I got a chance to check out this video by Devdutt Patnaik.
Full disclosure, I have read a couple of books by him (Jaya, and The Goddess in India). I enjoyed one, the other one was meh. He writes well, if not deeply. I think that he does a decent enough job of framing hindu culture and stories for people who might either not know the details or might not have thought about it. I don’t always agree with his framing, but it is what it is.
I found that this particular Ted Talk got under my skin a little more than his usual work. Let me try to explain why.
He has the mien of a typical desi uncle who condescendingly explains to you why some nonsensical tradition is the way it is because ‘that’s the way it is’. Never fails to annoy me. But let’s leave his style out of this and just talk substance.
His first basic hypothesis is that the “foreign” concepts need to be absorbed in with sympathy and understanding towards the indian way and the indian system. In a broad sense, he is right. Everything is understood and absorbed by people from their perspective, which is affected by their culture. It is pretty non-controversial and not unique to India. Chinese food in america is way different than Chinese food in China.
His second basic hypothesis is that the Indian system as he defines is accepts many different truths and points of view and that sets it apart. This, I largely agree with as well.
What I don’t agree with is the conclusions that are derived from these hypotheses.
Let us talk about the story of Alexander and the gymnosophist.
When he says that because Alexander thinks he has only one life, the value of his life is divided by 1 and because the Gymnosophist thinks he has infinite lives, the value of his life is 0, it is a basic misunderstanding.
First, per hindu belief the actions of this life will affect your situation in the next life. So, your actions in any life are not meaningless. Each action affects your next life. The better mathematical analogy than division is an integral with limits vs an integral to infinity.
Second, indians of that time were absolutely aware of the concept of heroes, and making a name for yourself with your deeds. Note the story he quotes of Bharatha, the king conquered the world before going to Meru. The next king who heard the story of Bharatha didn’t say ‘oh what’s the point’, he went ahead and tried to conquer the world anyway.
His fundamental assumption is therefore incorrect. The concept of rebirth and the cyclic nature do not make people any less ambitious, less likely to fight and conquer or any less likely to do any other things that kings who only assumed one life did.
Historical note: Alexander’s invasion stopped at the Indus in part because the next kingdom over that he would have had to conquer was a massive Magadhan empire, the Indian cities were proving hard to conquer and they had just fought a bloody battle with what could be described as a border king (Porus). Might not have happened if the indians of that time were nihilist, ‘what’s the point of this all man’ type people.
Then, he goes on to say that one-life cultures tend to come be focused on linear thinking, standardization, and multiple-life cultures tend to be more comfortable with fuzzy thinking, contextual behaviour, relative thinking etc. This is straight up incorrect and is easily disproved. Japan : basic belief in multiple births, but a highly standards and process based society.
The middle-east : highly contextual, opinion based, oh and believe in one birth. Belly dancing does not look like ballet for sure.
The difference between these two places is of course in how much control the government and its organs have, not whether or not people believe in multiple births. Where standardization is possible (and enforceable), standards happen. For instance, in india, you cannot bargain for the price of petrol. You can however bargain for the price of potatoes. Reason is simply a question of what is regulated and enforced.
The reason for indian business practices being the way he describes them have to do with a failure of leadership, failure of the government and the legal system to enforce contracts and little do to with whether individuals think they have multiple lives.
Then, when he talks about absorbing concepts with sensitivity to indian culture, once again, I agree with the principle. The empathy and listening drill he talks about is also quite interesting. I doubt however if empathy and listening are unimportant in other cultures.
His final plea for mutual understanding and empathy are obviously correct.
To finish up, It is a error people often make when they see a situation and imagine that is how it always was. Or worse, that there is something inevitable about it. That is what I see him doing.
The reason traffic on indian roads is crazy has less to do with whether people think they will get another go-around if they die that day and more to do with the fact that the roads are too small and there are too many vehicles.
If a foreigner said something like ‘Indians believe in rebirth and therefore they dont hold life valuable, that is why they drive the way they do’.We would get really offended and call him racist. But that is essentially what he is doing here.
Basically he is pointing at inefficiencies in Indian business and society and pointing to Indian culture and founding myths as the reason.
This is doubly pernicious. It is pernicious first because you can interpret the same myths that he points to and come to the opposite conclusion. There are enough figures in indian myth and legend who go through great difficulties rather than give up on their principle or their word (Harischandra, Bhishma, Nala, Shibi). No moral grey areas or shortcuts for any of them.
It is pernicious second, because he is assuring his audience, indian and foreign that there is something fundamental about indian nature that causes these inefficiencies. What he should be telling indians is that they are better than this, that the culture and ethos and tradition demands more of them.