Technology and Indian Literature

Kumbhakarna sleeping, from the Freer Ramayana (cropped) – Wikimedia Commons (Qasim/ Smithsonian Museum)

This year, India enters the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member for the whole of the year, and the Indian delegation have set out what its priorities will be there, including the very interesting idea of ‘Technology with a Human Touch’.  As the Indian documentation states –

“Rapidly evolving technology has broader consequences for humankind and it must be intelligently harnessed by the international community.  The world needs a shared vision of the direction of technological progress to ensure technology remains a force for good.” (link)

Certainly, there can be widely agreement to the general statement from the Indian delegation above.  There have been many news stories recently about issues of ethics in technology companies.  Further, the need to consider the ethical implications of current and future AI technologies is becoming increasingly evident.  The need for the international community to work together harmoniously on technology regulation and oversight is also a contemporary concern.

The technology developments of the 20th and 21st century to date have overwhelmingly been the product of research and development emerging from the United States and other Western countries.  At the same time, however, India is no stranger to technology innovation and development, with a high volume of business processes outsourced to India and a high level of Indian emigrants working in Silicon Valley.  India is also known for pioneering its own ultra-low-cost innovations in pharmaceuticals, healthcare and many other fields, to meet the needs of a very large domestic market combined with a high degree of domestic price sensitivity.

Firstly, the statement above particularly spotlights the need for increased scrutiny and deliberation concerning the moral implications of rapidly developing technology.  Can India engage or even contribute on this front by drawing on its own intellectual resources?  I can only hint at an answer here by noting that India has its own body of moral theorising expressed through the literature of dharmaśāstra as well as the Sanskrit literary tradition more broadly.  What is particularly valuable about this tradition of moral reasoning, I think, is the idea that determining the right thing to do is never clear-cut or an easy decision, and life is always filled with moral complexities and moral quandaries.  Rather than a set of absolute commandments, the ethical tradition of dharmaśāstra is about judging well the right thing for a particular person to do in the particular situation they find themself.

Building on this, such an ethical awareness might begin with an emotional attunement to how new technologies may affect the lived experiences of diverse groups and individuals.  This is because any moral theorising is rooted foremostly in well-regulated emotional reaction to situations. As such, we could perhaps look to the pragmatic theories of emotion in Tantra and in rasa theory.  Indeed, the system of Tantra is in part an effort to explore the emotive dimension of language and symbolic communication, and thus to comprehend and channel the complexity and intensity of human thought and feeling.  Similarly sophisticated theorising about emotion is also found in the related rasa theory of human sentiment that informs the aesthetic appreciation of both nature and art, and indeed it is no coincidence that eminent figures such as Abhinavagupta are found to be masters of both Tantra and rasa theory.  Such discussions can perhaps be a resource for a richer understanding of the lived experience of technology users, one which captures the joys and sufferings we face in daily life, so we can understand exactly how technology could help or potentially hinder.

Finally, any meaningful participation in the global conversation around technology innovation importantly requires a grounding in the empirical and pragmatic spirit which underlies much Anglo-American innovation, including such principles as lean and agile innovation. Here, too, I believe that we find similarly non-dogmatic philosophies and worldviews in the Indian context, and in particular in the Śaivite and Buddhist traditions which recognize that our reality diverges from our perceptions of it in ways that are not to be rationally systematised.  In particular, we find the idea that the ego is the main obstacle to clear perception of reality, and that removing the ego from the equation is the only way to improve our perception of reality as it is in itself independent of us.  Such ideas have their obvious ramifications in terms of business decision processes and market validation processes, where, by taking a market-led and user-driven approach, the entrepreneur can better perceive the real user need or challenge, setting aside his or her own prima facie convictions.

Rather than give a comprehensive recommendation to the India delegation, this article has only been able to hint at some ideas or lines of approach that may be fruitful to investigate.  However, when we survey Indian literature, we can easily observe many situations where a technology solution may have been of benefit.  For example, when Duṣyanta had difficulty recognizing Śakuntalā again, could the problem perhaps have been avoided if they had stayed in contact through WhatsApp?  And when Kumbhakarṇa had to be woken up by the multitude of ogres, would it not have been easier to use an alarm clock?

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