Extending the Dialectics of Secularization Eastward: Scriptural Hermeneutics and Discursive Insights from Hindu, Buddhist, Confucian, and Taoist Philosophy of Language

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015
Jonathan BowmanCosmoipolitan JusticeStudies in Global Justice1510.1007/978-3-319-12709-5_2

2. Extending the Dialectics of Secularization Eastward: Scriptural Hermeneutics and Discursive Insights from Hindu, Buddhist, Confucian, and Taoist Philosophy of Language

Jonathan Bowman 

St. Charles College, St. Peters, MO, USA



Jonathan Bowman


In light of Habermas’s recent development of a socio-evolutionary account of the emergence of ritual introduced by the Axial Period, I focus most directly on the communicative ethic of achieving mutual understanding with a second person. I explore potential Eastern Axial contributions to this process providing a microanalysis of the interaction of discursive subjects in four traditions: for Hinduism, epistemic authority; Buddhism, right speech; Confucianism, the rectification of names; Taoism, truth disclosure. For the Hindu dynamic, I will examine the stages in dialectics of the second-personal reversal of social roles found in its axial period scriptures as they detail differentiation of sites of authority. Firstly, the Vedanta scriptures introduce the axial shift from ritual to cognitive transcendence via the rationalization of sacrificial rites. Secondly, the role of the renouncer transcends the worldly orientation of the caste hierarchy. Next, the appeal to Buddhist linguistic proprieties argues that true linguistic claims reflexively point to the moral and ontological status of the speaker more so than merely make factual claims about the world. The Confucian section provides a comparative analysis of its use of normative semantics to that employed by Habermas. Lastly, the Taoist portion of the argument highlights the holistic incompleteness of attempts at final closure upon the procedures and institutional contexts in which communicative action takes place. I conclude with reflections concerning the breadth that the Eastern traditions contribute in their relative comfort with experimental cross-Axial hybrids as compared to Western exclusivist norms of toleration.

Axial ageCommunicative actionEpistemic authorityJurgen HabermasKarl JaspersMandate of HeavenPragmatic presuppositionsReciprocal role-takingRectification of namesRight speechSecond personTranscensusTruth disclosure

2.1 Introduction

Jurgen Habermas ’s pronouncement that we have entered a postsecular age runs a grave risk of philosophical distortion of its basic motivations (Habermas 2008b). Habermas outright rejects the potential misunderstanding of a postsecular age as bringing about a miraculous resurgence of spiritual commitments in the most secularized of European and Western states. He maintains in his Dialectics of Secularization that neither the modern state in its original form nor the many emergent transnational political regimes require faith-induced sources of moral solidarity. However, his ultimate rejection of any thick pre-political moral basis as the grounds for legitimacy does not thereby preclude foreclosure of the rational legitimacy of opting for or against faith in making contributions to public debate.

On the one hand, the achievements of modernity have rapidly spread species-wide through globalization (Eisenstadt 2003b, pp. 937–52). The global spread of state neutrality to religion necessarily entails the steady de-confessionalization of the nation-state. On the other hand, this secular achievement of neutrality becomes the very condition for the possibility of spiritual contributions to public debate. The growing recognition of the potential moral contributions of the great axial traditions to social solidarity also opens innovative epistemic, moral, and ethical inputs to shared problematic circumstances. The enigma in understanding the full import of Habermas’s position rests upon the simultaneous opening of ethical and epistemic options for or against faith as equally rationally justifiable positions.

The ensuing problem with deriving a truly polycentric, multi-vocal, and inter-Axial politics of communicative action that begins with his Western-oriented and—nonetheless avowedly transcendentally ideal—theory is twofold (Habermas and Ratzinger 2006). Primarily, when dealing with non-Western traditions, we may be at risk of building into the pragmatic presuppositions of the discourse theory the sorts of Western outcomes we want them to produce. In order to alleviate some of the inevitable parochial biases of readers trained in critical theory and contemporary Western political theory, I will begin in critical theorist fashion with reconstructing the pragmatic presupposition of communicative action internal to the non-Western Axial traditions. The hope would also be to prevent reading the Abrahamic traditions into what ideally would constitute an impartial mode of analysis.

Secondly, while the program of cosmoipolitan justice may disclose innovative species-ethical justifications that contribute to the legitimacy of non-Western social orders, when moving from genealogy to transcendental implementation, they may fail pragmatic tests for rational universality originally cherished as a primary epistemic virtue. If misconstruing the cognitive motivations of those described as taking up these practices, we are left with a series of gaps between our expert transcendental theorizing and the more locally inscribed social imaginaries. In its worse forms, this could constitute yet another continuation of a hegemonic Westernization of not really taking up these alternative civilizational discourses on their own terms. Imposed transcendental justifications from the outside would lend further credence to the warranted bias that objectively impartial theorizing becomes another mode of surreptitious neo-colonialization. The dubious portrayal of law and universal morality as neutral will ultimately fail tests of legitimacy if not subjecting expert discourses to the rational assent or rejection of those most immediately affected by both our descriptive facts and prescriptive norms (Asad 1993).

On behalf of Habermas’s increasing openness to imbue the universal with more localized ethical and cultural content, practical indeterminacy in the face of novel global problems can itself be turned into an epistemic virtue as a wellspring of species creativity. For instance, normative learning and ongoing reflexive redaction can be reconciled with compelling contemporary research into neonate and infant capacities for second person participation. An enriched contemporary understanding of our unique capacities to participate in another person’s stance toward problematic circumstances can thereby heighten our sensitivity to providing more accurate rational reconstructions of how these universal capacities have been and continue to manifest themselves in non-Western communicative practices. In particular, the neonate practical capacity for joint attention precedes the later emergence of capacities for linguistic and propositional understanding (Pinsent 2012, p. 56). We will search for non-Western iterations of these practical capacities behind healthy cognitive flourishing and moral maturation as a means to encourage prolonged second-personal experimentation with both disclosing and resolving newly emergent species-wide problematic circumstances. In most general terms, the micro-level discourse analysis feeding into the project of cosmoipolitan justice presupposes neonate counterfactual experimentation with multiple realities as the very precondition for healthy individual and species moral maturation (Gopnik 2009, pp. 19–46, 86–91; Buber 1970/1923, pp. 75–79; Bellah 2011, pp. 1–11, 91–97). The collective learning process of ascribing shared propositional understandings for problems itself must always already include a reflective component when facing novel problems that yet require vocabularies for fully capturing their common species ramifications. I argue that such a dispositional comportment necessary for successful joint attention requires constant re-socialization as cognitive, moral, and affective buffers to our increasingly intense pressures to engage only in instrumental comportments to a shared social world. Without second person reflexive testing, we risk lapsing into either instrumental or objectivigating orientations of civilizing persons into linguistic practices that may do more cosmic, psychological, moral, and cognitive harm than good (Donald 2012; Bellah 2011).

The associated linguistic and communicative remedies I propose would be to render as a normative project Eisenstadt’s empirical descriptions of both the tradition-preserving and revolutionary components common to the salvation impulse of all the axial traditions (Eisenstadt 2006). The initially unsuccessful Axial Age social movements projected disparate hopes for alternate civilizational orders. As the concomitant traditions have still survived, I will recast them more optimistically as the major drivers in realizing cosmoipolitan justice as an ongoing species vision of communicative experimentation with multiple potential realities subject to constant redaction. While the revolutionary movements were originally localized and elite-driven, the pragmatic presuppositions behind all the axial social imaginaries presumed potential communicability to a universally encompassing audience. Any person could be taken as at least a potential participant in communication, not just in reference to common objects of joint attention, but also in presuming the shared capacity to reshape a world of common reference as always already socially constituted. These revisionist emendations will draw upon Habermas’s theory of communicative action as the best available template for this experimental syncretism of comparative analysis.

Learning by redaction through social protest and through creative extensions of millennia of tradition will also be transposed upon the initial species-wide rite of passage that Jaspers associates with the advent of the Axial Age . Instead of Habermas’s original TCA-informed Weberian abstraction to a linguistification of the sacred that slowly progresses toward the methodogical atheism of a more fully mature modernity, upon reconstructing the basic pragmatic presuppositions of the axial period, we will actually find the richer genealogy (to follow in the next two chapters) to comprise opposite trends away from convergence. Again, allowing for some degree of necessary abstraction, we will instead presume (along with Eisenstadt, Taylor, and Casanova) the pre- and post-Axial linguistic/theoretical social imaginary as always already mimetic, inherently ritualistic, and politically constituted, via institutionalized transmissions of tradition and social protest in their performative address as second-personal.

We must therefore concur with Voegelin (and Bellah 2011), that while from hindsight we may execute rational reconstructions that delineate stages of enhanced reflexivity , ‘nothing is ever lost’ as the ritual stages of tradition can just as easily become cognitively imbued with new rational content when transmitting their originally embodied habitus. As communicatively transmitted, they may also become reflectively redacted via protest to give voice to the novel problems of the present. Pre and post-axial remnants of ritual socialization are thereby indelibly bent toward enduring degrees of prolonged reflexivity upon transcendence-immanence tensions from the outset. In the final analysis, I will construe each axial breakthrough as proposing a particular species-ethic fully embedded within the historicity of its mimetic and mythic ciphers . On this side of the particular, the performative attitude of a second-personal social imaginary must allow the first-person articulation of either transmitting prior socialized content or initiating axial protest—pairing both together as shared movements that belie too subjective of a construal of historical change. Here, while trading off the Axial Age simultaneity of distinct cultural transformations for his conventional stance of methodological atheism, we need not reinvent all aspects of Habermas’s communicative ethic. Since we must allow for an adequate contextualization for our first-person articulations of responsible subjectivity, we can still follow the general spirit of Habermas’s twofold linguistic turn laid out in TCA. First, we can provide even more detailed and tradition-specific rational reconstructions of the Durkeimian organic genesis of solidarity from the residues of the religious imaginaries. Secondly, we can also commit ourselves to adopting Mead’s pragmatic maxim that ‘individuation proceeds through processes of socialization’ by applying neonate and adult linguistic capacities to the learning mechanisms required to reach mutual understanding. However, under the wider axial rubric of cosmoipolitan justice and the entailed project of presuming multiple modernities, we need not presume a single monolithic or hegemonic narrative of species maturation and must at least proffer the notion of never achieving convergence of background justifications and/or legal juridification when faced with the prospect of multiple world histories.

In recasting the communicative impetus of Habermas, we also must readdress the most likely critical query to arise. In proposing such an experimental overhaul of the critical theorist affinity for a methodologically atheist theory of communicative action , why revisit the positions of Jaspers? Why resuscitate his existential leanings from philosophical and social scientific obscurity—indeed if not ever as an all out replacement—but as among the foremost to consider as a viable emendation to social science traditions stemming from Weber?1

In response, since our capacities for second personal comportment are potentially unlimited, Jaspers had the keen insight to argue that a truly universal project of species communication must be presumed to have always already been intra-axial and inter-axial. In ascribing the present perfect sense to its theoretical warrant in On the Origin and Goal of History, his multi-vocal and decentered social imaginary presumes having always already started as an experimentally pragmatic project owing ultimate origin to the simultaneous emergence of an elite-driven republic of republics of letters from multiple civilizational sites. However, now, via globalization , the initially elite-driven process of inter-axial borrowing has truly become a live option for the wider public in both William James’ and Taylor’s senses. The practical efficacy of an alternative vision of social order rests upon breaching the elite horizon. Reaching the common understanding of realizing innate capacities for unlimited communication can only come about through the critical theorist hope for an educated and properly socialized global public. In reply to the ‘why Jaspers?’ question, we can also trace a clear line of development of insights taken to be found in Jaspers originally—inspired by his own explicitly anti-imperial rejection of an institutionally imposed Eurocentric global order to correct the myopic excesses of the original Eurocentric world histories found in both Hegel and Weber. As contemporary confirmation of the nascent global philosophy originally prognosticated by Jaspers, we can now appeal to the non-Eurocentric works of Eisenstadt, Bellah, Talal Asad , Onuma Yasuaki , Sen, and others to continue the realization of his social imaginary as a project that he also correctly predicted would create healthy empirical and normative dissonance in its development rather than ideological uniformity.

As Taylor has shown in the meandering narrative that comprises A Secular Age, even the European movements of social transformation characteristic of Latin Christendom had roots in alternate modernities that were always already imbued with thickly divergent cultural contents (see also my Chaps. 3, 4, and 5 for a longer development of this theme). However, instead of the adapting a neo-Weberian (and lopsidedly Protestant) subtraction narrative of cultural content as already ideological—that is, if owing its genealogy to Latin Christendom—the second-personal orientation of both furthering tradition and stirring on protest instead presumes persuasive attempts at rational justification as legitimate grounds for communicative action . Taylor interprets these movements of protest as second person appeals to a species-wide capacity for the rational warrant behind inter-axial epistemic claims:

The background understanding which makes this act possible for us is complex, but part of what makes sense of it is some picture of ourselves as speaking to others, to which we are related in a certain way—say, compatriots, or the human race. There is a speech act here, addresser and addressees, and some understanding of how they can stand in this relation to each other. There are public spaces; we are already in some kind of conversation with each other. Like all speech acts, it is addressed to a previously spoken word, in the prospect of a to-be-spoken word. The mode of address says something about the footing we stand on with our addressees. The action is forceful; it is meant to impress, perhaps even threaten certain consequences if our message is not heard. But it is also meant to persuade; it remains this side of violence. It figures the addressee as one who can be, must be reasoned with. (2007, p. 174)

Regarded in light of continuing the initial calls for radical social transformation initiated by the collective rites of simultaneous protest that came with the Axial Age , cosmoipolitan justice as an institutional program for practical realization therefore need not draw its hope from capacities outside the scope of healthy species functioning. Insofar as they are always already latent to healthy individuation via processes of socialization, we instead need to reconstitute new public spaces that redefine the political in a manner that better conforms to our most enduring cognitive, affective, and moral capacities.

In light of a more comprehensive review of the micro-level philosophy of language that informs Habermas’s discourse theory, I will first briefly reconstruct how his defense of communicative action depends upon his rejections of strategic-instrumental and objectively-theoretical reason. Then, following his call for a multi-faceted purification in the West whereby secular and religious commitments are subjected to mutual critique, in the remainder of this chapter, I explore potential epistemic contributions of Eastern axial traditions to moving beyond myth to the more reflective employment of logos, particularly via Habermas’s growing interest in providing a discourse-theoretic account of the emergence of ritual at the onset of Jaspers’ Axial Age .

In initially focusing my attention upon the Eastern contributions to this process, I will provide a micro-analysis of the interaction of discursive subjects in four traditions: for Hinduism , epistemic authority (as presuming capacities for joint attention) when applied to social role differentiation; for Buddhism , right speech ; for Confucianism , the rectification of names; Taoism , truth disclosure . At the more macro-level of entire civilizational orders, I will also show how each overcomes various cultural manifestations of political crises by encouraging diverse forms of contestation, protest, and periphery to center critiques of the social distribution of coercive administrative power and material wealth.

2.2 Habermas on Recasting the Second-Person Grammar of Communication

Although Habermas’s theory of communicative action has undergone numerous amendments, revisions, and multi-disciplinary supplements over his prolific career, in these brief remarks I will restrict my focus in the first two sections to the enduring constant to his view: the paramount importance of achieving mutual understanding with a second person . Then, in the last part of this section will I take on his most recent engagement with evolutionary theory and the great Axial traditions in so far as these new developments bear the most direct significance to his critical theorist ongoing commitment to bringing historical materialist modes of assessment to bear upon the institutional challenges of the present.

2.2.1 Pragmatic Presuppositions of Mutual Understanding

While perhaps his most pioneering work bears the somewhat misleading title “Theoryof Communicative Action, he finds that by observing normal everyday communication, we can reconstruct a weakly transcendental argument for the pragmatic presuppositions behind the successful achievement of mutual understanding. As it will bear on my analysis of the great axial traditions, if second person achievements of mutual understanding are truly species universal, we ought to find them emerge in all the world religions, specifically not in just Western culture nor by beginning a biased reconstruction with the Greeks, with European enlightenment, or the preferred stance of methodological atheism, for that matter.

In his potentially cross-cultural, pragmatic, and idealized reconstructions, Habermas employs the grammatically-driven, linguistically universal orientation toward achieving mutual understanding that requires that persons address one another in the performative attitude of a ‘you.’ In turn, in order to serve as a legitimate norm of concerted action, the party/parties addressed as a second person in communication must hold the capacity for either (a) accepting or (b) rejecting the proposed norm-generating behavior. For Habermas, the very thin neo-Kantian assumption of never involving another in a scheme of action to which they could not in principle consent thereby serves as the self-reinforcing basis for the legitimacy of moral-practical norms of collective action. In other words, he resists the necessity of any thicker basis of shared solidarity that would necessitate a commitment to natural law, theological underpinnings, or richly shared cultural resources as the motive for acting on behalf of one another.

To contrast with communicative action , Habermas proposes strategic action as a strictly first-person attempt to achieve an instrumental aim. In simplest terms, this type of linguistic claims fails to prove communicative, since its means-end orientation focuses almost exclusively on strategic success of the end under pursuit regardless of the acceptance or rejection of those affected by the proposed action. In accord with his characteristically neo-Kantian commitments, even if it were descriptively true that we can daily take notice of multiple instances in which we or others have successfully involved ourselves or others in schemes of action that did not receive the rational consent of those affected, we nonetheless ought normatively to regard these as morally illegitimate practices of communicative intercourse.

As an additional contrast with communicative action, he presents objective-theoretical reason as the concerted effort to employ third-person observer descriptions of a state of affairs upon others, irrespective of explicit consultation whether they could endorse such descriptions about them. In other words, while he finds the empirical work of objective scientific research indispensable to technological progress and necessary for any data-driven theoretical enterprise, the reduction of communicative action to the third-person perspective fails. The long litany of multi-disciplinary examples he subjects to such critique include his rejections of neuronal-scientific observations of brain functioning, the grand historical evolutionary narrative of a purely biological rendition of the species, or even dubious appeals to the social-scientific expert authority of the objective social engineer. For Habermas, each of these examples will ultimately fail on two fronts. On the one hand, communicative action presupposes among each actor the cognitive, social, and moral capacity simultaneously to switch between observer and participant roles in the same communicative interaction. What the objective-theoretical perspective overlooks is our capacity to play participant role, and thus take ‘yes’ and ‘no’ stances upon the observed claims that social and empirical sciences make concerning the intentional states of the observed. On the other hand, he finds the observer-theoretic perspective to belie a basic pragmatic assumption of free consent that we must presuppose in attributing responsible moral action to the observed behaviors of others.

As a neo-Kantian supplement to his rejection of first-person and third-person accounts of communicative action, he presents the performative attitude as weakly transcendental. Although it can be extended to an unlimited potential communicative community, since the idealization represents a species-wide capacity for healthy psychological and moral socialization, (he claims) it does not surreptitiously impute Western biases upon non-Western cultural contexts. Habermas regards the second person performative attitude as a presupposition behind many common culturally-universal daily behaviors, including but not limited to, getting and clarifying directions to an uncertain destination, establishing the normative framework upon which a new relationship will be guided, as an analogy for the efficient learning mechanism of any collectively coordinated problem-solving scheme that requires the competence of more than one agent for its successful employment, and as a presumptive capacity held by both speakers and hearers in social movements of protest that seek to derive their basis for rational legitimacy from the force of the better argument.

2.2.2 Three Media of Social Integration: Macro-level Discourse

Corresponding to the micro first-person instrumental, second-person performative, and third-person objective grammar of reasoning are three media for the macro wide-scale coordination of social action: the economic market (first-person), social solidarity (second-person), and bureaucratic power (third-person), respectively. In the first-person instrumental sense of reason, (whether local, state, or global) market satisfaction presupposes strategic self-interest of a particular individual or corporate entity as the prime motivational factor. In contrast, the second-person sense of communicative action oriented toward mutual understanding, presupposes a motivational source of affective trust as the socially learned empathetic capacity for role-reversal characteristic of rational reflexivity . The un-coerced extension of empathetic trust will thus be required and presumed in order to act on behalf of the common good of one’s fellow citizen or fellow member of the literate global public. Lastly, in the third-person mode of bureaucratic power, the impersonal logic of coercion via power-oriented social steering mechanisms function according to the motivating factor of efficient management of coordinated behavior across mass levels of complexity, scope, and scale of jurisdiction.

While he concedes that markets and bureaucracy are indispensable dimensions of any modern complex society, if social solidarity does not or could not confer consent upon the spheres of interaction in which market and bureaucratic functions are then steered by law-generating norms of communicative action, then the state and market incursion into the social realm has lost its legitimating normative force. In his consistently pragmatic approach, the only solution to such a crisis in legitimation would be to regain the communicative steering of the other realms either through (a) passing them through the filters of procedurally legitimate channels or (b) as a last resort, to initiate wide-scale movements of social protest until the procedures themselves have undergone the requisite degrees of legitimate transformation.

2.2.3 Evolutionary Origins: Axial Ritual, Civilizational Critique, and the Second Person

As cautioned briefly in the first chapter, we must avoid being initially misled down the path of third person naturalistic reductionism. Habermas’s most recent appeal to an evolutionary account of ritual offers an historical, empirical, and anthropological attempt to trace out the biological origins of communicative action . However, Habermas has repeatedly resisted reductionist functional accounts as capable of delivering on their promise to give an exhaustive reconstruction of cognitive functioning.2 In terms of the grammar of communicative action mentioned in the earlier section: we are caught in a performative contradiction if we believe we can give a fully adequate third-person account of the second-person attribution of moral responsibility to another agent in communicative discourse. The contradiction resides in claiming to those being described that this objective account applies to you, while foreclosing the prospect that they—particularly when dealing with behaviors of a moral motivation—can, from a first person stance, accept or reject the account as legitimate provided by the third person observations of the expert theoretician.

Likewise, by appeal to historical, archeological, and empirical data concerning the evolutionary process as its bears on the initial formation of ritual, Habermas does not think a third person description of facts will capture the unique linguistic, moral, and social achievements of the species-wide practices of individuation via process of socialization that constitute the correct performance of these behaviors. While offering a precise historical date of their evolutionary development goes far beyond his motives (and beyond what he believes can be inferred from the incomplete relevant archeological and historical data), he follows Jaspers in arguing that the species-wide rite of initiation into these historical modes of socialization has found their fullest expression in the Axial Period (800–200 BCE) that had birthed the great world religions (Habermas 2003, p. 40).3

What can we now make of these cursory programmatic themes for how they bear on his current interest in the non-Western traditions that had emerged in the Axial Period? For starters, one might find such a turn in his scholarly interests to the great Axial traditions surprising for a critical theorist of a Marxist heritage, deeply committed to eradicating material injustice as the means to widening the overall scope of human emancipation from ideology in every possible form. In addition, contributing to the counter-intuitive thrust of this new research program, from his growing collection of writings on processes of secularization in contemporary societies, we do know that although second-personal forms of socialization may have had their emergence in the rituals of the great axial traditions, the onset of a postsecular age does not mean he thinks the modern state requires any pre-political moral (and/or religious) foundation for its legitimacy. However, since his large book on these themes still remains under construction, for some further clarification of his other impending motives and themes for a large-scale book specifically addressing these themes, we might be better briefly to return again to one of his earlier writings in Communication and the Evolution of Society (1976) that can begin to pull together otherwise disparate trends within his wider corpus of writings.

Let us start with an opening necessary presupposition of a materialist motivation: for Habermas, the moral equality conferred to individuals via social rites must tie directly to the resource equality of institutionalized modes of production and the free rational endorsement of increasingly differentiation forms of labor. In other words, as a consistent Kantian, gains incurred via the new socialization statuses brought about by the unique Axial evolutionary stage, lose their transcendental legitimacy if bought at the price of a decrease in moral and resource equality. Perhaps best expressed in Habermas’s own words, his earliest attempts to resuscitate historical materialist modes of critical social analysis must not be cast as the hapless and/or arbitrary processes guided by autopoetic structures immune from cognitive steering:

If we are not free then to reject or to accept the validity claims bound up with the cognitive potential of the human species, it is senseless to want to “decide” for or against reason, for or against the expansion of the potential of reasoned action. For these reasons I do not regard the choice of the historical-materialist criterion of progress as arbitrary. The development of productive forces, in conjunction with the maturity of the forms of social integration, means progress in learning ability in both dimensions: progress in objectivating knowledge and in moral-practical insight. (Habermas 1979, p. 177; Bellah 2011, p. 573–574)

In other words, if we are going to deem it moral and technological progress—that is, to call the move from kinship networks of social organization to state-mediated forms constituted by law—then must be able to take a ‘yes’/‘no’ position that gives its free assent on a normative basis beyond mere naturalistic descriptions of enhanced group/species survival. We must also move beyond mere meta-narratives of the history of the moral progress of collective spirit that likewise risks silencing individual autonomy. In these respects, he retains the commitment to the revolutionary potential born in the materialist analysis. True moral egalitarianism would only be deemed normatively legitimate through the collective ownership and redistribution of goods in line with the cognitive steering of resource egalitarianism. In characteristic critical theorist form, he regards this too as a learned collective phenomenon. As a clarification of the critical thrust of Marx’s species-ethic that lacked a concrete institutional program, moral learning must ideally transcend even the particularities of the state legal apparatus. Habermas’s turn from morally universal cosmopolitanism to politically democratic cosmopolitanism confers legitimacy upon its transcendental aims via boundless networks of social communication that transcend national borders, cultures, and languages as an all-encompassing project of a democratized species ethic.

In assessment, I am in agreement with Hans Joas that more contemporary attempts to rejuvenate materialist theory in light of a reconstruction along the Axial thesis requires much further development, particularly in seeking out alternatives to the legal-juridical excesses of a political cosmopolitanism. I also agree with Joas that Habermas, until quite recently, had predominately seemed to endorse the historicized ‘stadial consciousness ’ (as critiqued in Chap. 1 by Casanova) that the inherent rationality of the secularization process pointed to the eventual supersession of religion in the realization of cosmopolitan democracy (Joas 2012) . However, more in line with Habermas’s more recent attempts to depart from the secularization narrative of progress, we will find the species-ethical universalistic norms of each Axial tradition fit within the pragmatic experiential criteria of his increasing openness to developing an inter-Axial narrative while nonetheless retaining post-metaphysical commitments. Habermas has even gone as far as arguing that a democratic cosmopolitanism, with global constitutional procedures to regulate widening global disparities in capital, may offer the best available means to preserve rather than supersede multiple modernities (Habermas 2008a, pp. 351–352).

Habermas provides us with three generalizable principles to guide our assessment of the true universality of his species-ethic assumptions (2003, pp. 16–74). Although initially developed in The Future of Human Nature, I would like to apply them politically to his conclusions drawn in his later Dialectics of Secularization (2006). As a final step, I will subject them to a universalizability test as they potentially bear on four non-Western axial traditions.


The modern secularized state, while perhaps owing the genealogical origins of its socialization practices to one or more of the great Axial traditions, does not require any pre-political moral foundations for its legitimacy (Habermas 2006, pp. 21–23, 27–34).



The most promising philosophical justifications for the transfer of legitimacy from kinship to state-mediated, regional, and cosmopolitan networks of solidarity would be through historical materialist criteria for moral and cognitive progress in forms of complementary learning processes (Habermas 2006, pp. 35–39, 43–47).



In assuming the social-evolutionary account of the achievements of the Axial period, we must draw upon the internal reflection required to insulate the nexus of social-solidarity mechanisms from the over-incursion of first-person market and third-person political power logics (Habermas 2006, pp. 35–37, 45–46).


In what follows in the rest of the chapter, if the ensuing four non-Western axial traditions indeed provide alternate renditions of s species-ethic that meets the guiding principles above, we can say that Habermas has offered us with three norms that we can take as foundational to not just Westernized forms of modernity, but to the growing social scientific interest in exploring the prospect of multiple modernities as a better description of a multi-polar globalized world. However, if there are failures on the three rubrics of assessment, we will (i) need to challenge Habermas’s conclusions as overtly Western and/or historical materialist, (ii) look for ways to amend all Axial traditions in ways that count for legitimate innovation on Habermas’s criteria of learned progress, or (iii) perhaps conclude that there are yet no species-universal moral and social criteria for legitimacy sufficient to encompass the global proliferation of multiple modernities.

As a foretaste of the direction my own assessments of the principles, much of the success or failure of both descriptive and prescriptive conclusions will rest on the state-centric features of (*2) as articulated above. Although we will find that each of the Axial traditions offer distinct normative bases for transferring conferred legitimacy outside the nuclear family nexus, we need not jump to the state-mediated, regional, and cosmopolitan juridical conferrals of justification too hastily. In this manner, I will seek to advance an admittedly non-conventional view of the polity as an institutional form that in its various axial forms may belie distinct features often ascribed to states, such as (but not limited to): territoriality, clear delineations of center to periphery distributions of coercive power, a shared language and/or culture, some primordial tie to a particular people or region, and legal-juridical institutions designed to confer clear lines of inclusion and/or exclusion within a particular polity. While it is not my motivation to undermine the achievements of democratic constitutionalism as an important site of the requisite state-neutrality that seems indispensible to modernity in its myriad forms, I would also like to challenge the hasty assumption of tying the political to an overtly Western (and thereby colonial) narrative, especially when dealing with these Eastern traditions. For the most part, while we do witness a shift in legitimacy from familial to Axial communities with their varied salvational impulses, insofar as they each contain the nascent kernels of species-universality, we will find these generally to resist territorial and institutional confines. Since they each evince novel means for translation of elite discourses ensconced in dead languages to more expansive translations into common vernacular, they overcome barriers that tie one axial narrative to a particular language and culture. As an additional means of transfer of axial universality to more dispersed renditions of modernity, each also suggest hints of periphery to core tensions when imperial powers at the center of a given axial movement seek to usurp exclusive juridical control over doctrine, ritual, and/or conferral of legitimate membership.

2.3 Reciprocal Role-Taking, Right Speech, Name Rectification, and Truth Disclosure: Revolutionary Axial Breakthroughs from Four Eastern Philosophies

The linguistic turn in Western philosophy has led to three major influences on the critical theory tradition that contribute to its overall materialist and moral goal of species-wide human emancipation. The first, macro-level trend, appeals to the explicitly democratic construction of regional, transnational, and cosmopolitan political institutions in light of the widening scope of the flows of communication of modern subjects that transcend the sovereign state, local markets, and nationally oriented popular media. The second—the analysis of the micro-level communicative interaction among discursive subjects—has typically fallen under the domain of discourse ethics, with much focus on pragmatically reconstructing and morally ensuring presuppositions of legitimate communicative action . The third, most recent effort has thus far received the least comprehensive development, initiated by Habermas’s attempts to deploy both the macro and micro dimensions of discourse theory via his reconstruction of the linguistic dimensions of Axial ritual.

My provisional attempt at laying out the discourse theoretic program of cosmoipolitan justice, while true to varying degrees to all three movements internal to critical theory , admittedly bears no theoretical precedent. My effort to embed the micro-discursive components of the Eastern traditions (and then, in Chap. 3, the Abrahamic ones) within his more transcendental rubric of the second-person perspective will thus flesh out the context and implications of an Axial ritualization of practices of joint attention among discursive subjects oriented to mutual understanding. While, on his view, the third approach—Axial ritual—assumes an evolutionary narrative, we will also embed it within a historical materialist framework of socialization. This material line of development ultimately confers legitimacy upon traditions as moral progress only when introducing reflexively learned innovations beyond prior modes of decadent, imperialistic, and war-torn modes of civilizational organization. Although I treat each distinctly, the abiding constants for comparative focus include the significance of social protest oriented toward extensions of more universal species justice, the unique role of the renouncer-philosopher in each, and the communicative dynamics of recasting Axial insights within their respective scriptural canon. These comparative scriptural hermeneutics are typically imbibed in some variant of formalized or informal scriptural tradition among elites. Competing schools gradually gain mobility in professing salvation impulses more universally—eventually spilling over into the common vernacular for the critique, assessment, and redaction from multiple, often internally heterodox, general publics.

2.3.1 Hinduism: Epistemic Authority, Social Roles, and Vedanta as Axial Breakthrough

While no real consensus has yet emerged on whether to include Hinduism within the great traditions granted Axial status, in what follows, I will argue that on more than one substantive criteria the Hindu traditions suffice. Moreover, opening the pragmatic reconstructions of discursive praxis with Hinduism serves two purposes beyond just proceeding historically or merely deflecting hegemonic Western biases. It effectively introduces the role of the out-worldly renouncer that runs as a subtle constant to all the axial traditions. The renouncer introduces a new type of participant perspective to social roles that effectively bridles the tension between projecting an alternative social order while nonetheless operating efficaciously within the concrete limits of this one. Moreover, I hope to render at least plausible the admittedly peripheral intellectual conjecture—though with its due empirical support—that the Hindu renouncer may via cultural diffusion had contributed significantly to the Greek role of the philosopher. We thereby implicitly challenge the already dubious intellectual construct of an impervious East-West divide running as a constant fissure through the non-Abrahamic and Abrahamic axial traditions. I am therefore in general agreement with H. Kulke in conferring Axial status upon the Hindu traditions, in his “The Historical Background of India ’s Axial Age ”:

It turns out that the development in India had several very general, though significant features in common with the development in Persia, Greece and Israel. Firstly, all these Axial Age civilizations originated from former nomadic or semi-nomadic peoples who has settled down in their new homelands only 500–1000 years before the Axial Age. Secondly, all these newcomers had chosen as their early habitation the neighbourhood or even frontier regions of early Hochkulturen. Thirdly, all these peoples had undergone in a relatively short period a social change from ranked tribal to emerging stratified agro-urban societies. Fourthly, out of this rapid social change in all these societies a group of influential intellectuals arose outside or even in opposition to the established priesthood. Fifthly, during the period of their Axial breakthrough all these civilizations from India in the East to Greece in the West stood in very direct contact with one or several of the imperial states of the Near East….[A]fter Persia took the lead under the Achaemenids, Israel, Greece and India experienced, though to a different extent, the neighbourhood of this largest empire of early history. (Kulke 1986, pp. 390–391)

Even for the reader still skeptical of Kulke’s inclusion of Hindu developments within the axial period, this tradition affirms the claim that ‘nothing ever is lost’ as it includes necessary presumptions that will serve as the basis for detailing the attendant inter-Axial dynamics with Buddhism and the other great traditions ultimately granted axial status.

2.4 Kinship, Hierarchy, and the Legitimation of Social Roles

The initial separation of the social roles of the priest and king offers a unique perspective from which we can assess the legitimation of both spiritual and political authority within a Hindu context (Shulman 1986, pp. 424–25). The ability to inhabit distinct social roles and still to engage in joint attention across statuses presumes the capacity for reciprocal role taking. The pragmatist tradition has historically associated this capacity with developing the empathetic and rational skills for the practical employment of the second-person perspective. Once a society begins differentiation of social roles towards more complex divisions of material and epistemic labor beyond the simplistic norms ties to a kinship model of organization, they attempt to overcome the initial estrangement accompanying the loss of a prior mode of socialization. Kinship bonds initially loosen as they extend openness to new bonds of trust species-wide by constructing a social order grounded upon learned capacities to take up new perspectives and roles. To retain a more abstract moral legitimacy outside the family context, these hypothetical abstractions necessarily require the practical agent to confer political authority on the basis of rational justification and not merely upon a pre-ordained cosmic order:

These theories reflect an increasing sense of alienation where it becomes necessary to enforce harmony, since the pristine natural harmony of society has disappeared. They also reflect the acceptance of the idea of authority based on power and not necessarily on kinship alone. The janapadas were coalescing into territorial states. By the fifth century B.C. competition for power had already developed among the stronger of the major janapadas, such as Kasi, Kosala and Magadha, where even close kinship ties were ignored to further political gains. (Thapar 1975, p. 122)

In accord with one of Kulke’s earlier criteria for granting Hindu traditions that status of axiality, we see this occurring within the wider context of a large shift from ranked tribal kinship orders to the more complex differentiation into agro-urban social roles. Here we also find the nascent origins of the political hierarchy of the caste system that eventually will become one of the major non-territorial cultural features of the emergent Hindu practices that allows its precedent of hierarchy by social roles to spread eastward to other non-Hindu regional contexts. On this front, we satisfy yet another of Kulke’s Axial conditions: the nomadic de-territorial drift of early Hindu patterns of socialization into a new homeland increasingly spreading eastward.

As these new Hindu practices eventually spread, the third-highest caste—that of the warrior administrative king—was eventually super-ceded by the priestly caste. On the one hand, originally, blood sacrifice in battles allowed for a prolonged period of perceived social legitimacy to imperial conquests eastward into less nomadic and more agricultural modes of social organization. However, we find that in the Hindu corpus of scriptures that carried quasi-historical narrative reconstructions of these conquests, the sacrificial nature of militaristic coercion eventually was overtaken by a symbolic rendition of ritual reenactment. As this constitutes yet a third of Kulke’s five criteria for axiality, this early habituation of spiritual leaders into an increasingly literature Hochkultur required the priestly authority to learn more complex cognitive and critical capacities to mediate access to the original Sanskrit scriptures. The steady institutionalization of learning transitioned from an oral mode of transmission and exegesis gradually to the written accumulation of recorded interpretive precedent that began to attribute symbolical meaning to these quasi-historical narratives. The de-territorial appeal to texts as objects of joint attention upon which to construct patterns of social order also offered a new mode of legitimation for authority behind sheer military might and coercive power. The concrete self-sacrifices of clashing warriors on the battlefield were replaced by the higher-order purely ritual reenactment of these same practices as a common locus of culturally conferred and socially legitimated objects of mutual understanding. This new elite-educated literate strata to the social order provided a cosmic disembedding of society through the reinterpretation of their original canon of sacred writings. By imbuing scripture with its mythic-historical rendering, a shared social order was continually redacted until the semi-historical battle sacrifices became purely symbolic through principled reasoning, competing schools of learning, and ritual reenactment by the priestly elite (Prbhupada 1997, pp. 55–59). While the third highest caste of political administrators still retained their pragmatic functions of this-worldly governance, the highest priestly caste that emerged—while not holding any this-worldly power—nonetheless played a co-participant function in the rational legitimation of the ongoing ritualized recreation of the social order.

What happened was that ultimate value and legitimation, as it was realized and activated in the warrior’s sacrifice, was taken out of the mundane sphere. Henceforth ultimate legitimation could only come from the transcendent ritual that took the place of sacrifice. For that reason the whole of dharma had to rest on or even had to be contained in the sruti—a necessary fiction, but a fiction all the same. For the sruti is patently devoid of use or meaning in the world’s affairs and it is so as a matter of principle. Closed upon itself it has no meaning other than the self-contained rationality of its system. (Heesterman 1986, p. 399–400)

Heesterman describes the beginning of a binary split to run from here forward in the Hindu canon of scripture as a necessary condition for the priesthood’s new role in the ongoing ritualistic maintenance of dharma, or better, presumed cosmic balance as an objective social order for focusing our joint attention. What becomes known as the sruti compilation of mythic-historical scriptures carried a new politicized meaning that owed its narrative origin to Voegelin’s ‘cosmion ’: the shared participatory realm of the cosmic gods, society, and individual mediators of competing statuses. These hermeneutic assumptions entail a confessional commitment on the part of the priesthood to the lack of human authorship ascribed to the sruti. The role of the priesthood thereby derived the legitimacy of its expert authority from the second person comportment of a participant role—taken up in ritualistic reproductions of a revelatory reception directly from an initially transcendent source.

The ideal brahmin, like the Veda, stands apart from the world and cultivates the Veda by himself. The world, on the other hand, could not remain unaffected. The brahmin’s standing apart illustrates how the world was impaired by the withdrawl of ultimate value and legitimation. Especially the king and the web of power relations he represents stand in need of the brahmin’s legitimizing services. But it is exactly the king who is singled out as the one whom the brahmin should utterly shun. The situation is the more contradictory for the fact that subsistence and survival would force the Brahmin to turn to the king for his support. (Heesterman, p. 401)

What thereby emerges requires an inherently social conferral of hierarchically differentiated social roles that places all affected in mutual ties of participatory interdependence. Unique to these legitimation structures would be the necessary function that the Brahmin-priest plays in the legitimation of authority. However, in sheer material and economic terms of the concrete conditions for such social legitimation would be the precarious co-dependence of the hierarchically superior Brahmin elite upon the lower-order function of the king-administrator-warrior caste. The equally necessary social role of the king-warrior—as mutual participant and subject in the wider social and cosmic orders—provided the administrative and material conditions for ongoing structural stability of Hindu societies from the bottom up to the top. By providing sacral legitimation of the coercive power kings held over the lower two caste groups, the servants and the laborers, the efficient functioning of social roles presumed shared species capacities for reflection upon the order manifest in the cosmic domain:

Accordingly, the political ruler achieved a high level of sacral or semi-sacral status, distinction and honor. The king was often portrayed as “king of the universe,” his rule extending to the four corners of the earth, his coronation ceremony and its accompanying horse sacrifice renewing his powers annually. The king’s claim to universal sovereignty, as “lord of all lords,” and the manifestation of his greatness through temples and monuments attested to the power and distinctiveness of political authority. The symbolic portrayal as king of the universe also reflected an ever-present desire to extend political domination and constant attempts to aggrandize mundane power, primarily through territorial expansion or, even more so, through the encompassing of loyalty of peoples in the area. Therefore, although the king’s symbolic authority was in principle derived from the overall cultural-religious vision and was symbolized through religious rituals, some degree of authority seems to have been attributed to him independently of religious legitimation. Yet, given the basic orientation of Hindu civilization away from mundane affairs, the political arenas maintained a certain, even if only partial, detachment from the “other-worldly” religious arena. (Eisenstadt 2003a, pp. 333–334)

In the wider world-historical context, we can justifiably extend these reflections in an inter-axial dimension, as an initial support for the plausibility of multiple world histories. To undergird our abiding commitment to multiple modernities, we see here the Hindu response to the historically under-determined role of the Persian Empire that comprised a common periphery to each of the axial settings. In this case, the administrative-warrior function of the Indian king(s) eventually also provided a necessary defensive military buffer against the impending rise of the Persian Empire that had begun at the leadership of the Persian Achaemenids. In addition, the functional differentiation of tasks also freed up the priestly leadership from tainting their ritual purity from too active of engagement in the pollutants of finite, mundane, and worldly affairs. In this respect, we have thus satisfied four of the five functions Kulke attributed to Axial orders, as this fulfills the fourth: the direct context of an Axial order with one or more of the imperial states to arise in the Near East—in this case, the Persian empire.

2.5 Axial Breakthrough? Rationalization of Ritual Praxis

While it would seem that the general thrust of a sufficiently rational and universalistic axial breakthrough includes moving away from a ritualistic world-view, the Hindu rationalization of ritual offers us a unique case of the simultaneous preservation of ritual while also overcoming its mythic, revelatory, and enchanted functions. The nuances of the Hindu twofold distinction of its enormous canon of scripture into sruti (hearing) and smrti (remembrance) placed the Hindu priest in a setting that led to the ongoing rationalization of ritual practice, that for Heesterman, constitute the most defining quality of its Axial breakthrough.

That the Veda nevertheless goes under the name of sruti suggests that the age of the ecstatic seers is over and the revelation complete. The only thing that remained to be done was the painfully precise transmission of the revealed knowledge by hearing and learning it by rote. From then on the Veda became a fixed and bound body of texts, like the scriptures of Buddhists or Jainas. The point to be retained is the break between the revelatory vision of the seers and the sruti that purports to be the content of their vision….There is, then, a decisive gap between the revelatory vision and its ritualistic substance. It is in this gap—and not in the preceding age of the seers—that the Axial turning point is situated. This turning point does not lead to the exploitation of the revelation but is aimed at overcoming it. It replaces vision and revelation with something entirely different, namely the rational order of ritualism that by itself constitutes ultimate truth and leaves no room for anything so unsettling as revelatory vision. (Heesterman 1986, p. 395)

The prophetic revelations constituting the content of the sruti are taken by priests to have ended in order to facilitate the rational ordering of scriptural content. But, nonetheless, the insight and interpretations remained open for the priest to overcome the non-rational realm of visionary revelation with a hermeneutic deriving its legitimacy from the complex layering of rational principles. The interpretive precedent was super-added upon the sruti scriptures as they were transformed into the canonical body of texts from which the rationalized ritual was derived.

In terms of social differentiation of roles, the constitution of the caste hierarchy with its attendant elite-educated Hochkultur at the top of the social strata thereby led to the ongoing proliferation of canonical texts. The rationalized layers of interpretive precedent transformed the initial revelations into a means by which to secure the legitimation of the social order through rites and proprieties tied to the initial sruti. The ongoing increase of ritualized precedent was likewise catalogued and subsequently passed through processes of differentiation with competing schools of interpretation dependent upon the particular social strata in need of ongoing legitimation.

2.6 The Out-worldly Role of the Ascetic Renouncer

As for the five initial criteria listed by Kulke as conditions for the conferral of inclusion among the great traditions of the Axial Age , the only one not yet addressed would be the last to emerge historically within the millennia of traditions comprising Hinduism : the eventual emergence of the intellectual at odds with the status, proprieties, and authoritative hierarchy of an elite-priesthood. Yes, dismissals of the Hindu tradition often point to the enduring relevance of the caste system as proof that its insights had not truly attained the species-ethical universality. Moreover, the moral egalitarianism conventionally associated with the requisites of impartial justice call for the eradication of structural domination to ensure legitimate conferral of an axial breakthrough. However, the entry of the social role of the Hindu ascetic renouncer serves as an overt attempt to undermine the achieved legitimation of the authority conferred upon the caste structure by its participants—especially the spiritual and political leaders that had the most to gain from its ongoing maintenance.

At approximately the same time period as the historical transition from pre-Vedic to post-Vedic scriptures, the ascetic renouncer emerges on the scene as yet a fifth social role to introduce as an outsider (thereby fittingly labeled as out-worldly) to the original caste division of labor. These social roles had already been differentiated into four other social roles (in decreasing order of hierarchical authority) of the priest, warrior-king, skilled laborer, and servant. As yet an additional stratification to include within the axial rubric of an emergent Hochkultur (as according to Kulke’s opening criteria), instead of the elite-educated functions reserved for the priests, we find the emergence of another form of elite individual, perhaps closest to the axial breakthrough of the philosopher as critic of the prevailing social order. Despite the layers of hierarchy, the out-worldly status of the Hindu renouncer takes on the more universalistic role of primary orientation to the Weberian intellectual-spiritual pursuit of species salvation within the participants socialized into this new sect:

At the end of our period we find, correlatively with the beginnings of caste, a full-fledged and peculiar social role outside of society proper: the renouncer, as an individual-outside-the-world, inventor or adept of a “discipline of salvation” and of its social concomitant, best called the Indian sect. These sects were religio-philosophical movements transcending the Hinduism of the man-in-the-world. They were to be perennial in India and acted powerfully on this Hinduism. (Dumont 1975, pp. 162–163)

Along with this new social role, outside the caste strata proper, came the perpetuation of this new mode of spiritual, moral, and philosophical discipline that thereby required the formation of hierarchical, but nonetheless second-personal, mentor-mentee relationships. These led to organization in disaggregated sects committed to overcoming the finite constraints imposed by the impure profane social order.

Hinduism , most fully articulated in the Brahminic ideology and symbolism, was based on what was, among the Axial Age civilizations, the most radical recognition of the tension between the transcendent and mundane orders—derived from the perception that the mundane order is polluted in cosmic terms, because its very creation constituted a breach of the original cosmic harmony. This pollution can be overcome in two different ways, which are at the same time complementary and contradictory. One way is the faithful performance of the ritual and mundane activities ascriptively allocated to different groups—above all to caste and subcaste groups—which signify different degrees of social and ritual purity and pollution. Closely related is the arrangement of social ritual activities and nexuses in a hierarchical order that reflects an individual’s standing in the cosmic order and the performance of his duty with respect to it. At the same time, however, the stress on the pollution of the world also gives rise to attempts to reach beyond it, to renounce it: the institution of the renouncer (Sannyasa) has been a complementary pole of the Brahmanic tradition at least since the post-classical period. (Eisenstadt 2003a, p. 331)

According to Eisenstadt, while the renouncer did offer an alternative to the status-hierarchy of the priestly mode of ritual purification, the intra-axial parallel competition between priest and renouncer remained enduring constants throughout the history and ongoing development of Hindu practices.

In addition, these differentiated modes of reciprocal role taking continued further into the bifurcation of the renouncer of the pollutants of worldly-engagement into two principle functionaries. On the one hand, that of the jnana yogi entailed reflective philosophical study upon the presumed principled unity of scriptures (with supreme reason as object of joint attention within a particular sect). On the other hand, the disciplined labor of the bhakti yogi called for renunciation oriented strictly to devotional service to a personalized supreme deity (with Krsna as object of joint attention in a practicing sect). In Hindu scriptural canon, the Bhagavad-Gita presents in dialogical and narrative form Krsna’s allegorical advice to warrior-devotee Arjuna that ‘[Both t]he renunciation of work [jnana yoga] and work in devotion [bhakti yoga] are good for liberation. But, of the two, work in devotional service is better than renunciation of work’ (Prabhupada 1997, p. 174). In decided preference for this second-personal devotion over third-personal contemplation of God as an object of intellect, the Weberian salvation impulse embodied in the Bhagavad-Gita expresses an inherently communicative, affective, and relational ideal for liberation:

Therefore, jnana (or knowledge that one is not this material body but spirit soul) is not sufficient for liberation. One has to act in the status of spirit soul, otherwise there is no escape from material bondage….One who knows that everything is Krsna’s property is always situated in renunciation. Since everything belongs to Krsna, everything should be employed in the service of Krsna. This perfect form of action in Krsna consciousness is far better than any amount of artificial renunciation by a sunnyasi. (Prabhupada 1997, pp. 175–176)

In this respect, in response to objections to its caste hierarchy as obstacle to axiality, Hinduism owes its species-universality to out-worldly liberation in a double sense. The renouncer role allows for freedom from the proprieties of status ultimately regarded as a shackle, pollutant, or hindrance. In addition, the renouncer as devotee calls for a positive form of liberation as a means for full realization of empathetic capacities for participation within and eradication of the suffering of another.

I would be fair to concede that in a tradition as enduring as Hinduism, the rendition of the devotee-renouncer offered in the Bhagavad-Gita does not carry the final verdict on the necessary and sufficient conditions for renouncer salvation. Since reflective, meditative, and work-orientation modes of renunciation still fall under continued sect schools as legitimate disciplined practices, for Eisenstadt, Hinduism evinces this unique quality of having retained perhaps an unrivaled internal core-to-periphery heterogeneity that he and other theorists of multiple modernities characteristically ascribe to all axial traditions. Of all of them, Hinduism perhaps manifests this core-periphery tension to its highest extremes, in particular, as it belies intellectual and historical attempts to reduce its multi-faceted traditions to a set core of basic principles common to all self-ascribed practitioners.

Nonetheless, while Eisenstadt would agree that any principled effort to exhaust the contents of the Hindu tradition would certainly falter, he does find that it still retains a basic common core focus of joint attention of practitioners upon out-worldliness. With a background justification and legal form quite distinct from its Western counterparts, the Hindu tradition offers a common normative commitment to the de-confessionalized state, since the political realm itself could corrupt the spiritual and cosmic order.

Given this strong articulation of the tension between the cosmic and mundane orders, Hindu civilization, like all the Axial Age civilizations, developed a distinctive centre. The major centre of Hinduism was not, however, political. Louis Dumont, in Homo Hierarchus and other works, and Jan Heesterman have pointed out how Indian conceptions of the political realm differed from the European. They both stressed that in India the political realm was not seen as a major arena of ‘salvation,’ where the tension between the transcendental and mundane orders could be bridged fully. According to Dumont, it constituted a secondary arena in relation to the realm of the sacred, as represented by the Brahmin; Heesterman pointed out that it constituted one of the major manifestations of the degeneration of the given world of ‘artha’—against the absolute state of Dharma. According to both interpretations, the political arena did not command a high degree of transcendental commitment, even though kings were often seen as having sacred or sacral attributes and although kingship constituted a central and necessary organ of society. (Eisenstadt 2003a, p. 332)

As retaining its core outside of the political realm, we could also qualify Hinduism as embracing the transcensus introduced in the opening chapter as a philosophical-practical constant running across each of the Axial traditions. This distinctive out-worldly mode of Hindu transcensus would best be described as the salvific effort to overcome the finite, temporal, and fleeting nature of the profane world.

With an apolitical center to its shared social practices, either the priestly-route of purification through ritual praxis or the renouncer route of sanctification through concerted efforts at willful withdrawl, each lead to liberation from attachment to an inherently perishing world. Eisenstadt confirms this distinction as two fundamentally different orientations to the achievement of a singularly common axial goal of transcendence:

The two approaches to the mundane were based on two distinct value orientations, on two ‘axes of sacred value’—those of auspiciousness and purity. These two distinct value orientations were always closely interrelated; although purity was hierarchically higher, it could never be concretely realized without auspiciousness. The concrete working out of the tension between these two axes constituted one of the major motive forces of the dynamics of Indian ideologies, institutions, and history. (Eisenstadt 2003a, pp. 331–332)

At risk of over-generalization, given the inherent interconnectedness of the two values, the path of auspiciousness would be closer to the priestly role in performing rituals that carry the promise of most adeptly bringing one in accord with the pre-ordained but tragically lost cosmic balance. As for the renouncers, the path of purity would be the closer identification here insofar as conscious efforts, affective dispositions, and even meditative endeavors all would share the common aim of purity by willed withdrawal of oneself from the pollutants of the profane world to attain salvation.

2.7 Intra-Axial Center to Periphery Tension: The De-territorialized Polity

Even if one were to object to the caste hierarchy on strictly moral grounds, the attendant culture to constitute the axial social order serves as its civilizational constant and became an object of joint attention for all affected, even when from widely divergent social perspectives. The politicization of a shared understanding of how one might participate proved reflective of a hidden cosmic order. The socialized participation in the cosmic order deeply impacted the Indian region and owed much of its success to the relative ease of transmission of such proprieties independent of local confines.

Whatever the special roles of the Brahminical intellectuals, whether they were priests or court-priests, chaplains and advisors, whether they were lay intellectuals, they did nevertheless provide the theological doctrine which turned their ethnically and occupationally extremely variegated societies into a more or less unitary caste-bound society. They did not do this through the power of the state but by their acknowledged monopoly of the power to promote correctness of ritual behavior. Brahminical Indian intellectuals created in India a society which withstood many centuries of foreign rule and of many small states. They did this by creating a culture which spread beyond the boundaries of any single India polity. (Shils 1986, p. 444)

Insofar as political rulers sought legitimation from Brahmin priests for both strategically instrumental and for sincerely moral aims, since the cultural praxis was a condition of legitimacy conferral, this led to the ongoing longevity of the Hindu tradition.

We could also say that the universal transferability, while not fully embodying modern norms of freedom and equality, could also hint at its axial universality in as much as the transmission of this cultural nexus need not presuppose any particular political form. Its other-worldly salvational impulse could tolerate any number of concrete political institutions.

The major centre of Indian civilization was the religious-ritual one. In close relation to its other-worldly emphasis, its wide ecological spread, and its being strongly embedded in ascriptive primordial units, this centre was not organized in a homogeneous, unified, organizational setting. It rather consisted of a series of networks and organizational-ritual subcentres—pilgrimage shrines and networks, temples, sects, schools—spread throughout the continent and often cutting across political boundaries. (Eisenstadt 2003a, p. 333)

In potential response to critics too, given the ascribed statuses conferred with this complex hierarchical nexus, one might deflect claims to suggest that the ascription of particular statuses had any direct bearing as a reflection of the moral and salvation-oriented capacities of the participant.4 The non-territorial conferral of particular social roles allowed for a great deal of flexibility that also contributed to ongoing political instability. In this manner, the reflexive interdependence of the priestly ritual code upon a stable social-political nexus seems to strengthen the need for the member(s) of the administrative-warrior caste to provide a this-worldly anchor to balance the other-worldly emphasis of the priests (and renouncers).

[T]he political arena was characterized by a relatively high degree of political instability and turnover, manifested among other things by the continual changing of boundaries and in the expansion and contraction of political units. Despite their political distinctiveness and the drive for civilizational expansion, few polities achieved anything near unity of the sub-continent. Although India knew states of different scope, from semi-imperial centres to small patrimonial ones, the overall Indian cultural tradition was never identified with any of them. Kingdoms of various sizes were in constant competition, especially in the fringe areas, resulting in an instability temporarily overcome only by exceptionally strong rulers who formed strong networks of personal ties and espionage. The segmental nature of the political collectivities fostered the fluidity and instability of the political structure. (Eisenstadt 2003a, pp. 335–336)

These circumstances also reinforce Voegelin’s observation that one feature of the ecumenical longevity of Axial traditions over millennia and into the present would be the long and growing empirical record of constant failure in forcing potential species-wide universality into an imperialistic institutional form. However, Voegelin (as we will see frequently arise in this chapter and in the Abrahamic Axial traditions) resolves these tensions endemic to transcensus by his normative mandate that no Axial order ought coercively to ascribe to an imperialistic/bureaucratic model of expansion by coercion of subjects as though they were merely third-personal objects of administrative power. For Voegelin, the universal-spiritual versus political-particular conflict endemic to transcencus runs in the other direction too. Political orders imperial in potential scope must, for Voegelin, remain void of enforcing a particular cultural content, and only in doing so do they evade self-imposed institutional and spiritual corrosion. When institutional conditions become ripe for any one of the great Axial traditions to crystallize into an imperial core, the call to seek salvation in this-worldly terms leads invariably to their demise. However, since it is also true that distinct Axial traditions have experimented with providing the cultural content for one or more imperially-oriented institutional scheme—not only has that contributed to their ongoing longevity—but has also been the institutional condition to make possible their communicative transition to cultures far from their original lands, territories, and regions of initial axial breakthrough.

2.8 Conclusion: A Non-Subjective Genealogy of Hindu (and Modern) Individuality?

According to Dumont, there are inexplicable narrative gaps in the emergence of modern individuality in the West that cannot be exhaustively explained by the prevalent scholarly practice of tracing Western modernity back to strictly Hellenistic roots. On the one hand, socialization leading to individuality seems problematic when the Greek polis (and even Greek view of species) seems to err on the side of an overt focus on the common good of the aggregate at the cost of the individual. He also notes that the Western philosophical leap to the Christian notion of subjectivity as a narrative shift super-added to the Greek person also seems at best to provide only a patchwork account of the emergence of modern subjectivity. The Western self-understanding improves little by merely amending the earliest phases of Christianity as having already emerging in Judaic contexts also deeply influenced by Hellenistic practices and ideals. In addition, Dumont notes that even if the onset of Western individuality cannot fully be understood without also acknowledging our Western-centric reconstructions as informed by additional Stoic influences, this genealogical leap presupposes that the early Christian understanding of the subject had roughly the same referent for individual identity as its Stoic counterpart.

While he does not pretend to put to rest these historical quandaries, he does introduce an intriguing revisionist strand that would further complicate conventional reconstructions. In particular, the emergence of Western individuality from the conventional inter-Axial triangulated borrowing from Hebrew, Christian, and Greek sources seems, to Dumont, incomplete. While we need not drop the modern conception of healthy individuation proceeding through processes of socialization, the inter-axial and inter-civilizational may need to become more, rather than less, complex:

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