Ancient Futures

Title: Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh
Author: Helena Norberg-Hodge
Publication Date: 1991
Publisher: Sierra Club Books
Length: 204 Pages

Review by dewdrop

Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh is a fantastic foray into a once hidden
habitat in the trans-Himalayan region of Kashmir. This region encapsulates 20,000 foot
mountain peaks (Ladakh means land of mountain passes), a traditional way of life that
is self sufficient and naturally abundant, and a thousand years of Tibetan Mahayana
Buddhist folk culture. The author was one of the first outsiders in several decades, and
lived there for sixteen years chronicling the awkward confusion that arose drastically
over the course of her stay via accelerated Westernization, amounting to a social
degeneration which left much of the longstanding accumulation of earthen peace and
contentedness flipped on its head.

The book is neatly arranged into three broad, self explanatory categories titled
Tradition, Change, and Looking Ahead. Tradition is a seemingly romanticized yet
thoroughly objective analysis of what makes them tick as an ancient people—not
surprisingly they operated psychologically and socially the opposite of Western
industrialized nations in every regard. When Change is recounted, one bemoans the
incomplete perspectives, or as the author pinpoints, hoaxes, which cornered them into
accepting Western values as glamorous without any awareness of the tremendous ills
suffered under such banners in the Western Hemisphere. Ladakhis began to see
themselves as both poor and backwards when they were promised such wonderful
advances in technology. For instance, they were given industrial farming practices and
began to turn their backs on the detailed agricultural wisdom and staple crops they had
cultivated for centuries with no clue that they were actually applying poisons to the new
crops. The author heard one farmer boast that his food was superior, merely by virtue of
it having at least seven different chemicals applied to it. Luckily, rather than leaving the
reader slumped in horror, in Looking Ahead she begins to explore ways of working with
Ladakhis to use outside knowledge to their actual advancement without compromising
the treasures of their own way of life.

This book is not at all narrow in its scope, both by taking into account many
facets of Ladakhis’ lives and the relevance and applicability of its crises to cultures
worldwide who face globalization. One thing it wisely speaks in the face of is that
nowadays, many ideas that are positive in and of themselves, will be hijacked by the
global elite in order to convince the masses that the change they offer is actually in our
interest and not just theirs—ideas like the pleasant-ringing “global village” and “one
market” that seem at first to simply indicate cooperation and lack of ethnic tensions as
well as many similarly noble ideals, while actually representing mere centralization of
power and economic forces into the ranks of a few.

Gender studies enthusiasts will also strike a goldmine in some of the glimpses
offered into Ladakhi relationships. Polyandry as well as celibacy (Buddhist monasticism)
were both common in old Ladakh. While there were monogamous marriages as well,
there was not the same sense of private, romantic attachment that is so central to Western
lifestyles today. The result of young Ladakhis trying to emulate such sentiments and
losing interest in the celibate spiritual lifestyles also caused an eruptive population
increase. Many men and women have the same names, and Ladakhis have a pronoun
that stands for both he and she. There are a few differences which sprout up in the type
of work men and women do, but not many by any standard. Most work is done by either
sex in a relaxed and spontaneous manner. The invasion of Western values however
caused a lot of these views to be altered, especially for impressionable teenagers.
Teenage boys began to emulate American or Indian macho movie stars and girls began to
spend much time being concerned with their appearance also trying to emulate alien
standards of beauty. In old Ladakh, teenage boys had no qualms with showing tender,
nurturing affection with babies or grandparents, but later began to take on Western style
inhibition to a once natural act, feeling that it threatened rather than enhanced masculine
values.

Old Ladakh was dependent on the outside world only for salt, tea, and a few
metals used to make tools and cooking utensils. Butter tea, brewed from a type of green
tea, is kept in a pot at their side all day long, even when at work in the fields, kept warm
over a charcoal brazier. They were not only self sufficient and without poverty or waste,
but were able to practice frugality not in the sense of miserliness, but of a fruitfulness
arising from taking more out of less. The area is not even entirely Buddhist; there are
large communities of Muslims and some smaller ones of Christians. Old Ladakh was
always wonderful tolerant and peaceful in the face of such contrast, and this showed
through frequent intermarrying. Later, in 1989, once Western economic competition had
developed, intense violence broke out between groups where it never had before. It later
quelled, yet scars remained.

It is quite amazing that what many of us in the West now crave as conscious
human beings, both physically and mentally, was once had in perfect example in this
astounding land, while they were duped into thinking they should give it up for want of
what we have. They were later astounded to find that people in the West are paying up to
double the cost for food that is local and organic, which Ladakhis had all along, while
what we were giving such civilizations was food sprayed with poison. Ladakhis knew no
stress, proven by the fact that when the author tried to explain it to them, they could not
understand. “You get angry you have to work?” was their puzzlement. When she told
them one day she was burnt out from writing letters all day, they thought she was joking.
To them, that was not work. Work is labor, and since it is necessary, what is the point of
despising it? Aggression, such a broad and seemingly human state or at least necessary
evil was virtually nonexistent too and everyone stated there is none in the living village
memory. Mild disagreements were the closest phenomenon.

The author asked one fellow how such things were handled and heard, “What a
funny question, we just live with each other, that’s all.”
“So what happens if two people disagree—say, about the boundaries of their
land?”
“They’ll talk about it, of course, and discuss it. What would you expect them to
do?”

The author had no reply.

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