Theory of Collectivism

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By Shankara Bharadwaj Khandavalli


Collectivity - The Theory

Need for Collectivity

Forming groups, feeling belongingness to them, representing those groups in the society, trying to protect the interests of those groups, creating a group level capital be it monetary or human resource, how good or bad is this? Let us examine both sides of the coin.

Let us take the case of an individual in a society. He is given the right to live there. How can he survive there?

  1. Apart from salary and house, he needs a social circle to move. He can say the entire society is his, but obviously he does not "move" with it. He needs some friends/relatives to move. He searches for them and creates a circle for himself.
  2. He confides in that circle, moves in it. He depends on the circle for what he cannot do as an individual - social dependence. This can be of different types and levels, right from having company to visit a restaurant to having somebody to take him to the doctor if he has an urgent medical problem. These can be bad examples but there will be many other needs. So he creates a circle where help can be given and taken. This help can be human or monetary. In case of monetary help he tries to raise a fund within the circle that can be used in case of need for an individual or family within the circle.
  3. Then there are aesthetic needs for which he needs like-minded people around him. Having similar interests or working for a similar cause as his, resonating to the wavelength of his thought, these are higher needs for the individual. He creates a circle for such interests.
  4. There is another kind of need, which is compatibility of culture level. He needs his circle to be of a similar culture-level as his. Not his habits but his entire civilizational trait, including likes-dislikes of customs, attire, and language level, knowledge level, value-set, character level, personality and philosophical traits. Each person wants to move with those persons who match him in these. Different aspects can be matching with different people, and the person chooses to limit his interaction with others to those aspects he has match with. This is human tendency.

There are other needs for collectivity to a person, but we can start with this initial set. In fact all this need not be listed even to a layman, because everyone acknowledges these implicitly and takes for granted "man is a social being he needs a group to move with". But our purpose is not concluding this; we want to go a bit further into the matter. We want to find out what kinds of needs of a man are addressed by what kind of groups.

Completeness and Collectivity

But before that we need to address another important aspect, what causes a man to attach more importance or less importance with collectivities. What makes man more dependent or less dependent on collectivities? For this we need to see what man seeks in life. He seeks happiness. Then the question is what brings happiness. It is completeness that brings happiness. There is a vast landscape of incompleteness in man. The more successful he is in fulfilling it and achieving completeness, the happier he is. There are different ways to achieve completeness. Most wise people say that having a goal and working for it throughout one's life is the way to achieve this completeness. It is aimlessness that causes incompleteness to grow and it is goal that fills in that incompleteness.

Having said this, it is really rare to find in a society someone who has such goal and spends his life for it. Most people have aims, ambitions, passions, fancies, principles, dreams, visions, but a goal of the kind that offers such a fulfillment is rare to find in men.

There are many constructs man creates to offer completeness - the biggest of them is God. A definition for God/Divinity is "the belief that offers completeness to man". This is not a qualitative definition for God but a teleological definition. At higher levels it is not a belief but a living presence with which he needs no other circle or society to offer him anything except his basic physical needs (sometimes not even that). The more a man gets absorbed into it, the more complete he gets and the less is the need for him to seek, create or move within circles. This way, aloofness is brought about by a kind of completeness in man.

But there is dichotomy in aloofness - one who has not begun the journey for completeness and still has to feel the need for circles and create them and the one who has journeyed through it and finally grew above it by achieving completeness from within.

Thus during his journey he creates and sustains many levels of collectivities - this phase is called pravritti. In pravritti marga man synthesizes and sustains the society. Then he locates the space within him where he can attain completeness - then he starts nivritti. That is, he withdraws into himself.

There are many other ways man can achieve completeness - art forms, research, social activity - in short any kind of synthesis. Synthesis brings completeness. In traditional language one transcends annamaya, pranamaya and manomaya kosas with synthetic activity and lives in vijnanamaya kosa. He then moves further in, to anandamaya kosa and within that to achieve total completeness. But in this stage of transcendence he does things that do not relate to the subject of his synthetic activity. For instance, a scientist stops speaking about laws of science and starts dwelling in philosophy. An artist no more thinks of skill but only expresses his deepest experiences. A social activist no more represents his community or cause or principle but becomes instrument in the universal cause. In this stage he does continue to synthesize but it is entirely different both in content and quality from what he does earlier. This is the highest form of synthesis and offers the highest fulfillment for man's life.

The dependence a man has with collectivity begins as he steps into pravritti, grows with it, and starts coming down when he starts nivritti. As he completes nivritti he has nothing to do with any kind of collectivity - family, community, society or nation.

Levels of Collectivity

Having seen how man's life cycle maps with need of collectivity, we can now examine what levels of collectivities he embraces in what stages of his life and for what needs.

As an individual, his pravritti begins with birth and continues as he accumulates material possessions and relations. As he begins to retire from all these and ceases to feel ownership over these, his nivritti begins. As his nivritti completes, his lifecycle ends.

The basic unit of collectivity for a man is his family that offers him most of what needs. It is this unit to which he owes most directly. His existence, survival, living is because of his family till he achieves the ability to do all these himself. Then he will be responsible for the survival of his family. And there will be someone else (the next generation is ready to take it up) to do that. His dependency on his family is the highest when he does not even realize that there is something called family. And as he becomes self-sufficient, his need for family decreases and family's need for him increases. Then his nivritti starts. And when the next generation takes it up and his need is fulfilled, his nivritti completes and vanaprastha begins (his role in family ends).

Almost when man's nivritti in family begins, he starts behaving like an individual in his society. Before that he is not responsible for his actions in the society and he does not face its consequences directly as the family faces the consequences of many if not most of his actions. But from then on he has to face the consequences of his actions and the actions of every one in the family. Then he starts building an image of the family in the society and creates a new interface with the society. He tries to consolidate his position in the society by representing different levels of collectivity - he is known through his contacts, his community and his region apart from his personal qualities. He realizes that his community's strength becomes his strength if he uses his belongingness to the community. Similarly the strengths of his region religion, nation are his strengths. And the weaknesses of those are his weaknesses. There is a tendency in him to disown those collectivities when it comes to weaknesses and own it when it comes to strengths. In stronger individuals this manifests as a reformative tendency to own the collectivity as it is and then work to overcome the weakness. Before he starts contributing to the society but still depends on it he is in pravritti alone. When he starts repaying while still depending on it he is in both pravritti and nivritti, but his nivritti starts. When he starts giving it without taking from it (or taking the bare minimum) he is in nivritti alone. In the highest stage of evolution discussed earlier man will be in this stage.

Coming to his needs discussed in the first section, man learns about his culture from his family and his community. It is his community with its set of unique cultural traits such as customs, protocol of interactions and code of conduct that is his cultural unit. He depends on it for his own culture. His own stature and how well he carries his culture on (that is, how well he sustains it), is what he gives back to it. Many means of fulfilling his aesthetic needs are also learnt from his cultural unit. The same person can both personally and impersonally relate himself to his cultural unit. At a community level where he resonates with individuals' needs and contributes to those he is personally related. At a deeper level (such as cultural and aesthetic) he is more impersonally related to his cultural unit. The bigger the level of collectivity he represents or seeks to work for, the higher is the chance for him to transcend the outer kosas and dwell in inner kosas. The more impersonal he gets in his work the higher this chance is.

Even within the community a person usually relates himself more to those persons who resonate with his wavelength of thought or belong to his economic stature or conform to customs to the same extent as himself. And if he finds someone outside his cultural unit that matches to some of these, his circle will include those persons. Such circle will not usually overlap with his cultural unit. This way the person is simultaneously a member of different collectivities - such as his place of work, his friend circle, his cultural unit, his family, his region, the circle he participates in for his aesthetic needs or the circle where he tries to achieve the goal of his life, and so on. Depending on his stage of evolution and how complete or incomplete he is, he relates more to some of these collectivities and less to others.

For instance, a person with his basic and aesthetic needs already satisfied is not found in a circle meant for fun alone. The kind of completeness he achieves is far more than what a friend circle meant for fun can offer. If he has friends they are not for any specific reason. For such a person a friend means simply a known person who shares good and bad mostly for the sake of sharing than helping. We only find circles where his aspirations are collectively achieved.

The Macro View

All this is discussed mostly in the micro perspective, i.e., from the individual's perspective. The belongingness of a person to a nation or a civilization should be seen from the macro perspective. Just the way the individual is benefited by the collectivity, collectivity is sustained and affected by the individuals. In a healthy society the individuals contribute according to the pravritti and nivritti dharmas at all these levels of collectivity. Such a society will be self-reformative and hence long living. It will have a nice balance between subjective and non-subjective. That is, balance between the choices of individuals and the needs of society. The society sees problems if this balance is lost for some reason, be it coming in contact with other societies or loss of gelling between different layers of collectivities. In a healthy society these different levels of collectivities have a proper context in the individuals' lives. And it has a mechanism to rediscover this balance when it is disturbed.

Benefits of Collectivity

The needs of collectivity and reasons why collectivities are sustained is already under discussion. Apart from these, there are many other benefits that collectivities offer.

  1. It offers a much needed buffer for individuals and families. When a person falls sick in a family, others contribute to compensate for his work or contribution. Similarly when an individual or a family suffers, the bigger collectivity say community or region takes up supporting them in a healthy society. This buffer can be monetary or human help or something else.
  2. It offers confidence to the individuals in the group. The strength of the group is the confidence of its members.
  3. Collectivities give the scope to handle events or problems of scale beyond individuals. What an individual or family cannot face or achieve, can be done by smaller and effortless contributions by them. It can be something like handling a group of rowdies to running a Vedic school.
  4. Collectivities give the scope for survival in alien conditions. Individuals or families cannot retain their cultural identity unless they live in groups. For example many Gnostic and Pagan traditions vanished in the west because they lived as spiritual traditions but not as social and cultural units. By contrast Hindus are surviving in the west because they live as social and cultural units in the west.

Problems and Pitfalls in Managing Collectivities

What problems do collectivities pose? The first is a clash of collectivities. This is of two forms, a conflict between groups and a friction between two levels of collectivities because of not striking a balance between those. An example for the former is something like two jatis rallying for power. While the strength generated by the two groups is useful to both groups and the society overall, the strength used by these groups against each other damages the groups and the society. The tradeoff between short and long term interests of the groups has to be made here.

There are rivalries that arise between groups because of the nature of their very purpose. These can be avoided by a good design of the society. When the society is designed in a way that opposite purposes are complementary instead of conflicting, this can be avoided. Another kind of rivalry is one that arises between groups in course of time not necessarily because of their purposes conflict but because of temporal reasons. As long as the individual groups have the strength to withstand these and endure the situation, these are merely ups and downs that are natural to the society. But when the groups and society in general is not strong enough to endure these, it poses threat to the very social design. The society then chooses to dissolve those groups to come out of this crisis. A more synthetic society chooses to create or appeal to another level of collectivity above these groups, so that the higher level of collectivity appeals more before which the conflict between smaller level of collectivities appears small and eventually fades out. An example to this is appealing to religion in context of caste conflicts in Hinduism.

The second kind of clash is a friction between different levels of collectivities. In the micro perspective, smaller levels of collectivity appeal more to individuals than bigger levels of collectivities. Individual choice prevails over family, family over community and community over society. In the macro perspective, higher levels of collectivities are needed by the society for their longer life. These two tendencies in the society pose a challenge - how to organize a society in a way that this friction decreases. This depends on many factors like how the individuals are trained by the society's culture and what the society's outlook to life is, how good the experience of the society with life. These determine how such an arrangement can be made. A well experienced society makes an arrangement where different levels of collectivities preexist in a way that it does not need creation of collectivities temporally. And if collectivities have to be made temporally it ensures that they would only be needed in situations of crisis and that they go the moment their need is over. This requires a long lasting arrangement of individual, family, community hierarchy. A society where individuals or families are the basic units does not satisfy community level needs. And communities if created temporally will overlap, clash over time since their arrangement is made only in view of the current individual needs. And if there is an arrangement where communities preexist, individuals will not need to create temporary and ad hoc arrangements for communal needs. But to make such a social arrangement the society needs long and enlightening experience with life. It mot only needs to create communities that do not clash with each other, but needs to place them in the society in a way that a the personal choice of life of individuals is least affected and at the same time the individual in his normal life contributes knowingly or unknowingly towards sustaining the arrangement. Also, a community offers only a base for the individual and an excelling individual always transcends the limitation of his environment and the society gives scope for it. An experienced society creates such an arrangement itself.

The advantage of such arrangement is that it offers scope for survival of small communities in the midst of big ones, without extinction. In a "free" society that has no such arrangement, there is no concept of cultural units and therefore uniqueness of some unit is not possible to be retained over time. This is how very small communities manage to survive in the Hindu society and succeed in retaining their uniqueness. This is the arrangement that offers diversity in a society.

If one has such arrangement it is necessarily by birth that a person belongs to some unit, since whatever preexists accommodates the individuals from birth. It is not possible to have a communal setup that does not apply from birth and comes up from air somehow. Therefore, social mobility is an important factor without which these units do not live long. Mobility between communities exists only at an individual level, such as through marital relations. To ensure mobility of communities or parts of communities, the society needs a higher level arrangement over these communities, which is an abstraction. This way the community as a whole transforms itself into a higher/lower cultural unit.

Another aspect needed for such an arrangement to live long is that it creates scope for individuals in each of these abstractions and communities to achieve the completeness discussed above. That is possible if there is a prescribed method of synthesis for individuals of these units that does not suits the functions of the individual, his situation in the society and his cultural background. This does not enforce the method on the individual since it applies only on the abstraction and not on the community, and also since this is only a guideline and not a duty. But since practically social pressure and environment of upbringing does influence this, the individual does not usually get to transcend this limitation unless he has wider exposure or has exceptional merit. Also, there is always a difference between occupational and aesthetic pursuit. This arrangement sometimes needs individuals to keep them disjoint since having a specific occupational pursuit is not always a matter of choice for individuals in the society. But the individual always reserves both scope and right to pursue his interests in the other form. Secondly, choice of occupational pursuit is not a community decision most of the times - there is a situation-peer/family pressure-social convention always acting on each individual that determines it in the presence or absence of community. And this is a forced personal choice influenced under all these pressures, especially when the society is undergoing a transformation. (A small example is that most people opting for software jobs do not do it for any reason other than the money in it and lack of prospects in other lines of career. The technical challenge or the completeness it offers is next to nothing. It is certainly the individual's decision, but forced by convention and social situation. And most of the times the community decisions on this are wiser, since it helps create a lobby to pursue those.).

In such an arrangement if there is a disturbance that causes these units to clash, be it due to resource crisis in the society or an external factor, the society should be able to appeal to a higher level of collectivity that binds these communal units. That is the culture/civilizational uniqueness of the society it retains beyond the diversity of customs of the units. It can also be a geographic unit such as nation, but that does not appeal as much as the cultural unit does. The first reason is, nation is a very new concept which did not exist a few hundreds of years ago. Next reason is that culture is something a person's every day activity reflects. Regional appeal may work only in case of a political/military aggression on the society, but in case of communal conflicts it is the cultural unity that appeals.

But more importantly, what should be remembered is that it is after all humans that live the system and however meticulous the system is its benefits are determined by

  1. How worse can the society be without the system, and how better the system is given the same human tendencies?
  2. How elevated can a person be because of the system, that is, whether the system accommodates for the highest reaches of human nature?
  3. What is the normal stature of human expected by the system and where does it aim to take it to? How successful it is in doing so?

And since human nature is not a straight line but moves in a cycle like seasons, the system also sees its lifecycle of highs and lows. Also, the system is not responsible for human weaknesses. A system ideally aims at an arrangement where the society does not collapse because of those weaknesses, but the weaknesses cannot be removed by the arrangement. The downward tendencies can only be de-prioritized by the system but they keep showing up. Therefore it is not arrangement but men that ultimately have to fight with those tendencies and the arrangement can only help their thinking in that direction. And many factors like contact with other societies and philosophical development play a role in the extent to which it succeeds.

Understanding Contemporary Societies

The Hindu Society

The previous section deals with how an experienced society organizes itself. Most of it applies directly to the Hindu society. It has all the equipment needed - experience, outlook, cultural background and knowledge system to arrange itself the best way. And it has the equipment to create an arrangement that has all the aspects discussed above.

Jati is the cultural unit in our society. Varna is the abstraction that directs (upward) mobility for these units. As long as the varna controlled jati, the system came down quite well without much friction between jatis. But as jatis started behaving as uncontrolled units by themselves, the society started seeing problems.

The first challenge to varna came from Buddhism. Buddhism did not offer a social model; in fact it does not apply to societies. But more people started taking to Buddhism who did not take to sanyasa but remained in their social fold without living their tradition. Since Buddhism neither offered an alternate model nor followed the then existing social setup the society suffered loss. Instead of "eliminating the classification" they only succeeded in creating subsections in all the existing sections that did not follow the rules of those bigger sections. Thus they only succeeded in creating pockets that do not comply with the varna system. Buddhism however did not succeed in countering jati. Jatis remained the units, but the control of varna over jati is what they succeeded in harming. This not only failed in improving social situation but harmed it. As a result, conflicts between jatis did arise and varna system was not strong enough to resolve those. The lesson is that attacking varna before addressing jati will only harm the society.

The next biggest harm is done by the British and the Christian missionaries by maligning varna. They created an opinion that some varnas dominated the others and some are oppressed in the society because of varna vyavastha. As an example they showed the feudal setup. But the reality on ground is that it is not varnas that oppressed - varna in itself is the controlling level that prevents friction and not the physical power that can be used to oppress. It is the imbalance created in power and money due to continuous external attacks and the disturbance caused in our society that gave strength to certain jatis and weakened the others. We can see how some groups high in the varna hierarchy got into miserable conditions during the Muslim attacks and are today called scheduled tribes.

What the British did is they mapped this jati rivalry over the varna system and made Indians believe that that is because of the varna hierarchy. All the problems in the society across sections are due to the varna, this is what they wanted us to believe. Destroying our faith and confidence in anything Hindu and making us feel inferior about our tradition is what the British wanted us to do in order to have their dominance on us. And most of us are the victims of this misinformation. What we study in our text books today after 60 years of political independence is the same. Education system, law and order, administration, there is virtually nothing really Indian about what we have today and this is because of the inferiority we have about our own system. The lack of aggression we see today in Indians in front of the world is greatly because of this, be it cricketing or diplomacy.

Post-independence is the next and current phase where we see that the theory of caste oppression of British is being used and misused to encourage caste rivalry and hatred and thereby gain political mileage. Today it is no more an anguish or displeasure due to social situation, today it is a competition for power between units. Start a movement, appeal to the age-old varna and smriti that is not being followed, conduct a hate campaign over those who stand for them, get a "modern" and an "equality" brand (gain equality through hate campaigns!) yourself. Use jargons and buzz-words, no body knows what they really mean - they sound big and good. Attack those who do not have strength and can be attacked and brand them as the representatives of the chauvinistic, hegemonic and oppressive system - these two moves will get you credibility. Use that to get some numbers and be able to have some influence in governance. That gets you power. This is typically what happens today. This has nothing to do either with varna - this is simply a rally for power. And in fact it is a campaign against varna.

The work that is done silently at the ground level to overcome the influence of the hate-campaigns to achieve some smoothness between the units, with the knowledge of both tradition and of these attacks, is almost unnoticed. Not only because it is not done by many - but rather because credibility to such work is harmful to has power mongering that live on hatred and social friction. Their existence is what gets them a rallying point.

But all this said, there is a positive side of the coin. Jati today offers a social capital. The buffer that an individual/family cannot afford comes from the community. Communities work as communities to generate huge amount of human and monetary resources. Some of this certainly goes into the power rallying or jati-rivalry, but a great amount of social capital is constructively used too. We see people of same communities coming up in groups, generating wealth, contributing a great deal to the economy and social strength. The wisdom of society lies in recognizing this, using it properly and minimizing its misuse (hate, rivalry or whatever).

Jati is a cultural unit and jatis are the representatives of Hindu culture. These are the ones that preserved a culture so diverse in customs, approaches and occupations. In fact the jati system offers survival to small cultural units and allow them retain their cultural uniqueness over a long period of time.

Another whip used to beat Hinduism is untouchability. There are two aspects in this. One - people using it against Hinduism. Two - Hindus confused about it. While most people think varna/jati is directly related to untouchability, truth is that its solution lies in handling it independent of varna. Irrespective of the level of casteism and caste-hatred, we do not see untouchability in urban areas as much. It has more to do with something other than varna system. Keeping aside its historic evolution we have to accept that it is fast going down. We also have to admit that it is almost gone in places where its relevance is gone. The rest lies in transforming those places where it still exists. One part of it is raising the living conditions. Second part of it is making the people there aware of its obsoleteness. Also, those who know about Hinduism and its history agree that many practices in Hinduism come and go in time - they are temporal. And Hinduism has the ability to create and shun practices that suit times. We do not get to see most of the mediaeval practices today. Most people lack this proportion and tend to overreact. Another important thing needed in understanding our society is that it is a huge, complex and old society and it does not take up or shun anything in haste. The timescale for changes in such a society is much larger than the lifespan of a man and this is why most people think that Hinduism is too slow in reforming itself. In fact it is very fast in doing that. Movements needed come in no time looking at its size and complexity, though it may appear too long for people. Realizing this and still working to discard obsolete practices is entirely different from using those to malign and harm the society.

Other forms of collectivity exist in Hinduism too. There have been many movements that mobilized huge masses and lasted for long. Any bhakti movement typically sees a lot of success in the Hindu society. Religion is the heart of India, and any appeal to religion gets a huge response. The scale and success of Kumbh mela or Ratha yatra in Puri stand for this. Those movements last real long. Permanence is the primary requirement and Hindus tend towards those setups and movements that aim at it. That is the reason why institutions like family, caste, religious sampradayas come down for millennia.

Hindus in the US

The Hindus in the US organize themselves as communities. It is geography that determines these units, but there are many other aspects like culture that determine these. In places where there are few thousands of Hindus they form a few communal units. In places where the Hindu population is dense and big, they organize themselves in multiple units and such grouping involves more factors like language, caste, customs and economy. As the unit is small, these do not factor much and as units grow in size all these start coming into the picture.

These units behave like cultural units and like pockets of Indian culture within the US. Their interface with the native US community (say native for the sake of convenience, this means the Whites and not the Red Indians) is not much and is limited to minimum most of the times. The fact that the American society is loosely bound and individuals are atomized, allows the Indians to live like communal units within the US without much interference or assimilative pressure from the American society itself. This way they retain their cultural uniqueness.

We may ask "how culturally Indian are the Indians settled in US? Third/fourth generation Indians in US are as good as Americans anyways". But we have to acknowledge that their ties with the Indian units there are stronger than the more recent Indians settled there. And the social units do survive there. Also, the cultural aspects that are not directly related to geography and local life are retained by the Indians there because of their collective living. Secondly, the social need and incompleteness can be seen more by older settlers say beyond 4 generations than recent ones because of their experience, hence their greater participation in such units. Thus, while the recent ones still have the cultural string towards these units, the older ones have a need string. Also since their influence on the American society is greater, these groups depend more on them for a base.