Chaos Theory

July 12, 2014 at 11:11 am

We recently spoke to an American who has been in India 12 years.  He said that when people ask him what India is like, he says  “Ornate”.  I could see his point.  This word does capture the furniture, jewelry, clothing, artwork, and interior decorating of homes in India.  Yet, it did not completely resonate.  But I thought it was an interesting notion and started to think about what one word I would use to describe India.

India is the flip side of the US and The West.   When our Indian professionals return from the US, I always ask them what struck them.  Invariably, they describe the US as “organized”.  It is telling that the returning Indians notice our organization and discipline.  It captures the fact that their Indian reality is undisciplined and disorganized.   Perhaps the word I want to use is “chaos”.   I must emphasize to my Indian friends and colleagues that this characterization is meant affectionately and not judgmentally. It is important for us to be open to all cultural expressions  and what they offer or tell us about being human. With that important qualification, let me spend a few minutes describing the chaos of Indian traffic, public behavior, crackers and Hinduism.

When one first arrives in India, you cannot miss the craziness of the traffic.  Honking is constant.  Lane markers are suggestions.  Pedestrians cross busy thoroughfares willy nilly.  Cars and cycles frequently drive down the wrong side of the road.  There is no queue for cars at intersections.  It is not unusual for cars to make a right turn from a left hand lane in front of cars turning right from a right hand lane.  One expects to hit a pedestrian or vehicle a few times on every trip.  Yet there is a certain flow that one must feel as a driver since generally all this  chaos is handled without any  road rage or even mild perturbation.

At the airport, whether waiting in line to check baggage, to pass through security, or to disembark from a plane,   Indians simply ease their way if not push to the front.  I even observed this behavior by Indians in the US.  I was flying to Detroit from Columbus  and had to check some baggage.  I was in a line of 10 people when I observed a slight Asian Indian walk past me and 3 or 4 more people.  He was obstructed by a woman who he did not know and who he then engaged in a conversation about his boarding pass.  No one seemed to noticeas he made himself at home in the line there.   Similarly, I was 3rd in line in a queue to go through security to catch a flight to Delhi when all of a sudden a group of 4 women starting loading their purses and other carry-on items onto the belt for scanning.  The security guard objected, but they ignored him.  The two men in front of me smiled.  I asked audibly if the women  were royalty.  Likely they are members of an upper-caste such as the Brahmins.  When I jokingly described this anecdote to one of my Indian golf buddies, he was clearly embarrassed.

After passing through security,  I decided to go to the sundry store to buy a magazine and some munchies.  As I approached the counter that had two cash registers, there was a scrum standing there.  Looked like 4 people standing shoulder to shoulder.  I positioned myself behind a man who was directly in front of the register.  A 6”2”American came up and joined me on my right.  All of sudden, a man who was all of 5’1” started to wiggle in front of me.  I assumed that he was trying to work his way through to the magazine section.  My American colleague said,  “Excuse Me Sir, Get in line!  Unbelievable Rudeness!”  He was pissed.  The smaller gentlemen backed away.  I was in a good mood and smiled at the American and said “ It is no different than the driving on the road.”    However, I am not always so cheerful.

When there is a queue, it is not unusual to have folks pushing into you from behind.  I sometimes wear a backpack and there will be constant pressure against it.  One time after a plane landed, I stood up to stand in the aisle and get my backpack from the overhead bins.  A man from the rear of the plane, pushed past me even though there was nowhere to go.  He progressed a foot or two.  After I had my backpack and the line started moving to disembark, I pressed my backpack into his back.  10 feet later, he stopped and asked me if I would like to go in front of him.  I innocently said  “No. Thank you” as if nothing untoward had occurred.  After all, it did not seem so different from what is a common experience for me.  Nonetheless, such behavior on my part is embarrassing.

Kathleen arrived shortly before Diwali, one of many Hindu festivals.  This is a festival  that is celebrated by lighting fireworks or “crackers”.    I do not have to tell you that in the US, we gather around one site that has fire engines and squads at the ready to enjoy a displaythat may last 20 minutes.  In contrast, in India, it is every person’s  prerogative to buy crackers and set them off.  Nothing is organized.  We watched from the top floor of a local hotel as the fireworks began at 6 pm and went to midnight.  Sporadically litby the devout, flashes of large colorful displays  could be seen across the whole horizon from left to right.   The next day, we read about how the emergency rooms were busy with burnt hands, lost eyes, etc.   Is the picture of constant chaos coming into focus?   Even so, when I highlighted the contrast of our cultures, one of my Indian colleagues who has spent time in the US and witnessed our fireworks  laughingly said that Indians are truly free and liberated.

The chaos theory also applies to Hinduism and its polytheism.  With my Western mind set, I assumed that there would be some semblance of sense or underlying rationality to their spirituality.  One of our young professionals tried to tell me that Hinduism is confusing.  I told her that I needed to talk someone else  then  since I did not want to share in her confusion.  I did not realize that she was actually onto something.  I recently read Wendy Doniher’s On Hinduism.  She sits in the Mircea Eliade chair of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago.  While she is sympathetic to Hinduism, she is unsparing in her scholarly approach which has led to her book being “pulped” or banned in India.  As I read her book, it became clear to me relatively quickly that Hinduism is confusing and in fact chaotic.  One Vedic poem will credit one god for creating the world while another will ascribe creation to a different god.    The gods Soma, Tvastri, Varuna, and Vishnu are all credited with creation by different sources within the Hindu scriptural tradition.

Similarly, various gods are addressed within the same Hindu scriptures as  “You, god abc, are the only god I’ve ever worshipped; you are the only one.”  Doniher suggests that the “various competing claims of supremacy cancel one another out, so that the total picture was one of equality: each of several was the best.”

She goes on, “To the question, ‘Is Hinduism monotheistic or polytheistic?’ the best answer is, ‘Yes’(which is actually the answer to most either/or questions about Hinduism). “   One of the Hindus’ scriptures, the Rig Veda states  “The wise speak of what is One in many ways.”   Doniher indicates that this oft quoted Vedic saying does not represent a monotheistic One  so much as a “unitary substratum supporting a vigorous polytheism.”  Even so , this quote later became the basis for monotheistic versions of Hinduism when the invaders of India brought Abrahamic monotheism.  When the Hindus saw themselves through the eyes of Islam and later Christian rulers, they were not happy with what they saw. They looked and felt like a superstitious lot.  Some felt misunderstood.   Shankara first responded to the monotheistic philosophies of Islam around 800CE.  He helped start a Hindu revival.  One of his contemporaries humorously argued that he “championed monism because he was so stupid that he could only count to one.” Later Rammohan Roy reacted to the British and more recently,  Vivekananda brought back ideas from a visit to America that were infused into or read into  the Vedanta. These latter leaders argued that the ancient Hindu scriptures are monotheistic.

Doniher says that the Hindu traditions really descrbe a monism rather than a monotheism.  The later Vedanta monotheistic tradition  focused on the Upanishads’ teachings (900 BCE)which possess a monism that “assumes that all living things are elements of a single universal being (often called brahman), reached by individual meditation.”  In the West, we commonly refer to this view of God in all “elements”  as pantheistic.  The Christian tradition as embodied in Paul’s letter to the Colossians recognizes that all things live and move and have their being in God, but the creation is not the Creator.  We do not worship God in things even though their created beauty often brings us to and points to  the source of their beauty and  their Author.

I tremble a bit as I write these notes.  I would like to understand Hinduism better before arriving at conclusions about another faith tradition that are not particularly flattering.  But it remains difficult for me to understand polytheistic festivals where offerings for success are made to a deity, Ganesh, who is a boy with an elephant’s head,  whenever a new endeavor is undertaken.  Kathleen, the boys and I also witnessed goats being sacrificed to appease Kali, an angry goddess,  often pictured with a necklace made out of the skulls of demons that look a lot like men. There are temples to her all over the golf course on which I play.   They are among the large and beautiful boulders that are out of bounds.

Returning to Doniher’s  analysis that the Vedantic teachings are monistic, the Vedantic philosophy of the Upanishads “is  often contrasted with the polytheistic world of group sacrifice to multiple gods.  An image often used to characterize the relationship between the individual soul and brahman is that of salt dissolved in water.  ‘Thou art that ‘ the Upanishads insist.”    In other words, our true self can be found within ourselves.  This true “self” should be spelled with a capital “S” because it is the Self that is Brahma. “Thou art That!”   As our egoistic self disappears like a wave disappearing into the ocean of Self.  It is similar to salt that dissolves into the water.

The more recent interpretation or conversion of monism by Hindu spiritual philosophers into monotheism sits side by side with the ongoing practice of polytheism.  Perhaps it is consistent with the non-duality of the East.  The East is both/and whereas we in the West are either/or.  In any event, all this fluidity or lack of stability in Eastern thought is very confusing and chaotic.   This thought is reinforced by Doniher as she states  there is no Hindu orthodoxy.  There is orthopraxy.  In other words, Hindus are more concerned about ritual correctness than “right” thinking.  No wonder it is confusing and chaotic.

Perhaps a better word to describe India would be “fluid”.  Maybe.  For now, I will stay with chaos and also stay with the thought that there is an Absolute Being — The “I AM WHO AM” revealed to Moses in the burning bush and who is further revealed to us as  “ Our Father” by Jesus.  We are all children of the same God who is accessible to all who seek with a sincere heart.  Although it may be a bit more challenging in the midst of the shadows of chaos, I am sure that our loving Father  is accessible even as the Spirit floated over chaos in Genesis 1.   His sun shines on all humans as the Almighty holds us all in a loving embrace.