Jayary Newsletter #50
Indian philosophy doesn't have a future. What do I mean by that?Future, for me, signifies a stream of human activity - creative as well as scholarly -that's continuous with the past, referring back to an identifiable group of ancestors even as it seeks to go further than they ever imagined. Every future has a past. I have talked about two pasts (or should I say two pastimes):
The civilizational past imagined during the nineteenth century and strengthened during the independence struggle. We might as well call it the "The Idea of India," i.e., a civilization incubated between the Indus and the Brahmaputra that's culminated in the modern nation state of the same name.
The departmental past imagined post-independence with the goal of getting tenure at Oxford and Harvard.
Neither of these ideas has a future. The idea of India has turned flesh and now exists as a nation-state. With that material success has also come imaginative failure; the only people who care about connecting the present with the historic past are people who wear brown shorts. It's as if creationism is the only viable theory of biology.
The departmental idea was stillborn. Who cares about the The Journal of Indian Philosophy? Imagine a world dominated by China in which the vast majority of current academia, from Aristotle's ethics to Kant's critiques to Newtonian mechanics, Marxist economics and startup wisdom is bundled into one department of Greek Philosophy and taught primarily as a philological exercise. Who in his right mind would want to send his daughter to study this masala?
So what do we do? Fortunately, I can expand the first line of this section into: Indian philosophy doesn't have a future, but it has possibilities.
If you're like me, stories are elemental, imbibed -literally- with mother's milk. The story form with all it's twists and surprises, its concern for fact as well as fantasy, is more durable than argument. What if the basic elements of philosophy are stories rather than principles?
The itihasm is a storyhouse, a warehouse of stories; behind it lies the idea that philosophy can be best done by starting from a set of atomic stories. If so, the itihasm is an alternative to the standard philosophical model of reducing a subject to its principles, a model that's been popular in the west since Aristotle and with considerable following in India as well.
That said, I believe Indian thinkers took the philosophical story further than anyone else, and the popularity of these stories drenches the landscape with metaphysical insight. In other words, just as American teenagers (used to) learn how to take apart and fix cars over summer vacations, we learned how to illustrate and explain difficult philosophical concepts with the right story. The Jaya is the culmination of that cultural expertise.
In reviving the fortunes of Indian philosophy, we should pay attention to style as much as content. The story-form is a stylistic device with enormous potential, especially on the web. Just as cell phones transformed communication while we were waiting for landlines to arrive, I believe the web and experiments with hypertext will give Indian philosophical ideas a platform the hardcover never did.
The Jaya is - among other things - a vision of infinity, culminating in Krishna's revelation of the Vishwarupa on the battlefield. While the Jaya's vision is terrifying, there are other, less frightening poetic visions of infinity as well. For example, in a poem that many of us have read, William Blake says:
"To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour."
Not a bad exhortation, but missing some crucial details. How does one hold infinity in the palm of one's hand? Georg Cantor had a very specific answer to that question that's kept many of us busy, but there's also a more general answer: to hold infinity in the palm of one's hand is to hold a book, and the Jaya would add, "if you were to hold one infinite book then you might as well hold me." The itihasa is confident about its palm primacy, for it says that if the choice is between holding the Vedas and holding the Mahabharata in one's hand, you would be stupid not to take the second option.
What the secret of the Jaya's confidence? How does it hold infinity better than anything else? Or does it?
That's the question I want to explore. And the itihasm of stories is the key to the answer.