For India, International Yoga Day was an occasion to celebrate the recognition of yoga by the globalised world as India’s finest gift to humanity. Yoga is neither a matter of faith nor of superstition; it is, in fact, a subject with well defined philosophy, grammar and a goal based on “holism”. It best epitomises India’s worldview and seeks to integrate personality at all levels of existence. It is a method of finding things out for himself rather than a preconceived metaphysical theory of reality or universe. The recent opening of a yoga centre in Turkmenistan by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is yet another event pointing towards the increasing acceptability of yoga. Globalisation, broadly characterised by the removal of barriers to free trade and free flow of capital, goods and services, seeks a closer integration of national economies and has a philosophy, institutions and goal rooted in “reductionism” or “scientific rationalism”. This coming together of two completely divergent world views is a very significant event. The possible consequences of this engagement need to be understood carefully. For this, one has to examine the fundamentals of both these world views.
The foundations of the scientific rationalism dominating the western mind for the past three centuries were laid by the works of Galileo Galilee, Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton. Descartes’ statement “Cogito ergo Sum (I exist because I think)” resulted in a fragmented human personality, with the “mind” separated from the “body” and functioning as a controlling authority of the body. Descartes, extending the mechanical view of matter to living organisms also said, “I consider human body as a machine.” He, however, believed that human beings were inhabited by a rational soul. The Cartesian method consisted of breaking up thoughts and problems into fragments and then arranging them in their logical sequence. It also implied that with persistent refinement of the experimental techniques and mathematical methods the scientist would one day become master of nature with full liberty to exploit it. Scientific rationalism or reductionism thus provides a philosophical justification for an exploitative system. It has also created a permanent conflict between humankind and nature.
The reductionist approach had a profound effect on the western mind and John Locke, drawing parallels with the Cartesian approach, developed an atomistic view of society by reducing the patterns of social behaviour to individual behaviour. This approach provided a new value system and resulted in the development of a socio-economic paradigm characterised by individualism, democracy, property rights, free market economy and the reduced role of state. As a result, a techno-economic system and industrial society emerged on the western horizon. Significantly enough, these very ideas continue to be the tenets of the political and economic thought of the globalised world.
The advancements in science and technology based on the reductionist worldview have played a very critical role in transforming the human society and producing mind boggling affluence and staggering levels of consumption. Alongside, one also finds a rapid depletion of non-renewable natural resources, serious environmental degradation and climate changes and widening economic disparities, resulting in serious global imbalance and turmoil, offering a grave threat to world peace.
Serious concerns regarding the growing disparity among and within the nations were voiced by Joseph Stiglitz in his seminal work Globalisation and its Discontents in 2001. He had argued, “The globalization today was not working. It was not working for many of the poor. It was not working for the environment. It was not working for the stability of the global economy.” Obviously, this puts a question mark on the fundamentals of “globalization”.
Scientific rationalism or reductionism provides a philosophical justification for an exploitative system. It has also created a permanent conflict between humankind and nature.
Raising similar concerns, James D. Wolfensohn, the then president of the World Bank Group, in a speech delivered in 2003, said, “…we must address the fundamental forces shaping our world. In many respects, they are forces that have caused imbalance.” He continued, “Our planet is not balanced. Too few control too much, and too many have too little to hope for — too much turmoil, too many wars, too much suffering.” And further, “Let us move forward to fight poverty, to establish equity and to assure peace for the next generation.”
No perceptible forward movement for restoring the balance or establishing equity and creating a peaceful world is visible anywhere during the last decade. In fact, as the recent happenings in different parts of the globe show, the world today is more violent, more unequal, more turbulent, more disintegrated and more unstable. Can yoga make some positive contribution to bring back the balance and reduce the turmoil and the sufferings?
The development of the biomedical model, which considered the human body as a machine that could be comprehended in terms of its parts, is also the result of reductionism. But reduction of life to molecular phenomena does not help to understand either life or total health. Nor does it explain the origin of mental and psychological disorders. On the other hand, the definition of health, given by WHO, that “health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”, is quite contrary to the reductionist approach; rather, it emphasises the “holistic” nature of health.
Again a very different situation arose when attempts were made to understand “life” on the basis of molecular biology. The leading molecular biologist and Nobel Laureate Francis Crick had wondered that even after six decades or more, we do not understand “how does a wounded organism regenerate to exactly the same structure it had before?” This dilemma arises because generally molecular biologists believe that the whole of life and mind can ultimately be understood on the basis of the structure and function of DNA molecules. Can holism help in resolving this dilemma?
Since the very dawn of human civilisation the Indian mind had reflected on the nature of the universe and every constituent of the physical world around us and also their interrelationship. These thinkers had discovered the fundamental unity of entire cosmic phenomena. They had realised that behind this changing physical world there is an undying, unchanging reality termed as “cosmic consciousness” or “cosmic spirit”, which pervades the entire universe, and every entity of the physical world is the manifestation of this cosmic consciousness. This was perhaps the first enunciation of the holistic nature of the universe.
The universe, according to this view, is a hologram in which each part contains the whole. In this holistic view, consciousness is the essential aspect of the universe. The physical world is so structured that the whole is enfolded in each of its parts, which in some sense contain the “whole”. In other words, what is in the macrocosm is also in the microcosm. An important consequence of holism is that the “whole” is primary and the properties of the “parts” can only be derived in terms of the dynamics of the whole. All objects and events in the physical world are interdependent and inseparable “parts” of the “cosmic whole”; as a result, the “whole” and its “parts” are in perpetual and mutual interaction. In this approach, the human persona is a continuum of perpetually and mutually interacting body, intellect, mind and spirit — none superior to the other. The mind-matter dualism vanishes and so does the domination or exploitation of “nature”. The holistic view, therefore, demands that mankind must learn to live in peace and harmony with the environment. Thus, life and its problems can only be understood in totality but not by dividing them in parts.
Dr Murli Manohar Joshi is a BJP MP and former Union minister.