Devdutt Pattanaik: East vs. West

Parabola magazine has, in its most recent issue, a transcript of an old talk by Joseph Campbell, “The Vitality of Myth.” It’s not available online, but it addresses one of Jung’s favorite questions: “What myth are you living by?” The question sounds academic and inert. You might ask: How much difference could a superstition make?

I thought of Campbell’s talk when I saw a video of Devdutt Pattanaik speaking at TED India: East vs. West — the myths that mystify. Pattanaik is the Chief Belief Officer at an Indian retail chain called the Future Group. What does a Chief Belief Officer do? He tries to figure out what myths his company lives by. And he sees his job partly as counterpoise to the overwhelming influence that process-oriented Western business culture has on Indian firms.

If an overemphasis on linear process is something he seeks to balance with the cyclic mythology of India, does that suggest that linear process is an artifact of Western mythology? It does. One definition of mythology is a funny hat that the other guy is wearing. It distracts you from noticing you’ve got one too.

In his talk, Pattanaik tells the story of an encounter between Alexander the Great and a naked mystic (“gymnosophist”) at the Indus river in 326 BC.

Alexander asked, “What are you doing?” and the gymnosophist answered, “I’m experiencing nothingness.” Then the gymnosophist asked, “What are you doing?” and Alexander said, “I am conquering the world.” And they both laughed. Each one thought that the other was a fool.

Alexander is maximizing personal achievement so as to win glory during the one lifetime allotted to him. The mystic is contemplating the pointlessness of desire and striving across many lifetimes. The world views could scarcely be more different. Pattanaik takes stories like this very seriously as he tries to understand how to build an Indian business culture that is both conventionally successful (profits matter) and that also resonates with the mythological groundplane.

I was struck by this, because I have often wondered how much our Western mythologies had to do with the development of math, science, and technology in the Europe and America. Progress, self-improvement, and relentless optimization all make more sense when time has a beginning and an end.

I recently read Daniel Walker Howe’s history of America between 1815 and 1848 (What Hath God Wrought). It was absolutely incredible to see how much modernism’s rise was propelled by religion. So many of the things we associate with enlightened progressive practice in America came about because of efforts of religious organizations, including the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage, and public education. And these organizations that were not simply preaching charity or tolerance in some vague sense; they were electrified with a specific millenarian mission. They were preparing for the return of Jesus. Because time had an end, just like Alexander’s life, it was important to set things right as quickly as possible. Don’t dawdle like you’ve got another lifetime coming… there is not a moment to be lost! They don’t call it the Protestant work ethic for nothing.

What all this means in the coming world of turbulent global mixing is unclear. What is clear is that India has a lot to teach us. I’m looking forward to it.

Fundamentalism and the boomerang of certainty

The When I was a kid, there was a book on our shelves entitled Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? This was in the 1970s, and I recall thinking the premise was absurd. But we now know the author was off by only seven years. The fears that dominate our psyches, that seem so permanent, can sometimes dissipate like a passing cloud.

Last week the Boston Globe had an article called Why fundamentalism will fail. The author, Harvey Cox, is betting that the forces of moderation will be ascendant as people get tired of the relentless and uncompromising belligerence of fundamentalism. Given the shadow of terrorism that hangs over us, it would be easy to dismiss the author, a professor of Divinity at Harvard, as naive.

But I’m feeling optimistic too, although my reasoning is slightly different. Here’s the thing: there’s not much religion in fundamentalism. Eventually everyone will figure this out, and the whole phenomenon will fade.

Fundamentalism, as the theologian Edward Farley has said, isn’t about that old time religion. Fundamentalism is a very modern response to modernity itself. It wants to do battle with doubting secularism. But doubt is deeper than secularism, and you attack it at your peril.

Farley says

Religious fundamentalism itself becomes a kind of atheism in its suppression of the doubt that is part of all religion. … Fundamentalism, paradoxically, is itself a sign of a religion undergoing secularization.”

It works like this. How do you eliminate doubt? By making rules. Lots and lots of rules. What you end up with is very algorithmic, a sort of video game religion. The fundamentalist must root out uncertainty wherever he finds it. Coincidentally, this is also the aim of the scientist. Just as a fundamentalist extremist will use modern weapons, so too does he deploy modern rhetoric. But in so doing, he’s no longer playing on his home court, and this is what dooms him. The minute a creationist starts talking about missing fossils and carbon dating, he’s lost. He is in the untenable situation of pretending like data matters and knowing with certainty that it doesn’t. I say, let him talk. The noise is no great nuisance, and he will presently be gone.

The true counterpart of modern secularism is not fundamentalism but brooding unknowable mystery, of which there is no lack. The Dalai Lama has remarked that wherever Buddhism and science are in conflict, Buddhism should change. The Dalai Lama knows that Buddhism has nothing to worry about. He knows how to play on his home court.

But the fundamentalist insists on clarity and concrete, hardening myth into journalism and miracle into science. It’s like chopping the wings off a bird to make it fit in a box. You may think you have a bird in there. After a time, you will find you do not.

The History of Fishes

See this fish? He’s bad news.

This is not just any fish. This fish nearly punched the lights out of the Enlightenment.

Oh, he seems likable enough for a red gurnard. But at parties, after he gets into the brandy, he parades around and insists on being called Aspitrigla cuculus of the Scorpaeniformes (I understand they have a lovely place by the sea). And in his day he was capable of some violence: this cuculus nearly killed calculus.

The picture is from Francis Willughby’s De Historia Piscium, also known as the History of Fishes. It is a lovely piece of work filled with detailed illustrations, but it is especially distinguished by a curious footnote. Published at great expense in 1686 by the Royal Society, it was a commercial flop. So much so that they Royal Society lacked the funds to proceed with its next offering: Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica. It is only because Edmund Halley “saw something in this Newton kid” and underwrote the first edition Newton’s magnum opus that any of us exist, since as you know, if the Principia had not been published, none of us would be here today.

There’s a paper on the History of Fishes by Sachiko Kusukawa. It’s behind a registration wall, but the abstract is fun reading. Here’s an excerpt:

The Historia Piscium was a work begun by Francis Willughby (1635-1672, F.R.S. 1663), completed by John Ray (1627-1705, F.R.S. 1667) and brought into print with the financial support of The Royal Society. The text and illustrations of the Historia Piscium reflect the 17th-century origins of the enterprise: Ray’s quest to recover the knowledge and language lost in the Fall, and The Royal Society’s support for establishing a reformed natural history of fish through publication. Ray’s biblical belief in the corruption of human language and knowledge led him to reform natural history through ‘characteristic marks’. He sought to define, classify and depict fishes through their external features, which when matched up, would yield the same nature, and thus allow humans to identify and give a name to a fish.

This leads to a pet topic of mine. Christianity figures prominently in many scientific histories. Often enough, misplaced theology led to good science, and in aggregate this science ultimately led to the modern Western scientific mindset (which in turn put pressure on Christianity, but that’s another story). In the same way that magical alchemical reasoning prepared the way for modern chemistry, was there something special about the Christian mindset in the High Middle Ages that put European science on its spectacular ascent?