Tuesday 2 January 2024

Why Hinduism Is Philosophically Superior To Christianity

[Disclaimer: I'm an atheist, not a believer in any religion. However, I'm an eager student of comparative religion, and I like to understand the philosophical standpoints of different religions, as well as the possible psychology of their thinkers and rule-makers. I also tend to play provocateur in religious debates. I have a number of uncomfortable questions to ask of believing Hindus. However, this particular post is aimed at evangelical Christians, to challenge their smug assumption that their faith is superior to the pagan/heathen beliefs of Hinduism.]

Let's examine some of the core beliefs of Hinduism and Christianity from a philosophical standpoint, and see which appeals to us as the superior approach.

1. The notion of Individual Accountability versus that of Collective Punishment

If I commit a crime, who should be punished for it? Me, or my family members? It's a no-brainer that I alone am accountable for my actions, not my family, and certainly not any descendents of mine who weren't even born at the time I committed the crime.

As a topical example, Israel's recent actions in Gaza violate the UN Charter of Human Rights, because it has chosen to punish the entire civilian population of Gaza (including innocent infants) in retaliation for the actions of Hamas. Collective Punishment is not justice. In fact, it is itself a crime.

The Hindu notion of Karma is all about individual accountability. According to this belief, the Cosmos rewards and punishes individuals for their actions. Karma is even believed to follow individuals across multiple lifetimes. Unexplained and undeserved strokes of good and bad fortune are explained as the possible results of actions in past lives. Regardless of the validity of this belief, the philosophical underpinning of this is the notion of individual accountability. One's actions do not result in reward or punishment to others, not even to members of one's immediate family. The fruits of action attach solely to the individual alone.

Contrast that with the fundamental Christian notion of Original Sin. The basic nature of man is believed to be that of a sinner. And what is that sin that attaches to every human being who is born? It's the "Original Sin" that was committed by Adam and Eve, from whom all humans are believed to be descended. All humans are therefore condemned to go to Hell for this sin committed by their distant ancestors. It is only thanks to the substitutional atonement of Jesus Christ that we have a way to escape this punishment. Christ died for our sins. If we accept Christ as our saviour, then we are spared the punishment of Hell, else we will be made to suffer for the sins committed by someone else.

The Hindu notion of Karma illustrates its underlying philosophy of Individual Accountability, where each person is rewarded or punished based on their actions alone. The Christian notion of Original Sin represents its philosophy of Collective Punishment, where all of us are to be punished for the actions of someone else. Which of these would you consider the superior concept?

2. "The punishment should fit the crime"

If I commit a murder, I could go to jail for 30 years (or be executed in countries that have not outlawed the death penalty). If I steal something, I may go to jail for a few months. If I steal a loaf of bread because my family is starving, I may be tasked with a few weeks of community service or even let off altogether with just a warning. Such a system of justice seems inherently fair. In Les Miserables, the protagonist steals a loaf of bread to feed his sister's starving family, and is sentenced to jail for an inordinately long period. Virtually everyone sees this as grossly unfair. We humans inherently accept the principle that a punishment should fit the crime.

The Hindu notion of Karma is proportional. If I do something good, the Cosmos rewards me in equal measure. Likewise if I do something bad. If I poke someone, I'm likely to get a similar poke in return. Karmic retribution for a poke is unlikely to be the massacre of my entire family. Karma is believed to be proportionate in its rewards and punishments.

Once again, there is no evidence at all that Karma is real or that it works in this manner. However, the common belief among Hindus is that this is how Karma works, and hence proportionality is one of the attributes of Karma from a philosophical standpoint.

What is the Christian reward for goodness or its punishment for evil? An Eternity in Heaven or Hell. An Eternity in Heaven isn't terribly controversial, but an Eternity in Hell could be. Consider how long "Eternity" is. An individual's lifetime, in comparison, is finite. Even if a person commits heinous crimes every waking moment of their lives from the time they're a toddler until they die, the crimes they can commit in their lifetime are necessarily finite in nature. Punishment of an infinite duration is way out of proportion to the crimes anyone could possibly manage to commit over their entire, finite lifetime. Add to this the "Original Sin" of Adam and Eve if you will. Was their act so evil that they deserved an Eternity in Hell? A loving parent, which is what God is supposed to be, would have let them off with a slap on the wrist.

Viewed from the perspective of proportionality, the Hindu notion of Karmic retribution is fairer because it tends to fit the crime. The Christian notion of an Eternity in Hell is way, way out of proportion to any possible set of crimes an individual could commit, not to mention crimes that they did not themselves commit!

3. The attitude towards Knowledge

Unlike Christianity, Hinduism does not see the basic nature of a human being as that of a sinner. Rather, it sees a human being as one trapped in ignorance and delusion. The purpose of human existence is to seek liberation for the atma (soul). Liberation is attained through enlightenment, and such enlightenment may take many lifetimes (rebirths), since the soul "grows" with each experience. When a person (finally) attains enlightenment, they realise that their consciousness is not an individual one, but part of the Supreme Consciousness, and they then attain liberation from the cycle of births and deaths by having their consciousness merge with the Supreme.

The Hindu attitude towards Knowledge is therefore positive. Humans are encouraged to seek knowledge and truth.

Furthermore, they are advised not to accept even the word of a guru as gospel truth, but to question, challenge and debate every claim until they are satisfied of its validity. The Hindu attitude towards knowledge is not just positive, but also scientific because of its encouragement of skepticism and debate. Indeed, open debates between religious denominations were common in ancient India.

[Important note: The historicity of Shankaracharya is in doubt. Some accounts place him as early as the 5th century BCE, while others place him around the 8th century CE, which is quite a broad interval of time. Also, it's not clear whether the debate with Mandana Mishra ever took place. However, when discussing philosophical differences between religions, the factual accuracy of events is not as important as whether these are commonly accepted or not. The fact that the idea of debate is popularly accepted indicates that Hinduism as a philosophy is OK with heterodox views.]

Let's turn now to Christianity. What was the "Original Sin" of Adam and Eve? One could say it was disobedience towards God. But what was their specific act of disobedience? What Adam and Eve did was eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge! Mind you, it was not an apple, as some children's books portray it. Christian scripture is astonishingly candid in using the allegory of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. That's quite a startling admission of Christianity's negative attitude towards Knowledge - on two counts. One, that Adam and Eve were punished for seeking Knowledge by being expelled from Paradise, and further, all their descendents, even those then unborn, were cursed with an out-of-proportion Collective Punishment of an Eternity in Hell. Two, that they were expected to accept the word of God unquestioningly, and their curiosity or skepticism was not encouraged but punished.

The concept of heterodoxy in Christianity has a bloody history. Catholics and Protestants in Europe slaughtered each other for centuries instead of engaging in debate. The Christian attitude towards knowledge was therefore not marked by enquiry and debate, but blind and dogmatic faith. The notorious reaction of the Church to Galileo and Darwin hardly needs mentioning.

Yet again, the Hindu philosophy appears superior to the Christian one, this time through its attitude towards Knowledge in general, and specifically the encouragement to question received wisdom and to discover truth for oneself.

4. The attitude towards Diversity of Thought

Every modern corporation today has an "Inclusion and Diversity" initiative. Furthermore, the notion of diversity is claimed to be more than just the superficial diversity of gender, national origin, ethnicity or religion, but diversity of thought. (Whether diversity of thought is genuinely encouraged is doubtful, though. The Ukraine and Gaza crises have shown that people with views out of line with that of the Western establishment are summarily "cancelled", deplatformed and demonetised.)

Be that as it may, the more enlightened sections of modern society have begun to grudgingly accept that people around the world have diverse views, and that it is not desirable to impose a single viewpoint upon everyone. Diversity of thought is viewed as a strength, in that it helps to overcome "groupthink" and suboptimal decision-making. Mutual respect, as opposed to the condescending concept of "tolerance", is beginning to be appreciated as a healthier attitude in a diverse world.

One of Hinduism's fundamental beliefs is that "all paths lead to the truth", and this is borne out by the fact that Hindu evangelism and conversion to Hinduism are rarely observed in society. (Hindu evangelism is mainly seen in the Hare Krishna movement, which seems to be predominantly composed of Western people who were formerly Christian, and who perhaps therefore carry forward their old attitude of "my way is superior to yours" even after adopting a religion that explicitly rejects that notion! Rituals to convert non-Hindus to Hinduism are also a recent phenomenon. The 19th century Hindu monk, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, founded the Arya Samaj and invented conversion rituals as a response to the Christian evangelism and conversion efforts that he witnessed.)

The Abrahamic religions (not just Christianity) are notorious for their attitude of supremacism. Christianity and Islam are proselytising religions that do not accept the equal validity of other religions, but look down on them as inferior beliefs. Judaism may not have a strong tradition of conversion, but this is not out of a sense of mutual respect for other religions, but rather from the notion of Jews being the "Chosen People". Judaism therefore lacks even the condescending desire to share one's spiritual superiority with others!

The difference in attitudes towards non-belief is also striking. Atheism is considered part of the accepted schools of thought within Hinduism, with the atheistic thinker Charvaka being one of Hinduism's respected saints. Non-belief in God is considered sinful in Christianity, and indeed in the entire Abrahamic tradition.

Once again, it is Hinduism that exhibits the more philosophically evolved attitude of respect for diversity of thought, compared to Christianity (or indeed, any religion in the Abrahamic family).

5. The notion of Cosmic Time

The Christian view of Time is linear. "In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth." And we will all spend an Eternity either in Heaven or in Hell. That's it. A definite beginning, and no end.

By contrast, the Hindu concept of Time is cyclical. The Universe, i.e., all of Creation, is created, lasts for a while, then undergoes dissolution. Rinse and repeat. There is no end to this cycle of creation and dissolution.

Of course, there is no evidence for the validity of either hypothesis. However, from a purely philosophical standpoint, the Hindu concept of a continuously repeating lifecycle of Creation is more sophisticated than the simplistic, linear one in the Christian tradition.

6. Objective Truth and the entire edifice of Western civilisation

This point is not strictly about Christianity. It's about Western thinking in general, and I have written about it in detail earlier. The entire edifice of modern Western thought, i.e., what is referred to as "scientific", "rationalistic" or "evidence-based" knowledge, rests upon a fundamental premise, that there is something called Objective Truth.

But what if there is none? An early Indic philosophy (not necessarily Hindu in a religious sense) called Samkhya claims that there can be no Objective Truth because the Observer is an inextricable part of the Universe that they claim to be observing. This means that any observation is subjective.

Is this just an academic hypothesis? Well, the famous Observer Effect from the Double-Slit Experiment raises tantalising questions. If an Observer can change the nature of a phenomenon by the very fact of their presence, then this supports the hypothesis that there may be no Objective Reality.


It's clear from the above examples that Hinduism as a collection of philosophical thoughts is too sophisticated to be dismissed as a primitive or "heathen" belief system. Indeed, Christian theological concepts seem amateurish compared to their Hindu counterparts.

Let me emphasise once again that this is not a theological debate over which set of beliefs is superior. My personal position is that all religions are fairytales and that humans need to rise above blind belief in religious scripture, or indeed, even non-denominational "spirituality", which is also just "woo". However, when we dig a level deeper into the philosophical underpinnings of various religions, there is a difference in the sophistication of concepts that are found in each. This post is a collection of my impressions on whatever I have gathered about Hinduism and Christianity.

Comments by my friend Seshadri Kumar, a fellow ex-Hindu atheist (with minor edits of typos, and my observations in italics):

1. Individual responsibility vs collective punishment. While I understand where you are going with this, the reality is that Hinduism also has collective punishment. That's why we do shraddha. You are supposed to do a ritual every amavasai (new moon day, pronounced "amaavaasai" in Tamil) for the welfare of the spirits of your ancestors. This, incidentally, was the reason the sage Agastya decided to marry. He was walking one day and saw several sages hanging upside down and crying in pain. He asked them why they were in this state. They told him they were his ancestors and [that they were] suffering because he had not married and produced a child. This is the reason I flatly refuse to do rituals for my parents. I did the bare minimum for my mother so her relatives would not be offended. When she was alive, I made a deal with her that the only religious ritual I would do was my dad's annual shraddha, and that too, a highly abbreviated, 15 minute version. (Fair point. However, there is a spectrum of belief among Hindus, and the less ritualistic do not worry too much about this.)

2. The punishment should fit the crime. Not really. You should read the Garuda Purana. The punishments described in it are horrific. Again, this is related to funeral ceremonies. Traditionally, priests read out the Garuda Purana to the relatives of the dead to scare them into paying huge sums of money so that appropriate rituals are done, including gifting of cows and gold to Brahmins, to prevent horrible tortures from being inflicted on their loved ones. (The Garuda Purana is a little-known text that is only cited at the time of funerals, for the reasons you describe. It's probably a self-serving invention of priests, as you say. However, this isn't an everyday text for Hindus, so I would argue that it isn't that relevant.)

3. The attitude towards knowledge. What you have described is all fine in theory, but the idea that it will take several lifetimes offers zero hope to those born in low castes. In fact, knowledge was explicitly denied to those born as Shudras and Dalits because they were supposed to have been born with dark, tamasic (pronounced "taamasik") souls, and so any knowledge given to them would only be misused for evil purposes. (True.) All the stuff you have described is only for privileged Brahmins. Also, you talk about how even the guru can be challenged by the disciple, but that's certainly not the case anywhere in India. Teachers do not like to be challenged, and that comes from Hindu culture. There was one chap who was working in Silicon Valley and decided to chuck it all to learn Hindustani music from a guru. The first thing his guru said was that you should never challenge the guru, accept everything he says, etc. (You're right in that in practice, gurus generally take offence at being challenged. The better ones take challenges in the right spirit. Vivekananda once followed Ramakrishna Paramahamsa at night to check if he was going to visit his wife, and the man just chuckled and said, "That's right, test your guru at every turn." That behaviour aligns with the philosophy. 99% of gurus probably wouldn't respond that positively.)

4. Hinduism's attitude towards conversion is largely because of the caste system. If you convert someone, which varNa (caste) are you going to put them in? And, historically, for more than 2000 years, Hinduism did not encounter foreign religions in any significant number, until the arrival of Christianity and Islam, and their initial response was like that of the Jews - we are the superior religion, you are "mlecchas" (outcastes, untouchables). Hinduism had so many adherents, they weren't interested in conversions. They took pains to kick people out when they didn't like them. (Yes, caste is a practical reason why conversion to Hinduism wouldn't work.)

5. Why is cyclic time any better than linear time? (Not "better", just more sophisticated. Linear time is like a story made up by a 6 year old, while cyclic time is like a story made up by a 12 year old. Both fairytales of course, but one is slightly more sophisticated than the other.)

6. Careful with your arguments about objective truth. A lot of [Hindu propagandists] use exactly this to justify anything under the sun. Especially the Advaita guys. All nonsense. (Any point made can be subverted and misused. I can't refrain from talking about this just because it could be used to justify random stuff.)

[If you liked this post, you may find these interesting too:
The Three Hinduisms
Fixing The Symbolism Of The Dashaavataar Mythology]

Monday 10 April 2023

Inscrutable No More - Three Uniquely Insightful Articles That Demystify China For The World

A survey of three articles that together paint an insightful picture of China that may surprise many in the outside world.

Read it here, on my China blog.

Sunday 19 March 2023

My Letter Of Support To Former PM Paul Keating On Australia's China Policy, Copied To The Government

Former Australian PM Paul Keating created quite a stir recently when he criticised the Australian press for neglecting its professional duty and acting as a mouthpiece for the pro-US and anti-China establishment.

He got a bit of pushback from the affected parties for his remarks.

A few days later, I saw a tweet that solicited messages of support from Australians who agreed with Mr Keating, and the tweet also encouraged respondents to copy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

I decided it was best to stand up and make my voice heard, so I sent out the following email, copying both PM Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong:

Subject: I support Paul Keating's stance on Australian policy re. China

To: susan.grusovin@aph.gov.au

CC: A.Albanese.MP@aph.gov.au, senator.wong@aph.gov.au (The copy to Albanese bounced, since he seems to have discontinued the use of this address, but Penny Wong's office acknowledged receipt of my mail.)


As an Australian citizen and voter, I want to make my opinion clear (hence copying the PM and FM) that I am alarmed about my country being frogmarched into a coming proxy war being orchestrated by the United States against China.

1. China is not a threat to Australia. It is our largest trading partner. The Australian and Chinese economies are complementary, and Australia will continue to grow and prosper if we maintain cordial relations with China.

2. Any talk of Chinese invasion is rubbish. Not only does China not need to physically invade Australia when it can acquire Australian resources through trade at significantly lower cost, it is also logistically infeasible. This argument by the anti-China lobby is deliberately emotive but groundless.

3. All talk by the US of freedom, democracy and human rights is well-known to be selective and used for geopolitical reasons only. The US has never criticised Israel or Saudi Arabia for their appalling human rights records because they are allies. (Now that Saudi Arabia has defied the US by signing a deal with Iran under China's auspices, I expect its human rights record will be taken up by the US in a predictable manner.) Besides, when even the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) has not complained about China's treatment of Uyghur Muslims, why is the West (which waged two decades of war against Muslim countries and killed millions of people in the War on Terror) so concerned about Muslims in China? It is apparent that the Uyghur Muslim issue is not a real one but just a handy stick to beat China with. Why is the treatment of Muslims by the Hindu right-wing government of India not mentioned by the same people who seem so concerned about the Uyghurs? Probably because India is considered an ally for now.

4. The US is only interested in preserving its hegemony, nothing else. It has no allies, only useful vassal states that it uses in proxy wars. If we are a truly sovereign nation, our foreign policy should be aimed at securing the interests of the Australian people, not at furthering the interests of the US.

5. We have seen how devastatingly Ukraine has been wrecked in the US's proxy war against Russia. Regardless of the moral posturing over Russia's "unprovoked aggression" (yeah, right), we know that the US has been deliberately stoking this conflict for years, and it became blatantly obvious with the 2014 Victoria Nuland-orchestrated coup that deposed a democratically elected Ukrainian government and installed successive puppet regimes. An elected Australian government has a sacred responsibility to ensure that Australia does not suffer a similar fate as Ukraine. We have this dire example before us, and cannot feign ignorance of the fate that awaits a US proxy.

6. It is alarming in the extreme to see the orchestrated establishment and media campaign reaching a crescendo on China. The US is stoking a conflict with China over Taiwan, engaging in deliberately provocative actions when it officially has a One-China Policy that only recognises the PRC. Not only is the sudden interest in Taiwan unwarranted, the prepping of Australia and Japan towards greater militarisation should ring alarm bells. If a war breaks out, it will be Australia and Japan that will do the actual fighting as US proxies. The US will not put boots on the ground. It will supply arms (on a strictly lend-lease basis, of course, which will keep our children and grandchildren in debt), but it will be Australian and Japanese soldiers who will actually lay down their lives.

7. Although we keep repeating the phrase "Lest we forget" when we talk about Gallipoli, it's clear that we have never learnt the basic lesson from that tragic episode - that Australia should stop fighting other countries' wars.

8. The Scott Morrison government was extremely irresponsible in destroying a hitherto harmonious relationship with China with ill-considered and unnecessary calls for a hostile investigation into the origins of Covid. The fallout in the form of Chinese trade sanctions on Australian goods, though costly to our citizens, was only economic. The Albanese government initially seemed to be repairing that damage and resetting relations with China, but recent actions have lurched in the opposite direction, and will drag us beyond a mere economic rift to actual military conflict.

9. The nuclear element of the AUKUS deal is particularly alarming. In the event of hostilities with China (which is what the war hawks are clamouring for), our government would have made Australia a target for a nuclear attack by escalating our military capability to a nuclear level. It is a shockingly irresponsible thing for a government to do.

10. Spending $368 billion of taxpayer money on this irresponsibly dangerous initiative is not just a waste. It is going to be funded through massive cuts to welfare, healthcare, education, infrastructure and other areas of the economy that require committed government support. This fiscal irresponsibility is shocking too.

11. There is much talk of Australian politics being illegally influenced by Chinese government interests (as with the Sam Dastyari episode), but the fact is that American influence on Australian politics is far, far greater, yet unremarked upon. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) is being given carte blanche to conduct its lobbying activities out in the open, when its chief sponsor is known to be the US arms industry. This organisation must be shut down, its foreign employees deported and its Australian employees investigated for crimes no less than treason. The interests of Australia and its citizens are not just being ignored but actively jeopardised in favour of those of a foreign country. This is a treasonable offence.

In sum, as a citizen, I am horrified that an elected government has so dramatically turned its back on the interests of its own people and succumbed to the pressure of a fading superpower that wants to use us as cannon fodder to maintain its hegemony. I am not privy to the threats the US must have used to get our government to comply, but they are no excuse for this egregious betrayal.

On a personal note, I am of Indian origin, not Chinese, and therefore my views cannot be dismissed as being motivated by cultural affinity towards China.

The government needs to know that its recent steps with regard to China are causing extreme alarm among its voting citizens, and there will be political repercussions if it does not reverse course immediately.

Ganesh Prasad

Sunday 5 February 2023

The "Civilisation State" - Phoenix, Werewolf Or Chimera?

Two essays, two biases

Two essays debating the "Civilisation State" have recently appeared.

The first one by Bruno Maçães is titled "As Western Liberalism Declines, Civilization States Return".

The second one, a partial rebuttal by Shashi Tharoor, is "Civilization States Are Profoundly Illiberal".

Both authors agree on one point — that a civilisation state represents a political system different from Western liberal democracies. Their titles are largely self-explanatory, although Maçães straddles the fence on whether he approves of "civilisation states" or not. His tone seems to be one of resignation at their inevitability, but one can also detect some pleasure at the deserved demise of Western liberalism. Tharoor is resolutely against civilisation states and for Western liberalism. I would encourage you to check out both these essays for yourself before reading my take on them.

At the outset, I have to say I found Maçães's essay much harder to understand, and I suspect it's because (with all due respect to his scholarship) his definitions of crucial terms seem ambiguous and shifting, and some of his arguments appear to contradict one another. He does raise some interesting and topical points though, and hence his essay cannot be dismissed for its lack of rigour.

Tharoor's essay is more relatable, although I believe his arguments are driven more by idealism than by realism.

I set great store by intellectual honesty, which is the ability to see things as they are, and not as one wants them to be. Discussing a topic with intellectual honesty can be confronting rather than comforting. So while Maçães's meandering article is hard to understand and pin down, he doesn't shy away from making his reader uncomfortable by touching upon some unpalatable truths. Tharoor's vision is a more soothing one, but one that I suspect is more divorced from reality. There needs to be a third viewpoint (and a fourth, and a fifth...)

As the author of an essay on why Indians need to understand their own civilisational history to make sense of the modern world, I feel compelled to provide one such alternative viewpoint.

Setting things straight

For a start, I believe Samuel Huntington (author of The Clash of Civilizations) deserves far more credit than he has received. His advocacy of a civilisational model of world history, which he contrasts against both narrow nationalism and against universal liberalism, is the Goldilocks model that seems just right. The civilisational view is in contrast to the globalist or humanist view of the entire world being one society. While the latter is a wonderful ideal, it is clearly not a view shared by the majority of the world's people, only by a few liberals. Civilisations are also different from nation-states in being far more long-lived, because they are based on more durable aspects of people's lives than political borders — aspects such as genetics, geographical origin, language and religion. And so, Maçães is wrong when he makes an arbitrary and unsubstantiated distinction between civilisation and identity ("Identity is the mutilated corpse of civilization."). The two concepts are in fact inseparable. Civilisation is meaningless without identity.

Maçães also outrageously misquotes Huntington on the topic of Ukraine. Huntington did not say that Ukraine and Russia belonged to the same civilisation! In fact, he explicitly spoke about a "civilisational fault line" that ran down the middle of Ukraine. According to him, the Eastern part of Ukraine belonged to the Orthodox civilisation, just like Russia. The Western part (what he called Uniate Ukraine) belonged to the Western civilisation. Huntington was prescient enough to see a civil war in Ukraine as being far more likely than a war between Russia and Ukraine. To be fair to him, that is in fact what the Ukraine war is mainly about — the wrenching of the Donbas (Eastern Ukraine) away from the Ukrainian nation-state and its incorporation into Russia, where it belongs in a civilisational sense. The results of the popular referenda in Crimea and the Donbas bear out Huntington's prediction.

What compounds this intellectual crime is Maçães's abandonment of objectivity. His visceral distaste for Russia and his disingenuously hagiographic view of Ukraine do his reputation no favours.

If Russia today represents the rule of instinct and unreason, Ukraine is the affirmation of light and progress.

(Yeah, right. Ukraine was ranked the second most corrupt country in Europe in 2021, but after Feb 24 2022, it has magically transformed into the affirmation of light and progress!)

Russia under the perpetually inebriated Boris Yeltsin (1991-1999) was a liberal democracy. That period saw the worst decline in the country's living standards, an alarming rise in alcoholism, and an unprecedented drop in life expectancy, all in the service of oligarchs who acquired the state's resources for a song. Then Vladimir Putin took charge, arrested his country's dangerous slide, reversed it with an iron fist and — dare I say it — made Russia great again.

The resurgent Russia of today is (unapologetically) no longer liberal. Yet we are expected to cheer for liberalism because.

I also respect Huntington a lot for his admission that he did not understand the Indian civilisation. Huntington with his admitted ignorance in fact made far more insightful remarks about India than many others who claim to be knowledgeable about the country. Far from being ignorant about the nature of Indian civilisation, his comments showed that he recognised its complex, hybrid and layered nature. The Indic civilisation (which is the term I use in order to distinguish it from both the Indian nation-state and the Hindu religion) is not a simple one to describe or to understand. To his great credit, Huntington did a far better job of it than many other authors I have read.

What then is the definition of a "civilisation state"?

Here's my view. If a nation-state is to be considered a "civilisation state", its operating principles must go along the grain of its people's inherent and historical values and beliefs, rather than values and beliefs that are alien to them. That's it.

Note that this is not a value judgement on whether a civilisation state is "better" than one that is organised differently. It is merely a definition — my definition — one that is clear and understandable, and one that I will stick to without shifting goalposts or contradicting myself. (Mr Maçães, please take note.)

From this definition, China and Russia are not the first civilisation states to make a resurgence in our times, contrary to what Maçães avers. We have had civilisation states in our world for decades, even centuries. Muslim countries governed by Sharia law are civilisation states. Their operating principles align with the historical values of their people and are largely accepted by them.

And so, this is the very first point I would make on the topic of civilisation states. They are not a phoenix newly rising from the ashes of liberal states. They have always been around. We just haven't been conditioned to view them as such.

The typical blind spots of the Indian liberal

Tharoor does an able job of demolishing Maçães's confused and confusing essay, providing us with a detailed delineation of all his contradictions and fallacies.

Where Tharoor himself falters is in letting his arguments be guided by the knee-jerk reactions that Indian liberals suffer from, with respect to a couple of topics.

The first of these topics is China.

"China bad" is an article of faith among both Western and Indian thinkers. The groupthink that occurs across these two diverse and disparate cultures lulls both sides into a belief that they are being objective and rational, when they are in fact in an echo chamber of transcontinental dimensions.

Neither the West nor India really understands China. I would go so far as to say both shrink from attempting an unbiased analysis of China, because of their deepseated fear that an honest portrayal of a successful rival will show up their own failures of governance in a way that leaves them no excuse. More on this in a bit.

Tharoor's second knee-jerk reaction is to the notion of the civilisation state that the BJP has constructed, which is of course based on a sectarian Hindu identity designed to exclude India's minorities. However, a rejection of the BJP's model of a civilisation state should not lead to the rejection of the notion of a civilisation state itself! Tharoor is throwing out the Indic baby along with the Hindutva bathwater. A civilisation state isn't inherently a werewolf that will devour its citizens, and so India doesn't have to reject this model to save its people. It is possible for India to be a civilisation state, with the crucial caveat that the civilisation be Indic, not just Hindu. The Indic civilisation is a tapestry that contains layers upon layers of genetics, culture, ideas and innovation, from both internal and external sources, folded in upon itself over the course of millennia, not just centuries. Hinduism is a crucially important element of the Indic civilisation, but if all other strands are pulled out of it, the fabric will simply collapse and cease to exist. If Hindus fail to understand this, it is deeply ironical, since it means that they are unable to experience the "Viswaroopa-darshanam" of their civilisation, and they can only see one limited view of it.

Liberalism versus a civilisation state

Before going any further, it's important to first address the basic confusion around liberalism and a civilisational state. Maçães says different things at different times. He labels liberalism as Western in his title, but later asserts that it is universal. Tharoor meekly agrees with Maçães's latter assertion that liberalism is universal, not Western, and that civilisational states each have their indigenous ideological basis that sets them apart from these universal ideals.

So is liberalism Western or universal?

Let's not pussyfoot around the nature of liberalism, particularly its provenance. Liberalism is a good idea in that it postulates the equality of every human being, and their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. However, just because it is a good idea and is applicable to all people equally, it does not follow that the idea is universal! This is the fallacy many fall victim to.

If I have a theory about all of humanity, that does not make it a "universal" theory. It is still just my theory, even though I claim that it applies to every human being on earth.

The Western liberal worldview is just that. It is a view of all of humanity, but it is still only a Western worldview. It is not "universal".

You want proof? The shibboleth is the notion of "tolerance" as opposed to "mutual respect". Would an advocate of liberalism look at the practices of non-Western civilisations in a spirit of mutual respect, or would their attitude be one of tolerance at best, and condemnation at worst? You know the answer.

In support of his argument that liberalism is not Western but a universal, or civilisationally neutral, set of ideas, Maçães says "Liberals wanted their political values to be accepted universally, much like a scientific theory enjoys universal validity [...] Western civilization stopped being a civilization, or at least it stopped seeing itself as a civilization. [...] Its principles were meant to be broad and formal, no more than an abstract framework of relations."

I disagree. Western civilisation did not jettison its own civilisational views in favour of a neutral set of ideas. The ideas of liberalism — that came out of the European Enlightenment — were as Western as the ideas they replaced. The West then tried to make these latter homegrown values seem universal. It cajoled and pushed other cultures, nation-states and civilisations to adopt them wholesale because they were now "universal".

They were not. They were always Western values.

[Maçães also treats us to the heretofore unheard-of idea that even Europe could possibly reject the universalist liberal model and pursue its own version of a civilisation state! He writes a number of words about this without saying much, but in the spirit of intellectual honesty that would not shy away from confronting ideas, I will venture an opinion on what such a European civilisation state would look like. Shorn of its more recent ideas of liberalism, the West would regress to being a white supremacist society that is also devoutly Christian. In short, a European civilisation state bereft of liberalism would simply be a Fourth Reich with Catholics and Protestants at each other's throats. So the idea that Europe (or the West) could possibly turn its back on liberalism does not prove that liberalism is not Western. It just shows that liberalism is a more evolved set of  —  Western —  ideas.]

Maçães makes the important point that in spite of liberalism's vaunted universality, it cannot overcome more visceral instincts: "Liberalism wanted to build a lasting edifice of reason and logic, but it turned out to be incapable of reaching large areas of collective existence. It remained, to a considerable extent, powerless over the brute facts of social life to which no reasoning could be applied — nationalism, fascism, and religious and racial bigotry being just a few examples."

I agree with this observation. India adopted a constitution inspired by the European Enlightenment. Its ideals may be noble and desirable — but they are not Indian.

This is not a value judgement, just a statement of fact. Anjum Altaf quoted Dr Ambedkar in this article "The Real India": "Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic."

Rather than be outraged by this observation, the intellectually honest way forward would be to acknowledge its validity and explore whether democracy is the only mechanism to run a country fairly, i.e., the only system that can ensure good governance.

Democracy and individual rights

We need to digress to discuss an important issue that is often glossed over — the difference between the related concepts of a democracy and a constitutional republic. Democracy refers to the prevalence of the will of the majority, whereas constitutions tend to protect the rights of the individual, even against the will of the majority. So what exactly is the ideal society — one that is democratic (and reflects the will of a possibly bigoted majority), or one that is governed by a constitution that places limits on the will of the majority when it infringes the rights of the individual?

Note that a pure democracy would be no different from a civilisation state, because the country would be governed according to the (traditionalist) views of the majority, with no liberal constitution to impose an extraneous set of constraints.

This brings us to the crux of what disturbs liberals when a civilisation state is discussed. People shouldn’t be allowed to get whatever they want, because they may want the “wrong” things. They need a civilising influence such as a constitution inspired by Western liberalism, which constrains what they can ask for.

Squaring the circle

I'll stop being snarky about liberals now, because I'm probably one myself. I too like the values of the European Enlightenment and would like to see them widely, if not universally, adopted.

What doesn’t sit right with me is the notion of dictating to people what they should want, by constraining their choices from above. That doesn’t seem liberal to me. To paraphrase Tharoor, it’s a liberal constitution that is profoundly illiberal, because it acts as a constraint on pure democracy (the will of the majority).

What then about individual rights, freedom of speech, the right to life and liberty, and so many other important ideas? Should we force these noble ideas on uncivilised non-Western people, or would that make us illiberal?

The situation isn’t as hopeless as it looks, though.

The key to incorporating new ideas into a civilisation state is … social engineering. If a people can be taught to appreciate certain values such that they willingly adopt them, then when the organising principles of the state are aligned with the values of its people, one could have a civilisation state that is also liberal!

Societies are not static. People can be influenced. This is how civilisations develop and evolve. They absorb influences from internal reformers as well as through external examples, and they morph. Civilisation states can therefore be engineered. They are not givens.

The mistake that people in democracies make is in thinking that change can only come to societies from below, and that social engineering from above (by governments) is inherently evil.

Not so. Much-reviled communist governments have rooted out feudalism, educated their illiterate peasant masses, reduced inequality and empowered women on a scale that would put liberal democracies to shame.

So that's the solution to the liberal conundrum. Not to impose from above a liberal constitution that is alien, but to educate and socially engineer a population to incorporate liberal values into their thinking. Warning: it may take generations, for every civilisation needs to live through its own Enlightenment for such values to become self-evident and to stick.

Also consider that Western liberalism may not be the only moral path. Non-Western civilisations have highly evolved moral concepts of their own that often go unrecognised. [See Section 4.3 of my essay for a detailed discussion.]

The China syndrome

Let's return to the uncomfortable topic of China. China is feared by democratic societies because it has become such a success that it cannot be dismissed like the Soviet Union. The democracies (and only the democracies!) demonise China because they cannot afford to have their populace ask uncomfortable questions about why their purportedly more responsive system has not done as much for them as an evil, authoritarian communist dictatorship has done for its citizens. How has China managed to lift hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty and into the middle class in a single generation? How has it managed to eliminate extreme poverty? How did it manage to protect its citizens from the pandemic, with far fewer hospitalisations and deaths per-capita than the greatest democracies, even while being the only significant economy to grow during this period? These questions cannot be answered honestly in democracies. Indeed, these questions must not even be asked. Instead, the Chinese civilisation state, with its unique and successful relationship between the rulers and the governed, must be cast as one characterised by the "suppression of minorities, repression of free speech and outlawing of political dissent".

Pre-emptive delegitimisation. It works. Up to a point.

(If you think "liberal democracies" don't persecute dissidents for free speech, I have two words for you: Julian Assange.)

Good governance - It's not a Western idea

So when we strip away the myth of Western civilisational superiority, we see that constraining the will of the majority on the basis of Western concepts (however noble some of us may think they are) is neither ideal nor justifiable. We are forced to focus on the only thing that should matter — good governance.

Plato's Republic is a seminal Western treatise on the relationship between the rulers and the ruled, but it's hardly unique. The Indian concept of "Raj-dharma" that rulers must abide by, the Chinese notion of the "Mandate of Heaven" that a ruler can forfeit if they are unworthy, the Sharia law of Islamic states, all of these point to a concept accepted by every civilisation — that people should be governed according to a set of impartial and clearly defined rules, and not according to the arbitrary whim of a ruler.

Clearly, non-Western civilisations too have developed standards and rules of governance that are focused on the welfare of the governed. So why should the concept of civilisation states be greeted with such horror?

(If one is cynical enough to point out that these rules of governance are mainly observed in the breach, it may be worth considering representative democracy in the West and asking if elected representatives make laws and decisions to benefit their constituents or the lobby groups that fund their election campaigns.)

Liberalism in international relations

Tharoor makes one more point against civilisation states.

"In international politics, similarly, the notion that civilization states can follow their own standards overlooks the need for universally accepted norms to sustain world order"

This is however a non sequitur — a nation's internal governing principles have nothing to do with how it behaves in the comity of nations! A country can be a democracy at home while claiming exceptionalism and being a ruthless hegemon abroad, or it can be a dictatorship at home while aligning scrupulously to international law. How a country behaves towards others is of relevance to the outside world. How a country conducts its internal affairs is no one else's business. The latter statement is not because dictatorship or the denial of human rights is acceptable, but because the alternative (of exporting freedom and democracy using regime change and drone warfare) has proven such a humanitarian disaster and such a shameful scandal.

It is a smug belief in the superiority of liberal societies over all others that results in the condonement of crimes against the people of those other societies.

So rather than be liberal in international relations, let's be libertarian instead. Let's leave other countries alone.

Let's not regime-change them when they're weak.

When they're strong, let's not provoke them into war to make them look like the bad guys.

Tharoor makes a point about fig leaves in the context of internal governance, but he fails to acknowledge its flip side.

"Just as the devil can quote scripture for his purpose, the advocacy of “civilization states” all too often masks the malign intentions of tyrants."

This is the flip side: The advocacy of "universal values" like freedom, democracy and human rights all too often mask the malign intentions of hegemons.


At the end of the day, these are the only ground rules that will work:

- Nations must obey International Law, with none considered an exception to the rules.

- Internally, nations should govern themselves using organising principles that resonate with their people's values and beliefs. They should be civilisation states rather than govern their people using an alien set of rules.

- The values and beliefs of people are not rigid and unchanging. They can be influenced in a variety of ways - by their own governments' social engineering efforts, by their own internal grassroots movements, and by the seductive soft power of other cultures.

The civilisational state is therefore not a chimera. It is very real. We are seeing more examples of successful societies that call themselves civilisation states, and this is giving rise to concern and even panic among others. The complacency and hubris of states that adopted liberal values (whether homegrown or imported) are being shown up.

We can calm our panic by realising that (1) civilisations are not static but evolving, and (2) liberal democracy is just one of the means to a desired end. That end is good governance, and every political system claims it as its objective.

It's time for some intellectually honest conversations about systems that work for their people and systems that don't.

Saturday 28 January 2023

An Absurd Question, A Cop-Out Answer - Review Of Movie "What's Love Got To Do With It?"

[Warning: Spoilers galore!]

I was very intrigued by the billing of this "cross-cultural romantic comedy" that had a number of celebrity names attached to it - Director Shekhar Kapur, screenwriter Jemima Khan and top stars Emma Thompson and Shabana Azmi.

As the film began, I was also happy to see that it starred Shazad Latif, whom I'd seen before as Ash Tyler in Star Trek - Discovery.

The film began promisingly enough, but to cut a long story short, it posed a question that was illogical, and then answered it with a cop-out ending.

I won't bother going through the entire plot with its twists and turns, since you can find those in other reviews. Let me explain why I felt the way I did about this movie.

The movie moved quickly onto its plot premise - the phenomenon of arranged marriages (also called "assisted marriages") prevalent in the Indian subcontinent. A number of pros and cons were aired in early dialogues, so the question set up by the movie was clear:

Are arranged marriages better than "love marriages"? The definition of "better" is of course vague. Is it the durability of the marriage itself, the happiness of the partners, the stability of the family setup for children, the harmony of the larger families involved, etc.?

This question strikes me as absurd because it sounds like "What arrangement of deck chairs would be better at preventing the sinking of the Titanic?"

The necessary conditions for a successful marriage should be no secret:

- Mutual respect and trust

- A willingness on the part of both partners to learn, adapt and change themselves

Additionally, if the partners possess complementary strengths and have the patience to communicate in a way that is aligned to their partner's thinking style, they're set to be a winning team.

Needless to say, the circumstances under which the two partners come together is irrelevant. They could have met on their own and fallen in love, or they could have been introduced by their parents and agreed to marry before they had significant feelings for each other. Heck, they could even have been forced into marriage, for that matter!

So that in a nutshell is why I thought the film went completely off-target. I have seen examples of successful and unsuccessful "love marriages" in real life. I have also seen examples of successful and unsuccessful arranged marriages. It's clear as day to me that this categorisation is completely irrelevant when it comes to predicting the success of a marriage or the happiness of a couple. Without mutual respect and trust, and without a willingness on the part of both partners to learn, to adapt and to change themselves, a marriage cannot "succeed" or be a happy one. It has nothing to do with whether the marriage was "arranged" or took place after the two partners had fallen in love. The film didn't bother to raise this most important aspect of the topic at all (although it made an attempt to address the issue of marital fidelity, which is related to trust).

At the end of the movie, the arranged marriage of the male lead (Qazim Khan) fails, because it turns out that his bride was in love with someone else, and was forced by her parents into marrying him. They divorce and she leaves to rejoin her lover. Predictably, Qazim then pairs up with his childhood neighbour and friend (Zoe), who has been cataloguing the entire process of his arranged marriage.

In the style of "Four Weddings and a Funeral" then, the movie turned out to be "Two Love Marriages and the Failure of an Arranged Marriage".

The reason I call this a "cop-out" ending is because this seems to be the only acceptable answer that filmdom anywhere is allowed to provide: Love-before-marriage good, arranged marriage bad.

Even in India, where over 90% of all marriages are arranged, Bollywood and regional cinema only promote a romantic narrative where people fall in love and often battle parental and societal opposition to get married. The big screen doesn't reflect societal reality at all!

Is it possible at all for a movie to be honest and matter-of-fact about this topic, I wonder? Or will fear of box office failure forever keep storytellers from telling the unglamorous truth about what a happy marriage really needs?

[If you liked this post, check out a related one - "Why Marriage Is Hard Work - Two Psychometric Models Provide An Answer"]

Thursday 24 November 2022

Why It Makes No Sense For Russia To Agree To A Ceasefire In Ukraine Now

In his article "Ukraine: The Other Side Of The Story", author Paul Heywood-Smith has taken a refreshingly different position on the conflict than the conventional Western one. He has made a genuine attempt to understand the situation from Russia's perspective, and ends the article with a call for a ceasefire.

Russia should cease all current operations to not only bring more territory under its control, but also to weaken the Ukrainian resolve by attacking infrastructure.

Ukraine should cease all military operations to expel Russians from such territory as they are in control of.

And third parties, particularly the US, the UK, European and Nato countries, Canada and Australia, should cease providing weapons and materials which enable the war to continue.

From a humanitarian perspective, I'm all for an immediate ceasefire that will end the killing and destruction at once. In fact, the war should never have been allowed to happen. The US bears primary responsibility for provoking Russia with existential security threats and supporting the extreme persecution of Russians in Eastern Ukraine. (Read this detailed analysis if you don't agree.)

The humanitarian perspective notwithstanding, I don't believe it makes any sense for Russia to agree to a ceasefire at this stage. The following excerpts from my tweets, suitably elaborated, will explain why.

From Russia's perspective, it is poised to inflict such a crushing blow on Ukraine, NATO, Europe and the US that it can demand virtually anything next year.

Ukraine is not just a theatre of military conflict. It will permanently alter global perceptions and hence the world order. This is Russia's chance to show up the US-led West as a loser that no country will side with hereafter. Why stop short of such a victory?

Even today, when it should be clear that Ukraine is on its last legs, Western commentary talks about "Putin's miscalculation", "Russia's futile war", etc. The Western media narrative is deliberately divorced from reality. A ceasefire at this stage will expectedly be spun as a Russian defeat.

Russia needs to pursue the war to the point when reality can no longer be denied, and the West's lies are exposed for what they are. At that point, the West's defeat at the hands of the Russia-China alliance will be complete.

That's why I believe a ceasefire now is not in Russia's interest.

Some may argue that the West, or at least the moderate sections of Western society, need to agree to this change in the world order. There is a further view that these voices are more likely to be influenced by China's peaceful, development-based approach rather than a Russian military victory.

I have two points against this argument.

1. The Russian and Chinese approaches are complementary. Russia is showing up the West's impotence, while China is holding up an alternative model based on development & trade as opposed to conflict. Since it's clear that Russia and China are on the same side, the West doubly loses.

2. This may sound harsh, but it really doesn't matter what any faction in the West thinks, once the world order has been demonstrably changed. The West is simply not as relevant as it likes to believe. Power has been shifting eastwards for years, but perceptions tend to lag reality. It will take a dramatic event such as a comprehensive Western rout in Ukraine to make it obvious to everyone that the world has permanently changed.

Wednesday 9 November 2022

My Letter To PM-Elect Anthony Albanese (May 21, 2022)

I wrote a letter to Anthony Albanese on the eve of his election victory on May 21, 2022.

In it, I outlined my hopes and expectations as an Australian citizen for the path his government would take, in a decisive break from the disastrous direction of his predecessor Scott Morrison.

I'm making this public now because I'm disappointed that Albo seems to have been coopted by unelected powers, just as previous governments have been. This post by Bruce Haigh explains just how bad things have now become.

My letter:

Subject: Congratulations from a first-time Labor voter, and a manifesto challenge for you

Dear Albo,

Congratulations on your landslide victory!

Although I have been a loyal paid-up member of the Australian Democrats for over two decades, I crossed the floor today to vote for you, and I am now taking the liberty of writing to ask you to do certain things.

You have the mandate of the Australian people, Albo, and you can and should grasp the nettle and announce some bold changes in direction early on, while you still have the initiative and the momentum. All opposition will crumble if you display boldness and determination.

1. Reset the relationship with China:

It's high time Australia stopped fighting other countries' wars! We've fought Britain's wars in the last century, and we've since switched loyalties to fight America's wars. We have not covered ourselves in glory by joining the US in Vietnam, or in the invasion of Iraq. Australian foreign policy ought to be made in the interests of the Australian people, not in the interests of foreign governments.

The Morrison government has made an indecorous lurch towards the US by scrapping a deal with France, and signing up to a dangerous policy of nuclear confrontation with China by purchasing nuclear submarines. His government has also plunged us into a trade war with China, our biggest trading partner, in a further bid to please the US. In return for our pains, the US has thrown us under the bus by replacing Australian exports in the Chinese market with their own.


I want you to re-establish communications with President Xi Jinping at the earliest and normalise our relations with Asia's most important power. We should be aware that we are just a middle-ranking power, and should therefore be extremely wary of being drawn into a conflict between superpowers that will only damage us. The task before the Australian government in this area is two-fold:

- Keep the country out of any conflict between the United States and China. It's not our war, and it would be highly irresponsible on the part of any Australian government to plunge us into a conflict that will only do us enormous damage. - Re-establish favourable trading relations with China so we can both increase revenue from our exports, and tackle domestic inflation through the import of affordable Chinese goods.

(I'm of Indian origin, not Chinese, so I have no personal bias in saying all of this.)

Oh, and there's this sneaky lobbying outfit for the American arms industry that pretends to be a respectable policy think tank, and which illegitimately influences Australian defence and foreign policy to the detriment of the interests of our own people. Yes, I'm talking about the ASPI (Australian Strategic Policy Institute). Declare this an illegal organisation and shut them down. Expel their foreign employees. Investigate their treasonous activities. They have been doing great damage to Australia's interests by controlling our governments and turning Australia into a US client state for their proxy conflicts.

2. Make a strong and unequivocal commitment to renewable energy:

You need to make an early statement that is symbolically powerful. I suggest you produce a lump of coal in parliament (like Morrison did), but throw it forcefully into a dustbin!

Follow that up with clear and ambitious targets to phase out fossil fuels from every sector of the economy.

Renewables are cost-effective and ready to go. The only thing missing is Federal Government support. It's time for you to change that, and dramatically. The foot-dragging by past governments has been utterly shameful.

3. Tackle housing affordability:

Everybody knows the dirty little secret of why housing affordability isn't being seriously tackled. The flip side of making houses affordable for new buyers is making asset prices stagnate or drop for existing home-owners. In other words, you can't please one set without displeasing the other.

So far, the home-owner crowd has been calling the shots because we're the establishment. But as a home-owner myself, let me tell you that I don't mind a stagnation or drop in asset prices if it will help hundreds of thousands of young individuals and couples buy their first home. It's shameful for a problem of affordability to be dragging on for so long in a supposedly prosperous country, and it's time a government did something about it.

Hint: we all know that tinkering with the demand side like providing first home-owner grants only fuels demand and leads to a further rise in prices. The only thing that will work to reduce prices is an increase in supply. Release more crown land, at a faster rate than before. It will absolutely piss off existing home-owners, but you'll be on the right side of history.

There are lots of other problems you'll have to tackle, of course. The old demons of inflation, unemployment and underinvestment in public services. But those are problems with known solutions, and need little imagination or courage from a leader.

The issues I've outlined require true leadership.

I have placed my trust in you with my vote, Albo. I hope you'll rise to the occasion.

All the best!

Ganesh C Prasad (Federal constituency of Mitchell, NSW)