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There is one fundamental cultural difference between the West and India—the West is a flat, egalitarian society, while India is still, to an extent, a hierarchical society. In the stereotyped view of the West, children do not respect parents, students do not respect teachers, and citizens do not respect politicians. In the stereotyped view of India, children respect their parents, students respect their teachers, and citizens respect their politicians.  Note that these are stereotypes, not true in every case. But the stereotypes exist due to a cultural class divide between “higher” and “lower”. Unlike the West which is culturally (although not economically and politically) flat, India is culturally hierarchical (and the social divides are thus even higher). This post explores the cultural differences and their genesis in personalist and impersonalist philosophies.

A Gentle Introduction – Personal Example

When I started working about 20 years ago in India, every few months I would see an American or European visitor give a talk, after which they would ask for questions, where the presentation could be cross-examined, or its ideas challenged. Unlike the West, where the speakers faced many questions, in India they were met with silence. This surprised them because in the West questioning meant that people were “engaging” with the speaker, and keeping quiet meant that they did not understand the presentation, or they were disinterested and did not give it any attention. The speakers felt angry (due to perceived disinterest) and confused (due to perceived dumbness).

Over time, the visitors found out that Indians were neither dumb nor disinterested. If you talked to them one-to-one you would find an inquisitive, bright, friendly, and capable person. So the real fact was that Indians were culturally not comfortable asking questions in a public forum, because asking a question was perceived to be a challenge (which often it is), and they did not want to publicly challenge a senior person. Most visitors never understood this difference. The reasons are cultural, and related to how Indian society was structured hierarchically in the past.

Is Hierarchy Good or Bad?

In Vedic philosophy, society is structured into four classes. The difference between the classes increases exponentially as we climb the social hierarchy, which means that the population in each class declines exponentially, leading to the well-known and widespread pattern we call the Bell Curve in which the higher classes are the “outliers” at the edge of the society while the masses are confined to the center of the social system. Given that the Bell Curve is so pervasive in society (it seems to describe everything from the distribution of political viewpoints to economic wealth), we can discern a similar kind of class structure everywhere in nature.

In a sense, this class structure is a natural rather than a man-made phenomenon. And yet, the hierarchy and class structure on which it depends are ideologically opposed to the egalitarian flat models of society prevalent in the West. People can see today that the Bell Curve is steepening rather than flattening (90% of the global wealth is in the hands of the 10% people), which is contrary to the Western egalitarian view of society where everyone has equal opportunities and rights. This, of course, creates much outrage in political and social debates these days. How can a world that the West believes is designed to be equal turn out to be so unequal, and what should be done about it?

There are three answers to this question:

  • The egalitarian ideal of society is unnatural because every aspect of nature from the structure of the cosmos, to the structure of human perception and cognition, to the structure of society and ecosystems is hierarchical.
  • While the egalitarian ideas about society aim at equality, this quest is empirically contradicted because every aspect of nature organizes into some exponential distribution (Bell Curve being one) which indicates hierarchy.
  • The flat egalitarian model is impersonalist because as we abolish the social hierarchies, people stop serving social interests and begin serving self-interests. This is called individualism and ultimately leads to isolation.

There is however hope because the failure of the egalitarian model only indicates a return to a hierarchical model of society in which classes are separated exponentially. I will discuss how this hierarchical model challenges people to climb the social hierarchy if they have the ability and ambition but also protects the people from fear and meaninglessness at the bottom of the society if they are not capable or ambitious. The model of equality is impersonalist because each person in society is substitutable. The model of inequality is personalist because it gives each person a unique role in society according to their capability and qualification. It is not equality but inequality that is natural. The pursuit of equality, in fact, leads to self-interest, isolation, and finally meaninglessness.

The Shift from Classical to Modern Societies

All classical societies were hierarchical. In India, there are well-known classes such as Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisya, and Sudra. But even in the West, until the dawn of the industrial revolution, there were separate classes such as priests, kings and their nobles, merchants, and laborers. They may have been called by different names, but the social classes were pervasive in all societies. These classes not only performed different roles, but they also lived in separate parts of the city, they wore different kinds of clothes, their mannerisms and language were often different, and the class of the person would be evident simply by looking at their clothes, mannerisms, conduct, and language.

The dawn of the industrial revolution dramatically affected three classes of society in the West—namely, the kings and their nobles, merchants, and laborers—leaving the priestly class (the Catholic Church at that time) largely unaffected. The change was that the differences between the lower three classes began to disappear. As monarchy was abolished, the nobles became businessmen, the merchants became workers (because their businesses were disrupted by machines), and the workers were displaced from their older masters into factories. In other words, industrialization leveled the society economically.

Quite in parallel to this change in the nature of the economy, there was also a change occurring in religion itself in many parts of the Western world. This change involved the rejection of the Divine Rights of Kings, and the special privilege of the priestly class, and was called the Protestant Reformation. This reformation too changed the social status of the lower three classes but kept the priestly class (i.e. the Catholic Church) intact. Both the industrial revolution and the Protestant Reformation pushed for the equality of man—i.e. the idea that all men were born equal and must be treated equally—but it managed to significantly impact only the lower three classes. The priestly class continued to enjoy a privilege in society, although its influence on society and culture was dramatically reducing.

Even in India, due to colonization, most of the kings lost their power, wealth, and kingdoms. They stopped favoring the priests or Brahmana. The merchants were losing their livelihood because industries such as textiles were being mechanized and disrupted. As the kings lost their power, the Brahmana became government administrators. The businessmen lost their wealth and became clerks and accountants. And the erstwhile workers employed by the businessmen became blue-collar industrial labor or farm labor. Unlike the West, where only the three lower classes were impacted, in India, all the four social classes were changed due to industrialization. This is because the priests had amassed wealth in the West, whereas priests in India depended on kings.

The Rise of Impersonalism in the West

There is however an important difference between India and the West in the effect of industrialization—in the case of India the social restructuring was forced externally due to colonization whereas in the case of the West the restructuring was driven due to indigenous forces. As a result, it brought a more far-reaching intellectual and emotional shift in the West than in India.

The shift in the West was the rise of individualism. As social hierarchy was dismantled, everyone was equal and left to fend and think for themselves. This stemmed from the idea that all beings are created equal, and therefore no one was better than the other. This gave everybody the moral right to make religious choices—such as to interpret the Bible according to their own realization. But it also meant that nobody was going to regard anyone’s opinion as being far superior a priori. If at all the opinion is better, this has to be proven through intellectual debate and empirical evidence. Each individual is, in this view, the final arbiter of their moral choices and judgments. But they still have to live in a common world, and therefore they must agree on the criterion for truth, and this criterion could only be reason and experience. In other words, you are not expected to trust your fellow human being. You are rather expected to question, challenge, test, and accept only those ideas which stand the test.

The rise of this egalitarian model of Western society is now known as the Age of Reason, Enlightenment, etc. It marked the end of class hierarchies, and therefore of the blind acceptance of commands from the top of the society. As the social order was flattened, each individual rejoiced in their newfound freedom and the ability to question everything and accept nothing. This was the brave new world that emerged from the ruins of classical society. Because it rejected a hierarchical structure, everybody got equal rights. Little did they realize at that time that equality is tantamount to replaceability. If two things are equal to each other, then one can also replace the other. While people were celebrating free choices to decide for themselves, they also realized that they could replace anyone if that was best suited in their individual interest. In essence, if we are all equal and free to make our choices, then the best choices are those that act in self-interest. This might seem morally questionable today, but it emerged once class hierarchies and positions of privilege were dissolved. A king had the divine duty to care for the citizens, but the citizens had no divine duty to care for each other.

The brave new world quickly led to two ideas. First, at the level of society, nobody has a privileged position (because all privileges were dissolved). You were a replaceable cog in a system that is objectified as a purchasable commodity. Second, as everyone recognizes that they are replaceable, their need to fend for themselves creates a sense of insecurity, aggression towards possible threats, and fear for what might happen due to competition. As your life is focused on day-to-day survival, you experience an existence of meaninglessness and nihilism.

In essence, the rejection of class hierarchies creates two effects: (a) impersonal treatment of other people in society, and (b) a loss of personal meaning and significance. Each of these feeds on the other. That is, as you feel more meaningless in life, you make the others even more impersonal. And as you treat others less personally, you feel even more isolated and meaningless. Life becomes an endless cycle in which the more you distrust others the more you feel the emptiness within yourself.

Personalism and Class Hierarchy

Personalism is opposed to impersonalism, and we can understand personalism by contrast to impersonalism. Within impersonalism, everyone is equal, and therefore they are all substitutable. You have to fend for yourself because everyone is fending for themselves. In short, impersonalism begins with equality, turns into individualism, and ends in isolation.

Personalism is just the opposite idea. It begins by saying that we are not equal, and therefore the society will be organized in a hierarchy where the more capable and qualified people will be at the top, while the lesser capable and qualified people will be subordinate. The higher classes have more power, because they are also more qualified, and they control the lower classes. However, the lower class is also under the protection and shelter of the upper class. Only the person at the top is fending for himself. The person below the top person is protected by the top tier, and in turn, protects the lower tiers. Of course, if you want to be at the top rung of society, you are free to rise to that level by becoming qualified, taking the responsibility for yourself and others. There is hence a competition to rise to the top, but only by accepting the responsibilities of the higher class. You become a leader when you have followers. And the leader is responsible to guide, shelter, and protect the followers.

This idea about society is based on a tree-like conceptual model of the universe with the root at the top and leaves at the bottom. The root nourishes the trunks, the trunks nourish the branches, and the branches nourish the leaves. The leaf is not equal to the root, trunks, or branches, and similarly, everyone is not equal in society. Equality and egalitarian ideas are stepping stones towards isolation and nihilism. Inequality seems bad to begin with, but it is a fact of life—as it pervades society, ecosystems, and nature at large. When this fact is acknowledged and used to organize, it produces a society in which the brave and strong lead without fear, while the timid and weak follow with protection. You do not prevent the brave from leading, and you do not leave the weak to fend for themselves. Inequality means individualism at the top, and collectivism at the bottom.

Personalism in Hierarchical Societies

While industrialization and colonization destroyed the hierarchical society in India, it still has vestiges of the past—albeit in a distorted form called a “caste system”. The members of these castes are unable to play the roles that their forefathers were playing or were capable of, but they retain their titles and continue to consider themselves different from others. This aspect of the class system is now largely dysfunctional. However, the class system had other virtues that industrialization had a lesser impact on; these include children respecting their elders, students respecting their teachers, wives respecting their husbands, and employees respecting their employers. Owing to these virtues, the subordinates and juniors don’t ask questions and challenge their seniors. It is not that they are incapable of thinking, but even when they disagree, often they may not openly protest as a mark of respect.

The industrial society is now slowly chipping away at the social values that were previously not impacted. For example, with the rise of feminism, women do not consider men worthy of respect. Instead, they want to be equal to men. Equality leads to individualism in which each person becomes self-serving, which then leads to isolation. As people become more isolated, they become more dependent on the industrial system. This means work and entertainment replace relationships. As the industrial system takes greater hold on society, social hierarchy is destroyed. Now, you don’t respect your elders, teachers, spouses, and employers. Everyone is only important as long as they are serving a purpose in the individual’s selfish existence.

True Religion and Socio-Cultural Factors

Many people believe that true religion is transcendent and therefore independent of cultural and social ideologies. The fact is that religion and culture are closely connected. A personalist religion thrives in a hierarchical socio-cultural system, where diversity is respected, but organized in a hierarchy. An impersonalist religion thrives in an egalitarian socio-cultural system, where everyone is regarded as similar and equal, therefore no better or worse than others. A personalist socio-cultural system can never tolerate an impersonalist ideology because those seeking egalitarian equality would be quickly shown the dramatic differences between the higher and lower rungs of society. Similarly, an egalitarian socio-cultural system cannot maintain a personalist philosophy because the most qualified people would find themselves competing with the most unqualified. In a system that doesn’t distinguish between the qualification levels, the high-class individuals will disengage from society, leaving the playground open for the low-class.

The egalitarian ideal is correct in so far as it provides equal opportunities for everyone to rise to higher rungs of society. The egalitarian idea is incorrect when it tries to reduce the qualifications for a social level in order to make it easier for the incapable and unqualified to attain it. There is hence equality of opportunity. But there is also inequality of rights and duties. The true egalitarian system is not one that makes society flat, but one that enables members of the society to pursue their desired role, without compromising the qualifications and expectations of the higher roles, which (as we have already seen) get exponentially difficult which each rising level.

True religion is the philosophy of personalism in which we are persons who are individuals and not substitutable. Once we recognize that we are all different and therefore not equal, then the next question is: Who is superior and who is inferior? Who is higher and who is lower? Most religions and societies abhor this idea. They think we are all God’s children so we must be equal. Equality means nobody is superior to me, so why should I respect them? Why should I listen to them, or take their opinion as truth? I will rather find the truth myself because I am as good as any other. Once equality takes root, slowly hierarchy is destroyed, and respect and social relationships are wrecked.

The Meaning of Hierarchical Society

The foundation of personalism is that I’m a unique and irreplaceable person. But this also means that I’m different than others who might be more or less qualified than me. The levels of qualification are exponentially higher at each level, which means the levels are not easily attained. What worked in the past, cannot be linearly extended to the future because the next level requires an exponentially more difficult transition. It is owing to this exponential difficulty that the population at higher levels also declines exponentially as the people might not qualify as easily for the next level as they did for the previous one.

The qualification for a Brahmana for instance is not trivial. The person must fully understand both spirit and matter because he is not just a spiritual leader but also a leader of the society and should be able to guide the other leaders in society (Kshatriya). A Brahmana is an intellectual and a scientist who becomes a consultant to the rulers, just like the advisors to politicians who provide the technical guidance on education, environment, defense, economics, and so forth. To be able to consult across such varied topics of enormous social importance, the Brahmana must have made enough spiritual advancement such that he understands all these subjects as a natural outcome of understanding the Brahman. The true knower of Brahman thus knows economics, sociology, biology, cosmology, and so forth, due to spiritual advancement, not due to material education.

Similarly, the person must have an impeccable character—honesty, humility, detachment, and kindness. Pride, arrogance, attachment, and dishonesty are natural disqualifications to attain this role. The measure of compassion is that he leads a life dedicated to the uplift of the lower sections of society. The Brahmana is not living for material pleasure. He is rather living to take everyone else out of the material existence. This is not possible unless a person acquires a full understanding of matter and spirit, and dedicates their life to the betterment of others.

The qualification for a Brahman is therefore very high, and hardly anyone qualifies to be a Brahmana at present because—(1) they lack the material and spiritual knowledge, (2) they lack the personal qualities necessary to execute the role, and (3) they are unwilling to dedicate their life for others. Unable to attain this level of high qualification, the bar is lowered to allow even unqualified persons to take on that role. Such a person who is unqualified but takes on the title of a Brahmana is effectively a caste Brahmana rather than a truly qualified Brahmana.

The Perils of Egalitarian Thinking

Once the bar is lowered, the lowering can keep continuing over time. The egalitarian thinker can, for instance, slowly dismantle the differences between Brahmana and other classes, have them wear the same clothes, do the same kinds of duties and jobs, provide them the same level of respect, autonomy, and empowerment, because once the bar has been lowered then everybody wants the status of a higher class member in society and feels that they can easily achieve it. Over time, the egalitarian viewpoint destroys class hierarchy, flattens society, and creates an individualistic cultural ethic—all in the name of trying to get everyone to the highest level of perfection.

Egalitarian thinking pervades modern society in form of equality of classes, the dissolution of gender roles, and the destruction of privileges for specially qualified people. To achieve this equality, the bar for all levels is considerably lowered. As the bars are lowered, less qualified individuals flood the social tier and tout themselves as being equal to the truly qualified. Those who are truly qualified are thus outnumbered and outmaneuvered by the less qualified. The less qualified now lower the bar further bring in more of their ilk, and slowly the social system disintegrates. Thus, intellectuals and Brahmana are not disqualified from their roles even while exhibiting reprehensible behaviors. The leaders of society are allowed to continue even when they act for selfish interests, rather than to protect and serve.

Today, the greatest evil in society is equality produced by lowering the bars because in doing so society fails to set a great example for the ideal life and the highest level of perfection. We should recognize that the successive higher rungs of society are exponentially higher, which makes their attainment exponentially harder. The privilege in the hands of the higher class is also exponentially greater. While nobody is barred from a higher class, the qualification for the class cannot be lowered simply to allow a person to be able to jump the bar. Lowering the bar, however, has become the standard practice today in order to attain varieties of equality. This lowering disincentivizes those who qualify the higher bar, and it sets lower precedence for future generations. Rather, than uplifting society towards higher and higher standards of knowledge, conduct, and dedication, such a system encourages complacency by giving away certificates to those who have barely begun to study for the test.

Equality is a corrosive tendency in society that begins in the spiritual idea of non-discrimination but quickly turns into individualism and ends in isolation. Inequality on the other hand seems superficially discriminatory but it is grounded in the fact that people are not equally qualified to play all kinds of roles. When the bar is raised, we endeavor to cross the higher bar, thereby lifting society as a whole. A true spiritual understanding rests on a hierarchical and unequal social system because only when society is unequal does one even have the motivation to rise.

The Nature of True Spirituality

It is a fact of life that truly capable individuals encourage others to rise. Those who have risen through dedication, hardship, and effort, are eager to teach others to grow. But those who rose through lies, deceit, and manipulation, are eager to protect their privileged position. Therefore, even if the argument is that the higher classes prevent the lower classes from rising, this is true only if the higher classes have previously risen by lowering the bar, and then prevented others from attaining it.

A happy society cannot be built on flat, egalitarian, and impersonal equality. It can only be built on hierarchical, meritorious, exponentially rising tiers of difficult attainment. The population in the higher tiers declines exponentially. Thus, everyone has access to all levels of life. However, practically speaking, the number of such qualifying individuals declines exponentially at higher levels. This might seem opposed to the idea that spirituality is for everyone, but it is indeed the Vedic view. As Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad-Gita 7.3:

manusyanam sahasresu
kascid yatati siddhaye
yatatam api siddhanam
kascin mam vetti tattvatah

Out of many thousands among men, one may endeavor for perfection, and of those who have achieved perfection, hardly one knows Me in truth.

Spirituality is for everyone because knowledge is available for everyone. But only those who are prepared to seek the knowledge, develop the conduct, and dedicate their lives, qualify for the highest level even in the present society. The bar is high. Only when one tries to attain this high bar, he or she develops respect for those who have already attained it.

If we raise the bar, the higher rungs of society will have natural respect and command. They don’t have to assert their power; their power would be automatically recognized because the bar is so high. Conversely, if we lower the bar, then the higher rungs have no respect, and correspondingly their power has to be demanded rather than commanded. In essence, the pursuit of equality by flattening society is a flawed impersonal endeavor. The pursuit of inequality is a real personalist endeavor. Those who have risen in the low-bar system prevent others from reaching there (creating a class struggle). Those who have risen in a high-bar system help others to reach there (dissolving the class struggle). From every perspective—sociological, economic, cultural, and spiritual—the hierarchical model is better, although modern society sees the evils of hierarchy created through lowering the bars and believes that steepening the hierarchy must be eviler. We need a proper understanding of the idea of the hierarchy itself before this idea can be used to understand material and spiritual nature before it can uplift society.

Personalism vs. Impersonalism — Social Implications

There are two broad kinds of impersonalism prevalent today.

The first kind says that “we are all one”, in the sense that there is only one observer and the distinction between the various observers doesn’t exist. This kind of impersonalism originated in India in the 19th century based on the Advaita philosophy of Shankarāchārya, and while it rejects an eternal spiritual individuality, it is socially inclusive in the sense that the people in society are not different from me, and therefore serving others is just like serving myself. This kind of impersonalism concludes that the highest form of spiritual enlightenment is performing social service, although that service is limited to feeding the body and mind of the person because once you take away the body and mind then there is no separate individuality anyway.

The second kind says that “we are all equal”, in the sense that there are many people in society but nobody is superior to the other. This kind of impersonalism originated during the Enlightenment and Protestant Reformation in Europe when the Divine Rights of the Kings were rejected, the privileged position of the Catholic Church was discarded, and society decided that each individual had the full right to self-determination and religious freedom. This kind of impersonalism concludes that the highest form of spiritual enlightenment is to know the self and serve the self. Since everybody is equal, nobody is required to serve another man or woman, because they too are individuals and therefore empowered to serve themselves.

It is important to distinguish between the two flavors of impersonalism—”we are one” vs. “we are equal”—because from a social standpoint the former leads to social service while the latter leads to self-service. The impersonalism in India (and in the East in general) is of the “we are one” variety. The impersonalism in the West is of the “we are equal” variety. As a result, the East has drifted towards a socially collective mindset due to impersonalism, while the West has drifted towards a socially individualistic mindset again due to impersonalism. We might call them Eastern and Western forms of impersonalism.

Personalism contrasts to both the above forms of impersonalism because “we are not one” and “we are not equal”. It is the dual rejection of oneness and equality that philosophically distinguishes personalism from the two forms of impersonalism. The result of this philosophy is that we are eternal individuals (because “we are not one”) and yet we serve other individuals (because “we are not equal”). This service is like a social service, but it is not just based on the mind and body. It can also be based on a spiritual qualification of higher and lower. The Varṇa system of four classes can be seen as a material system of bodies and minds, but this is not the true intention of the system. The spiritual or Daivi Varṇa system is one of service based on spiritual qualification. The spiritually less advanced people serve the spiritually more advanced people. The societal hierarchy is therefore based on spiritual advancement, not bodily roles.