On Paradoxes and Silence

February 26, 2013 § 2 Comments


inphilvol1Indian Philosophy Volume I (Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli)

I took nearly two months to work my way through 700 pages of dense commentary summarizing the substantial philosophical outpourings of a sizeable population over a period of roughly 20 centuries. I took 16 pages of notes while reading, and then transcribed, edited, and sorted these notes into logical clusters. I am now tasked with converting all this material into a brisk and breezy blog post. This isn’t easy: I can only do this by glossing over most of the material, and sticking to broad impressions.

The first thought that comes to mind when I think about what I read in this book is a slightly incongruous vision, which goes something like this. A few centuries from now, when human progress has run its course and the world is bursting at the seams with sad, middle-aged, Facebook-obsessed reality show addicts, an alien armada will land on Earth and seize control of the planet. Unable to elicit much sense from the inhabitants, they will plug into the World Wide Web, which they will naturally assume is the legacy left behind by an older, wiser civilization. After years of careful examination, they will marvel at the religion and philosophy of these earlier Earthlings (for they will see no reason to believe that it was not a single religion, with millions of gods). It is a hugely eclectic religion, they will declare – one that incorporates and celebrates profound clarity of thought as well as the most ridiculous rituals and superstitions. These people were a paradox, they will say, some of them with scornful amusement and others with reverential awe; and they will wonder what happened to the Internet civilization, and who let the current lot take over.

Not entirely complete? The seated Buddha, Gandhara school of sculpture, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

India is this same paradox: of a people who are extremely tolerant of a wide range of heterodox philosophical views, while being rigidly conservative about social practices. The world sees Indian philosophy largely through the prism of the Abrahamic people who recorded and translated its books, and who created a mental model of ‘Hinduism’ on the image of their own religions – as a monolithic body of thought. Viewed in this light, ‘Hinduism’ is typically regarded by outsiders as nothing but superstitious, idolatrous, animistic polytheism plus mystical mush and cow-worship – somewhat like the primitive faiths that their own forefathers discarded. But if that had been the entire truth, Indian religions (Radhakrishnan never once uses the word ‘Hinduism’ in the entire book) would not have survived a thousand years of close contact with, and political domination by, various People of various Books. The reason Indian religions have survived – and continue to thrive – is the strength and maturity of the underlying philosophy. In fact, the polytheism and the cow-worship are themselves a result of an all-embracing worldview that did not reject the most radical ideas in its quest for truth.

Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, the great 11th century Iranian polymath who spent a lot of time with Indian scholars, sums the situation up thus:

“You mostly find that even the so-called scientific theorems of the Hindus are in a state of utter confusion, devoid of any logical order, and in the last instance always mixed up with the silly notions of the crowd…I can only compare their mathematical and astronomical literature, as far as I know it, to a mixture of pearl shells and sour dates, or of pearls and dung, or of costly crystals and common pebbles. Both kinds of things are equal in their eyes since they cannot raise themselves to the method of a strictly scientific deduction.”

Like in the case of the Internet, the absence of a powerful central authority meant that all attempts at moderating content were unsuccessful. Many bizarre ideas sneaked through, but some other strikingly sophisticated ones were accepted several centuries before they were articulated anywhere else in the world. People didn’t merely get away with saying outrageous things. They were regarded as holy for saying them, and their works were counted as canonical.

The Samkhya school, for instance, is silent about the existence of God, though certain about its theoretical indemonstrability. The Vaisesika and the Yoga, while they admit a supreme being, do not consider him to be the creator of the universe. Jaimini refers to God only to deny his providence and moral government of the world. The early Buddhist systems are known to be indifferent to God and we have also the materialist Carvakas, who “deny God, ridicule the priests…and seek salvation in pleasure”. There were sceptics, atheists, indifferentists, and fatalists, whose works found patrons and students, and who weren’t crucified, stoned, excommunicated or burnt at the stake for their views. Some Buddhist philosophy anticipates Borgesian thought in a most uncanny way. Strictly speaking, Buddhaghosha says, the duration of the life a living being is exceedingly brief, lasting only while a thought lasts. As soon as that thought has ceased the living being is said to have ceased. Nagarjuna, another Buddhist scholar, begins by showing that all knowledge is relative, and ends by speculating on whether there is any distinction between truth and error.

It is sometimes held that the western way of seeking the truth has been to eliminate contradiction, to exclude the middle, and to proceed step by step from what little was known for certain to be true, while the Indian way has been to accept a whole lot of things as possibly true, including some that are mutually contradictory. But having said that, I also believe after reading this book, that they are not so different, the East and the West. Some of Radhakrishnan’s most lucid pieces are his comparative analyses.

The parallels with western philosophy are everywhere. There are passages by Plotinus that could have been copied straight out of an Upanishad.(1)  In the period after 200 AD, Radhakrishnan tells us, “noisy controversialists indulging in over-subtle theories and fine-spun arguments, [and] fought fiercely over the nature of logical universals”, just as the Catholic schoolmen did in the middle ages. Jainism’s infinity of jivas sound eerily similar to Leibniz’s monads. Schopenhauer was directly influenced by the Upanishads and by Buddhist thought, of course, but Spinoza’s philosophy was arrived at independently; his monist metaphysics resonate with the Upanishads and his ethics resonate with practically everything that Buddha taught. The later Buddhist school of the Yogacara makes a persuasive case for rejecting all ideas of external reality, as George Berkeley did 1800 years later. The Bhagavad Gita’s morality of dispassionate, unsentimental action sounds the same clarion call as Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, and is unfortunately equally prone to misinterpretation by unethical people of an identical stripe. Finally, Buddha’s rejection of a world of objects and people, in favour of a world of events and processes is extraordinarily modern, prefiguring not just Bergson and Deleuze but also the Marxian concept of history and, in some ways, post-Einstein physics. These were not the ravings of a semi-savage people, but the considered views of men with rational and fiercely independent minds.

So here is the paradox. At exactly the same time, in the midst of this open debate and unfettered speculation, the most appallingly rigid social structures were put in place, and over time, they hardened in people’s minds like cowpats in the sun. I allude, of course, to the ghastly caste system, the mindless rituals and a blind, unquestioning passion for continuing traditions. How can the same people tolerate the free questioning about the existence of God, and call the men who did so holy, while not being able to tolerate the entry of a man into a temple to view an idol of stone, merely because of an accident of his birth?

There is only one solution both to this conundrum and to that of the futuristic aliens. It is to view Indian philosophy (and the Internet), as a ‘becoming’, a process, an evolution of thought across space and time, not as something that was set down one fine day by a single inspired prophet. In this free-market bazaar for ideas, as Radhakrishnan astutely points out, a Gresham’s Law of sorts operates, and inferior but popular ideas drive out superior but esoteric ones from circulation. Philosophy got crowd-sourced out of the public conscience; ritualistic superstition won the day, at least ostensibly. Thankfully, a large part of the philosophy got ingrained deep into the memory, thoughts, beliefs, actions, attitudes and language, almost subversively, forming a thick layer beneath the skin, as it were; and this is the part that has allowed the religion to thrive.

The openness to accept and include, adapt and find common ground came with the Vedas (perhaps as a pragmatic Plan B after attempts to subjugate and convert failed?) The free spirit of enquiry, the argumentative streak that Amartya Sen extols in his book of the same name, came with the Upanishads. The respect for asceticism and simplicity was absorbed from the pre-Aryan tribes when they themselves were absorbed; the Jaina tradition honed the Indian fascination for non-violence, patience and a powerful inherent belief in the Karmic principle of natural justice; the Buddhist tradition and the Bhagavad Gita, in their very different ways, put in the Indian mind a distaste for materiality, greed and selfishness, an indifference to pain and pleasure, and a respect for learning; in combination, they led to a high degree of psychological resilience in the face of suffering and adversity, which was the key to the survival of the culture.

Along with it came some undesirable elements as well – a contentedness with mediocrity, “a misty vagueness, lazy acceptance and cheap eclecticism” (Radhakrishnan’s words); a kind of pessimism and resignedness; sometimes individualistic, escapist responses at times when vigorous collective action is what the doctor ordered. Of course, all of these – the good, the bad, the baby, the bathwater and all – are precisely the values we have been rapidly unlearning over the last two decades. We are assured that they are obsolete and old-fashioned, and that selfishness and greed are the highest ethic of our age, values that will take us to the pinnacle of power and wealth. Perhaps new realities need new survival techniques; perhaps not – only time, or the futuristic alien conquerors, can tell.

But I digress. Let us return to Radhakrishnan’s book. To his credit, being something of a practitioner himself, he has portrayed Indian philosophy not as a set of fossilized museum novelties, as a disinterested historian may have done, but as live documents containing ideas worth debating today. This has its pros and cons.

Radhakrishnan defends Indian philosophies valiantly – against the charges that they are pessimistic, over-dogmatic, nihilistic, and elitist in an intellectual sense. Thus far I am with him. It is when he defends the Brahmin priestly caste that methinks he doth protest too much. He bristles at the generally accepted suggestion that Buddhism and Jainism were reformatory revolts against unscrupulous Brahmin tyranny, but more controversial is his opinion that the caste system was justifiable at the time of its creation (‘to avoid confusion of blood’, if you please, and this offensive line that I believe I do not quote out of context: ‘men on a lower level of feeling and thought cannot all of a sudden be lifted up into a higher state. The humanising process takes a long time, sometimes several generations.’ Wince).

Most people find it difficult to be objective critics of their own upbringing, and Radhakrishnan is no exception. The best part of the book, therefore, is the section that has nothing to do with Brahminism, but revolves around Buddha’s famous silence on metaphysical questions – about the immortality of the soul, for instance. Radhakrishnan launches into an animated discussion on the scholastic theories surrounding Buddha’s motives for not addressing these questions directly. Could it be because he doesn’t want to upset his audience by telling them what he really believed – that there was nothing to look forward to after death? No, says Radhakrishnan; that would make Buddha a man of poor character (which he cannot be, because – hullo – he is Buddha). Could it be because he didn’t know for sure, himself? No, says Radhakrishnan, that would make Buddha an inadequate philosopher (which he cannot be, because he is Buddha). These rejections are naïve, of course, but Radhakrishnan’s own theory isn’t to be dismissed lightly: that Buddha believed that metaphysics transcends language, that to attempt to explain Nirvana in words would be futile, that it has to be experienced in order to be understood, and so, he deliberately kept mum on the subject. ‘Whereof one may not speak,’ and so on. This is certainly as interesting an hypothesis as the other two.

I personally think, inasmuch as I have understood him from Radhakrishnan’s essays, that Buddha was a wise and practical man with a product to sell; it was a good product with several benefits that had nothing to do with metaphysics; oblivion was a tougher sell than eternal bliss; and while he was above lying to his public, he saw no sense in prominently advertising its least glamorous side.

Why was Buddha silent? I’ll never know for sure, but all the theories sound plausible to me, and maybe there is some truth in each of them. And that’s Indian philosophy for you in a nutshell.

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(1) For example: “The One …is sometimes called God, sometimes the Good; it transcends Being…we must not attribute predicates to it but only say, ‘It is.’ It would be a mistake to speak of God as ‘the All’, because God transcends the All. God is present through all things. The One can be present without any coming: while it is nowhere, nowhere is it not. ..the One is indefinable, and in regard to it there is more truth in silence than in any words whatever”

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