THE PHILOSOPHER and former president of India, S Radhakrishnan, writing in the early 1920s, still a British subject, ascribed to a study of Indian philosophy the ability to free the mind “from bondage to authority… For when the enslaved intellect is freed, original thinking and creative effort might again be possible”. The study of Indian philosophy is not, then, some abstract, highfalutin exercise, but an essential introduction to critical thinking, to the sceptical examination of ideas. For Radhakrishnan, it was also a way to inculcate in his Indian readers a sense of shared history, of a culture, a way of thinking and being that had lasted a millennia, had survived waves of invaders: “It may be a melancholy satisfaction to the present-day Indian to know some details of his country’s early history. Old men console themselves with the stories of their youth, and the way to forget the bad present is to read about the good past.” The evocation of that good past was to retain self-respect, to assert the dignity of a people on the verge of embarking on a nation-building project. Unfortunately, these idealised images have been usurped by the Hindu Right-wing to construct a pristine past, with the Vedas, the Upanishads and the great epics read as holy Hindu scripture shorn of ambiguity.
Amartya Sen, in the preface to The Argumentative Indian, points out the interest Muslim invaders took in the Mahabharata and Ramayana, in the Upanishads, in their stories, questions and protracted musings. In a footnote, Sen writes that the “first translation of the Upanishads — the most philosophical part of the Vedic Hindu literature — that caught the attention of European intellectuals was the Persian translation produced in the seventeenth century by the Mughal prince Dara Shikoh”. The literature, whatever its particular religious character, is human, filled with curiosity, wonder, doubt, fear, devotion, love, knowledge, understanding, misunderstanding, courage and weakness. The conversation between Arjun and Krishna alone contains all these; the wholeness of Upanishadic philosophy, its monism uniting the individual self with the eternal spirit of everything, has also had a lasting impact on American philosophy and literature, inspiring Emerson’s Transcendentalism, the Beats, William James and Josiah Royce.
Hindu philosophy, the astika and nastika schools taken together (pro-Vedic and anti-Vedic respectively, or orthodox and heterodox, if you prefer), is open to instability, to dissent, to every facet of argument and criticism. Atheism sits easily alongside theism, the material alongside the spiritual. Its openness, its malleability, its willingness to expand to include every new thought while retaining the old has enabled it to survive. Radhakrishnan writes:
“Of the great civilisations of the world, hoary with age, only the Indian still survives… She has been renewing her youth whenever the course of history demanded it. When a change occurs, it is not consciously felt to be a change. It is achieved, and all the time it professes to be only a new name for an old way of thinking.” In other words, you only get to be 4,000 years old by learning to adapt. Sociologist Ashis Nandy writes that “[P]robably the uniqueness of Indian culture lies not so much in a unique ideology as in the society’s traditional ability to live with cultural ambiguities and to use them to build psychological and metaphysical defences against cultural defences.”
In ‘Volume I’ of his primer Indian Philosophy, Radhakrishnan says of the thinker, the seeker of metaphysical truths that the “people of India have such an immense respect for these philosophers who glory in the might of knowledge and the power of the intellect, that they worship them”. Indian society still values knowledge and education, except it’s not so much education itself that we value, but the end to which it is a means; pragmatism, careerism at the expense of engagement, perhaps. Speaking to Contributing Editor Ashok Malik in this magazine, Nandy said, “Academics must participate in public debate, if you don’t, the gap will be filled by someone else and what you want to say will remain unsaid. It is our duty as intellectuals to participate.” All intellectuals, in principle, should be public intellectuals. The term has through overuse now become tarnished. Academics who prefer the safety of their studies deride (perhaps a little enviously) ‘public intellectuals’ for their lack of seriousness, for trading in the recondite pages of academic journals for the crass formulations and simplicities of newspaper columns and TV ‘debates’. The greater concern is the absence of critical contemplation from all spheres of our public life. In our fractious national conversation, only the loudest, most certain voices are heard, leaving little room for qualification, complication and doubt.
MULTIPLE STRANDS coalescing into one is at the heart of Indian thought. In the conclusion to the second volume of Indian Philosophy, Radhakrishnan says, “Different views are not looked upon as unrelated adventures of the human mind into the realm of the unknown or a collection of philosophical curiosities. They are regarded as the expression of a single mind, which has built up the great temple, though it is divided into numerous walls and vestibules, passages and pillars.” This metaphor of Indian thought as a rambling building, added onto rather than torn down and rebuilt with each successive generation, is reflected in a country improbably constructed. Historian Ramachandra Guha, in a recent lecture at New York University, posited India as “the most recklessly ambitious political experiment in human history” and “both the world’s most unnatural nation and least likely democracy”, referring to its almost absurd diversity and the enfranchisement of a “largely illiterate population”.
Indian philosophy is a history of the Sisyphean attempt to attain self-knowledge
What keeps India whole is its inclusivity, all difference contained within a single governing principle — a monistic ideal.
The differences in India have often threatened to overwhelm the almost invisible threads of union in the country’s 65 years. India’s youth and its continued turbulence, its poverty, its inequalities, the barely repressed insurrection in significant swathes of the country, are worth bearing in mind when we wax lyrical about its millennia-old cultural capaciousness. We appear to have become increasingly irritated by our philosophical acceptance of difference, to see it as an impediment to the all-consuming goal of economic growth. There is a grave need for constant intellectual engagement with India, for new ideas about Indian development. In The Illegitimacy of Nationalism, Nandy writes about Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi’s “fear of nationalism”, that “the two most influential theorists of Indianness of our times… did not want their society to be caught in a situation where the idea of the Indian nation would supersede that of the Indian civilisation, and where the actual ways of life of Indians would be assessed solely in terms of the needs of an imaginary nation-state called India.”
What would Tagore and Gandhi make of India today? What would they make of this jingoistic nation determined to achieve superpower status? There seems to be just one story being told about India now and it’s about our relentless march towards development, a seat at the high table of nations. The chief cheerleader is a media delirious with the prospect of domination. Writer Pankaj Mishra, in his recent book, From the Ruins of Empire, tells the story of Tagore’s humiliating reception in China, of the boos and catcalls that greeted this representative of an enslaved, subjugated people. What could they learn from him? I imagine Tagore would be received in our TV studios by our puffed up news anchors with similar disdain. The question of an alternative to the Western model of development has been put aside, is irrelevant to our aspirations. Nandy is acute on how the Indian nation moved away from its cultural impulse towards femininity and androgyny to the masculine values of the coloniser. How hyper-masculine is the Indian State and how hyper-masculine are those figures on television with their forceful interruptions, their grandstanding denunciations, their aggressive questions to which they already know the answers?
Our news channels, newspapers and magazines no longer have the space for, or are even interested in thought, in ideas, in alternatives. We’d rather have politicians from opposing parties indulge in political theatre masquerading as debate on television than ask serious questions about ourselves. Writer Amit Chaudhuri, reviewing The Argumentative Indian, writes that “the problem of Indian modernity and humanism needs to be examined afresh; that, if Indian modernity is a way of viewing the world, we haven’t scrutinised, enough, the gaze in the mirror.” The political ground has been almost entirely ceded to the corrupt, the ambitious and the opportunistic; all entirely incapable of self-reflection. What passes for radicalism in our politics is Anna Hazare’s diminished gestures towards satyagraha, and hunger strikes that more and more resemble, as BR Ambedkar said of one of Gandhi’s fasts, “the worst form of coercion”. And when there is genuine protest, genuine questions asked about the path our country is taking, as at, say, Koodankulam, the government responds with charges of sedition and violent suppression. The rest of us are too busy shopping to notice.
The history of Indian thought, Indian philosophy is a history of accretion, of integrating dissent, of the Sisyphean attempt to attain self-knowledge. We’re currently in a fallow period marked by brash certainty. It’s time to start thinking again.
Shougat Dasgupta is an Assistant Editor with Tehelka.