Dialectical Materialism and Sāńkhya

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Introduction and Overview

The world around us is filled with dualities or oppositions. There are two main resolutions of this duality as we have seen earlier—(1) finding the relation between the opposing ideas and the next “higher level” idea from which these oppositions were created, and (2) finding a quantitative balance between the opposing ideas at the “same level” such that the opposing ideas become mirror images of each other.

For the most part, we don’t see either of these approaches being applied. We rather see one of the following two attempts: (1) destroy one side of the opposition to have the other side win, or (2) destroy both sides of the opposition and therefore diversity itself. In a world produced through duality and oppositions, destroying any side effectively destroys both sides, so the two solutions widely employed have the same result. This article discusses the origins of Dialectical Materialism which recognized opposites as the basis of material nature, and then spoke about the replacement of the opposites with something new. In this article, I will discuss how this idea must be enhanced to deal with oppositions.

What is Dialectical Materialism?

In an earlier article, we discussed how the social Bell Curve rises and falls. The falling of the Bell Curve indicates segregation of the social classes, while the rising of the Bell Curve indicates the dissolution of the social classes. A steepened social hierarchy works when society is able to evenly balance the difference between classes. When society isn’t able to balance these differences, then the classes are forcibly dissolved.

Dialectical Materialism arose as the study of social oppositions, and how they might be resolved. In the philosophy of G. W. F. Hegel, oppositions were called thesis and anti-thesis which combined to form a synthesis. In short, Hegel believed that it was possible to reconcile the oppositions in society, by replacing two opposite ideas with a new idea that did not have a contradiction. However, Hegel also believed that any such resolution was temporary and the new “synthesis” would ultimately create a new “anti-thesis” which would then require another synthesis. In short, it was impossible to have any perfect ideas. The world—even if it seems stable—is only temporarily so.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels later extended these ideas to create a theory of society. Marx and Engels, however, also rejected the idea of “synthesis” that was so dear to Hegel. In their work, the world is always rocked by contradictions, and you cannot create a synthesis out of these contradictions. You can, however, destroy both sides of the opposition and essentially create a classless and uniform society. In other words, while Hegel’s philosophy suffered from the problem that all synthesis is temporary, the work of Marx and Engels suffered from the problem that all variety is abominable.

The Clash of Oppositions

Nevertheless, both Hegel initially and Marx and Engels later, correctly described the world as oppositions, which is remarkable in Western thinking because since the Greek times Western philosophers have believed that the world is created from a logos which is beautiful, logically consistent, and righteous. While most Western philosophers were trying to fit the world into universal laws of consistency, logic, mathematics, and minimalist ontologies, Hegel, Marx, and Engels saw the world as a clash and conflict.

In the entire history of Western philosophy, if someone has come close to the Vedic understanding of matter, it was Hegel, Marx, and Engels, because they grasped the idea that the world is comprised of opposites such as hot and cold which are also mutually dependent and mutually defined.

It is in this dialectic as it is here understood, that is, in the grasping of oppositions in their unity, or of the positive in the negative, that speculative thought consists. It is the most important aspect of dialectic. — Hegel, Science of Logic.

The splitting of a single whole and the cognition of its contradictory parts is the essence (one of the “essentials”, one of the principal, if not the principal, characteristics or features) of dialectics. That is precisely how Hegel, too, puts the matter. — Lenin’s Collected Works.

However, Hegel, Marx, and Engels found such contradictions problematic and believed that society would collapse due to its inner contradictions unless the oppositions are removed. This removal meant for Hegel a new idea that replaces the old ideas, ad infinitum, producing a theory of historical evolution that was dramatically different than the rest of Western thinking. This removal meant the rejection of opposite ideas, such as bourgeoisie and proletariat classes in society, to create a classless world.

In other words, the dialectical opposition was a stepping stone to one of the two alternatives: (1) a unification through a new idea, (2) replacement of opposite ideas with uniformity. They failed to see how contradictions are unproblematic if a system is designed to balance them. They could see opposites, but not how they can be made interdependent. The problem is not in the oppositions themselves, but in a system’s inability to balance them. Hegel, Marx, and Engels failed to see how this balance between the opposites is the true goal of a dialectical understanding. Instead, they concluded that any contradiction is unsatisfactory until the opposites are either replaced by a “unity” or destroyed to create a “uniformity”. The system seemed to be very threatening: either you agree on one idea, or we will destroy the differences.

The Rise of Communism

This philosophy resulted in the rise of communism which postulated that the material world is full of opposites, and to create peace in the world we must destroy diversity. As the opposites in the material world are dissolved, the meaning disappears too, until people realize that a uniform world is an uninteresting world. In fact, people often prefer conflicts over uniformity, because in conflicts lie the meanings without which life can become boring. Since society is bored for the most part, it creates conflicts in the form of debates, sports, and politics when it becomes tired of war.

The world is driven by opposite forces: (a) one that hungers for the dissolution of diversity and differences in order to produce a more uniform society; we call this left-wing or liberalism, and (b) one that hungers for the greater disparity between opposites, resulting in war; even in peacetime, it favors violent actions, physical sports, and traditional gender roles; we call this the right-wing or conservative view. The fact is that society can never become happy either by dissolving the differences or increasing the disparities. A peaceful society can only be created through a proper moderation of these extremes.

Creating a Balance in Nature

In Vedic philosophy, nature is comprised of opposite qualities, which are called rajo-guna and tamo-guna. However, Vedic philosophy is also unique in that it describes the material world as the clash of oppositions and yet prescribes how these oppositions have to be balanced. As the balance between the opposites is improved, the opposites themselves can become more extreme without jeopardizing the social system.

Thus, as a system learns to balance its internal contradictions, it is possible to increase the spread of the contradictions. This is achieved by flattening the Bell Curve where greater extremes can exist in a society because the society has a stronger balance. Conversely, if the balance between opposites is destroyed, then the society can only be maintained by limiting the extremes; this constitutes the steepening of the Bell Curve where society is made more uniform in order to reduce conflicts.

The rise and fall of the Bell Curve is therefore triggered by the decrease or increase of balance between the opposites. If the balance goes down, society will tend towards lesser diversity and greater uniformity. If the balance is very strong, then society will tend towards greater diversity and lesser uniformity. Some traditional societies, such as in India, have had a strong sense of balance due to which they are able to tolerate a very high degree of diversity. Many other societies in modern times don’t have a sense of balance, and they can only sustain themselves by reducing the diversity in them.

What is Unity? How Do We Create It?

Unity is the first mode of nature called sattva-guna, which is neither of the opposites. It precedes the creation of rajo-guna and tamo-guna, and the latter two are created from within sattva-guna. In other words, sattva-guna is the synthesis that precedes the creation and the dissolution of the contradictions. Like 0 can be divided into +1 and -1, similarly, sattva-guna is the origin for the oppositions. These oppositions can therefore be reconciled if we see how opposites are created from unity.

Vedic texts describe a state called śuddha-sattva which is prior to the creation of the contradictions. In this state, rajo-guna and tamo-guna don’t exist, and the world is not comprised of parts. For example, under sattva-guna we can understand the meaning of “flower” without seeing its parts such as petals, sepals, stamens, etc. To understand “flower” as the composition of the parts requires rajo-guna and tamo-guna. A materialist would claim that a flower is nothing other than petals, sepals, and stamens, and it must be reduced to parts. An idealist would say that a “flower” exists as an idea even when no instances of a flower exist, and even when we haven’t defined a flower as a composition of parts. The opposite positions of materialism and idealism are reconciled through the three modes of nature in which sattva-guna is the singular form, and rajo-guna and tamo-guna create opposite parts within it. While the state of śuddha-sattva is spiritually interesting, as long as the material world exists, we have to see the world as comprised of parts and rajo-guna and tamo-guna will exist in nature.

Their mutual opposition, however, need not create a problem if we recognize that the opposites are actually parts of a whole and that whole reconciles the oppositions. Thus, for instance, my body has a front side and a backside, but these opposites are not fighting each other. Rather, they define the limits or boundaries of my body parts. When the front and back sides are seen as parts of the whole body, there is no contradiction. A contradiction arises when they are viewed independently. In that respect, the problem of opposites is dissolved when we put the oppositions as part of a whole. The world doesn’t need to be uniform, but it needs to be unified. This unification stems from the idea of unity, which in turn arises from the recognition that parts of society are not independent but necessarily opposed in order to perform complementary functions.

The Domination of Different Modes

When we understand that the whole precedes the parts, then rajo-guna and tamo-guna are subordinated to sattva-guna, and unity is created. It doesn’t mean that raja-guna and tamo-guna are absent. It only means that they are both present and yet their opposition can be dissolved by viewing them as serving complementary functions within a whole. If one of these functions exceeds the other, the whole would not function appropriately. Therefore the oppositions are necessary, and yet they cannot be allowed to increase or decrease independently. They have to be rather subordinated as part of a whole which harmonizes them to create a stable system.

In present times, however, sattva-guna is not dominating. Therefore, rajo-guna and tamo-guna are contradicting—i.e. as one of them dominates. These modes are by their very nature mutually opposed and unless they are reconciled, they only create strife and struggle due to contradictions. This struggle is exactly what Hegel, Marx, and Engels envisioned the world to be. But Vedic philosophy goes beyond this struggle and sees stability not in the dissolution of oppositions, but in their reconciliation. This means that there can be socialism and capitalism, left-wing and right-wing, democracy and authoritarianism. Each idea—as long it is related to a higher idea (e.g. a moral purpose)—can be reconciled by the domination of the higher idea.

The Quantitative Use of Balance

Quite different from the idea of “unity”—which represents a “higher idea”—is the idea of a “balance” that plays at the same level as the oppositions but matches them equally. The difference is analogous to that between cardinal and ordinal zeros and to how opposite waves in a musical instrument produce a Standing Wave called a note.

A musical note is an abstract concept, if we describe it in musical theory. But sometimes, we have to play the note, rather than merely think of it as a concept. When we play the note, an instance of the concept comprised of sattva-guna acquires two opposite parts comprised of rajo-guna and tamo-guna. These two opposite parts then combine to create a standing wave pattern, which then becomes the perceived reality. Thus, nature begins as a concept (sattva-guna or unity), divides into opposites (rajo-guna and tamo-guna), which are then combined into a new object that balances the opposites to create a perceivable sense-object.

The world is comprised of opposites, and yet the world is also stable, such that we can see the trees swaying, the rivers flowing, the flowers blooming, and the children playing. If the opposites weren’t balanced, we would only see chaos and disorder. The world around us appears stable not because it is devoid of contradictions, but because these contradictions have been balanced and unified. The unity is a deeper idea, purpose, or moral served by the opposition. The balance is a superficial phenomenon of quantitative equilibrium between opposites.

Unlike Western philosophy in which there is one idea—i.e. logos—in Vedic philosophy, there is a logos (sattva-guna) but also a contradiction (rajo-guna and tamo-guna) and a balance created through a quantitative equilibrium. All natural systems can be stabilized by seeking both unity and balance—i.e. a higher purpose and a quantitative equilibrium.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "Dialectical Materialism and Sāńkhya," in Shabda Journal, March 14, 2017, https://journal.shabda.co/2017/03/14/dialectical-materialism-and-sankhya/.