Street Metaphysics I: Indian Philosophy for Children
This is the first article on a series about how to do Indian philosophy today.
It’s impossible to do philosophy without a sense of history, for philosophy always engages with texts and traditions that came before the current crop of thinkers. Unfortunately, history is an emotionally difficult concept for a colonized people. Is our history worth celebrating? Does it even exist?
There are several ways to solve the problem of history. Let me count the ways:
My travels in Indian Philosophical territory revealed a rather confused terrain. There’s the Indian philosophy of unimpeachable ancient wisdom, a continuous stream of insight that floods down from heaven and issues forth into the world from the mouths of gurus both dead and alive. There’s the Indian philosophy of the pandit, reading and writing commentaries in a long tradition while arguing with opponents in a long tradition of their own. More recently, there’s the Indian philosophy of the Harvard professor, the painstaking footnoted comparative study of Indian and Western texts written for a scholarly first world audience.
Let’s consider the first: that Indians are the inheritors of a continuous four or five thousand year old civilization. Culturally, this perspective has been — by far — the most powerful, since it was the official position of the freedom struggle and of the various fundamentalisms that dot our landscape. Gandhi gives voice to that idea in Hind Swaraj, but his is not the only interpretation. The idea of India animates such opposing views as Nehru’s Discovery of India and Savarkar’s Hindu-Pad-Padashahi.
Unfortunately, the idea of India suffers from problems of its own. The first and most obvious one: what about Islam? Are Muslims within the idea of India (Nehru) or rejected by it (Savarkar)? The creation of a unified, continuous civilization also makes it possible to create enemies where none existed; to create a clash of civilizations before that term was invented. Like the death star in Star Wars, the idea of India also has a flaw at its core: what if the idea is evil? What if Indian civilization is built on an ideology of caste that has oppressed most of its people for millennia?
We should all thank Ambedkar for turning the problem on its head and revealing the misery of those at the bottom of the pyramid.
The idea has other flaws too, also pointed out by Ambedkar: how does the idea account for the incredible diversity of cultures and beliefs, especially when those beliefs are in opposition? Where’s the unity in diversity? Then there’s the additional twist that there’s no obvious continuity between an ancient civilization — assuming that existed — and a modern nation state. Britain, France and Germany are self-confessed members of European civilization but they are distinct nation states, states that have done their best to kill each other even as they colonized everyone else. While the European Union is a response to the violence of European nationalism, it’s not that easy to turn cultural affinity into political unity.
Then came the retreat from the idea. The retreat has a marginal life: it mostly lives in universities and scholarly texts. Academics are scared of pathologies. They want their arguments to be the healthiest, error free arguments that anyone can make. Instead of rejecting history, they tried to embrace it; perhaps too much.
Which is when the trouble started, for if you unpack what Indian means to most people, what Philosophy means to most people and what Indian Philosophy means to most people, and if you’re most people you’re probably filled with a longing academic books won’t satisfy.
Let’s start with the first of three terms: Indian. Close your eyes and tell me when what you see when you imagine that term. Does it call up images of loud weddings and Bollywood songs? Do you see saffron clad gurus and smiling monks? Or do you see rigid hierarchies, both ancient and modern, emaciated children and beggars lining a temple road? The urban Indian imagination is so compromised by its unequal encounter with the west that it can only conceive itself along western lines. Computers and caste. Books about India, especially those written in English, are either full of rowdy families and fantastic images or narrations of wretched lives. Unless they’re about a perennial philosophy that’s never been corrupted by materialism. Nothing wrong with the west, by the way. It’s only when it robs us of our autonomy that we should start worrying.
Let’s go to the next term now: philosophy. If India is a multitude of voices, the philosophy bookshelves in our stores mirror that chaos. I made it a habit of looking at philosophy bookshelves in every store that had one and the random assortment of books on street path bookstores. The good news is that philosophical ideas have much more currency in India than anywhere else. They’re a staple of the sidewalk along with religion and self-help. You will find Bertrand Russell, Dale Carnegie and Ramakrishna sitting cheek to jowl in almost every shelf or tarpaulin that plays host to the written word.
That indiscriminate array also reveals a confused terrain. What mind classifies astrology, cosmology and logic in one pile?
There was a time when I would condemn the barbarians and walk away. As it turns out, I was wrong, not them. I was too caught up in my own academic classification of right and wrong, of blindly accepting modern — and by modern, I mean western, and so do you — scholarly values without asking whether they are the right values for Indian society today.
Do read carefully though. The opposition between western and Indian I am outlining is in the realm of ideas. I am not talking about a clash between western values and traditional values, about keeping women at home and men at work because that’s the traditional way. The key difference is between the rigorous, peer-reviewed professional literature of modern scholarship and the haphazard array of influences you see on the street. Today’s India needs more of the street and less of the ivory tower.
The reason is simple: we are in the early stages of re-forming ourselves as a nation and a society. There’s no doubt that modernity has disrupted if not destroyed all of our traditional structures. It wasn’t just political domination that started in 1757 and ended in 1947. Conquerors come and go; some are absorbed and others are driven out. Modernity is something different: it has stripped us of our clothes and left us naked and shivering. That’s the adult view, that we have been robbed of our dignity and freedom and forced to roam the countryside like feral children. An enterprising child might have a different view, that there’s opportunity lurking behind the loss. In our second infancy, we need to behave as children do: have a rich imaginary life, be curious about everything and everything, ready to learn from errors. In contrast, western societies have settled on a comfortable adult pattern, where they can put on their suits and go to work as professionals and experts.
We shouldn’t switch to suits from our shorts quite yet. Even if the western patterns — with an Indian twist — are the right adulthood for us, there’s no reason for us to hurry to get there. Easier said than done though, since every child wishes to be an adult, just as every adult misses the romance of youth. We Indians want to play with the bullies, to be seen as a superpower. Invade a couple of countries and make the rest sing to our tune.
Philosophers try not to invade other countries but they too want a seat at the grownup table, even as their strategies for achieving superpower status have changed over time. For a while, Indian philosophy was burdened with the accusation of softness, of an unmanly irrationalism better suited to women and children than the manly imperial ideas of Europe. It was a hard accusation to rebut, especially when those manly Europeans were ruling over us. Then someone realized that the men of Europe were desperately unhappy, that spiritualism had a market precisely because it was opposed to the dominant militarism of the west.
While spiritualism of every kind flourished in the Victorian era, Indian spirituality had an additional ace up its sleeve: it wasn’t Christian. In other words, however traditional it might be in its home country, Indian ideas weren’t anti-scientific (how could they be, when science itself was formed in opposition to Christianity!) and therefore, they could be embraced by liberal westerners as fresh, progressive alternatives to the twin horrors of militarism and rationalism. We ran with that horse for a while, didn’t we? Even now places like Dharamsala and Puttaparthi glow from the reflected glory of the white sun.
Unfortunately for the spiritualist, rationalism is joined at the hip to adulthood. In one version of western myth-making, the ancient Greeks were the first adults since they set aside the gods of their forefathers and embraced the laws of reason. Socrates is their hero, the man who starts his journey by questioning pompous devotion. Since then adulthood hangs over the philosopher’s castle like a thundercloud, ready to shoot bolts at anyone who steps outside the house of reason. The spiritualist can claim access to truths beyond the reach of reason, but we suspect that his rejection of rationality is a sign of powerlessness rather than a principled choice. Our leaders scream about Vedic spaceships at their political rallies but buy expensive weapons from France and America. Do we need to say more?
Independence unleashed a new set of ambitions for achieving adulthood. Once political power was within grasp, it was natural to imagine oneself in the halls of intellectual power as well. While the colonial guru-philosopher could only cast himself as an alternative to the west, touring Europe and America to dispense ancient wisdom, the postcolonial philosopher had imperial ambitions. He wants tenure at Harvard. He wants Indian philosophy to be taught to undergraduates just as western philosophy is. Most importantly, he wants philosophy to stop being synonymous with western philosophy. It’s not a terrible ambition, for surely philosophical thoughts have been thought by people throughout the world. Shouldn’t we recognize wisdom wherever it’s to be found?
I couldn’t agree more, but my suspicion is that the Indian philosopher and his Chinese, Japanese and Islamic counterparts don’t want a democracy of philosophy. They only want four more seats at the bully pulpit. It’s no different from the Security Council at the UN. We aren’t saying “abolish permanent membership!” Instead, we are demanding that our name be added to the roster of veto powers.
Whatever we call it: superpower, grownup table, permanent member, the Indian philosopher wants his ideas to receive that status, exactly at the time that philosophy is being relegated to has-been status. It’s a bit like baseball in America. There was a time when every town had baseball leagues and soccer (i.e., what we call football) was a sport for losers. Now every town has a soccer league and baseball struggles to find players. If you’re an up and coming Indian sports promoter, which sport would you invest your ambitions?
Anyway, that’s the ever sordid story of adult control: find a way to climb the ladder and then kick it away so that no one else can follow you to the top. Even the magic of power can’t change the fact that the adult table is boring. We have the opportunity to play and experiment in ways that are impossible in London and New York. Why miss that opportunity?
The spiritualists were right in rejecting the aggression of the modern world but their rebellion was one of shame, a conquered people dressing up their house in a fresh coat of paint while the beams are being eaten by termites. Adults too ashamed to admit that they were powerless.
When slaves from different parts Africa found themselves on plantations in the Caribbean, they couldn’t talk to each other. Their native tongues were radically different. Their children were more inventive: they created a hybrid language out of their parent’s incomprehension. While adults lament their loss, children make up a new world.
Don’t get me wrong: the Indian loss is real. We should give what aid we can to those who resist. At the same time, we should open up to the possibility that a new world is waiting to be created and that in order to do so, we should reject all adult games and start afresh.
There are literary advantages to a child’s innocence: we don’t have to stick to the dreary prose of the adult philosopher or even the strictures of argument. Imagination becomes more valuable than knowledge. Once we acknowledge that, a vast array of imaginative tools such as pictures, myths, tales, games are at our disposal. Remember, having fun is as important as telling the truth.
Of course, there’s a downside as well: by becoming childlike, I run the risk of becoming childish, a grown man throwing a tantrum. Men never do that do they? They’re always being reasonable. If only. Better to err on the side of unseriousness than pomposity.