Nice essay from Dota, former commenter here who now blogs at Occident Invicta with Bay Area Guy, another former commenter here.
The societies of India and China have been structured along feudal lines for much of recorded history. Despite both societies placing a premium on hierarchy and authoritarianism, their internal motivations and ethical paradigms are widely divergent. The Chinese mind has been shaped by Confucianism, whereas the Indian mind has been shaped by Hinduism.
Let’s begin by analyzing Confucianism.
Confucianism stresses social order and postulates that no society can attain political stability by precluding social stability. Confucianism views society as a massive collection of interdependent networks that are comprised of relationships on the atomic level.
The genius of the Confucian model is that it recognizes the inherently relative nature of power and how power is also a zero-sum resource. Those that possess power do so because others do not. An emperor may possess power over a subject, but that subject isn’t powerless, only merely so in relationship to his sovereign. This same subject may be a teacher and wield power over his students.
To ensure social stability, Confucius ordained that relationships be guided by the principle of ren or benevolence. This is Confucianism’s highest virtue and arguably the philosophy’s overarching universal ethic. A sovereign treats his subjects benevolently by ensuring that they are fed, protected, and generally want for nothing (materially speaking). The subjects then reciprocate with obedience and loyalty. Those in power must treat those without (in the context of their relationship) with benevolence, while the latter reciprocate with obedience and loyalty.
Benevolence is often strictly interpreted as each party honoring their respective obligations. It would be unjust for a wife to expect her husband’s kindness if she herself were disobedient. Conversely it would be unjust for a husband to demand his wife’s obedience if he himself failed in his husbandly duties. We see a glimmer of this idea even in Western tradition. Plato argued that interdependence was at the heart of justice, and that social order was maintained when members of social classes refrained form crossing lines.
Confucianism’s approach to social justice is not dissimilar to other Eastern philosophies. The primary aim here is to ensure the prevention of abuse rather than empowering the disenfranchised (a preoccupation of modern day social justice). Sumeria’s Ur-Nammu famously proclaimed that: “The orphan was not delivered up to the rich man; the widow was not delivered up to the mighty man; the man of one shekel was not delivered up to the man of one mina.” Not unlike other ancient societies, the Chinese also believed that class structures were an inherent feature of any civilized society, as men of greater talent would naturally rise above their peers. The ancients thus focused their energies on ensuring that men of ability did not use their powers unjustly against those lodged beneath them in the social order.
Before we move on to discussing Hinduism, a few comments are in order pertaining to the success of feudalism in China. It is my opinion that feudalism was wildly successful in China for the same reasons that the Catholic Church was successful in Europe. The Church absorbed some of the most talented men in society by giving them an avenue to express their talents. Such men could not ascend in a strictly feudal order despite their talents and thus gravitated towards the church.
The Chinese state implemented that very approach and absorbed men of resource into its ever growing bureaucracy. This also had another unexpected benefit – it prevented the formation of a class of dissidents that could prove to be a source of agitation. I believe the Communist Party of China absorbs talent in such a manner even today. Men who wish to ascend the rungs of power often choose the political route (via the party) as opposed to the riskier route of commerce.
Hindu society, like its Chinese counterpart, was similarly structured along feudal lines. There is, however, one key difference in their underlying composition – Confucianism stresses the interdependence of relationship networks, whereas the Hindu caste system is the world’s oldest pyramid scheme.
As we are well aware, a pyramid structure is one where every level attempts to profit (by exploitation) off the labor of the level below, and so it goes all the way down until one reaches the base – the most crucial level and also the most exploited. Pyramids are inherently unstable and one way to ensure their longevity is by means of force. Individuals must be coerced to remain at their stations so that the structure may endure. This method leaves the structure vulnerable to rebellions and a constant tension between the levels. This point is obvious from British history alone where Barons often clashed with the monarchy.
In order to allay this source of instability, some pyramids permit upward mobility. But this makes the crucial base unstable by putting it in a constant state of flux as individuals at the lower stations climb up and leave their former stations vacant. This problem is alleviated by constantly recruiting newer members into the base so that there is always a base available for exploitation.
The genius of the Hindu caste system is that it combines both the aforementioned approaches. Hinduism forbids caste mobility in the current life, thereby ensuring the perpetual hegemony of the upper castes. However, in order to prevent tension, Hinduism allows caste mobility but only through rebirth/reincarnation. This system ensures that the lower castes are given some hope of improving their station in the social order so long as they serve the interests of the upper castes in the current lifetime. It is karma, the cosmic recruiter, that ensures that the base will always remain staffed with compliant serfs.
The ultimate difference between Hinduism and Confucianism is that the former is an escapist religion whereas the latter is at its core an ethical philosophy. While many a Westerner would disagree with the ethical rules of Confucianism, it is impossible to deny the ethical focus of this philosophy. Ethics reside within the horizontal space between individuals. Any ideology or mode of thought that attempts to address this space is ethical in nature, even if we may disagree with the rules that regulate this space and by extension the human relationships bound to it.
By contrast, Hinduism addresses a very different space: the gap between man and the universe (cosmic order). The goal of Hinduism is to escape the world and become liberated from karma once and for all. Karma and Dharma are cosmic forces that to the best of my knowledge have no equivalent in Chinese philosophy; the focus of the latter being on social and ethical matters as opposed to metaphysics.
To illustrate this point, consider the life of an ascetic. Hinduism places a great degree of value on the ascetic lifestyle. But the man who renounces the world resides in (to quote Arthur Danto) a space “beyond good and evil.” In such an environment, an agent’s actions have no moral content. A hermit who lives outside society will always act in a morally neutral way. The closest analogy to this in Chinese philosophy is the Taoist wanderer, who is essentially a loner. But the wanderer is not seeking escape from the world, merely freedom from discomfort and anxiety that plague those that haven’t discovered the way (Tao).
Confucianism on the other hand, by its very essence, rejects the ascetic lifestyle. Man’s place is rooted firmly in society, for as Confucius put it: “One cannot herd with the beasts or flock with the birds. If I am not to be a man among men, then what am I to be?” It is this space that Hinduism ultimately seeks release from. Consider the following illustration from India’s Bhakti tradition:
In the basic story, Tiruppan grows up as part of an ‘untouchable’ panar caste of bards and minstrels in a town near the temple of Srirangam, arguably the most revered of all Vaisnava pilgrimage sites and indisputably the single most important temple for Srivaisnava devotees. From the moment he is able to speak, Tiruppan sings beautiful songs praising the qualities of Rangi (or Ranganatha), the form of Visnu worshiped in the temple of Srirangam just across the river from his home town.
Every day he travels to the south bank of the river and sings from a distance to his beloved Rangi. Tiruppan yearns to see the image of his beloved but is unable to enter the temple due to his ‘untouchable’ status. Eventually, the beauty of his songs and the intensity of his devotion awake the compassion of Rangi, who comes in a dream to the Brahmin priest of Srirangam and tells him to bring Tiruppan into the temple on his shoulders.
The priest goes to get Tiruppan, but he refuses to come, saying, “How could you do such a thing with me, your slave, who belongs to the class of untouchables?” In another version, he states, “How can I step with my feet on to the holy temple of Ranga?” And the Brahmin replies, “Never mind! You can go [sitting] on my shoulders.” In yet another version, Tiruppan is so insistent that he cannot come to the temple because of his low birth and sinful life that the priest must physically force him onto his shoulders.
Eventually, Tiruppan enters the temple riding on the shoulders of the Brahmin priest, and gazing at Rangi in devotional ecstasy, he sings ten verses of praise describing the God from foot to head. These are the very verses that are still remembered and recited today in the Srivaisnava community. The story concludes with Tiruppan miraculously uniting with and disappearing into the image of his beloved Rangi.
This story illustrates how a man can close the gap between himself and the divine (Tiruppan and Rangi) whereas leaving the glaring gap between individuals (Tiruppan and the Brahmin priests) unaddressed.
This brings me to the final point of this essay. What is Hinduism’s overarching ethic? Western civilization’s universal ethic is moral universalism, and Confucianism’s is Ren (benevolence). It is my view that Indian civilization is unique precisely because it failed to do something which other advanced civilizations have done: produce a universal ethic. This view was shared by three individuals whom I have listed here in chronological order:
- St Francis Xavier
- Max Weber
- Dr Ambedkar
Francis Xavier, the Spanish missionary, made a series of observations about Indians that are quite illuminating. It is obvious that he did not think too highly of Hinduism, but it is one particular interaction that I wish to draw your attention to – a conversation between Xavier and a group of Brahmins:
When Xavier asked a group of Brahmins to summarize what Hinduism stood for, he was told that their gods “required two duties of those who desired to go to them hereafter, one of which was to abstain from killing cows because under that form the gods were adored; the other was to show kindness to the Brahmins, who were the worshipers of the gods.”
Max Weber arrived at a similar conclusion when he stated:
“There is no universal ethic but only a status and professionally differentiated dharma according to caste”
– The Religion of India the Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism
Dr Ambedkar’s observations in his book The Riddles in Hinduism were identical to Weber’s. The very first chapter, The Difficulty in Knowing Who Is a Hindu, is centered around an attempt to define some common ethic or even creed that binds Hindus together. Ambedkar arrived at the conclusion that one is a Hindu precisely because one is born into the faith and not due to any universal ethic that binds individuals together under a set of agreed-upon moral rules.
Just as it is impossible to practice larceny in a culture that has no concept of private property, similarly it is impossible to practice intolerance in a culture that believes in nothing. I suspect this is the secret of Indian ‘tolerance.’ Tolerance can only be measured in opposition to what one cannot tolerate. The act of enduring what one cannot tolerate is in effect practicing tolerance. It is only in this context that tolerance acquires a moral quality. One however cannot practice tolerance when one subscribes to no real beliefs whose limits can be tested. The Indian approaches the world with extreme apathy and conflates his indifference for tolerance.
In conclusion, the difference between Confucianism and Hinduism can be observed in their differing worldviews despite some overlap in social conventions. Hinduism’s focus is on mystical objectives, as it dismisses reality as we understand it as illusionary. Confucianism’s focus is squarely on this world, and its chief emphasis is social and political harmony.