There is a popular narrative in India at present that Islamic Invaders and British Colonialists destroyed India’s traditional culture and civilization. That is not entirely false. But any serious student of history is led to ask: Why did these invaders succeed in conquering India when numerous such invasions were repelled previously? The Mauryan Empire in India (beginning with around 200 BCE) had control over not just India but most of South-East Asia. The Gupta Empire which lasted until about 550 CE, and is widely considered the “Golden Age” of Indian civilization by historians, defeated numerous invaders. Why did India then become so weak that it started losing to Islamic invaders starting 1200 CE? In this post, I will argue that this is because Shankaracharya appeared around 800 CE, and propounded a system of impersonalism that destroyed the core pillars upon which the Indian society rested previously.
Table of Contents
- The Practice of Karma-Kānda
- Buddhist Opposition to Karma-Kānda
- Advaita Opposition to Karma-Kānda
- How Karma-Kānda Sustained Indian Society
- The Decline of Indian Society
- Economic Consequences of Advaita
- The Fragmentation of India
- The Nationalists Rooted in Advaita
- Mixing Nationalism, Socialism, Capitalism
- The Cluelessness of Current Discourse
- Reexamining India’s Past and Future
- Traditional Society in a Modern World
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The Practice of Karma-Kānda
Shankaracharya is most credited for destroying the karma-kānda system of rituals in India. The fact is that by the time of Shankaracharya’s advent, most of these rituals had lost their efficacy. The Mīmāṃsā system of philosophy explains that mantra chants are not just utterances. Rather, while chanting a mantra, one must have the mental and emotional state commensurate with the meaning of the mantra. If your mind is elsewhere while chanting a mantra, or you are not mentally and emotionally in a state commensurate with the meaning of the mantra, then the mantra has practically no effect.
By the time of Shankaracharya’s advent, most caste Brahmanas had become incapable of mentally and emotionally being able to place themselves in the same meaning as the mantra. They were just uttering the sounds, promising salvation in return for some money. However, even as the rituals had stopped working, they had several useful side effects which we will see later in the course of this post.
Buddhist Opposition to Karma-Kānda
The fall in the efficacy of Vedic rituals led to Buddhism in the 4th century BCE. However, the support for Buddhism in India did not hamper India’s culture, prosperity, or power. For instance, in both Mauryan and Gupta empires, there was freedom to practice Buddhism, even though the rulers were Hindu. And when Ashoka adopted Buddhism, there was no persecution or trouble to the practices of the Hindus. These empires remain the oldest examples of religious openness with the kings being religious too. The kings did not force taxation, prosecution, or extermination of people of other religions.
Even as Buddhism was opposed to the system of rituals, it did not have a significant impact on Indian society. Yes, another religion was created, but that did not change the power, prosperity, or culture of the society. The notable difference was the emergence of another language (Pāli) and literature in that language. In many places, multiple languages began to be spoken, and society became multicultural. Thus, by separating their texts and language, the Buddhists created a parallel system of religion and philosophy that did not infringe on the Vedic system, and both continued harmoniously.
Advaita Opposition to Karma-Kānda
The advent of Shankaracharya was different. The Advaita system has always been an alien ideology from the Vedic philosophy. I’m bringing out the Six Systems of Philosophy Series, in which every single text spends an enormous amount of space and time critiquing impersonalism. From these critiques, we can see that this ideology existed in the traditional Indian society (otherwise, there would be no need to criticize impersonalism), but in a way that was quite similar to Buddhism in Indian society. The difference with Buddhism was that Advaita used Sanskrit, although it had its own texts such as Vākyapadīya. Thus, until the time of Shankaracharya, Buddhists had a different language and texts, while the Advaita system (a fringe and marginal philosophy) had its separate texts, but used Sanskrit.
Shankaracharya’s brilliance (if we can call that brilliance) was to produce an Advaita commentary on the Vedānta Sūtra. Since the Advaita system was already using Sanskrit, people could not say that the Advaitins were alien to the culture. In fact, they had equal if not greater mastery over the Sanskrit language. By the power of word jugglery, Shankaracharya introduced ideas that were totally alien to the Vedic system into the Vedānta system. Of course, this introduction was full of flaws, because impersonalism is summarily rejected in Sāñkhya, Yoga, Mīmāṃsā, Nyaya, and Vaiśeṣika as well. Therefore, just commenting on Vedānta Sūtra would not have been sufficient. But four out of these five systems—namely, Sāñkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, and Vaiśeṣika—were already very weak. The main contender opponent was the Mīmāṃsā system. And Shankaracharya set about defeating Mīmāṃsā.
In a famous debate between Mandana Misra (the foremost proponent of Mīmāṃsā at that time) and Shankaracharya, the latter defeated the former, and Mandana Misra became Shankaracharya’s disciple. That led to the rapid decline of Mīmāṃsā and thereby of the karma-kānda system of practices.
How Karma-Kānda Sustained Indian Society
By and large, we can say that this was a good thing. Why? Because the karma-kānda system of rituals was not working, even as it continued. Displacing a dysfunctional system is not a problem. However, displacing a dysfunctional system by an even more dysfunctional system is certainly a problem. Shankaracharya’s critique of Mīmāṃsā, and the decline of karma-kānda, produced serious economic and social disruptions that either he did not anticipate, or anticipated but ignored them deliberately.
To understand these implications, we have to understand what karma-kānda is. It has three important components. The first, and the most obvious component, is that a Vedic ritual is performed. In all rituals, Lord Viṣṇu is made an offering. But following that, other demigods are also made offers. The Mīmāṃsā system discusses the philosophy of these rituals, and the summary is that the demigod worship system is discouraged, while Lord Vishnu’s worship is encouraged. All these rituals are prominently performed by the Grihastha or married couples. Second, experts in rituals—called Brahmanas—were invited to perform such rituals, so they had ample employment, social prestige, and their profession was valued. Third, after each ritual, extensive charities of gold, jewelry, cows, grain, clothes, and even land were performed. Depending on the economic status of the ritual performer a different level of charity was performed as part of the Vedic sacrifice.
The Decline of Indian Society
Now imagine what happens when this system of ritual performances comes to an end, and is replaced by jñāna-kānda or philosophical study. For the moment, we can ignore any possible side-effects resulting from the cessation of the worship of demigods because these rituals were not being performed properly anyway, so stopping them isn’t going to cause a serious issue. Instead, we can focus on the sociological and economic implications (i.e., the second and third aspects of karma-kānda noted above).
The immediate implication is that the Brahmanas who were performing such rituals become jobless. They lost their social prestige, employment, and their profession was useless. Since their vocation was no longer required, gradually, the Brahmanas disappeared from society. They either became Vaisyas or Sudras, or clerks and accountants in the service of Kshatriyas and Vaishyas.
When the Brahmanas ceased to exist, then the traditional system of education also fell apart. The study of Vedas went through a rapid decline, and with the decline of that study, a vacuum of knowledge was created, which was later filled by materialistic ideas.
Then, the system of charities by which wealth was distributed from the wealthy Grihastha to the poor people also disappeared. This included the charitable support for the Sannyasis (the renunciates) who received food and clothes from the Grihastha and could maintain a life of austerities and renunciation based on this charity. When the Grihastha stopped performing charities, then even the Sannyasis lost social support. The end of Vedic rituals meant the end of Sannyasis who were the main active proponents of spiritual knowledge in society and were highly respected. If they cannot survive in a society where nobody is performing any charity, then nobody wants to be a Sannyasi.
Economic Consequences of Advaita
When the system of charity stops, then wealth begins to concentrate with a few people, because the mechanism of wealth distribution—i.e., the charities due to Vedic rituals—has been destroyed.
It’s common knowledge that an economy grows when wealth circulates, and an economy declines when wealth is concentrated. In simple words, when a rich man gives away his wealth in charity, he not only creates good karma (if you believe in the philosophy of karma), but also creates economic growth because the money ends up in the hands of the poor people, who now go and buy things that they could not buy otherwise, the demand for goods rises, and the rich Grihastha now meet the increased demand. By meeting the demand with supply, the wealth comes back into the hands of the Grihastha, whereupon they can perform more charity. The solution to the problems of capitalism—i.e., wealth concentration—was charity in the Vedic system. The rich people make money and they give away the surplus wealth in charity. That results in wealth circulation, the society remains very prosperous, and wealth concentration is avoided morally.
Thus, when karma-kānda was destroyed, then three things happened. First, the Brahmanas declined rapidly. Second, the Sannyasis—who were spreading spiritual knowledge everywhere—gradually disappeared. Third, economic prosperity was replaced by economic decline. People lost touch with their spiritual culture and knowledge, society became materialistic, and prosperity was replaced by poverty.
The Fragmentation of India
The economic decline then led to reduced tax collections, which then decreased the power of the kings to raise powerful armies, and defend themselves against attackers. As a kingdom would decline, nearby rulers would attack it and try to grab the land. The result was that India was broken into small nation-states. While as a consolidated nation, India had great external influence over neighboring regions, with numerous small and weak rulers emerging all over India, the country’s soft power began shrinking.
With the decline of economic, military, and soft power, division into many nation-states, India became much more vulnerable to external attacks. Initially, Islamic Invaders and then British Colonialists conquered India, and the rest, as they say, is history. These invasions accelerated the decline of three things noted above—(a) Brahmanical culture, (b) Sannyasis for spiritual knowledge, and (c) economic prosperity. When charities disappeared, the rich started exploiting the poor, rather than giving away their wealth in charity. A system of Zamindars or landowners appeared where the poor people were exploited by the rich, and a caste system was created, often assisted by the rulers in return for higher taxes. In this caste system, there were privileged (the rich) and non-privileged (the poor) people.
The Nationalists Rooted in Advaita
When India’s struggle for Independence was fought, a group of nationalists started studying its history. But because they had no understanding of Vedic philosophy, they traced the problem back to the invasion by Muslims and Christians, and the political disunity between small-time kings in India. They espoused the rejection of these foreign cultures and promulgated a unity of Indian civilization. This created the dogma and doctrine that these foreign invaders were the sole cause of India’s decline. At most, part of the problem was attributed to the selfish and small-time warring kings. But the problem was not diagnosed back to the dawn of impersonalism, the breakdown of the sacrifices, which then led to the decline of Brahmanas, Sannyasis, and the system of charities that stabilized the economy.
Due to their ignorance of philosophy, the nationalists could never connect the problems of Indian society to Shankaracharya’s philosophy. The nationalists instead took Shankaracharya’s impersonalism as the philosophy of India, and foreign invaders as the evil that led to India’s decline. Both of these premises are false, but they are popular. The nationalists saw in impersonalism a power to unify the society above its immense diversities when the diversity was a result of the decline of Vedic culture resulting from impersonalism. They thought that if we say that Brahman is real, and the world is māyā, then we can somehow say that all the diversities of India would be forgotten as māyā, and people would unite into a single society as Brahman.
This fundamental assumption of the nationalists has proven to be false over time. The divisions of language, region, and caste continue to thrive in India as much as they have in the past. Nobody wants a common language. Nobody wants a central ruler. Nobody wants to give up their regional identity. In fact, anybody who talks about this superficial unity ends up losing political power.
Mixing Nationalism, Socialism, Capitalism
The early rulers of the free Indian state saw the problem of diversity and disunity and came up with democracy, secularism, and liberalism as the solutions to the disunity. These were fundamentally not opposed to the traditional Vedic system, because as we have seen, secularism between Hinduism and Buddhism existed even in the former times when the political system was a monarchy. Of course, monarchy could not be practiced in India because it had already been divided into many states. Therefore, democracy was the only alternative. Finally, in a democratic society, liberalism was the only alternative for maintaining social harmony and prevent disunification again. This disunification was forecasted by the colonialists and was the most important risk in the minds of social-political thinkers.
The problem of the early rulers of free India lay in their diagnosis and medicine for the problem of disunity. The diagnosis said: We are right now very poor, uneducated, and superstitious. Our disunity is due to the need to find security in our regional tribal identities because a national identity hasn’t yet been established. But that may not be true for all time to come. The medicine is: If we become prosperous and powerful, then by seeing the growing economy and power, we will remember the time when we were united into a single nation. When we see our military, economic, and soft power growing across the world, then people will eschew their narrowminded linguistic, regional, and caste identities, and we will rise and shine as a single nation united by our history and present, and forget the divisions.
In short, while some nationalists wanted to put a philosophy of impersonalism as the road to unity, others put material prosperity first. That fundamental tension between the two paths to unity still exists in Indian society today and creates many tensions. The fact is that even those who think of unity on the basis of philosophical impersonalism cannot get away merely with philosophy. They have to produce prosperity.
The question is: How do we create that prosperity? How do we produce economic, political, and military power? The doctor says: We don’t want foreign influence in our country, and capitalism will certainly do that. So, let’s practice socialism. Tax the rich and distribute it to the poor. In short, what was happening earlier through a voluntary charity system, where wealth was automatically distributed from the rich to the poor, must now be substituted by the government’s power to levy taxes, and pass it to the poor people.
But here is the problem. The Brahmanas and Sannyasis were already destroyed so there is no spirituality and morality. When the government wants to levy taxes, then people find tax loopholes, and tax evasion becomes an accepted part of life. Even if some money is forcibly extracted, it doesn’t reach the poor due to government corruption. Since the money hidden by tax evasion and corruption is “black”, it doesn’t circulate as fast as it could. That stagnation of money circulation then limits economic growth.
Then the doctor says: Let’s accept capitalism, inject money, and bring in market competition. But the problem is that for capitalism to work, there have to be large corporations who can be listed in stock exchanges, can borrow and lend large amounts of capital, and hire a large number of people. How many such corporations are possible in the present situation? Very few. Statistics now show that large capitalistic corporations in India contribute to 15% of taxes and 8% of employment. Even this is only half the picture. When we take into account the fact that efficiencies of large-scale corporations reduce employment even as they generate some, the picture becomes grimmer.
Meanwhile, market consumerism accelerates materialism. It doesn’t matter whether you are left-wing or right-wing, socialist or capitalist. You will certainly be a materialist. Because both extremes are materialistic. People embrace the ideas of materialism in modern science, bureaucracy from socialistic theories, the contractual nature of human relationships, and the homo economicus idea of humanity where a man is measured by his wealth alone.
The Cluelessness of Current Discourse
The jingoism about the Indian past fails to look far enough into history. Then, it fails to diagnose the root cause of India’s decline correctly. And it prescribes false solutions based on impersonal unity. As these solutions fail, the increasingly toxic ideas of materialism, socialism, and capitalism with some “Indian characteristics” are supposed to be the answer. You could also call this “lipstick on a pig”.
Modern science and capitalism did not make the Western world rich and powerful. It was almost entirely due to colonialism, where the wealth and property of native communities were stolen from them, slaves were used for work without pay, and whoever refused to obey, was killed. Colonialism operated under the assumptions of Christianity where the heathen and barbaric people were being civilized by giving them the “true” God, so even their murder and exploitation were morally justified. When that colonialism failed, socialism and capitalism were invented. When they stopped working, then globalization was invented. And when that is failing, people remain utterly clueless about the future where computers will eliminate most jobs and only a few highly-educated people will be employed.
Reexamining India’s Past and Future
In the backdrop of the catastrophe that lies in front, we can look backward and forward. And that involves rejecting impersonalism and embracing the personalization of every aspect of our life. It begins in the personalism of God, and it includes the worship of the Lord, combined with the three things that India destroyed due to impersonalism—Brahmanas, Sannyasis, and wealth circulation by charity.
The karma-kānda system is futile in this age because people cannot chant mantras effectively. But karma-kānda wasn’t the essence of the erstwhile Indian society. The essence was the sustenance of an intellectual class called Brahmanas, a spiritual class called the Sannyasis and an economic system based on farming and small entrepreneurs, which sustained the other two core pillars of the society.
In the age of Kali-yuga, the chanting of the names of the Lord is the primary sacrifice or ritual. This is not contrary to Mīmāṃsā; in fact, it is the essence of Mīmāṃsā where Lord Vishnu is worshipped through Vedic rituals, and in the process, the demigods are also worshipped indirectly. Just as putting the food in the mouth feeds all the body parts, similarly, when the whole is worshipped, the parts are too.
Traditional Society in a Modern World
The Brahmanas can bring back the true sciences of matter, cosmos, society, and economics. The Sannyasis have to teach that the ultimate goal of life is transcendence from the material life. And economics has to be based not on industrialization and corporatization but on small businesses and entrepreneurs, including farmers who till the land and protect the cows and support the Brahmanas, Sannyasis, and other poor sections of society through charity. This is not a strange idea nor is it impossible. It existed in India for thousands of years, and it can be practiced today. But it cannot return unless we understand what led to this decline, honestly examine the assumptions of philosophy that destroyed the pillars on which Indian society rested, and then understand how a functional system can be revitalized today.
If people worship Lord Vishnu, support Brahmanas and Sannyasis, and perform charities, there can be economic prosperity, military power, soft power, perfect knowledge, and transcendence. This is, in one sentence, the solution, and it is not my solution. It is the solution that existed in India. Every other system is doomed to fail, and we can see its failure if we study history with a spiritual lens.
The problem today is that history is studied materialistically as the rise and fall of kings and kingdoms, wars and conquests, economic prosperity and decline. By that study, we get some facts, but we don’t know how to understand or explain them, because that explanation and understanding need a spiritual lens. Therefore, even historians need a philosophical lens to explain the lessons of history. With that lens, for instance, we can see how and why India declined, and how that can be corrected.