We must subject the canon to criticism

Sun 18 Jun 2017

In one of Buddhism’s canonical texts, Sangiti-suttanta , monk Sariputta offered an explanation on why the early Jainas failed to thrive unlike, presumably, he and fellow Buddhists. He claimed that a great schism had emerged among the Jainas and that they were bent on killing each other because their “doctrine and discipline were so ill-proclaimed”.

By ‘ill-proclaimed’, he meant that keeping the Buddhist sangha together required them to reiterate their adherence — via chanting and memorisation — to the Buddha’s originary discourses. In essence, according to Sariputta, an elaborate and intricate network of Buddhist lives could only thrive and survive if they collectively tied themselves to the mast of ritual and routine.

Sariputta’s diagnoses of what can drive groups to divisions — mishearing, misremembering, misunderstanding the originary discourse, infidelity to the primordial text — have emerged in various guises over time. Historically, those without any creedal affiliations to a text, even ostensibly strange ones, were often described away as ‘barbarians’. Who remembers the Visigoths now? But we are inundated with Roman history, even if the latter killed many times over.

Privileging the text

By the mid-17th century in the north Atlantic, this conceit of privileging the text in order to construct polities found two unexpected allies. One was the Gutenberg revolution, thanks to which the printed word reached the masses; the other was the idea of a ‘nation state’. In 1651, when Thomas Hobbes’s book De Cive was translated into English, which he declared was an effort to perform “a more curious search into the rights of states, and duties of subjects”, what followed was a quantum leap with regard to how individuals could re-conceptualise their loyalties. From being ‘subjects’, individuals slowly became ‘citizens’, which in turn meant the particularistic loyalty for the king was transmuted into a more diffuse commitment to the collective. More subtly, in the era before Hobbes, the mere magnificent presence of the king was meant to, as philosopher Quentin Skinner describes, “serve as an ordering force”. But after 16th century, the social contract amongst the governed that we now call ‘the Constitution’ became this ordering force. In some circles, particularly among the Americans, the Constitution has acquired near talismanic powers in the imagination of many.

Yet, at its heart, any Constitution is merely a protocol for coexistence with a specific grammar and tags to annotate portions of the text. What is striking is that most Constitutions are smaller in length than an average bestselling novel, yet they affect so many. For example, the Chinese Constitution is 10,900 words, the American one is 7,762 words, and even the longest — the Indian Constitution — is only approximately 1,46,000 words. As a point of comparison, a conventional high-end car has 100 million lines of software code.

Arguably, humans don’t need programming and human societies are presumably non-programmable. Yet, out of these thinly defined protocols — which make up the Constitution — has emerged an elaborate ecosystem of self-descriptions. Concepts such as ‘national identities’, ‘sovereignty’ and ‘patriotism’ have an incredible ability to corral and coax us to act in certain ways, perhaps no differently than bots that act under the influence of algorithms. In a way, these constructs are analogous to ‘fat’ applications which are built on ‘thin’ protocols.

Self-perpetuating institutions

For the past three millennia, and particularly since the beginning of modernity in the 16th century, we have had a situation that is not so different from what we see when we study the architecture of the Internet. On a barebones protocol such as TCP/IP, as venture capitalist Joel Monegro notes, gargantuan ecosystems such as Facebook, Amazon and Uber have come about. Much like these ‘fat applications’ that operate solely to extract value and perpetuate themselves, elaborate institutions have been built, since the beginning of the nation state, whose sole function is self-perpetuation.

This status quo may have been adequate a few decades ago. But now, thanks to the scalability, communicability, and unpredictability of the challenges we face — like climate change, monetary flows, migration and terrorism — institutions like the police, central banks, and legislatures that we deem fundamental to society have hit diminishing returns. We find traditional methods of organising small groups into large, homogeneous clusters — as many since Sariputta have insisted — becoming less effective with each passing year.

What are we — the governed — and those who are governing us to do? One strategy to ensure peaceful survival seems to be that we muddle along while taking small, creative steps to progressively recognise many historical and personal forms of conditioning. As citizens caught in the throes of feeling loyal to a country as well as appalled by what is done in its name, in our name, perhaps another answer is to teach ourselves to interrogate more critically concepts such as ‘nation’, ‘sovereignty’, ‘culture’ and hopefully arrive at less orthodox and more pragmatic ways of living.


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