing chaos or reconciling diverse traditions and involves a “free, imaginative play with a plurality of symbols [which] is possible only because the choice of analogies is understood as more or less irrelevant compared with the reality of being at which they aim” and therefore cannot be regarded as a “forerunner” to monotheism.
The radical break occurs with dissatisfaction concerning analogical symbolization itself because it cannot, by its very nature, form the basis of a proper attunement with being. It is a predicament of an age where the focus of human thinking has moved beyond the realms of the natural forces and the celestial divinities. Man no longer seeks to establish partnership with them but with the God who absolutely transcends them. Analogical symbols are considered as hopelessly inadequate to represent this partnership and appear as “an unseemly indulgence betraying a confusion about the order of being and, more deeply, a betrayal of being itself through lack of proper attunement.” This thinking brought about significant changes in the symbolization of social order and to problems associated with that kind of thinking.
The predicament of analogical symbolization can also be expressed as the inadequacy of the “passing” mundane existent to symbolize the “lasting” divine being or of the “knowable immanent” existent to symbolize the “unknowable transcendent reality” or of the “partial orders of mundane existence” to symbolize “the comprehensive order of being.” The lack of attunement generates fear of a fall from being subsequent to existence. The whole edifice of stronger and weaker gods connected by political summodeism or theogonic speculation – all the effort directed at the rationalization of the analogical symbols – is rejected. The mutual tolerance between analogical symbols is replaced by an intolerance of analogical symbols as such. The hierarchy of stronger and weaker gods is replaced by a contrast between false gods and true god. While one intuitively associates this transformation with the rise of monotheism, it is not a character limited to religion but embraces philosophy as well. Voegelin suggests that it was the same fear of a fall from being due to lack of proper attunement which “induced Plato to create the term theology, to distinguish between true and false types of theology, and to make the true order of society dependent on the rule of men whose proper attunement to divine being manifests itself in their true theology.” Both philosophy and religion are included in the differentiated form of symbolization.
What are the consequences of the differentiated form of symbolization? The most significant of them all, which even the casual reader would have guessed from the foregoing, is the rise of intolerance. The differentiated form of symbolization is not only intolerant of analogical symbolization as such, it is intolerant even with regards to its own variants. Rival systems of analogical symbolization can co-exist but not rival systems of differentiated symbolization as evident in the tensions between the three great monotheisms as also between philosophy and religion itself. The biggest mistake we can commit here is to approach differentiated symbolization as yet another instance of analogical symbolization. This is a qualitatively different beast and its rivalry with the various forms of analogical symbolization is of a radically different nature than the rivalry between the various forms of analogical symbolization themselves.
This explains the intolerance the monotheistic faiths display towards Hindu traditions but it also reveals much, much more. It also indicates why they are not at all impressed by the tolerant attitude of the Hindus and may even feel justified to abuse it because it is based on a microcosmic symbolization. This is not to say that monotheistic faiths are not aware of the problem of intolerance and are not interested in a solution for it. They are, but when they speak of tolerance, they are speaking about it at a completely different level – it is about tolerance for rival systems of macroanthrophic symbolizations which, by its very nature, is impossible in its fullness and will always remain tenuous and superficial. Yet, they would prefer to hold on to this intolerance and make the best of it rather than adopt the tolerance of the Hindus, precisely because their faith involves a superior attunement to being than found in the Hindu microcosmic traditions. Indeed, Hindus who understand the meaning of “attunement to being,” even if not in precisely those words, are not and cannot be tolerant. Much of the purported Hindu tolerance is a farce, most evident in the idiotic representations of Hindu characters in Bollywood films imitating Muslim or Christian forms of worship or including an image of Jesus or the Kaba in their “godhouse.” The stupidity lies in the Hindu presumption that these are only more instances of analogical, microcosmic symbols, when they are not supposed to be such, at least not in the understanding of Muslims and Chrstians.
This also explains why Hindu left-liberals, in spite of their fidelity to tolerance, have a soft corner for the monotheistic faiths and are disparaging of Hindu traditions. It is because left-liberalism is also a differentiated form of symbolization, a unique type of attunement to being. It should also make sense now as to why we find bitter rivalry between the different monastic schools of ancient India when diverse Hindu popular traditions were fairly tolerant of each other. While the householder Hindu lived in a microcosmic order, the monastic groups engaged in some kind of macroanthropic symbolization and they partook of the intolerance connected with it.
Voegelin points out that the differentiated form of symbolization not only constitutes a revolt against analogical symbols but also of the world and society which is their source. Remember “world” and “society” along with man and God are partners in the community of being. In the microcosmic view, the celestial order consisting of the various divinities, the worldly order consisting of the various natural forces, and the social order consisting of human beings, are understood properly as corresponding to each other and existing in mutual harmony. This suggests an order of being in which man is attuned to society and world, and through them to God. The analogical symbols express this attunement. But this radically changes once man realizes that his partnership is directly with God and so should be his attunement if he wants it to be perfect. This is what Voegelin calls a leap of being. Hence, the horror of the monotheisms towards analogical symbols – graven images and idols – because they cause man to stray from proper attunement. But the rejection of analogical symbols is ultimately a rejection of world and society itself and “a turning around, the Platonic periagoge, an inversion or conversion toward the true source of order.”
This is a very significant insight from the perspective of the symbolizations of order found in India. If macroanthropic symbolization involves a rejection of world and society, then the only persons who can embrace such an order are monks – and, indeed, it is only monks in ancient India who sought for such an attunement to being and that too in their individual capacity even if they belonged to some monastic school, while the people at large participated in a microcosmic order. But, as we will find out next, Voegelin is speaking about “converted societies” i.e. a collective attunement to being which does not make sense if macroanthropic symbolization entails, as he suggests, a turning away from society itself. The ancient Indians, who never conceived of “society” as an ontological category, would obviously argue that a collective attunement to being is not possible and anyone who seeks an attunement to being must renounce society. The other point we must note here is that, while rejecting “society,” there are important ascetic traditions in India which do not, however, reject the “world” i.e. nature (prakṛti) and can be regarded as seeking an attunement to being through nature. I am not sure if this entails a different type of symbolization or should be included in the microcosmic category. Voegelin is obviously approaching this subject from a Western perspective and it appears to me that, in his view, attunement to being can occur at both individual or collective levels, though he does not say so in clear terms. But as I understand it, in the former case, the macroanthroic symolization takes the form of philosophy and affects specific philosophers while in the latter case, it takes the form of religion and affects society as a whole. But as we will note later, Western philosophers, unlike the monks of ancient India, were interested in edifying the collective and seeking for them to gain attunement to being as a society.
When societies are transformed to a macroanthropic symbolization of order, Voegelin tells us, they undergo a change in their self-understanding. They begin to see themselves as societies who have established a partnership with God, or what we might also call as the covenant, and thus participating in the divine being rather than in the mundane being in which are deemed to be participating other societies, which have not undertaken this leap of being. The converted societies develop their sacred history in opposition to the profane histories of other societies which are characterized by the rise and fall of empires. Thus, just as the microcosmic society with its compact form of symbolization produces analogical symbols, so the macroanthropic society with its differentiated form of symbolization produces historical symbols.
The need for symbolization remains in spite of the conversion because the leap of being does not eradicate the essential ignorance of being. We must note here that this assumption is a pre-requisite to the discussion we are having here and it is implicit in Voegelin’s essay. We admit that the nature of human condition is such that we can only produce symbols in language or image of our limited knowledge of being. Anyone who desires to speak about a direct access to being, through faith or meditation or whatever else, cannot be a participant in this discussion. We hold that those who make claims about a direct access to being are in error and perfect attunement to being is the maximum limit of human achievement.
The inability to remove the essential ignorance of being then begs the question of why is macroanthropic symbolization desirable at all, if it leads to intolerance and, as we will understand next, does not obviate the need for living in the world and society, while turning us against it? While one may propose some advantages in terms of the control it yields to man over the world and his own destiny by liberating him from the perceived compulsion to follow the natural and celestial orders, I think these are merely unintended side-effects of a decision which is not taken rationally after an objective evaluation of the options. Rather, as Voegelin puts it: “the conversion is experienced, not as the result of human action, but as a passion, as a response to a revelation of divine being, to an act of grace, to a selection for emphatic partnership to God.” In other words, this is an evocation and as Voegelin mentions elsewhere, existence itself is an evocation by being of a part of itself, just as – to recall the Indian metaphor – the ocean evokes the wave and absorbs it back into itself. The evocation itself cannot be denied but one can exercise one’s will in determining whether to respond to it and how to respond to it, considering all the problems it entails.
Even if converted societies have turned away from and inferiorized the mundane being, their existence cannot deny or avoid participation in it. As a result, “there develop the tensions, frictions, and balances between the two levels of attunement, a dualistic structure of existence that expresses itself in pairs of symbols, of theologia civilis and theologia supranaturalis, of temporal and spiritual powers, of secular state and church.” This is clearly a reference to Christianity but it is suggested in the tone of a work-around and not a solution.
We are thus faced with an unfortunate trade-off. Microcosmic, analogical symbolization with imperfect attunement to being and mutual tolerance; or macroanthrophic, historical symbolization with perfect attunement to being and rabid intolerance. At this point, allow me to add a brief note on the idea of mutual respect. This term is doing the rounds nowadays as a superior alternative to mutual tolerance but I don’t think its proponents realize what they are demanding. The way I see it, mutual tolerance is consideration for rival analogical symbols while mutual respect is a consideration for each other’s method of attunement to being. Mutual respect is a possibility applicable only to those who have adopted some form of macroanthrophic symbolization of order in the first place, but that very fact will preclude such consideration. In other words, it is improper for the Hindus to speak of mutual respect and impossible for the monotheistic faiths to do so. Of course, Hindu leaders are leading the crusade for mutual respect because they do not realize that the consideration they are demanding is between two radically different orders of symbolization.
Voegelin concludes his essay with a compromise between the two kinds of symbolizations as found in Plato’s works. He suggests that Plato conceived in the Laws a microcosmic society but infiltrated by macroanthropic views as far as they were sustainable. There is a fear that an attack on the former order by the latter order may destroy order altogether and even imperfect order is a better alternative to utter disorder. There is an appreciation that the old order should evolve organically through history to the true order of being. Voegelin calls this “love of existence” in apposition to “love of being” and finishes with Plato’s remark in the Epinomis “that every myth has its truth” and regards it as “the last word of his wisdom.” Here, I would like to add that “love of existence” should not be misread as the enjoyment of a utilitarian and materialistic life indifferent to being, which most people in the West lead today. Rather, it means that we should not despise nature as an impediment to our partnership with God. Unlike some of the Indian schools of thought, I don’t think Plato saw any positive role for nature to play in gaining an attunement to being but in light of the indispensability of participating in it, exhorts us to take it into consideration towards that end.
There is scope for reflection on the processes of symbolization described by Voegelin as well as their implications for the Indian situation. Two terms which were casually invoked, obviously on account of their familiarity, but merit special attention include “society” and “history.” I think the distinction made by Voegelin between converted and unconverted societies is misleading. It appears to me that conversion i.e. proper attunement to being is what transforms a people into a society. In other words, a microcosmic society is not really a society at all. It is simply a collection of people who lead their lives in emulation of the natural and celestial orders. When we say that the ancient Hindus were living in harmony with the world, this is precisely what we mean. A Hindu society, on the other hand, properly begins from the 19th century onwards when serious attempts were made by Swami Vivekananda and others, in emulation of Christianity, to attune the Hindus to a certain understanding of being derived from the Indian intellectual heritage. The Sanskrit word samāja meant simply an “assembly of individuals” in ancient times. It came to be used in the sense of a “society” only when this concept and its value was understood by the Hindus in modernity. Thus, society is necessarily macroanthropic and along with it emerges its history which is an integral part of its symbolization. Here again, the distinction between sacred and profane history is misleading. The cyclical narrative of the rise and fall of empires dubbed as “profane history” is not really a history at all. Rather, history is the narrative of society through time and the interpretation of events which occur within it, with regards to its attunement to being and is necessarily linear. Consequently, the Hindus also do not have a history prior to the 19th century and they will have no history unless they are first clear about their idea of a collective attunement to being.
However, as I have mentioned before, attunement to being is not a phenomenon which occurs necessarily at the social level. While describing this symbolization of order, Voegelin himself shifts effortlessly between Israel and Plato. This suggests that macroanthropic symbolization occurred to the Jews as a society but in case of the Greeks, it remained the preserve of philosophers and it was only after the rise of Christianity that the Greek, and by extension the European, people became macroanthropic. Christianity itself can be understood as an attunement by the Jews in the Hellenic diaspora to a being as conceived by the Greek philosophers. It should come as no surprise, therefore, what an amazingly powerful macroanthropic symbolization it has turned out to be! But neither Christianity nor Judaism (or Islam for that matter) shows that tolerance to microcosmic symbolization which Voegelin has attributed to Plato and so quaintly termed as “love of existence.” This, in my view, is Voegelin offering us conservative advice that people should not be coerced into an attunement to being but permitted to mature into accepting the new symbolizations of order, and at the same time the activist should also learn to appreciate the value of the current order, no matter how imperfect, as a better alternative to complete disorder.
In the Indian context, however, we can understand that while microcosmic symbolization dominates the lives of Hindus, there flourished individuals who were attuned to being but did not impose these standards on the rest. However, this does not appear to have been due to a love of existence, as in case of Plato. Rather, attunement to being is understood in India to be an internal process and therefore can occur only at the level of the individual. Hence, those who undertook this goal were invariably monks. There is no idea of a collective attunement to being in ancient India and hence no concept of a society or history. The dichotomy of vyavahāra and paramārtha should not be confused as the equivalent of theologia civilis and theologia supernaturalis, mentioned above. The latter are two aspects of the same code which apply to a people who are at the same time participating in mundane being and divine being. On the other hand, vyavahāra and paramārtha are two separate codes which apply to the householder and the monk respectively. The former participates in mundane being only, a jīva in saṃsāra performing his karma in accordance with the microcosmic order. The latter participates in divine being only, a jīva-mukta sannyāsī, liberated from saṃsāra and karma, abiding in the macroanthropic symbols as conceived by his particular monastic school.
This should suffice about the Indian situation but even at the risk of prolixity, I must respond to the obvious question: What about the Gita? Is that not a narrative of a householder seeking attunement to being by renouncing the world and being imparted the knowledge that such a state is possible through the performance of action in the world without expectation of fruit? True, but as it is well-known, the Gita is an ambiguous text – and that has nothing to do with the craftiness of Kṛṣṇa. Rather, it deals with the vexing issue about whether it is at all possible to stand on two stools without falling in between and its ambivalence arises from this dilemma. In any case, the Gita is only a text which exhorts man to dharma, the microcosmic symbol par excellence of the Hindu world, but does not actually teach the content of dharma, which it delegates to the sāstras. In other words, it does not expose the microcosmic symbol to macroanthropic scrutiny but creates the intermediate symbol of karmayoga that construes participation in divine being as a particular manner in which man participates in mundane being. This was very clever and perhaps this assurance is what man really needs because, as we can see, notwithstanding the attunement to being there is no escape from participating in mundane being. As Kṛṣṇa pointed out and as Christianity has realized in terms of the need for double attunement – na śarīrayātrāpi ca te prasiddhyed akarmaṇaḥ ‘even your physical journey will not be possible without action.’
The Gita is thus part of the Indian conversation about attunement to being and it aims to protect the microcosmic world from the onslaught of macroanthropic thinking. If it succeeded in doing so it is because it was a text born in a microcosmic milieu but it cannot save us now because we live in the macroanthrophic milieu of a Christian world. What is worse, we are confronted not by the problem of individual attunement to being as in case of Arjuna, but with regards to a collective, as a society of Hindus, an idea so radically unknown to us that on the one hand, we labor under the delusion that we were always a Hindu society when we do not even clearly understand what the concept of “society” entails and if some Hindutva thinker proposes some way of attaining a collective attuenement to being, we will question its desirability because, as far as we understand, this is an issue which pertains to the individual.
Plato, of course, was not averse to the idea of a collective attunement to being at all. He sought it quite seriously and the mechanism through which it was to be achieved is what, in my view, constitutes political thought. This is also the reason why we do not find the development of political thought in ancient India because collective attunement to being was never a desirable goal for any Indian thinker. Anyway, neither Plato nor the philosophers who followed him, succeeded in achieving their goal through political thought. Ultimately, if Europe was transformed from a microcosmic collective to a macroanthropic society it was by a religion called Christianity.
As we have noted above, this brought about the problem of living with one foot in the mundane being and one foot in the divine being, to solve which was conceived the artifice of double attunement – theologia civilis and theologia supernaturalis. And it is this theologia civilis which has developed into what passes now as political science. We can now see that secularism, the separation between state and church, is an outgrowth of the Christian solution to the problem of double attunements, and even more interestingly, when this idea is exported to India it takes on the characteristically microcosmic hue of equal tolerance of all religions. But the issue which merits the most attention, and I think this is what Eric Voegelin is pointing out by his persistent references to Plato, is that the political science which is a vestige of theologia civilis is not genuinely a political science at all. When scholars speak about the decline of or the crisis in the West, it should be understood as a loss of the attunement to being and what I understand enlightened thinkers like Eric Voegelin are struggling to achieve is a recovery of that genuine political thought which philosophers such as Plato hoped would lead to a proper attunement to being.
The Hindus cannot remain indifferent to this quest either. It appears that they aim to become a society and possess a history, which basically means that they seek a collective attunement to being. This is not really a matter of choice because living and flourishing in a Westernized world is impossible without this pursuit and in the last two centuries our thinkers have made all kinds of bizarre attempts to achieve this goal. The attempts are bizarre because they involve a superimposition of a collective attunement to being on the past when no such thing existed in that time. This means sometimes microcosmic symbols are reinterpreted as if they pertain to macroanthropic thinking when they do not. In other cases, the macroanthropic thinking of individual monastic teachers is thoughtlessly extended to the worldly collective as if everybody participated in it. And all this while deep down we are yet convinced that the microcosmic symbolization of order is the proper basis for human existence. This utter confusion has befallen us because we are now living in an alien world which understands us as a society and expects us to explain our collective attunement to being, when we have not the faintest clue about what any of it means. This is not to suggest that we should make the collective attunement of being our goal. We could try any option – but the point is we cannot make any sensible move while we are yet groping in the dark. The first step is to make light.
This is where the works of philosophers of history such as Eric Voegelin come to our rescue. For sure, they are writing about the West but inasmuch as the West has happened to us, it is relevant to our future as well. But there are two points to bear in mind here. The first is that the reason why left-liberal Indian thinkers have stolen a march on us is that they have consulted the works of left-liberal Western philosophers of history such as Marx and attempted to shape Indian self-understanding in that mould. This, they have not done, because they are intellectually advanced than us but because Western left-liberal scholars being activist in nature avidly share their knowledge with their counterparts in the rest of the world. In other words, the left-liberal Indian thinker does not have to try too hard to gain access to left-liberal thought in the West. But the conservative Western thinker is not going to show the same interest in spreading his thought to India. Here, the conservative Hindu thinker will have to take his own initiative. Secondly, since left-liberal thought betrays all the intolerance connected with macroanthropic symbolization and would prefer disorder over imperfect order, it is possible for the left-liberal Indian thinkers to simply vomit in India whatever they have learned from their Western counterparts, indifferent to the repercussions. But the conservative Hindu thinker will have to be cautious about how a work that has been written for a Western audience, and for the purpose of solving Western problems, can be applied properly to the Indian situation. This is what I have sought to accomplish in this essay.