P.R. Sarkar on Escaping the Degenerative Cycles of History
"Following the classic Indian episteme, reality has many levels; most ideologies only have accentuated the spiritual (Vedanta) or the material (liberalism), or the individual (capitalism) or the collective (communism), the community (Gandhism), or race (Hitlerism) or the nation (fascism). Sarkar seeks an alternative balance of self, community, ecology, and globe. Yet the spiritual is his base. In his view Consciousness from pure existence transforms to awareness then to succeeding material factors (the Big Bang onwards) until it becomes matter. From matter, there is dialectical evolution to humans. Humans, finally, can devolve back to the inanimate or evolve as co-creators with consciousness. For humans, there is structure and choice, nature and will. There is both creation and there is evolution. With this epistemic background, we should then not be surprised at his dual interests in the material and spiritual worlds and their dynamic balance.
Placing Sarkar in an alternative construction of the real is central to understanding his social theory. Every macrohistorian and thinker who creates a new discourse evokes the universal and the transcendental, but their grand efforts also spring from the dust and the mud of the mundane. They are born in particular places and they die in locatable sites as well. Sarkar writes from India, writes from the poverty that is Calcutta. The centrality of the cycle then can partially be understood by its physical location. The cycle promises a better future ahead; it promises that the powerful will be made weak and the weak powerful, the rich will be humbled and the poor enabled. The cycle also comes directly from the classic Indian episteme. In this ordering of knowledge, the real has many levels and is thus pluralistic; the inner mental world is isomorphic with the external material world, there are numerous ways of knowing the real, and time is grand. According to Romila Thapar, "Hindu thinkers had evolved a cyclic theory of time. The cycle was called the kalpa and was equivalent to 4320 million earthly years. The kalpa is divided into 14 periods and at the end of each of these the universe is recreated and once again Manu (primeval man) gives birth to the human race."5
In this classical model (ascribed to the Gita) the universe is created, it degenerates, and then is recreated. The pattern is eternal. This pattern has clear phases; the golden era of Krta or Satya, the silver era of Treta, the copper era of Dvapara and the iron age of Kali. At the end of Kali, however, the great redeemer whether Vishnu or Shiva or Krishna, is reborn, the universe is realigned, dharma or truth is restored, and the cycle begins again.
Now is there a way out? An escape from the cycle? Classically it has been through an alchemical ontological transformation of the self: the self realizing its real nature and thus achieving timelessness--the archetype of the yogi. Concretely, in social reality this has meant the transformation of a person engrossed in fear to a mental state where nothing is feared, neither king nor priest; all are embraced, lust and greed are transcended and individual inner peace is achieved. To this archetype, Sarkar has added a collective level asserting that individual liberation must exist in parallel and in the context of social liberation. Spirituality is impossible in the context of the social body suffering in pain. For him the world has a 6 defective social order.... this state of affairs cannot be allowed to continue. This structure of inequality and injustice must be destroyed and powdered down for the collective interest of the human beings. Then and then alone, humans may be able to lead the society on the past of virtue. Without that only a handful of persons can possibly attain the Supreme Perfection.
But Sarkar too uses the redeemer concept to provide the way out of cyclical history. This is his taraka brahma. The first was Shiva who transformed the chaos of primitive life to the orderliness of humanity. Next was Krishna who restored the notion of national community. And, for Sarkar, another redeemer is needed to transform the fragmented nation-states into a world community. However, paradoxically the concept of the redeemer for Sarkar is also metaphorical: it is meant to elicit devotion by making the impersonal nature of Consciousness touchable in the form of a personal guru.
Sarkar thus develops ways out of the cycle: individual and social. In contrast Orientalist interpreters like Mircea Eliade believe that the theory of eternal cycles is "invigorating and consoling for man under the terror of history,"7 as now man knows under which eras he must suffer and he knows that the only escape is spiritual salvation. Sarkar finds this view repugnant, for people suffer differently and differentially in each era, those at the center of power do better than those at the outskirts, laborers always do poorly. Indeed throughout history different classes do better than other classes, but the elite manage quite well.8
Oftentimes, some people have lagged behind, exhausted and collapsed on the ground, their hands and knees bruised and their clothes stained with mud. Such people have been thrown aside with hatred and have become the outcastes of society. They have been forced to remain isolated from the mainstream of social life. This is the kind of treatment they have received. Few have cared enough to lift up those who lagged behind, to help them forward.
Hope lies not in resignation to but transformation of the cycle--it is here that Sarkar moves away from the classic Hindu model of the real--of caste, fatalism, and mentalism--most likely influenced by fraternal Islamic concepts, liberal notions of individual will, and by Marxist notions of class struggle.
For Sarkar there are different types of time. There is cosmic time --the degeneration and regeneration of dharma; there is individual liberation from time through entrance into infinite time; and there is the social level of time wherein the times of exploitation are reduced through social transformation, thus creating a time of dynamic balance--a balance between the physical, social and spiritual.
This differs significantly from other views of Indian history. In the Idealistic view history is but the play or sport of Consciousness.9 In this view the individual has no agency and suffering is an illusion. In the dynastic view history is but the succeeding rise and falls of dynasties and kings and queens; it is only the grand that have agency. In contrast is Aurobindo's10 interpretation, influenced by Hegel, in which instrumentality is assigned to historical world leaders and to nations. For Sarkar, making nationalism into a spiritual necessity is an unnecessary reading. God does not prefer any particular structure over another.
Following Aurobindo, Buddha Prakash has taken the classic Hindu stages of gold, silver, copper and iron and applied them concretely to modern history. India, for Prakash, with nation-hood and industrialism has now wakened to a golden age that "reveals the jazz and buzz of a new age of activity."11 But for Sarkar, the present is not an age of awakening, but an age "where on the basis of various arguments a handful of parasites have gorged themselves on the blood of millions of people, while countless people have been reduced to living skeletons."12
Sarkar also rejects the modern linear view of history in which history is divided into ancient (Hindu), medieval (Muslim), and modern (British-nationalistic). In this view, England is modern and India is backward. If only India can adopt rational, secular and capitalist or socialist perspectives and institutions, that is, modern policies, it too can join the western world. India then has to move from prehistorical society--people lost in spiritual fantasy and caste but without state--to modern society.13 Sarkar's views are closer to Jawaharlal Nehru14 who thought that history is about how humanity overcame challenges and struggled against the elements and inequity. Sarkar's views are also similar to the recent "Subaltern"15 project in which the aim is to write history from the view of the dominated classes, not the elite or the colonial. However, unlike the Subaltern project which eschews meta-narratives, Sarkar's social cycle provides a new grand theory.
Sarkar's stages can be used to contextualize Indian history.16 Just as there are four types of mentalities, structures or types, we can construct four types of history. There is the shudra history, the project of the Subaltern group. However, their history is not written by the workers themselves but clearly by intellectuals. There is then ksattriyan history; the history of kings and empires, of nations and conquests, of politics and economics. This is the history of the State, of great men and women. Most history is vipran history, for most history is written and told by intellectuals, whatever their claims for the groups they represent. Vipran history is also the philosophy of history: the development of typologies, of categories of thought, of the recital of genealogies, of the search for evidence, of the development of the field of history itself. This is the attempt to undo the intellectual constructions of others and create one's own, of asking is there one construction or can there be many constructions? Finally, there is vaeshyan history. This is the history of wealth, of economic cycles, of the development of the world capitalist system, of the rise of Europe and the fall of India. Marxist history is unique in that it is written by intellectuals for workers but used by warriors to gain power over merchants. Sarkar attempts to write a history that includes all four types of power: people's, military, intellectual and economic.
For Sarkar, most history is written to validate a particular mentality. Each varna writes a history to glorify its conquests, its philosophical realizations, or its technological breakthroughs, but rarely is history written around the common woman or man. For Sarkar, history should be written about how humans solved challenges. How prosperity was gained. "History... should maintain special records of the trials and tribulations which confronted human beings, how those trials and tribulations were overcome, how human beings tackled the numerous obstacles to effect great social development."17 History then needs to aid in mobilizing people, personally and collectively toward internal exploration and external transformation. Thus history should be a "resplendent reflection of collective life whose study will be of immense inspiration for future generations."18 History then is a political asset. Here Sarkar moves to a poststructural understanding of the true. Truth is interpretive, not rta (the facts) but satya (that truth which leads to human welfare). History then should not be placed solely within the empiricist view, but within an interpretive political perspective.
Sarkar's own history is meant to show the challenges humans faced: the defeats and the victories. His history shows how humans were dominated by particular eras, how they struggled and developed new technologies, ideas, and how they realized the atman, the, the eternal self. It is an attempt to write a history that is true to the victims but does not oppress them again by providing no escape from history, no vision of the future. His history then is clearly ideological, not in the sense of supporting a particular class, but rather a history that gives weight to all classes yet attempts to move them outside of class, outside of ego and toward neo-humanism.
History then is the natural evolutionary flow of this cycle. At every point there are a range of choices; once made the choice becomes a habit, a structure of the collective or group mind. Each mentality, with an associated leadership class comes into power, makes changes, and administers government but eventually pursues its own class ends and exploits the other groups. This has continued throughout history. Sarkar's unit of analysis begins with all of humanity, it is a history of humanity, but he often refers to countries and nations. The relationship to the previous era is a dialectical one; an era emerges out of the old era. History moves not because of external reasons, although the environment certainly is a factor, but because of internal organic reasons. Each era gains power--military, normative, economic or chaotic--and then accumulates power until the next group dislodges the previous elite. The metaphysic behind this movement is, for Sarkar, the wave motion. There is a rise and then a fall. In addition, this wave motion is pulsative, that is, the speed of change fluctuates over time. The driving force for this change is first the dialectical interaction with the environment, second the dialectical interaction in the mind and in ideologies, and third the dialectical interaction between both, ideas and the environment. But there is also another motivation: this is the attraction toward the Great. The individual attraction toward the Supreme. This is the ultimate desire that frees humans of all desires.
While clash, conflict and cohesion with the natural and social environment drives the cycle, it is the attraction to the Great, the infinite, that is the solution or the answer to the problem of history. It results in progress. For Sarkar, the cycle must continue, for it is a basic structure in mind, but exploitation is not a necessity. Through the sadvipra, exploitation can be minimized.
To conclude, Sarkar's theory uses the metaphor of the human life cycle and the ancient wheel, that is, technology. There is the natural and there is human intervention. There is a structure and there is choice. It is Sarkar's theory that provides this intervention; an intervention that for Sarkar will lead to humanity as a whole finally taking its first deep breath of fresh air."