The first part of Ancient Futures is a recounting of linguist Helena Norberg-Hodge’s perceptions, skepticism and gradual reorientation as she immersed herself in the culture of Ladakh. Ladakh, also known as western Tibet, is now part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. This largely timeless world had for centuries maintained a stable population (via widespread polyandry, plus the monastic option for men), a Buddhist orientation toward life, sustainable agriculture in an arid ecosystem, a nonmonetary flow of barter and other reciprocity, interfamilial associations that help members at times of birth, weddings and funerals, and informal village self-governance with rotating leadership. Most of the work within the family or village was done in a relaxed, spontaneous manner by either sex. At first Norberg-Hodge discounted the frequent smiles on Ladkhi faces, assuming that no people could be that happy. She discovered over time that Ladakhis were indeed sincerely happy, secure and wryly playful. She had also assumed that the modern sense of personal freedom, achieved via an assertive breaking-away from constraints of family and hometown, was the effective way to self-realization. Eventually she came to see that the extended families and closely knit relationships were liberating rather than oppressive: secure in positive self-images, Ladakhis were able to accept others with all their differences.
We all know, however, of examples of oppressive dynamics in extended families and interwoven communities; clearly, the quality of mindstates is as important as the particular social structure. Lakakhis address nearly everyone as “mother,” “father,” “brother,” “sister,” depending on age. Norberg-Hodge says she has “never observed anything approaching the needy attachment or the guilt and rejection that are so characteristic of the nuclear family.” Similarly, she notes that Ladakhis have “no word to express our Western preoccupation with an exclusive, passionate, romantic attachment,” although she adds that they are neither sexually repressed nor promiscuous. The high value placed on maintaining friendly relations with all beings is reflected in their insulting term for “one who angers easily.”
One can readily see in all this the influence of the dharma, which is ubiquitously expressed via fluttering prayer flags, chortens (stupas), mantras chanted silently or quietly to the rhythm of handheld spinning prayer wheels, and public dramas teaching Buddhist concepts. Almost no one except the monks, however, has a meditation practice; “popular Buddhism” instead is the general mode of transmission and observation, as is the case in most nominally Buddhist countries. That such impressive results could flow from simple presentations of the Buddha’s teachings is a testimony to the power of the dharma.
The second part of Ancient Futures is a factual account of the effects of the modern model of “development,” which has been imposed on Ladakh since the late 1970s by the Indian government, with the usual blessings and incentives of the international (actually Western-plus-Japan) monetary institutions that shape the current transformation of the Third World. A cash economy has been introduced with an influx of tourism plus a supply of subsidized rice, sugar and gasoline. Jobs that yield wages are centralized in the capital, Leh, so that extended families are often broken up as workers go to the city in order to live what is supposed to be the good life and to help their families. Living quarters are cramped and the pace of life has accelerated. Children are robbed of their self-esteem in Eurocentric schools, and taught to respect only knowledge that is (said to be) universally applicable, rather than specific to their ecosystems and culture. As the fabric of local interdependence has disintegrated, so have traditional levels of tolerance, cooperation and caring. Competition for jobs and political clout in the centralized sector has made the Buddhist, Muslim and Christian groupings tend to regard each other now as enemies. Individuality has become suppressed as the orchestrated global monoculture imposes images of the modern person—complete with Barbie and Rambo dolls for the children.
Norberg-Hodge analyzes the dynamics of development she has observed in Ladakh. She notes that the modern model assumes that development starts from zero rather than being imposed on a fully formed culture worthy of care and respect. Such “development” results in economic dependence, cultural rejection and environmental degradation, and substitutes a single monoculture and economic system for regional diversity and self-reliance. As is typically the case, Lakakhis have plummeted from contentment and relative self-sufficiency to a new and painful awareness that they occupy the lowest rung of a global economic ladder—in which the middle rungs do not really exist because of growing ecological constraints and the concentration of wealth and power at the top. Norberg-Hodge’s analysis and proposals for alternatives, such as decentralization and community-based economics, read like a manifesto of the international Green politics movement (except that her text is much more gracefully written than the genre of political declaration!). This insightful book should be required reading for all development agencies and macroeconomists, and I hope its urgent message reaches the three-quarters of the human family called the Third and Fourth Worlds.
For more information on the Ladakh Project, visit Local Futures, a nonprofit organization founded and directed by Helena Norberg-Hodge: www.localfutures.org/programs/ladakh/