Jayary Newsletter # 90

Mirror Mirror

Philosophy is often thought of as a mirror of nature, the abstract surface on which humans see their collective reflection. Today, that role is increasingly usurped by science, but I won't concern myself with that difference between science and philosophy; it's not a sharp distinction. Instead, I will call science "natural philosophy" and let that semantic trick serve my needs.

Indian philosophy is a cracked mirror covered with the grime of centuries. It's been shut away in a corner of the museum, away from from the public; only experts are allowed to view the rooms in which those texts are stored.

Some of my friends are trying to restore the glass to its pristine form while simultaneously showing the public a few glimpses of what it's like to see oneself in that mirror. They have a hard and difficult task ahead; more power to them. I have a different thought: give a man a mirror and he'll stare at himself all day long; teach him how to make mirrors and he will make telescopes.

Reflecting telescopes use the most sophisticated mirrors ever made and even in our robotic times, the best method to create high quality spherical mirrors is to rub two pieces of glass against each other so that they erode the imperfections off of each other.

Justifying the Jaya

That's my philosophical model: let the Jaya and modernity serve as mirror duals. The choice of modernity is obvious: it's the beast that's swallowed us and we are trying to figure out whether we can digest the beast from the inside. Why choose the Mahabharata, and not one (or several) of the millions of philosophical texts in the Indian textual corpus? I have three reasons:

  1. Formal traditions are brittle: they depend on ritualized modes of technical argument and those rituals don't thrive outside the specific milieu in which they are transmitted. How many people write original commentaries on Gangesa today? In contrast, the Jaya has been adopted and adapted by every culture in every period in every medium. Formal texts belong to the ivory tower; stories to the street. The tower is more powerful while it's occupied, but the street is smarter in the face of adversity.

  2. The Jaya is fun. Now that's a strange idea: how can a philosophical project be chosen for its entertainment value? There you go again with your elitism: do keep in mind that if you aren't read, you're either dead or have corporate sponsorship. Today, that means tenure at a (preferably) western university. In which case you have to do what the sponsor says, which is to slot yourself into a niche within a niche. I doubt it's possible to swallow the modern beast while begging for crumbs from the beast's C team.

  3. The Jaya is creative and comprehensive: as the epic itself says, "what's not in here is nowhere else." We may not agree with the Jaya's self-assessment, but its ambition is worth emulating. Its capacity for multiple registers and literary, philosophical and religious styles is exactly what we need today. Thinking like the Jaya is more likely to give us the tools to grasp and shape modernity for our purposes.

Codewords

Explaining the Jaya's role in the mirror of nature wasn't that hard. What about modernity?

To be frank, I hate that term. It's used as a codeword for everything from Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" to the latest iPhone; what explanatory power can you expect from a term with such broad usage?

Except that codewords are useful precisely as codewords. When the gatekeeper at the secret society meeting asks you for the codeword, you don't worry about the meaning of that term; what matters to you is that uttering "Open Sesame" makes the door open for you instead of being shot dead on the spot. More benign codewords are like saying "pay attention to me." Leftists use the term "capitalism" in a similar way, as an indicator to their audience that we are now speaking about the source of all evil, and since evil surrounds us on all sides, there's no point isolating any single aspect of it.

I believe the early Christians had a similar tendency; they weren't that different from leftists, I guess.

I don't find evil lurking everywhere, so I am going to use the term "modernity" in one very specific way: to indicate the human relationship with the nonhuman world. Take note: Nonhuman + World. I didn't want to use the term "nature" for it belongs to an even more nebulous galaxy than modernity.

Fortunately, the Jaya has much to say about the human-nonhuman nexus; if you've been reading the Jayary with me, you know I have raised that issue several times this year. That's another reason to pair the Jaya off with nonhuman modernity.