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East vs. West — the myths that mystify

This is a fascinating talk by an Indian mythologist, pointing out the differences between the Eastern and Western mindsets:

Devdutt Pattanaik: East vs. West — the myths that mystify | Video on

A few things I appreciate from Pattanaik’s talk:

  1. He pointed out the inevitable subjectivity each of us possess. This is one of the best insights postmodernism has taught us.
  2. He pointed out how all our behaviors are ultimately formed by our worldviews, which are in turn made up of stories, symbols, and rituals. This is exactly the model N. T. Wright provides to help understand worldviews (Chapter 8 – Story, Symbol, Praxis: Elements of Israel’s Worldview, The New Testament and the People of God, Fortress Press, 1992)
  3. He did not endorse either way of thinking (although you can still sense he has a slight bias towards the Eastern way of thinking), but in the end he challenged us to stop thinking in either/or terms, but integrate both in a holistic way. We need both modes of thinking.

A few things I disagree with him:

  1. He dichotomized things too easily, seeing them in simplistic and dualistic ways. (Isn’t this exactly the Indo-Greco worldview he’s not able to transcend from?)
  2. He grossly lumped the Jewish and Hellenistic cultures together as one without distinction.
  3. He used Alexander and a gymnosophist to represent two entire worldviews. But are they truly representative of each worldview or culture? I doubt an average Indian, when faced with day-to-day pain and suffering, is able to see the world with such indifference like the gymnosophists; and an average Westerner, enduring the same frailties of the common life, can live with such bravery and courage like Alexander. Generalization and stereo-typing are always unhelpful.

Nevertheless, I think our world needs more of this kind of discussion and mutual-understanding, so that we can minimize the impact when the civilizations do clash.

As Christians, we also have to be aware of our modernistic ways of thinking, endlessly pursuing after isolated nuggets of so-called “objective and propositional truths” from the Bible, and instead return to the way how God has always instructed and formed His people — through stories, symbols, and rituals. Only by immersing ourselves in the biblical story, its symbols and rituals, can we then know how to think and behave according to God’s redemptive plan in the world.

Posted in Cross-cultural, Culture, History, Posts in English, Psychology.

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3 Responses

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  1. Edmund says

    Interesting presentation. And I agree with you 100% that his weakest point seem to be his rather careless comment that the Exodus is linear and straight-forward (I would never think of a 1-month journey turned into 40 years as “linear”). It is ironic to see within his own presentation the dichotomy — how and what he defines (and implies) as EAST and what is WEST.

  2. Anson says

    Yeah, and I doubt he would want to hear the real biblical worldview, because if he does, he’ll discover that the Judeo-Christian monotheistic worldview is both one and infinite, simple and complex, rational and emotional….. and his whole framework would then break down.

  3. Anson says

    I found a great quote on this topic:

    “Nowadays we are inundated with different models of the stages and phases of human spiritual development. They are helpful in understanding the psychosocial dynamics of maturation, but they are often so entranced by modern psychology that they fail utterly to address the transcendent activity of God in human life…… At best, the modern models are systems that speak of the immanence of God…….

    But in John (of the Cross), and Teresa (of Avila) as well, we find sketches of the process of human spiritual growth that embrace both the immanence and transcendence of God…… that really addresses the mystical relationship of human will and divine grace……

    (John) allows distinction without hard separation, precision without compartments. It has to be this way because spiritual growth is growth in love, and love, while seeking truth, embraces everything……

    Love is the atmosphere in which unity and diversity, immanence and transcendence, will and grace are embraced.”

    Gerald G. May, M.D., Addiction & Grace: Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions (New York: HarperCollins, 1988), 204-5.