Philosophy in the South Asian Subcontinent: A Unity in Maladjustment
Galib A. Khan
As a professor in philosophy at the University of Dhaka, if I ask myself about the extent of the philosophical heritage, which I may claim to have inherited from the past, I shall find myself in a difficulty in finding a precise answer. If I look back for my heritage, beyond fifty years towards the past, I shall find that the past heritage to which I belong, incidentally coincides with that of the South Asian subcontinent. In the context of philosophy, that heritage is what we find mainly in the traditions of the Vedic philosophical schools (specially the Vedanta school), Buddhism and Jainism. These philosophical traditions are also considered as oriental philosophies. An orientalistic outlook in the context of these philosophical traditions may find it difficult to draw a line of demarcation between the past and the present status of these traditions. It is my intention to draw attention to the fact that, in the context of philosophy, our past heritage is in a sense an obstacle to our future progress; and to this extent, our heritage and our future are in a unity in maladjustment.
I shall draw attention to some historical situations, and some claims of heritage based on these situations. It is claimed that, it is possible 'to trace the rise of philosophy to a period earlier than the Greeks...'. (1) This claim may lead to wonder whether Thales is the father of philosophy. In this context it is further claimed that: 'The first Greek thinker whom we can appropriately describe as a philosopher was Thales', and that 'When, however, we look at India of the sixth century B.C., we see a completely different picture. ... It was not a case of the dawn of philosophy as in Greece but what may be described as the full glow of philosophical day'. (2)
What implications are meant to follow from such claims? Can we say that
Unlike western philosophy, Indian philosophy failed to develop, strictly speaking, beyond its ancient identity. Indian philosophy cannot be divided into the ancient, medieval, modern and contemporary periods, as it can be done with the western philosophy. What has come to be known as contemporary Indian philosophy, is nothing more than some re-interpretation of the same traditional schools, which prevailed in ancient India. In this sense, there is no true live Indian philosophy except as a shadow of the past, and there is no present in Indian philosophy except as a re-interpretation of the past.
This limitation of Indian philosophy is usually considered as a common objection. Indian scholars are aware of this situation, though I think, the way they deal with this situation is not adequate. I shall have an appraisal of one such case, which refers to a renowned Indian scholar who flourished in early twentieth century and in course of time became the President of India.
Professor Radhakrishnan is aware of the charge that Indian philosophy 'remains stationary and represents an endless process of threshing old straw'. (4) He of course makes four possible meanings of this charge, and it seems, there is a mild way of defending Indian philosophy against three possible meanings; he connects the other meaning with 'a characteristic of the Indian mind'. (5)
Radhakrishnan admits that 'The charge of unprogressiveness or stationariness holds when we reach the stage after the first great commentators'. (6) Considering Samkara and Ramanuja among the great commentators, we may say that the stationariness is about one thousand years old. From the following quoted passage, we can imagine how this stagnation took place. Radhakrishnan says:
It is now seventy five years gone since Radhakrishnan made this comment. (8) During this long period the situation has not changed at all. Even Radhakrishnan himself could not emancipate himself from the boundaries of the tradition to which he belongs. Thus we observe that Radhakrishnan 'is a follower of Samkara', and that 'Radhakrishnan reconciles the views of Samkara and Ramanuja...'. (9) Other contemporary Indian philosophers are Vivekananda, Tagore, Gandhi, Aurobindo Ghosh, K. C. Bhattacharya and Iqbal. (10) All these philosophers, except Iqbal, belong to the Vedic tradition. Among them, Vivekananda, Tagore and Ghosh are viewed as contemporary advaitins, i.e., the followers of the advaita version of the Vedanta school. (11) Bhattacharya, though he was influenced by Kant's distinction between phenomena and noumena in his attempt to defend the advaita view of the Vedanta school, yet he did not accept Kant's view of the unknowable. 'At this point, Bhattacharya joins issue with Kant and follows the Upanisads which declare Brahman [i.e. the Absolute] to be beyond speech and thought and yet not unknowable'. (12) Among all these thinkers, only Gandhi was least influenced by the age-old Indian tradition. The reason behind this is clear; Gandhi was more a political thinker than a philosopher in the traditional sense. Though he was influenced by the Gita, yet the hard political realities of Gandhi's time made him more independent from the ancient traditions. In the political domain, even the socialistic and communistic ideas of Jawahar Lal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, have come to be qualified as 'the plastic spirituality of Hinduism'. (13) On the other hand, Iqbal, a muslim philosopher, though was much influenced by western thought, yet has remained confined to a different tradition, one which is more than one thousand years old.
The purpose of bringing all these facts to focus is to show that philosophy in the South Asian subcontinent has failed to emerge beyond its ancient phase. If we now accept this finding, it will be rational on our part to find out the causes which are responsible for this failure and to suggest what we can do for a better future.
I shall say that there are three main causes why philosophy failed to develop in India beyond the ancient phase. Of these three causes, two are more psychological than philosophical and the other is epistemological.
The first main cause is that in the South Asian subcontinent, philosophy is based on religion. Since religions do not change, so philosophies based on religion do not change as well, except in the form of interpretation and re-interpretation. In Indian philosophy there are nine schools. Carvaka materialism is the only school, which is not based on any religion. Six other schools, viz., Sankhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisesika, Mimamsa and Vedanta, accept the authority of the Veda, the religious scripture of Hinduism. The two other schools, Buddhism and Jainism, are also religion-based.
But religion determines human life in such a way that the followers of a particular religion behave in some particular pattern. A philosophy, when it happens to be based on some religion, becomes related with how the followers of that religion think, feel, desire, hope, learn, intuit, and in a word, behave. This is why I would say that the unprogressiveness of Indian philosophy, via its religion-basis, is due to a reason, which is more psychological than philosophical. In the psychological sense of the term 'conditioning', we have been conditioned to philosophize in some particular pattern. (14)
The second cause of the above mentioned failure is our attachment to our heritage. It is clear that heritage is something which we receive from the past. If we feel satisfied with what we receive from the past, then why should there emerge a present which is more satisfactory than the past? We have seen in the above that Radhakrishnan has admitted, though not in the strong sense, the charge of unprogressiveness of Indian philosophy, and has yet himself remained unprogressive, being a follower of Samkara. This is because, Radhakrishnan himself suggests that for a glorious future, Indian philosophers may have two things, one of which is 'a love of what is old...'. (15) It is this love which is a problem. Love leads to emotional attachment and obstructs true rational considerations. And love makes things behavioral. This is why I think that this cause of the unprogressiveness of Indian philosophy is more psychological than philosophical.
The third cause of the unprogressiveness is the fact that the prominent schools of Indian philosophy accept authority or testimony as a source of knowledge. It is claimed that, 'regarding some matters, such as God, the state of liberation, etc., we cannot form any correct idea from ordinary experience; philosophy must depend for these on the experience of those few saints... . Authority, or the testimony of reliable persons and scriptures thus forms the basis of philosophy'. (16) This stand is fully accepted by Mimamsa and Vedanta schools, and it is a fact that the other schools, except Carvaka, accept this stand to some extent. Even the Nyaya school, which is well-known for its contribution to logic, surrendered to this tradition. For the proofs for the existence of God, Nyaya school puts forward an argument from the 'Authoritativeness of the Scriptures'. (17)
The word 'bondage' is used in Indian philosophy in a special sense; it means human subjugation to birth-circle process and the subsequent worldly sufferings. In fact, Indian philosophy is in bondage with its authoritative basis and it could not emancipate itself from its ancient influence. Indian philosophy was born again and again through interpretations and re-interpretations. I consider this bondage as epistemological, because it renders the teachings of seers and scriptures as the sources from which we know truths.
In the above discussion I have shown the nature, extent and the causes of the unprogressiveness of philosophy in the South Asian subcontinent. It is now natural that I may suggest some changes in our philosophical thinking for a better future of our philosophy. First, I shall show why one such suggestion, put forward by Radhakrishnan, is not acceptable.
Radhakrishnan says that, 'If the Indian thinkers combine a love of what is old with a thirst for what is true, Indian philosophy may yet have a future as glorious as its past'. (18) I have already shown in the above the problem which lies with love. The other problem is also apparent from Radhakrishnan's proposal. The problem is inherent in the relation between what is old and what is true. Since our love for what is old is not enough, Radhakrishnan recommends thirst for what is true; and love for what is old is not enough, because what is old may fall short in truth. Here exactly lies the problem. What is old is perhaps no longer true, and that is why love for the old has to be combined with the thirst for truth. In the strict philosophical sense, I shall agree with Bertrand Russell to say that, 'final truth belongs to heaven, not to this world'. (19) All our worldly truths are only relative truths. What was once true in the ancient period, may no longer fulfil our thirst for truth. Radhakrishnan realized this fact and yet failed to emancipate himself from the love of the old.
As an alternative to Radhakrishnan's proposal, I would suggest that to overcome unprogressiveness in philosophy, we must take four steps. First, philosophy must be made free from religion. Following Russell, I would say that logic is the essence of philosophy, (20) but not religion. Logic and religion do not match truly. Philosophy, to be pure, must be logical and only logical. In this connection I would say that St. Aquinas, even though his philosophy was deeply influenced by religion, made a distinction between theology and philosophy. And this distinction was officially recognized by the University of Paris in a decree, that no teacher of philosophy shall consider any one of the specifically theological questions. (21) This is why western philosophy could overcome the influence of religion on philosophy and western philosophy could develop through the modern and the contemporary periods. Philosophers in the South Asian subcontinent may follow this example of St. Aquinas on the distinction between philosophy and theology.
Secondly, I would say that we have to overcome our love for the old, for our heritage. Love makes people emotional and unites them with what is loved. Instead, we should have respect for our heritage, our past. Unlike love, respect emerges through evaluation, which is related to judgments of right and wrong, good and bad. And whereas love unites, respect maintains a line of demarcation between who respects and what is respectable. And in fact, what is most required here is a line of demarcation between our past and ourselves.
Thirdly, I suggest that authority should no longer be considered as a source of what we know. If we can do this, we should be able to be free from the bondage with the past. And this will help us to attain, in the context of philosophy, a future, which is not a shadow of the past.
Fourthly, I suggest that teachers of philosophy in the South Asian subcontinent should concentrate on the living issues of today's world, instead of concentrating on the age-old religion-based issues. For instance, one can concentrate on philosophy of science, on political, environmental and gender issues or on issues related to bio-medical ethics, and above all, what may be called applied philosophy. (22)
Finally, I shall say that I hope, I am not misunderstood as saying something against our heritage. Even though I have opposed our love for our heritage, I have recommended our respect for the same. And everything I have said, I have said with the desire in my mind for a better future. And I believe, for a better future we must overcome the drawbacks of the past; but for overcoming the drawbacks, we must first admit the drawbacks. This is only what I have done. I hope, may philosophy educate the humanity in the twenty-first century, and that we in the South Asian subcontinent be a part of it.
(1) See S. Radhakrishnan ed., History of Philosophy: Eastern and Western (London: Allen and Unwin, 1967), vol. I, p. 14.
(2) Ibid., p. 16.
(3) Cf., W. T. Stace, A Critical History of Greek Philosophy (London: Macmillan, 1962), p.22.
(4) S. Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosophy (London: Allen and Unwin, 1941), vol. I, p. 52. First published in 1923.
(5) Ibid., p. 53.
(6) Ibid., p. 53.
(7) Ibid., p. 51.
(8) Though Radhakrishnan's Indian Philosophy was first published in 1923, it is clear from the date of the 'Preface' to the first edition, that the book was prepared in manuscript form in 1922.
(9) S. Radhakrishnan, ed., History of Philosophy: Eastern and Western, vol. I, p. 535.
(10) Cf., B. K. Lal, Contemporary Indian Philosophy (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1989).
(11) Cf., S. Radhakrishnan, ed., History of Philosophy: Eastern and Western, vol. I, pp. 303f, 529.
(12) Ibid., p. 534.
(13) Ibid., p. 532.
(14) This psychological aspect is further clear when Radhakrishnan says, in the context of Indian Philosophy, that 'Every doctrine is turned into a passionate conviction, stirring the heart of man and quickening his breath'. (Indian Philosophy, vol. I, p. 27.)
(15) Ibid., p. 53.
(16) S. Chatterjee and D. Datta, An Introduction to Indian Philosophy (Calcutta, India: University of Calcutta publication, 1968), p. 8.
(17) Ibid., pp. 214f.
(18) S. Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosophy, vol. I, p. 53, my italics.
(19) B. Russell, An Outline of Philosophy (London: Allen and Unwin, 1961), p. 3.
(20) B. Russell, "Logic as the Essence of Philosophy", in I. M. Copi and J. A. Gould, ed., Readings on Logic (New York: Macmillan, 1970), pp. 78-91.
(21) Cf. F. Thilly, A History of Philosophy (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966), p. 228.
(22) See, B. Almond and D. Hill, ed., Applied Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1991).