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It’s often said that “individualism” is an invention of the modern West – meaning the approach that defines human beings as independent and autonomous from their social context. The French sociologist Louis Dumont made this claim directly in contrast to India, seeing India as a highly communitarian place where an individual’s community and social status much more. Dumont applied this communitarian view not only to Indian society at large but to its theoretical thought.

Many students of other cultures soon come to see individualism as a Western conceit – a bizarre peculiarity of an eccentric society that went wrong with Descartes. If indeed the modern West is a complete solitary exception to the rule, then there would seem to be something to this view.

I wrestled with it for a while myself. I used to believe Dumont’s classification of India was correct. It certainly resonated with my personal experiences, seeing how much more my Indian family cared about family and community ties. But those experiences, combined with the communitarian stereotype of India found in the likes of Dumont and Max Weber, blinded me to things I read every day in graduate school for years without actually noticing.

For classical Indian thought – Buddhist, Jain and brahmanical – is a very different beast from everyday Indian society, ancient or modern. I’ve addressed this topic a number of times before, but I can’t stress it enough because the point is so often ignored: classical Indian thought, by and large, places its highest value on the autonomous individual. The classical Indian individual is not the same as the modern Western individual, for the classical Indian individual achieves his freedom (and it usually is a he) by transcending the world rather than within it; it is an individualism of ascent rather than descent. But individualism it nevertheless is. In the Yoga Sūtras and Jain texts like the Tattvārtha Sūtra, the ideal is to break free of all dependence and achieve kaivalya, literally aloneness. Some variant on this ideal is found in nearly all classical Indian thought – even the other-oriented Mahāyāna Buddhism, where one encourages others to depend on oneself but aims to avoid all dependence on them.

The social expression of Indian independence is the renouncer, or monk (bhikkhu, sannyāsin), who cuts all ties to family and the wider world and lives a life single-mindedly devoted to the pursuit of liberation. The figure of the monk is what is missed in many accounts that exaggerate the difference between modern individualism and premodern communitarianism. We often assume that it is the capitalist money economy that allows people to consider themselves autonomous individuals, free of the ties of family and community. But monks were freeing themselves in the same way a long time ago. All this is why I continue to find Thomas Kasulis’s intimacy-integrity distinction a far more powerful classification of philosophies than most: it allows us to grasp the way in which modern individualism has historical precedent outside the modern West.

Now studies of monasticism will often claim that Indian monks were not nearly as independent as they proclaimed themselves to be. For after all, they lived on food provided by the community outside the monastery. An old article by Stanley Tambiah compared Indian monks negatively to the Benedictine Christian monks who (like East Asian Ch’an monks) did agricultural work and made their communities self-sufficient. Whereas for Indian Buddhist monks,

work as such was not valued, and its negation meant the monks’ complete material dependence on the laity for the provision of food, clothing, and shelter. Thus the Buddhist renouncer’s material dependence on the laity, specified from the beginning, cuts into his existence as ‘individual-outside-society’ in important ways.

But this understanding – monk as dependent on the lay community – is not how the Indian renouncer traditions understood themselves. Of course the monks received the food they ate from the community and would have died if they did not. That sure sounds like dependence. But is it? Or at least, is that how they understood it?

The pioneering work of Maria Heim (née Hibbets) on gifts in India is important in this regard. Heim points out that classical and medieval Indian texts, whether Buddhist, Jain or “Hindu”, drew a sharp distinction between compassionate gifts to the needy, on one hand, and “upward” gifts of esteem (śraddhā) on the other. The latter kind of gifts – of which the paradigm is the food given to monks – are not supposed to be given for the sake of benefitting the recipient, but the giver; indeed, there are stories (whether true or not) told of kings fighting over the right to give such gifts. Why? It’s both assumed and stated that these upward gifts will produce large amounts of good karma; but as I noted recently, even in the old texts good karma is not merely about producing a better rebirth in the next life, but about good effects in this one. And the texts regularly sing the praises of esteem – of having the attitude of reverence toward monks that leads one to admire them and listen closely to their teachings, an attitude expressed in giving them gifts.

All this is to say that according to the kind of understanding expressed in Indian texts, monks’ “alms rounds” are not begging and should not be understood as such; they are not understood as opportunities for monks to get the food they need, but for laypeople to develop the esteem they need. We saw last week that despite their obtaining food from laypeople, the point remains for monks to be autonomous and independent; a monk who feels dependent on the laypeople is a bad monk.

But aren’t monks still placed in a condition of dependence regardless of their beliefs? Well, not necessarily. Their dependence on the laypeople is a conditional: if you don’t get food, you will die. But the trump card of the ideal monk is that even this outcome doesn’t matter to him much. The goal is to transcend all attachment, up to and including the attachment to life itself. One may note here the Jain ideal of sallekhanā – a voluntary fast unto death – or the Buddha’s repeated sacrifice of his life in the Jātaka stories of his previous lives. Take such an attitude of indifference (or even welcoming) to death, and one is no longer dependent even on those who keep one alive.

Ideally, then, Indian renouncers are not dependent on the community. Contrast this to the Western ideal of being independently self-supporting. Every “self-made” Westerner achieves a presumed autonomy only because others buy his products or services; and he must spend a great deal of time selling to them, because he needs their business so badly. And once he has made it he is dependent on others’ acceptance of his money and a government’s maintenance of the property system. By contrast the proper monk faces death with equanimity, and in that respect his independence is fuller and purer than that of any modern Westerner.