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Published in Business India, November 2009

As we emerged from the meeting, Professor Gombrich asked me what I was doing that evening. I replied that I was giving a talk at Deloitte, in the City of London. With interest, he enquired as to the subject, to which I replied, ‘The Rig Veda and the Credit Crunch’. Professor Gombrich, Sanskrit Professor at Oxford University for 28 years, raised an eyebrow and smiled as he offered me a wonderfully British, understated ‘I see’.

Indeed, how could the world’s oldest philosophical and religious text in continued use— dated by tradition to 3000 BC, and by scholars to between 1500 BC and 1350 BC—have anything to say about an event that only happened last year? Had I bitten off more than I could chew? Or has that ignominy been left to our much maligned banking community?

The Rig Veda is the oldest of India’s literary works, and one of the four principal Vedas, or works of knowledge. But, while it is mainly known for its hymns and its association with ritual performance, there are some very big philosophical ideas hidden in the Rig Veda: the concept of atman, and the concept of rita, from which dynamic world views have arisen—world views that influence Indian and Eastern thinking to this day.

Whereas greed has served as an acknowledged motivating factor for today’s economic wheels, sacrifice has served as the vehicle of gain for performers of the Vedic rituals—a vehicle driven by the idea of rita.

Rita is little known these days, having been superseded by other Vedic ideas such as dharma, karma, varnashram, sattva, dana, ahimsa, yajna, and seva, for all of which it serves as the basis. Rita means ‘cosmic order’, and it also denotes ‘right’. By aligning ourselves with all around us, we can become integrated into the natural order, causing no harm to others, and satisfying ourselves—a nice thought.

I am writing this article here in Oxford, whose strap-line is ‘good thinking’, and indeed rita is a product of good thinking. Some thoughtful person, or collection of thoughtful persons, observed the complexity of the universe, and considering the wonderful simplicity of its organisation, they realised that they were not the creators, controllers, or even fully aware of its depth.

Their realisation was that we are very small cogs in a very large machine, and it is essential for us to find our place in the scheme of things, so that we can make a contribution and not become a hindrance.

One of the essential elements of this worldview is the seeming dichotomy between the concept of being the master of the universe and being the servant of the universe. On the whole, the West has adopted the view that we are the master of all we survey. This is seen to be expressed in scientific perspectives and theories, and through God-given rights to dominate.  India, while developing its relationship with science, western tastes, and global concerns, is still largely influenced by rita, and a view that we are the servant of all we survey.

Well, personally I was always more attracted to being a master than a servant, but on closer examination I am less self-assured. One way of thinking leads naturally more towards giving, another more towards taking. One naturally leads more towards being conscious of others, and the other more towards being more concerned with oneself.  One recognises independence as high virtue, while the other values dependence as a higher virtue.

As you will note, these worldviews seem to be diametrically opposed to each other and this comes into even sharper focus when we consider how these perspectives affect attitudes to community, family, self, politics, and indeed economics. Thus, Indian thought has a very different starting point from the world it does business with.

Rita ultimately provided the inspiration for Gandhi’s thoughtful perspective that ‘earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed’. The banking system of a year ago was as vulnerable as mildewed cloth, corrupted and ruined. After the Lehman Brothers collapse it seemed that any push or pull would ensure its disintegration—and panic ensued. The emperor’s cloth seemed to be tearing apart .

Einstein’s conviction that the thinking that has produced a great difficulty will not be the thinking that solves it, is important for us to now consider—before we slap a few regulations on the dastardly bankers and get back to business as usual. The pollution of mildew is permanent and requires us to weave a new cloth. Patchwork will not hold.

A new weave requires a rethink, a fundamental review of the goals of our economic system. Essentially: is the goal of our economy about gain, or does there need to be an element of giving built in? We obviously don’t mean to build it in simply as a PR exercise, nor indeed to develop a more pious sense of balance—as we only try to balance opposites and unequal partners. The Rig Veda would suggest that taking without giving has no integrity. Giving and taking are not opposites but part of the same whole. To separate them, to create opposites of them, corrupts their integrity and leads to a faulty foundation for future action.

Our current system is built on the assumption that economics is about gain, and we make that more palatable by discussing whether it should be personal or communal gain. Thus the debate about capitalism and socialism that has kept us all hot under the collar for so long. But does this right/left debate present us with a false dilemma? One which ignores a more fundamental question about the value of gain, and greed, its frequent bedfellow; or, indeed, does it perpetuate a nuanced culture of greed—greed with a sense of piety? Basically, does it have integrity?

Using Rig Vedic thinking, we approach each circumstance on its merits and deal with it holistically, considering its integrity and recognising its interdependence—its place in the bigger picture—its connection with our environment, other living beings, and other ideas and cultures.

By this standard I may have introduced another false dilemma into this article by separating the philosophical ideas of master and servant. Both are interesting ideas with their own merit. The fundamental question is which is the more wholesome starting point for a life well lived? Which will form the basis of future self-respect, virtue, and trust?

From the perspective of rita there is no question here, as it would maintain that by a humble approach to all facets of a circumstance we can ultimately gain mastery of any situation—from servant to swami. But without nurturing the concern born of service, learning the value of the world as much as its price, and developing personal principles and subsequent virtue we cannot expect to be respected or trusted, and thus cannot expect to become leaders, managers, bankers, and commentators, etc. Unless our personal and private selves are integrated, we are being duplicitous.

Our current financial system does not acquit itself well under such scrutiny, either individually or institutionally, and government bailouts have not added to a much needed sense of security. Rather they have reinforced the fact that those who are most responsible in the short term, and whose thinking was so short term, live to profit again—a testament to short-termism and lack of reflection. It also gives politicians licence to begin to use words like moral and ethical, which adds a touch of the surreal

Similarly we are ignoring issues of integrity by foisting blame on bankers, as we have been so happy to do. Greed is everyone’s problem, if we are to be honest, and unless we deal with it openly, the financial system we patch together will continue to fail. If the personal challenge of building our giving into our taking—as a matter of principle—translates to institutional policy, we will see the beginning of a more wholesome, sustainable, and dare I say respectable financial system.

So, does the Rig Veda help us understand the credit crunch? In this author’s opinion the answer is “yes”. The Rig Veda is not saying anything any thoughtful person could not conclude, but it excels in the fact that it has said it and has based its conclusions on essential and simple questions. More fundamentally, it helps us to individually understand how we are all responsible for the credit crunch and how we may all contribute to its solution.

Its message? It encourages us to consider our humble place in a cosmic context, to find our principles; to become a servant, a contributor first; and to make our contribution with a heart and a half. That’s what we can do to serve communal and individual need and help us self-regulate greed.

Without self-regulation, without respect and trust, no system we introduce will be efficient or effective in the long term. And, the Rig Veda puts the responsibility for this on the basic building block of the Universe, the individual. We have to individually choose to develop a character that can sacrifice some of its freedom for the common good, extract a give from each gain, and some of its pleasure for the satisfaction of others. The more responsible we are, the greater the sacrifice to be made.

I ended my talk to the Deloitte audience by hoping that they could make an honest attempt at such nobility to build good character and sincere relationships among themselves and their clients, and to become servants in a world which needs such good example.

On the way out I looked in a mirror and hoped the same of myself, and in my head I again heard the voice of my friend Professor Gombrich: ‘I see’.

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REtoday magazine

May 2009, by Shaunaka Rishi Das

If you have ever been invited to a Hindu wedding or religious gathering you will have noticed the discrepancy between the time printed on the invitation and the time that the event actually begins.

I have spoken to many Indians about this phenomenon and they all declare how upset they are about their community’s attitude towards time. “It can be very embarrassing”, said my friend, Jayesh, “especially when British people are attending. They don’t understand our ways and must find our ways very shoddy indeed”. Yet, the same fellow had arrived half an hour late to the event he was commenting upon, suspecting that it would not start on time.

The tendency towards embarrassment about “our ways”, is quietly experienced in classrooms throughout the country among children, and expressed in quiet frustration in later years. Yet, the Hindu community in Britain is also quietly proud of its ways, as is evidenced by the fact that they host very large religious and cultural gatherings – and the fact that family ways are still such an important factor in their decision-making.

The consciousness of every Indian is infused with stories of gods and demigods, sages and holy men, warriors and weddings, and action and reaction. Ethical choice, their elders tell them, is less about religion and more about personal virtue, personal dharma. They are nurtured to believe that there are many sacred writings, many spiritual teachers, many religions – and all are to be respected. Kama, pleasure, is as important as moksha, salvation, depending on your stage of life. Yet, when they walk outside their front doors they encounter a different world with different stories and different conclusions – but mostly without the tools to analyse and make sense of the differences.

So, let’s go back in time – back 2000 years – no, let’s make it 3000 years. Back to a forest in India and a small gathering of sages who have come together to consider the nature of the self, the cycles of life, and the theory of evolution. The sages, after offering respect to each other with joined palms, sit in a circle on kusha grass in a small clearing beside a river. They open their discussion by considering a conversation between a Yaksha, a benevolent nature spirit, and Yudhishthira Maharaja, the Pandava king. The Yaksha had asked Yudhishthira four questions the last of which was, “what is the news”. Yudhishthira answered that the news is that this world is like a pot. The sun is the fire and the days and nights are the fuel. The months and the seasons are the wooden ladle, and Time is the cook that is cooking all creatures in that pot.

One sage remarks that later in the Mahabharata Krishna says, “Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all assembled here – nor in the future will any of us cease to be”. All assembled agreed that this was a good connection.

Right, let’s come back and connect with our own time. As we say in Ireland, “there’s eating and drinking in that” – so, a time to digest. We have heard the sages, and Krishna say that we, all creatures, are eternal by nature, that we have no beginning and no end. This perspective is very different from one where we are created. In fact Krishna’s statement confirms an eternal relationship between him and others – but in this view it seems there is no creator, there is no time, and the limits of space are irrelevant. Yet, as we have heard, Time’s dietary regime is making a stew of us.

Back to the river bank, and the sages are now discussing the song of Krishna, where he speaks of the difference between the living self, atma, and matter. The self is eternal, and matter is temporary, as it is called into being and into dissolution, and is subject to time and space. The body is referred to in Sanskrit as a yantra, a machine, which has a life span of 80- 100 years. So, now we have eternity as one energy, one reality, and time as another, albeit inferior reality. Thus for the manifest world there is a creator after all, Time is cooking, and space limits our world, or should I say, the pot.

A sage remarked how our eternal self could take no material distinction seriously, how different views of religion, different ways of thinking, different cultures, genders, and species are not views of the eternal but of the temporary. Thus, they deduced the tolerance and the pluralism of the holy men they had met.

As they nodded appreciation for the contributions to the conversation one sage asked about the cycles mentioned in Yudhishthira’s reply to the Yaksha. He noted that aside from the cycles of the days, months, seasons, and ages, there are also cycles of happiness and distress, and pleasure and pain. The sages concluded that everything they knew worked in cycles. By accepting the law that for every action in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction they discerned a cycle. Why, they reasoned, would they not thus consider the possibility of the eternal self inhabiting more than one machine, or body, during its journey – its cycle – through the material energy, through time? Even thoughts came around again and again, a fact they depended on in their meditations. By deepening a meditation they attracted that pure thought to return more frequently and thus improve their virtue, their dharma.

And now back to our time, to the Beatles, who sang, “It’s getting better all the time”, or further to Leona Lewis, who depends on things getting “Better in time” – and we see a pattern of linear time. Gone is the cycle and in is the progressive path to perfection. We inherit this hopeful worldview from Abrahamic thinking and the many philosophies that have grown up in its shadow.

The cyclical view does not credit things as getting better by default of time, but also allows for a realistic bit of worse. The eternal self’s journey through the cycles of nature is a process of evolution of consciousness – the evolution of bodies and minds being less significant – the object being to evolve into enlightened, loving, and knowledgeable souls, in spite of the cycles of nature.

The sages in the forest received no invitation, thus no one was late. Virtue, loving relationships (bhakti), and thoughtful understanding had always dictated their lives and they would never allow time to interfere. This is the mood and thinking behind their ways, and this is their legacy. Despite Jayesh’s frustration with himself he will not change easily as his script was written millennia ago, and until two world views begin a serious dialogue he will have to manage his embarrassment himself.

Jayesh will continue to arrive ‘late’ to functions but I do pray that his children may meet a religious educator who helps them value their world view as equally as others do, and encourages them to explore their tradition deeply. Thus the dialogue may begin – although, we could say it will be late in starting, better late than never.

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This article appeared in The Guardian‘s Face to Faith column, July 1, 2006.

Hinduism’s focus on the eternal questions of self means it will thrive in the face of modern life, writes Shaunaka Rishi Das.

What hope is there for Hindu culture in the face of modernity and globalisation? These latter terms are very broad, and often difficult to define. But then again, so is Hinduism.

In recent years India has become a world-class industrial, economic and nuclear power, a development which belies its mystical setting and superstitious reputation. The rickshaw-walas of any major city, driving while speaking on their cell phones, deliver you to the shopping mall to look for a pizza.

Yet the traffic is two-way with words like guru, mantra and karma being used globally. Meditation, yoga and chanting are common practices of the stressed and cool among us. Many Hindus now hail from countries other than India, including westerners and a third generation of non-resident Indians, the British and American Hindus.

To its horror, Hinduism is sometimes only known for the infamous caste system, the kind of thing our modern world strives to eradicate because of its lack of democracy, its servile spirit and the subjugation of the individual. A ripe case to be bombed by Bush, the doyen of freedom and democracy. But wait Mr Bush, as all may not be as it seems. To clarify this we turn to Charles Bukowski. Although he wrote, “As the spirit wanes the form appears” in reference to poetry it is also a surprisingly good understanding of the Hindu worldview.

Hindu thinking is based on the primacy of the individual. In the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna begins by defining the atman (the individual self) as being eternal – not material but spiritual. Krishna insists that the question of who we are needs to be resolved as the first item in both philosophy and spirituality. Otherwise, after Krishna offered his teachings to his friend Arjuna he could not have invited him to make his own choice by saying, “now do what you wish to do”.

With this definition of the individual Hindu thought looks at our desires. Here is where the “waning of the spirit” generally begins. The mantra of our times is “if it feels good, do it”. We greatly resent our freedoms and desires being curtailed. Like children, we demand our desires to be satisfied now.

The individualism of modern times tends towards a materialistic worldview. Rather than a vision of serving the world we ask the world to serve us. Hindu traditions would claim that this individualism, asserting its rights at every opportunity, is destroying the fabric of society and even nullifying the very assumption it’s built on by limiting the choice of the individual. By offering only material choices, spiritual options are ignored or compromised. The Bhagavad-gita asserts the right to serve but the ability to do what we like. Its not a very great claim as every child ignores service and does what it likes. But the Gita recognises that we don’t really grow up. It applies philosophy based on common sense and the realisation that we generally do what we like to do, irrespective of rights.

Hinduism has no real interest in our current obsession with human rights (excluding, as they do, the rights of other living beings). They are an excellent example of loosing all perspective, the spirit waning to the extent that form supersedes all. It’s not about human rights but about being a right human. The Hindu dharma, the concept of duty and service, helps individuals chose to qualify their freedom with principles and values. It exhorts us to control personal desire in order to please and benefit other living beings, the environment, natural law and the supreme – becoming right humans.

In the light of Krishna’s concept of the spiritual individual and especially the eternal nature of the self, the history of modernity and post-modernity is very young indeed. In the light of eternity a few hundred years is a blip.

So, what hope is there for Hinduism? Well, it looks good. The challenges of modernity don’t even seem to address the fundamental question of who we are. The question that this Hindu offers is, “what hope is there for modernity?”

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