Welcome to the Machine

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see.
And now after some thinking I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery, serving something beyond me.
— Fleet Foxes, “Helplessness Blues

In the first chapter of a text I recently translated, Lord Śiva’s Song: The Īśvara Gītā, the god Śiva is described as the “impeller of the world-machine” (jagad-yantra-pravartaka). Also in the Bhagavad Gītā, the text that the Īśvara Gītā is modeled after, we find in verse 18.61 the suggestion that all beings are mounted on a machine (yantra) operated by god, who makes them spin through his wondrous power. In his commentary on BhG 18.61, Madhusūdana Sarasvatī likens the situation to a magician who uses a rope to cause wooden puppets seated on a machine to revolve. Rāmānuja says that this yantra is material nature (prakṛti), and that giving up the false sense of our own independence from prakṛti and from God’s will allows us to become free.

Perhaps those who are not very familiar with Indian history will be surprised by these metaphors, but they abound in classical Indian philosophy and literature. Though there is a popular image of Indian philosophers as hermits living in caves and subsisting on nuts and berries, in fact philosophy was more often a village, urban, or courtly enterprise. These philosophers were fully aware of the technology of their times, such as the loom, water-wheel, and potter’s wheel, which are reflected in the examples (udāharaṇas) they use.

It may also be surprising how often Mahātmā Gandhi, in his own comments on the Bhagavad Gītā, describes the world as a machine and the proper human detachment to fruits of actions as “mechanical.” In Gandhi’s commentary on BhG chapter four we find such themes combined, I think, with a hint of the Protestant Work Ethic: “We are caught in the motion of the wheel of this world. Our duty is to work ceaselessly as a part of this machine. We should spend every minute of our waking life in doing work which has fallen to our lot, and do it as if we are impatient over it and yet not be so, be calm in fact. The bullock that keeps the water-wheel in motion goes round and round, but no bucket falls from its place. If it were not a bucket but our heart in that place, it might fall off. The bucket, however, does not fall off, it remains in its place, calm. We should be filled with such calm.”

These themes got me thinking about the philosophical uses for the metaphor of being a machine, and how different these uses can be. For instance, in certain scientific circles it has become common to think of human beings, or at least our brains, as “meat machines.” How is this modern metaphor different than the yantra metaphors in classical Indian texts? One clear difference is that this particular metaphor focuses on the individual, rather than the collective, perhaps a reflection of American computer scientists’ individualist tendencies. Both metaphors can, of course, be used to question free will. But according to the Bhagavad Gītā, Īśvara Gītā, and Gandhi, by surrendering the illusion of our own individual agency we are able to recognize the higher logic of the entire system, and even to recognize the divine agency at work in the world.

The “meat machine” metaphor certainly destabilizes common intuitions about the nature of self and consciousness. Yet I am not sure that there are clear ethical or political ramifications here: we may go on behaving in more or less the same ways we did before, whether selfish or altruistic, when we accept that our brains are nothing more than machines made of meat. The “world-machine” metaphor too disorients our normal egocentric understanding of the special value of our own individual thoughts and desires. But it also re-orients us toward a true understanding of the larger system.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the ethics of the Bhagavad Gītā and the Mahābhārata are not anti-consequentialist. The sage Kauśika, for instance, takes a vow of truthfulness, and as a result tells a group of murderous bandits where to find their victims, leading to their death. The Mahābhārata tells us that for this he receives karmic punishment, not reward. Likewise, in the episode where Yudhiṣṭhira deceives Drona about the death of his son Aśvatthāman, Kṛṣṇa assures Yudhiṣṭhira that in this situation, deception is the correct action when understood in larger perspective. The point is not that we should not care about consequences. Rather, it is that a person should not focus on the consequences that his actions will have for himself as an individual, but instead coolly (mechanically?) examine the wider consequences his actions will have for the functioning of the world-machine.

What are your favorite “machine” metaphors in the history of philosophy? I would especially enjoy hearing how other traditions, such as the Chinese and Islamic, employ such metaphors.

About Andrew Nicholson

I am an Associate Professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and the author of two books, Unifying Hinduism: Philosophy and Identity in Intellectual History and Lord Śiva's Song: The Īśvara Gītā.

12 Replies to “Welcome to the Machine”

  1. I would hesitate to speak of “the ethics of the Bhagavad Gītā and the Mahābhārata” as one thing. It seems to me that they subvert each other – or rather the latter subverts the former, specifically. The examples you cite of a consequentialist ethic do not come from the Gītā itself. Krishna in the Gītā stresses the message “do your dharma without regard for the fruits”, and it is the same Krishna who tells Yudhiṣṭhira to deceive Drona about Aśvatthāma, or to kill Karṇa while he’s changing a tire. Things that are very specifically against dharma, in the name of the consequence of winning the war – but these are not specified within the Gītā.

    • Fair enough–if we grant your premise, I would say that it is possible to construct a systematic reading of the Bhagavad Gītā as a part of the Mahābhārata that harmonizes its message of karma-phala-tyāga with the overarching ethics of the larger text. Otherwise, there is an obvious, drastic contradiction that one would expect earlier readers to notice.

      To turn the question around: is there any evidence internal to the Bhagavad Gītā that not just the karmic fruits enjoyed by an individual should be abandoned, but rather that all consequences of actions should be disregarded when determining correct action?

      • Well, the Gītā’s criticism in II.47-51 is directed at phala or karmaphala in general – which, as far as I know, is the general term applied to consequences of actions; it does not have a semantic range restricted to “karmic fruits enjoyed by an individual”. It’s not always clear to me that karmic fruits can even be separated from other consequences at all, either, since karma and phala both have that general sense of action and its consequence.

        • If you read carefully, I think you’ll see that 2.47-51 is meant specifically as a critique of Mīmāṃsaka and Dharmaśāstric concepts of karma and adhikāra. As you know, for Mīmāṃsakas, all ritual action (karma) is accompanied by an attachment (saṅga) to the fruits (phala). Looking at the commentaries of Śaṅkara or Rāmānuja, that is always the context in which they read these verses: we must overcome attachment to the rewards of our actions. This is why it is a kind of yoga. There is no discussion here of whether or not a rational, dispassionate consideration of general consequences should orient our action.

          This is an example of why I think translating phala as “consequence” is dangerous; while not necessarily incorrect as a translation, it tempts us to superimpose familiar western philosophical debates onto this text.

          I’d recommend Malinar’s commentary on these verses, as well as her discussion of the teaching of karmayoga in BhG chapter 3, elucidating the Sāṃkhya underpinnings of these arguments.

          • Interesting. I hadn’t read their commentaries on that section before. I think you’re right that that’s the specific context they have in mind, and may well have been the original context as well. But it would seem to me that nothing they say limits the discussion to that context.

            For Śaṅkara in particular, I think it strains credulity to say he would advocate a “rational, dispassionate consideration of general consequences”, when all of those consequences are part of the illusion that binds us.

  2. Thank you for this. Some examples that spring to mind from your suggestion are Madhyamakāvatāra 1.3 where saṃsāra is compared to a water-wheel:
    “First they grasp to a self saying ‘I’,
    Then they generate attachment to things, saying ‘this is mine’,
    Beings, like spinning buckets in a water-wheel, lack freedom.
    I pay homage to she who has compassion for them.”
    The water wheel metaphor also occurs in Abhisamaya-alaṅkāra 7.2:
    “When a person causes the continuum of a water wheel
    To move with one single movement of the hand,
    All buckets spin together at once.
    Momentary training (kṣanikaprayoga) is like this.”
    I wonder if there are any references like this in canonical Buddhist texts, or if Candrakīrti and Maitreya are drawing inspiration from another (Brahmanic) source?

    • Also, I think you have pointed out an important difference in the way that the machine metaphor is employed in these ancient and modern contexts. In both cases, a machine is an example of lack of freedom. However, the ‘freedom’ in the former is a freedom from a collective undesirable world, whereas in the modern contexts it is an example of lack of individual ‘free will’.

  3. Thanks for this fun post.

    First, I’d want to just agree with your point in discussion with Amod. It seems quite out of context to take the Gita’s admonition to disregard the fruits of action to be a lack of concern with consequences. Rather, one performs her dharma because it is the appropriate thing to do, and not for what she herself gets out of it, as opposed to those who are confused by the flowery speech of the Veda (i.e., karma-mimamsakas).

    In the third chapter, Krishna himself evinces deep concern with one outcome of actions, keeping the world together (loka-samgraha, 3.25). He doesn’t want the world to fall apart, so he performs his dharma despite the fact that he has no personal attachment to the fruits of labor, setting an example for lesser folk. Should he (or Arjuna) choose not to act, the disruption of the world would be a bad outcome.

    Re: machines, may I state an obvious one that comes to mind? At the heart of Plato’s cave is not merely darkness or confusion. It is a machine contrived to project recurring images on the wall. And it is not merely attachment to mere images that characterizes the unphilosophical life, but also a slavish surrender of our joys and sorrows to external “mechanical” stimuli. Here we see a natural bridge to stoicism and other traditions which are quite yogic in the sense of the Gita.

    And one small quibble: I think that while there are obvious statements in the Gita that seem to deny individual agency, there is a very plausible reading that what is denied is the egoistic sense of independent agency, the lack of deep awareness of our dependence on a host of things (most centrally God) to perform the tasks of life. Thus 18.16: “one who see the self *alone* as the agent has a faulty understanding.”

    And this reading naturally connects to some of the internal virtues of a yogi. One of the virtues of yogic action is a deep sense of humility and gratitude which helps turn mere karmayoga into bhakti.

  4. The ‘Soundarya Lahari’ of Shankara (attributed) is a yantra manual. Follow its instructions to achieve fascination of women/men/confusion of enemies etc.

  5. Hi All,

    On the subject of consequentialism in the Gita, it’s worth reading one of the more recent papers on this issue. Sandeep Sreekumar has a paper in JIP that argues that the Gita entails a rule consequentialist ethics. The reference and abstract are below. My understanding is that Sandeep has a book on the Gita in the works that deals with this issue among others.

    Sreekumar, Sandeep. 2012. “An Analysis of Consequentialism and Deontology in the Normative Ethics of the Bhagavadgītā” JIP 40/3: 277-315.

    This paper identifies the different normative ethical arguments stated and suggested by Arjuna and Krishna in the Gītā, analyzes those arguments, examines the interrelations between those arguments, and demonstrates that, contrary to a common view, both Arjuna and Krishna advance ethical theories of a broad consequentialist nature. It is shown that Krishna’s ethical theory, in particular, is a distinctive kind of rule-consequentialism that takes as intrinsically valuable the twin consequences of mokṣa and lokasaṃgraha. It is also argued that Krishna’s teachings in the Gītā gain in depth, coherence, and critical relevance what they lose in simplicity when the ethical theory underlying those teachings is understood as a consequentialism of this kind rather than as a deontology.

  6. Such instances galore in the Upanishads too and, though not a machine, the mechanistic propensity of a spider’s web is perhaps the most telling metaphor that comes closest to the ancient ontology. [TNM55]

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