Situating the Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago in 1893, as one of the first instances of a global cultural event, this collection of essays springboards into a discussion of globalisation and religion in our multicultural world. The book examines the factors in play as many of the old barriers to global movement and communication have dissolved or crumbled and a new interdependence has emerged, engendering a volatility filled with both promise and pitfalls. Sri Aurobindo’s writings on human unity and social and political development form the basis of the dialogue and discourse presented here. His vision of a spiritual religion of humanity, the growth of an inner spirit of oneness and unity that will become the dominant principle of life, informs the message of the book.
As war clouds rumble across India, and the pendulum of strategic discourse swings between the calls for violent retribution against Pakistan and a submissive acceptance of abuse through a peace that may remain elusive forever, we may be forgiven for thinking that this is yet another instance of “the clash of civilizations”, so elegantly articulated by Samuel P. Huntington, whose brilliant 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order
, laid the foundations for examining religion as a conflict zone. Since 9/11 and its allied avatars, from Al Qaeda to ISIS, accentuated the idea and the expression found a rebirth, this has been the overarching discourse around globalization.
Almost two decades later, Richard A. Hartz questions Huntington’s treatise and offers an alternative view. In The Clasp of Civilizations: Globalization and Religion in a Multicultural World
, Hartz leans on Sri Aurobindo and Swami Vivekananda to re-examine this powerful paradigm. “We know,” the independent scholar quotes from Sri Aurobindo’s The Ideal of Human Unity
, “that nations closely connected by every apparent tie, are actually divided by stronger antipathies than those which separate them from peoples who have with them no tie of affinity.” While Sri Aurobindo’s book was published serially in the journal Arya
a century ago, between 1915 and 1920, when even the idea of Pakistan didn’t exist, his theory was flush with living examples of the time—Japan and China; Norway and Sweden; Arabs, Turks and Persians.
“Culture is only part of a complex problem,” Hartz argues and makes his own case. “But if civilizations, the largest generally recognized cultural units, do not help us as much as Huntington thought in interpreting and predicting post-Cold War conflicts, it does not follow that it is meaningless or irrelevant to speak of them. Perhaps Huntington draws our attention to the right thing for the wrong reasons. Civilizations, after all, are repositories of humanity’s highest achievements through the ages. They enshrine the beauty and wisdom of its arts, philosophies, ethics and spirituality. Their diversity multiplies the resources available to us for meeting the challenges of the present. Their cooperation, not their conflict, their clasp rather than their clash may hold the key to the future.”
You may dismiss this as the idea of a dreamer, but hold your judgement. True, India and Pakistan share identical civilizational origins, even the same spiritual DNA. But over seventy years, Pakistan has been relentlessly destroying these identities. Using religion as a lever, it has steered an unholy separation that is not merely physical but vital and mental. We have been told Kashmir is a religious problem. Or else that the fight for that state’s independence is really an excuse for Pakistan waging a jihad against ‘Hindu infidels’. That fits the Huntington narrative of clash. But walk to the western border of Pakistan towards Afghanistan and you see Islam fighting Islam. Travel farther west and you land up in the ongoing Islamic implosion in Syria.
So, was the 18 September 2016 Uri attack – and surely it’s not going to be the last – from Pakistan the coarse aspiration of a nation seeking territory, or is there a civilizational underpinning to it? For that matter, is the expansion of the ISIS to northern Iraq and Syria one of territory or ideas? How do you view the presence of Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon—political or religious, territorial or ideological? Today, it is all these, but the evolving future lies in the realm of cultural affinities.
“Huntington was not the first to conceive of a world order based on groupings according to cultural affinities,” Hartz writes. “Several decades earlier, Sri Aurobindo had written that ‘the peoples of humanity must be allowed to group themselves according to their free-will and their natural affinities’. He believed that ‘the unity of the human race to be entirely sound and in consonance with the deepest laws of life must be founded on free groupings, and the groupings again must be the natural association of free individuals’. In political terms, ‘the free and natural nation-unit and perhaps the nation-group would be the just and living support of a sound and harmonious world-system’.”
Hartz’s conclusion, that “[a]ll the more are our intuitive faculties likely to flower, as Eastern civilizations, which have traditionally cultivated them, assimilate what they have learned from the West, rediscover their own genius and turn their reviving creative energies toward the future”, may seem a little wishful. But the logical steps he provides to reaching this conclusion can’t be ignored. The dominance of science, materialism and the accompanying prosperity of the West make us feel that the pinnacle of civilization lies in these ideas. But intuitively we know, as does the West, that perhaps the institutions of logic and mind – democracy and capitalism, to name the most dominant among them – are not architectures of perfection as much as they are new articles of ideology and faith, even religion. In fact, the two in themselves today are at cross-purposes when you examine them through the underbelly of globalization that binds all nations alike—inequality, marginalization, disenfranchisement, each of which puts pressure not only on the geographies of nations but questions the idea of a nation-state itself.
Cooperation, in the form of tackling international problems, is already creating new global organizations. From the regional political organization of the European Union to the economic crisis management at the G20, or even smaller groupings like SAARC and ASEAN, the idea of collaboration is softening hard national boundaries. In fact, it was among the first few meetings of the G20 in Washington and London that the reforms in the IMF and the World Bank got their moral trigger and countries like India got their voices heard. The UN Security Council is yet another intransigent institution that will head the same way. Clearly, clashes between nations are getting them to create and clasp new institutions whose moral – but not sovereign – authority runs larger than any single nation’s.
Driving these institutions is a conscious force. “A time must come, is already coming when the mind perceives the necessity of calling to its aid and developing fully the intuition and all the great range of powers that lie concealed behind our vague use of the word and uncertain perception of its significance,” Hartz quotes Sri Aurobindo. And then makes his own argument: “In the past such heightened powers of consciousness were often associated with the revelations that inspired religions and shaped civilizations. Modernity has tended to replace belief in these revelations with faith in reason. But rationalism may be a stage in our preparation for a new and more direct approach to the suprarational, shrouded no longer in a haze of mythology.”
Hartz takes a wider look at history and provides us with a loftier context. “Lesser minds often erect artificial barriers such as those between religion and science or East and West,” he writes. “But history is on the side of the barrier-breakers.” In the short term, we hope this indeed will be the path for India and Pakistan in particular and all violent conflict in general—in the long term it is predestined. “Its [religion’s] power to sanctify irrationality points in one direction, the spiritual urge towards self-discovery and transcendence in the other,” Hartz writes. “Today both are accentuated. It is yet to be seen whether the aspirations towards peace, harmony and enlightenment found in all religions will outweigh their use as tools of identity politics. But their appeal to what is best in humanity may yet trump the sectarianism, bigotry and fanaticism decried by Vivekananda on that now half-forgotten September 11, in Chicago. If so, religions as vital manifestations of human diversity could impart their ardor to a vibrant unity in difference—not a clash, but a clasp of civilizations.”
However appealing the argument may be, we are unlikely to see Hartz”s “clasp” come to life in our lifetime—not in the near future and certainly not in the near geography. To quote Sri Aurobindo, “So long as war does not become psychologically impossible, it will remain or, if banished for a while, return.” And even though “today we may be living in the most peaceable era in the existence of our species,” as Steven Pinker, psychology professor at Harvard, argues, the psychological and individual transformation from war to peace – or from clash to clasp – is an aspiration that will take several decades, if not centuries and millenniums, of death and destruction before materializing.The Clasp of Civilizations
is an important book. It offers an alternative discourse from the one plaguing us through the actions of the few, the denial of the intelligentsia, the us-versus-them traps that the politically motivated are laying and into which the rest of us keep falling. While short-term events dominate our minds and tend to push us towards Huntington’s “clash”, we need to step back and allow the larger and inevitable forces of harmony and evolution to make themselves heard through Hartz’s “clasp”. In our hearts and minds we know the victory of “clasp” is destined; it is the vital that now needs to be convinced about this narrative.
Gautam is a writer tracking the world of money, power, faith, and mythology. Currently the New Media Director at Reliance Industries Ltd, his latest book, Tunnel of Varanavat, was published in March 2016. Views are entirely personal.