Contemplating the weave of the world

    [ exploring various versions of how the world of concepts can itself be conceptualized ]

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Have patience with me: Omar Ali has invited me to post here, an honor I greatly appreciate, and I am introducing myself.

I’m an outsider. I’m your guest, and I only just arrived.. To be precise, I’m a Brit, resident in the United States:

If I’m to write on BrownPundits, I need to you know how ignorant I am in many respects, before I shed some of what knowledge I do possess — and also to focus myself in the Brown direction, because this place is devoted to “a discussion of things brown” — and while I’ll no doubt wander far afield as I post, I want to acknowledge and honor the purpose of this blog as I introduce myself here.

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My interest, my fascination, my obsession even, is with the weave of the world. And indeed, if my friends Omar Ali, Ali Minai, and Hasan Asif can be any indication, the Punditry of Brown extends intellectually across all of history, geography and genius, to encompass the world of ideas and the world world to which the ideas refer in their combined entirety..

And thus the weave of the thing. That’s how the Kathasaritsagara, or Ocean of the Streams of Story, comes in to my story. Somadeva Bhatta’s concept of the oceanic streams of story caught Salman Rushdie’s eye, and Rushdie reference to it —

He looked into the water and saw that it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different colour, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and Iff explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each coloured strand represented and contained a single tale. Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all the stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories; so that unlike a library of books, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns. It was not dead, but alive.

— it’s a universal mapping of the sort that enchants the likes of Jorge Luis Borges and Umberto Eco, librarians both, encompassing the realm of human thought in narrative terms. And it’s one subcontinewntal form of the universal map, or model, or metaphor — the Net of Indra in the Avataṃsaka Sutra would be another.

Outside the subcontinent — but well within the compass of Brown Punditry– there are other such metaphors for the whole of the whole. Teilhard de Chardin’s oosphere is another, as is Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s >World Wide Web, in which complex weave of thoughts we now find ourselves.

But for my own purposes, the most interesting figure of the whole, the universe as we are able to think and name it, conceptually speaking, is the Glass Bead Game as described by Hermann Hesse in his Nobel-winning novel of that name

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My own personal predilections run from cultural anthropology through comparative religion to depth psychology, and from violence to peace-making. But that’s a huge sprawl at best, and to bring all that into some kind of focus, to learn how to map that immense territory, and the vaster universe beyond it, I turn not just to strong>Hesse’s novel, but particularly to the Game which he describes in that book:

The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colors on his palette. All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ. And this organ has attained an almost unimaginable perfection; its manuals and pedals range over the entire intellectual cosmos; its stops are almost beyond number. Theoretically this instrument is capable of reproducing in the Game the entire intellectual content of the universe.

You’ll see how that description covers much the same ground as Rushdie’s description of the Kathasaritsagara, and Edward Tufte’s image of the Ocean of Story which I’ve placed at the top of this post could also be a depiction of Hesse’s great Game.

There are many voices in the Ocean, and many voices in the Game, and they are interwoven: they form which a musician would recognize as a polyphony — their concepts and narratives at times clashing as in musical counterpoint, at times resolving, at least temporarily, in a refreshing harmony.

And what better model of the world can we contemplate at this moment, that one in which a multitude of at times discordant voices wind their ways to concord?

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[ above: conventional score, bar-graph score and keyboard recordings of JS Bach, contrapunctus ix

Johann Sebastian Bach is the master of contrapuntal music, and, be it noted, a great composer for and improviser on the organ. And it is Bach whose music I listen to as I approach the business of modeling the world of ideas.

My mantram ca 1999/2000 was:<To hold the mind of Bach..

Where Bach devises and holds in mind melodies that collide and cohere, I want us to hold thoughts in mind — at times clashing thoughts — and learn to weave them into a coherent whole..

That’s my approach to making the Glass Bead Game which Hesse conceptualized, playable. And my playable variants on Hesse’s Game, the HipBone family of games, will be the topic of my next few posts — thanks to the kind inquiries of my BrownPundit friends, and Omar’s generous invitation to me to post here.

And perhaps, if you’re interested, we’ll play a few rounds of my games, or explore across the world of ideas and your and my interests, what I’ve come to think of as the HipBone style of thinking..

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Charles Cameron is a poet and game designer, managing editor of the Zenpundit blog, and now an invited guest at BrownPundits. You can hear a discussion of the overlap between the Glass Bead Game and Artificial Intelligence featuring Omar Ali, Ali Minai and myself on this BrownPundits podcast — with an appreciative bow to Razib Khan.

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Riding borrowed steeds

I normally hesitate to write about Pakistan on this blog. There’s a certain history behind that decision. Also primarily because most Indians like me, who grew up during the late 80s and 90s liberalisation period, have a skewed view of Pakistan. And I try to over-correct that Indic bias (of arbitrary validity) by not commenting too much.

Why am I going on about this topic now? Well, the proximate reason is that I have a little bit of time between changing nappies on a day off work. The more philosophical answer is that Omar bhai’s post on the Pakistani al- phenomenon got me thinking about language use culture in Pakistan.

Continue reading “Riding borrowed steeds”

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Pleistocene rock art in Maharashtra

Ancient Rock Art in the Plains of India-Two amateur sleuths have uncovered a collection of mysterious rock carvings on the Indian coastal plain south of Mumbai:

In the evening breeze on a stony hilltop a day’s drive south of Mumbai, Sudhir Risbud tramped from one rock carving to another, pointing out the hull of a boat, birds, a shark, human figures and two life-size tigers.

“They’re male,” he said with a smile, noting that the carver had taken pains to make the genitalia too obvious to ignore. He was doing a brief tour of about two dozen figures, a sampling of 100 or so all etched into a hard, pitted rock called laterite that is common on the coastal plain that borders the Arabian Sea.

The carvings are only a sample of 1,200 figures that Mr. Risbud and Dhananjay Marathe, engineers and dedicated naturalists, have uncovered since they set out on a quest in 2012. The two men are part of a long tradition of amateur archaeologists, according to Tejas Garge, the head of the Directorate of Archaeology and Museums for the state of Maharashtra, and the petroglyphs they have uncovered amount to a trove of international significance.

There are no depictions of bulls, so it is pre-agricultural. Additionally, some of the animals depicted disappeared from the area in the later Pleistocene. That means the carvings could date to people who lived in the area between 40,000 and 20,000 years ago, right up to the Last Glacial Maximum.

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The Post-White World

As I was scoffing down my lunch (I jest; I actually eat really healthy food) a thought came into my mind that a good book title would be “The Post-White World.”

Since 1492 (when Granada fell and Columbus set off) there has been an increasing consolidation of the West. It reached its apogee in the Victorian Era, where it was unabashed racial hegemony, and it took two World Wars to really shake it off. It’s interesting that Islam experienced so much “innovation” in the 19th century simply because the incursion of the West was finally being internalised. Continue reading “The Post-White World”

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Podcasts by Major Amin. India, Pakistan, Proxy Wars

Readers of this blog are familiar with Pakistani military historian Major Agha Humayun Amin.  Major Amin has recorded a number of podcasts on the Anchor app and they are worth a listen if you are interested in military history, Indian history and related topics.

This podcast in particular is a good introduction to Major Amin’s own background (he has worked with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, has been a Taliban prisoner, and then a contractor in post-American Afghanistan, with extensive experience in the region). He also mentions his mentor Edward Luttwak.

In this podcast he makes many interesting observations and has his usual blunt and sometimes harsh opinions. Some of his topics here include:

  1. His view is that there is no such thing as a “non-state actor”. All actors in Afghanistan are proxies of some state or the other. In the case of the Taliban, that means Pakistan.
  2. How the Americans were fooled into bombing (via drones) and paying for bombing (Pakistani armed forces) the FATA region, while Taliban were actually located in Balochistan.
  3. How Kiyani prolonged the FATA operations to milk American coalition support funds.
  4. FATA Pakhtoons as “Red Indians” , subject to endless operations, not just today but many years ago, regarded as “our firing range”. Regarded as such not just by non-Pakhtoons, but also by many “settled area” Pakhtoons.
  5. Some of the nuts and bolts of this endless war.
  6. Pakistan’s theory of nuclear brinkmanship, developed initially with American acquiescence (because they did not want India to attack Pakistan and disrupt their Afghanistan operation).
  7. Siachen, Kargil.
  8. The renewed Kashmir infiltration in the last few years.
  9. Pakistan army’s mindset and some of the more interesting nonsense that is promoted in its cause (such as Javed Hasan’s classic “India, a study in profile”).
  10. The security setups of both sides leak like a sieve. Nothing is really secret, yet most things are unknown to their own politicians and common people.
  11. No Indo-Pak war is likely, but proxy war will accelerate.
  12. Trump will abandon Afghanistan for electoral reasons, civil war will accelerate.

You don’t have to agree with Major Amin’s views. But his detailed knowledge of this murky world is worth a listen. At a minimum it should make you wary of all state propaganda narratives.

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Book Review: Limited War in South Asia

This is Major Amin’s review of “Limited War in South Asia”

In 2018 when I saw this book by Kaushik Roy I was surprised since to my mind Kaushik Roy does very well with archives and records but is not a real military historian who understands hard core military matters.
I therefore decided to procure this book and read it , and find out what Mr Kaushik Roy has found out.
Below is my review of Kaushik Roy and Scott Gates book.
The maps which are published at the start of the book are poorly drawn, inaccurate and impossible to understand as the scale is too small.A serious failing for a book published by a publisher as eminent as Routledge as late as 2017 !
For example all Pakistani formations are marked incorrectly although the Pakistani order of battle is known worldwide.This is a simply inexcusable failure.
Like Pakistan’s 1 Corps is marked as 2 Corps while Pakistan’s 2 Corps is marked as 1 Corps and even its dispositions are not marked accurately.
Further the map invents a new corps which has never existed in the Pakistan Army, ie 3 Corps.Thus Lahore’s 4 Corps is shown as 3 Corps.
The writer magnifies the role of Indian Army in North Africa and Italy while in reality in both theaters Indian Army was part of a much larger British Australian New Zealand South African American force and enjoyed massive numerical superiority in both theaters. Thus Indian Army casualties in North Africa were very low and the same was the case in Italy.In most ways the Indian Army learnt little about higher command as British Indian Army was never trusted with major offensive operations. The brigade and divisional commanders were always British and each Indian brigade had one British infantry unit. Continue reading “Book Review: Limited War in South Asia”

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How serious is the Hindu-Muslim conflict in India ?

Writing in the journal India Review, Korean scholar Heewon Kim says,

This article reviews the approaches used to understand the BJP-led NDA government’s policies toward religious minorities and argues that far from marking a radical departure, there are more continuities than discontinuities in these policies with previous administrations.

For all kinds of keyboard internet warriors, this conclusion would come as a disappointment. But it is only the boring conclusion to a truly banal argument.

There seems to be an understanding among many that Hindu-Muslim conflict is primordial, immemorial and ultimately irreconcilable. Partition is seen as incontrovertible proof of this view.

I would like to offer another perspective. In my view, taking into context the entire history of the twentieth century, the Hindu-Muslim conflict in India is rather benign, mainly due to the low real stakes in this conflict. I base this view on my readings of Russian, Chinese and Mexican history, especially the scale and intensity of armed conflict seen in inter group rivalries within those countries.

The forces of industrialization and democratization unleashed by England starting from 18th century proved immensely destabilizing to all world civilizations. This period saw extremely volatile political competition between groups harboring competing, irreconcilable visions for the future of various countries. In Russia, China and Mexico, this competition took the form of conservatives (usually capitalists), versus radicals (usually leftists). In the Muslim world, such competition has appeared in the form of secular regimes being pitted against Islamist movements, and increasingly, sectarian conflicts amongst various conservative movements.

The stakes for both sides in these conflicts were extremely high, and no accommodation with the opposing group was sought. This is evident from the sheer scale of warfare seen in these conflicts. The death tolls in each country ran into the multi millions, with decades of devastation.

Italian Trulli

Such high levels of conflict are not seen amongst Hindus and Muslims in India. The real stakes in Hindu-Muslim arguments are simply too low to militarize the conflict. On the table in other world conflicts, were programs of massive wealth transfer via land reform, extreme and eternal concentration of political power and utter suppression of language and religion. In contrast, Hindus and Muslims mostly argue about long dead kings, culinary choices and obscure theological points.

The simple truth is that even the establishment of a Hindu state will not alter the ground realities for India’s Muslims. Nepal was a Hindu monarchy for many decades, and its 5% Muslim population showed no interest in challenging the regime. Interestingly, the eventual overthrow of Nepal’s Hindu monarchy was carried out by a leftist movement (comprised of Hindus) in a civil war, much like the pattern seen in Russia, China and Mexico.

In many ways, India’s immense diversity and the sheer scale of its minority population, has restricted conflict to elite sparring rather than total war, which has very much been the norm across the world. But it has also prevented a genuine confrontation between the masses and the elites, the often mentioned lack of a revolution in Indian society. For a left vs right conflict in India, Hindu would need to fight Hindu. But the very presence of the Muslim seems to have softened any edge in this conflict.

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Thoughts on “Dr Jeffery Long on Hinduism, history and politics”

I have realized that there is something to be said about listening to interesting podcasts while driving. My wife (and kids) are at my in-laws for a few weeks, which means that I drive every weekend to meet and spend time with them. And I had this bright idea of listening to browncasts along the way. So, I’ve actually been properly listening to the recent ones – well enough to form quasi-intelligent thoughts on them that I thought I’d share with the wider world.

Continue reading “Thoughts on “Dr Jeffery Long on Hinduism, history and politics””

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