Learning from Asian philosophies of rebirth

Asian literature, with its technologically-adept Chinese emperors, Animist Spirit-negotiators, and Yogic sages, shows us how to live well in troubled times.
Ma Yuan's The Yellow River Breaches its Course, from a series of paintings of water
Ma Yuan's The Yellow River Breaches its Course, from a series of paintings of water
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In the spring of 1931, central China emerged from a two-year drought and a particularly harsh winter into a season of unrelenting rain. High on the Tibetan plateau, the ice and snow began to melt and flow inexorably over drought-hardened earth towards the Yangtze valley below – one of the world’s most densely populated regions. Multiple cyclones hit during the summer months. By August the vast heartlands of China were scoured clean by floods unlike any on record. Cholera outbreaks followed, decimating the homeless starving population. This was one of history’s most deadly disasters – approximately 500,000 people were killed in the flood itself, and something like three million more by its after-effects.

From the earthquakes and tsunamis of Japan, to the epidemics that ravage India regularly, Asia is particularly prone to natural crisis. Indeed, the sense that we live in a volatile cosmos informs the history of the world. Add in the influence of rebellions, revolutions, and regime change, and we find that every culture’s literatures has a template for dealing with crisis. Europe’s narrative trope of the ‘hero’ is often that of a well-armed monster-hunter whose main purpose is to conquer brief eruptions of chaos. Theseus and Heracles, Arthur’s knights and Marvel’s superheroes kill monsters, fight invaders, and then their quest is done. Crisis is dealt with by renewing the system as quickly as possible. In Asian literatures we tend to see narratives about what it means for a society to be transformed by crisis. Stories tell of technologically-adept Chinese emperors, Animist Spirit-negotiators, and Yogic deep-dives into destruction itself. Instead of simply asking how we can return to ‘normal’, these philosophies ask: when crisis threatens, how can we survive, transform our societies, and improve them?

Chinese Floods: The Science-Emperor Restores Order

Drainage from the world’s highest mountain range, the Himalayas, into the world’s largest ocean, the Pacific, leads to vast amounts of water moving across a huge area. Northern China and Mongolia’s deserts nearby mean that the rivers are regularly silted up by fine sediments. The Yangtze, the Yellow River, Haui and others are a permanent threat of disaster in China’s history. One scholar estimated that more than 1,500 floods of the Yellow River have taken place since the middle of the first millennium BCE. Sabotaging dams, reservoirs and canals became a major mode of Chinese warfare, and today the Yangtze’s Three Gorges Dam remains not only China’s, but the world’s largest hydro-electric power station.

20th century ‘Hydraulic empire’ theorists hypothesise that water – the control of, access to, and protection from water – was the basis from which humanity’s first great civilisations emerged. In his 1957 book Oriental Despotism Karl August Wittfogel drew on the communist intellectual Ji Chaoding’s history of irrigation to argue that just as the Nile produced Egypt, the Indus produced India, and the Tigris-Euphrates gave rise to Mesopotamia, so China was rooted in ‘hydraulic power’ which dealt with flooding. The five ancient ‘Classics’ give some support to this thesis. In the Shūjīng or Classic of History, one of the founding stories of Chinese culture tells of the devastating Gun Yu flood that, according to myth, lasted two generations. At the beginning of the great flood the Emperor Yao, appointer of the seasons, laments:

See! The Floods assail the heavens! … destructive in their overflow are the waters of the inundation. In their vast extent they embrace the hills and overtop the great heights, threatening the heavens with their floods, so that the lower people groan and murmur Is there a capable man to whom I can assign the correction of this calamity?

The ‘capable man’ turned out to be a humble engineer called Gun Yu. He became famous in myth as the man who ‘tamed the waters,’ not through some feat of supernatural power but as a work of co-operative technological planning. Over thirteen years travelling the country, Gun Yu introduced an innovative project of digging.

Hydrological technology today remains one of the most important features of Chinese landscape; it ensures that the whole vast landmass is habitable as a single safe region capable of civilisation. Thus Yu the great, the wise filial inheritor of a civil project to which he devoted his life, became the model for heroes who conquer crisis through the (unglamorous but realistic) powers of intelligence and hard work. Confucius said of him, ‘I can find no flaw in the character of Yu … He lived in a low, mean house, but expended all his strength on the ditches and water channels. I can find nothing like a flaw in Yu.’


Yu the Great as imagined by Song Dynasty painter Ma Lin

Yu is the epitome of governance in the classical Chinese worldview, where the good leader is portrayed as a variant of the Taoist sage. Like the character of Cook Ding in the Zhuangzi who could butcher an ox as smoothly as if it was butter, because he was so utterly aware of every aspect of the organism, the good leader learns the system through dedicated study and makes exactly the right, prudent adjustments. In response, the people are supposed to follow his orders, as the Tao Te Ching (49) makes clear: ‘The people all keep their eyes and ears directed to him, and he deals with them all as his children.’

But the people’s obedience was not intended to be carried out in blind trust. Corrupt leadership was heavily censured in the Taoist literature and humble conduct exalted: ‘The sage should work without claim to ownership or reward, putting his own person last, personal and private goals … When the work is done, and one’s name is becoming distinguished, to withdraw into obscurity is the way of Heaven.’ Thus China’s history of crisis points to a fragile bond of trust that plays under the surface between the people and their government. Their science-emperor leads his people in resolving crisis with deft efficiency, and in doing so gives the people new tools gained from solving the problem, so Yu’s heroic taming of the flood directly contributed to irrigation and a new phase of agricultural civilisation. The leader, who acts without ulterior motives, must also win the confidence of his people and in doing so he helps society fulfil its very essence as a collective agency.

Spirit Lessons: Tsunamis and Earthquakes of Coastal Asia

On the white crescent beaches of Southern Thailand, on the morning of December 26 2004, fisherman and dawn bathers did not know that a vast pulse of water was at that moment travelling towards them at hundreds of miles per hour. It had been pushed upward by a ‘megathrust’ from the Indian Ocean’s seabed in one of the world’s largest earthquakes – smaller quakes were triggered as far as Alaska. Travelling as an undetected low swell of water in its deep-water form, it destroyed the nearby Indonesian area of Banda Aceh, then one arm sped west to Sri Lanka while the north-east arc of the tsunami deflected around the tip of Sumatra and slowed into the shallow, sparkling waters of the Andaman Ocean. Slower but higher, these tsunami waves crashed into the communities of Khao Lak, Koh Jum, Koh Phi Phi, Phang Nga: whole villages – homes, families, schools and their students – floated out to sea.

A ‘divine passions’ conception of nature thrives in many Pacific cultures and on the South-East Asian coasts and archipelagos. Demons and deities, storm gods, Balinese volcanic gods, Thai angry sea goddesses and cave spirits are all associated with crises that come from the earth: volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis. Indonesia’s pearl necklace of islands – the world’s largest archipelago – is the product of a fault line that has produced innumerable volcanoes and a near-constant subtle patter of earthquakes. Seasonal monsoons and typhoons pose a significant threat.

The animist cultures of coastal Asia understand these disasters as invisible forces. They are the effect of living in a busy, tempestuous community of spirits. A tsunami is Laboon to the Moken tribe of the Andaman coast, a cleansing weapon of the Ancestors sent to punish and eradicate misdeeds. On one beach tsunamis are prevented by offering fertility symbols to Phra Nang, the Sea Goddess. She is a volatile neighbour, but since she cannot be evicted one must make amends when she is angry. The gods are rarely evil, but they are devastatingly destructive and wholly immune to resistance. Animist conceptions of crisis can seem cruel because they acknowledge that it emanates from forces beyond our control. But they are also eminently passionate, interactive, and oddly humane in that they are generally seen as the result of some injury that we ourselves have done to a spirit or God. The response should be the same as when a friend or family member expresses anger. We need to assess our behaviour, reflect on what we have done to upset them, apologise and declare our intention to change things… then alter our behaviour accordingly.

So in 2005 when the communities of the Andaman coast survived the tsunami, yes – they built new tsunami warning systems, escape routes, and some homes on higher ground. But away from the news-cameras, many felt that the right way to protect the community was to apologise to the sea by way of fishing the ocean waters less exhaustively and moderating the polluting effects of mass tourism. Communal debates still exist between those who ignore these concerns, and those who respect them. Balinese Hindu society interpreted the Bali bombings of 2002 as a manifestation of the wrath of the Gods, and the aftermath included reflection on how to heal the land of its commercialisation and restore endangered cultural traditions. One outcome was new powers of local governance.

Animist communities can teach people to assess their actions and cultivate greater flexibility in our behaviour. Rather than merely restoring order, the cultural goal is to remain sensitive to possible causes of crisis and be nimble in behaviour. This too is the essence of a society (which we too often conflate with ‘tradition’) – to adapt to environmental change, remaining self-reflective, dynamic, able to mobilise and to continually envisage new ways to distribute sources of shared flourishing.

Indian Dharma-Kings and Queens

At the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in 1899, pilgrims at the vast religious gathering of the Kumbh Mela began to fall ill. They were experiencing the first effects of Cholera. On long-distance buses and trains, they took it home with them to villages across India. The pandemic would eventually kill 800,000 in that country alone, and stretch from Russia to America over the next twenty years. Throughout that time, smallpox remained such a consistent presence that it had its own Goddess, Shitala. Polio was also ‘hyperendemic’ with many hundreds of children becoming paralysed daily. India housed more than 50% of all leprosy cases; these diseases have continued to rage throughout most of the twentieth century. Polio has diminished through powerful vaccination efforts in the last decades, but new viruses have arrived. In May 2018 the first patient suffering from Nipah, a virus with 40%-75% fatality and no vaccine, was admitted to Kozhikode Hospital in Kerala. And in March 2020 India began one of the largest lockdowns in world history to combat the growing spread of Covid-19. The unique form of social crisis that is disease is woven through the fabric of history, but India is particularly familiar with it.

The Indian subcontinent is too diverse a place to be classified under any single pattern of cultural influence: some faced the Coronavirus with fast action grounded in good scientific predictions. In Mumbai Coronasur, the ‘Corona-demon’, was burned on a pyre. On TV, celebrity pundits recommended Ayurvedic treatments and immune-friendly yoga, and in some neighbourhoods the police danced their handwashing demonstrations to enthuse the public. So too, some areas fractured in their behaviour along lines between Muslims, migrants, and those northern Indians who have what are seen as ‘Chinese’ features.

If one were to look to Indian classical literature, one might see at least two templates for dealing with crisis: kings and yogis. Many epics and fables celebrate the Dharma-king, a philosophically-minded monarch like the Upanishad‘s scholarly King Janaka, or the Mahabharata‘s reluctant King Yudhisthira or the Ramayana‘s forest-dwelling King Rama. This kind of king is often poised between a pronounced sensitivity to the social order of dharma, and a yearning for pure knowledge. He tastes the life of scholarly quietism, but must sacrifice it in order to serve the public; nevertheless this reflective disposition lends an enduring depth to his solutions.

It is possible that this ideal arose as a Hindu response to the model established by the Buddhist Emperor Ashoka the Great who ruled much of India in the third century BCE, and healed the military crisis he himself had created by posting edicts about the moral order of dharma across the country – the Ashokan Pillars. His example was followed by the renaissance monarch Akbar the Great. To some extent, India’s 1960s philosopher-president Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was seen in this light, and it is the image promoted today by Narendra Modi’s Public Relations team.

A recent real-life exemplar is the public servant now celebrated as the ‘Coronavirus-Slayer’, K.K. Shailaja. This former science school-teacher, turned Minister of Health and Social Welfare for India’s Democratic Communist state of Kerala, was already a celebrity for having ‘slain’ the Nipah virus through rapid response and smart science just a year before. Her story became a film named simply Virus and it was as optimistic and inspiring as Steven Soderberg’s movie Contagion was hopeless and horrifying. As Covid-19 threatened, she acted fast, minimising the pandemic’s impact. Forceful as the Goddess (after whom her film avatar Sridevi is named), Shailaja acted as the ultimate Dharma-queen by channelling the will of the community into an act of lokasamgraha or ‘holding the world together’.

A cartoon of Kerala’s ‘Coronavirus-slayer’ K.K. Shailaja

Beyond Repair: Yoga, Death, and Strategic Shutdown

As trains crossed India full of the bodies of Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs killed in one of history’s most intense bouts of ethnic violence in 1948, Gandhi undertook his final fast. He had completed many in the past with surprising success: by creating a radical shutdown in his body, he had – by a kind of sympathetic magic – pulled Indian society into a reflective shutdown of its own. It had opened up negotiation for immediate changes in politics that had seemed impossible amidst the ongoing storms of daily life. This, his last fast, was advertised as an effort undertaken for all of India but it was designed primarily to persuade Hindus to restore safety to Muslims being murdered in his own community. It was for this defence of minorities in the face of social crisis that he was assassinated as he came out of the period of fasting.

But Gandhi’s example has been inspirational and public personal sacrifice has become a leitmotif of Asian twentieth century political history. It once again hit the headlines forty years later in the 1963 photograph of the self-immolating Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, immersed in flames at a Vietnamese crossroads.

Duc was protesting against persecution of Vietnamese Buddhists by the Catholic elite who were in power and remained the largest landowner in Vietnam. Government forces had recently fired into crowds of peaceful protesters. On June 10 Duc invited US correspondents to a crossroads, at which he then arrived in a procession with three hundred and fifty monks and nuns. He refused the offer of a younger monk to take his place, then seating himself in a lotus position, he asked for a five-gallon can of petrol to be poured over him. He calmly lit a match, and let it fall onto his own head. The image of this motionless burning man captured by a member of the Associated Press let the West know that it was dealing with a cultural world whose attitude to disaster was profoundly different to its own. Rather than uphold his own life at all costs, Duc was willing to mine the depths of crisis to the point of utter personal breakdown, as a powerful resource for change. In a letter he explained his actions:

Before closing my eyes and moving towards the vision of the Buddha, I respectfully plead to President Ngo Dinh Diem to take a mind of compassion towards the people of the nation and implement religious equality to maintain the strength of the homeland eternally.

The self-immolations of other monks followed and continue occasionally to this day. And the ideology of a street shut-down, that reflects hope that the problematic systems of society as a whole can be similarly shut down, has become an important aspect of Asia’s protest culture. We see it in the ‘Saffron Revolution’ led by monks in Burma, in the crowds of Thai families sitting in the streets with placards saying ‘Shut Down Bangkok, Restart Thailand,’ or in the famous film of a single man standing still on Tiananmen Square halting a line of tanks. As the CBS report on the 1989 Tiananmen incident put it, ‘for three minutes in the middle of the day, an army was stopped by a man who stood still… what moves a man to just stand still?’

A memorial to the monk Thich Quang Duc at the corner of Nguyen Dinh Chieu and Cach mang Thang Tam streets

Thich Quang Duc’s experience of Vietnamese Mahayana and Cambodian Theravada Buddhist retreats meant he had extensive training in Yogic techniques, just as Gandhi knew principles of yoga from his extensive study of the Bhagavad Gita. This meant that both were aware of the special place it holds in Hindu and Buddhist soteriology. At the historical root of the classical Indian Religions was a period of urbanisation from approx. 500 BCE when the cosmopolitan close-quarters of the cities made society acutely aware of the way that suffering punctuates life. The Buddha gave up his own secure position as heir to a northern throne, at the sight of an elderly person, a diseased person, and a corpse. Recognising an ongoing existential crisis embedded at the heart of human life, he joined the movement of ascetic yogis that was growing across northern India, and eventually started a new sector of society – the monastic institutions that would continue to provide a counterpoint to socio-political power across the whole of Asia.

Classical Yogic philosophy describes a technique for personal shutdown and is designed to arrest established patterns in the mind and body. Far from being a form of fitness, classical yoga is more a practice of strategic death. Yoga, says the second sutra, is citta vrtti nirodha: “the stilling of the movements of consciousness.” It depicts the mind as a moving flow-tank filled with currents of desire and fear. This movement has its own momentum (which Schopenhauer interpreted as the Will, and Freud the Id), and it takes control of the whole mind. Meanwhile it obscures its own workings so that we are alienated from the truth of our situation and consciousness becomes blinded with its own fears and objects of desire. Put into collective, modern terms, this means that society sees only its fears (of redundancy, migrants, or infections, perhaps) and its desires (for the next beer, holiday, Amazon package or Netflix series). Rarely are we able to interrupt the patterns of life enough to look calmly below at the causes of those emotions, nor above to gain an overview and map out a plan. Instead the momentum pushes us on into the systemic dysfunctions that cause the crisis, so that we never pause to take stock and change the situation.

The only solution, the text implies is to strategically ‘lockdown’ ourselves, undergoing the death of desires and fears – and even of parts of our existing identity – in order to steer in a radically new direction. While yogic meditation was designed for individuals, it is rare that a whole society collectively, and completely, pauses. Self-immolation, hunger-striking, and sitting, kneeling or lying in public places are all localised forms of social shutdown that invite reflection and reform through their silence. 2020 was history’s first real example of shutdown on a global scale. The unique conditions of the pandemic necessitated an almost ‘yogic’ stilling of society, an isolation of its citizens, and a staunching of their habits of consumption.

Commentators remain divided over whether the themes of continuity or rebirth are more appropriate to our situation. All of these stories offer instruction in the lessons of crisis: they are lessons about knowledge-based leadership and the establishment of new lasting structures that will avoid a cycle of recurrence. They teach us about developing greater communal sensitivity to the environmental conditions that generate natural crisis. And they warn us that we may have to destroy some of the old ways to let something genuinely new and better be born. No person or society should have to feel at the mercy of the same old monsters, time and time again. Crisis can be the stone on which civilisation moves upward, and then out of their reach.

Jessica Frazier

Jessica Frazier is Lecturer in Theology and Religion at Trinity College, Oxford, and a Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Hindu studies.

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