Hinduism in a Postmodern World – III

The need to deconstruct Indian thought has led it to be defined in silos which goes against its essential nature.

Hinduism in a Postmodern World – III

Continued from Hinduism in a Postmodern World Part 1 and Part 2

The Seat of Power: As Conceived in Indic Traditions

In the earlier parts of this series we have investigated from where and how power emanates in the postmodernist conceptual universe. That partly takes care of the pūrva pakṣa of postmodernism as a philosophy, as an attitude, or as a way to interpret the world. Now it is time to bring the focus of this investigation back on Indic traditions, with a special emphasis on Hinduism. A proper understanding of the sources of power and the dynamic of power-relations in Hinduism and other Indic traditions (Such as Buddhism and Jainism) is the first step towards building a credible and sound response (or as we call it in the Indic traditions, anuttara pakṣa) to the postmodern narrative, from Indic quarters.  

Is it the individual, or is it the collective – wherefrom does power emanate? That is the big question; but then again, such a line of query that rules out the possibility of a middle ground, or any other form of alignment between power and the humankind, can be generated only by the Western model of thinking and perceiving the world. Hence such questions are usually posed by an essentially Western mind. Coming from the Western hemisphere of humanity’s intellectual universe, it bears the mark of categorising the object of knowledge into neatly defined and countable boxes. One Western tradition finds the individual as the fountainhead and the repository of power, another asserts that forming and identifying oneself with a collective is the basic requirement for yielding power. That is the difference between different Western schools of thought, and such difference has formed contending camps of philosophers in the West, who take up binary approaches to make sense of the world by questioning it. Some of them believe there is no ultimate truth, while some of them do believe in the worthwhileness of the search for the ultimate truth, a sort of general theory of everything.

The Indian mind, on the other hand, would rather pose a question which sounds something like: how are the individual and the community placed in relation to each other, with regard to the question of power concerning both? A cursory look at the social organisation of India from ancient times and up to the present moment may make it appear like India has always preferred the community over the individual to generate and exercise power over nature and humanity. But a deeper study of the Indian civilisation is bound to reveal the truth that this ancient civilisation has never indulged in finding solutions in binary set-ups. The questions she has asked have been more nuanced than that, and so have been her solutions.

And questioning, when done in a certain highly sincere manner – the thing we Indians call Śraddhā – becomes something more than raising questions. It becomes Seeking.

If an Indic tradition has ever asked its adherents to follow any religion at all, it is the religion of Seeking.

This is how faith becomes secondary to Seeking in Indic traditions, especially in Hinduism; for here the only purpose served by faith is to instil courage in the human mind so that it may dare the trials of Saṁsāra, of life. Faith informs him that there is an ultimate Goal, and the Goal is True, but the rest must be worked out by the individual. Of course, there are the exemplary lives lived by those who have bravely charted the treacherous course. The examples of those lived experiences are to be pondered as & when necessary and to be benefitted from. But no God, Faith, divine intervention or book will be able to get the necessary work done for the individual.

We Indians have called this faith by various names: Guru, śabda pramāṇa, śruti, vāk, vānī, Vedas. It is not for no reason that Nanak Panthis regard their book as the eternal Guru.

Of Samadhi

Awareness, knowledge, understanding, and Realisation – these are categories treated separately in the present exercise. They are the various modes of absorbing information; they differ from each other, and yet are linked insofar as the course of processing received information (or raw knowledge) takes place before Consciousness, which acts as a witness. Siddhas inform us that the consummation of this course is Samadhi. Attaining Samadhi, the individual becomes Jñānī, Buddha, or Brāhmaṇa (i.e. one who has known the Brahman).

This information, according to Hindu traditions (especially Vedanta), merely triggers the knowledge that is already contained in the Atman, which, being one and the same with the Brahman (literally, the Biggest), is the repository of all knowledge.  

Awareness is a heightened mode, in the sense that it is distinct from (and in its extreme form, diametrically opposed to) ‘slumber’ – a term by which I imply specifically to that condition which some describe as the “deep sleep” state. Consciousness (cit) is the fountainhead of all forms of awareness, whether dimmed or acute, and awareness is therefore the manifestation process through which a being is awakened from slumber to dream in the Awakened State, or the Super-conscious State, or the Buddha State. We may try to understand this with the help of a simple comparison. Consciousness is rather like a mirror, whose surface has accumulated stains and dust over time. One can make some effort and clean the surface of the mirror to free it of all the dust and stains. As long as the surface of the mirror was obscure due to the dust and stains, one could not see themselves in the mirror. Becoming aware is comparable to the process of cleaning the mirror– the act of lifting the veil of obscurities or Maya. Vedanta says that the pure, unadulterated Consciousness is the True Self of all human beings, indeed, of all living creatures – Advaitins go one step further to assert that this very Consciousness underlying the human Self is indeed the Consciousness of the Universe, and that it is the only Reality, the only Truth that is there – or at least the only Truth worth knowing, as all else is contingent on this One, Ultimate Truth. However, for some reason or the other, dust and stains obscure this great Consciousness, which is the basis of our being, from time to time. The moment the veil of obscurities is lifted from the surface of the human Consciousness, one gets to know her one True Self – one becomes a Buddha.

Great siddha yogis, accomplished sādhakas testify that one seldom wants to come back from that heightened, Super-conscious state where the being has found its True meaning and its justification. Once they have attained that status, the concomitant bliss is enough for them to forego all other desires and wishes. Thus, barring a select few, most siddhas choose to remain in that state of unperturbed, silent consciousness. This is Samadhi.     

We can now safely make a statement, with some measure of impunity, as to what purpose Hinduism serves. Hinduism – not just a religion, not just a way of life, not just a grand and immensely complex culture, but something more than that – a very intelligent and organic system of acquiring knowledge, processing that acquired knowledge, and finally formulating that processed knowledge into concepts which give a comprehensive understanding of one’s Self and the Universe. The express goal of Hinduism is to enable the human being to ultimately attain the status of Buddhahood.

This is part of the uttara pakṣa.

But let’s hark back to our pūrva pakṣa for a moment here. (Such oscillating back and forth between the two aspects of the response keeps occurring throughout our exercise, as the reader may already have noticed, and will keep occurring for facilitating this comparative study.) According to postmodernists, truth is only relative – it depends upon the observer’s culture. Hinduism has a radically different approach to Truth. It holds that the Truth is one: different observers can only partly know the truth as long as they are conditioned by their own cultural and intellectual impressions, habits and presuppositions which are the results of thoughts and actions accumulated through numerous lives (known as saṁskāra); and yet it is very much possible – even inevitable – to see (hence darśana) the whole of Truth by breaking away from all those accumulated conditionings.

Hence postmodernism is essentially an orientation-specific worldview, while Hinduism is a worldview which posits that the Truth is ever-present, and is not affected by our ignorance or cognizance of it. In this, Hinduism may sound like realism to those trained in Western philosophy, but in truth the two are ontologically, epistemologically and ethically far from each other. In the Western philosophical discourse, realism affirms the existence of objects of knowledge (mainly those which are perceptible to the senses) independent of the human cognitive processes (like thinking, perceiving, meditating, reflecting, imagining etc.). Hinduism and some other Indic traditions declare that cognition of the most refined kind is able to perceive the Truth that the objects of knowledge are but a projection of the Conscious Subject, which is Atman. Since the Atman is ever present, the ignorance of the non-Awakened does not harm any of the projected, contingent truths. The contingent truths may come out of and go back to the Atman in an endless cycle.       

Postmodernism’s idea of truth is heavily obscured by subjective interpretation. Postmodernism encourages subjectivity – but postmodernists conflate subjectivity with egotism, resentment, fear, inferiority, victimhood (or ‘survivor-hood’) and all such negative emotions. Such a take on subjectivity is indeed a very loose theorisation, for it renders the task of finding out the real ‘subject’ immensely difficult. The Indic/dharmic traditions (since they are based on dharma), on the other hand, have a highly nuanced theory of subjectivity to offer: there is no real distinction between the Subject and the object of knowledge, the distinction is due to the accumulation of selfish karma and the resultant saṁskāra. The Indic/dharmic traditions boldly declare that the whole universe as it appears on the surface is but a reflection of the Subject which is Consciousness. The Subject is trying to know Itself; and it must have a darśana of Itself, through trial and error. An affirmation of this Indic worldview, this dharmic orientation has the potential to resolve the postmodern madness and save lives.         

Rejecting Philosophies That Institute Dogmas

It is important to understand how the different schools of thought within Western philosophy, other than postmodernism, perceive Hinduism and some other Indic traditions. An essentially Indic, dharmic approach to the world and an individual’s place in it, as understood by dharmic traditions, would be described as ‘holism’ in the terminology used by the Western philosopher. Holism is the philosophical view that “the universe and especially living nature is correctly seen in terms of interacting wholes (as of living organisms) that are more than the mere sum of elementary particles”. (Merriam-Webster) The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines the same in the following manner:

“Holism may be defined as the view that adequate understanding of certain kinds of entities requires understanding them as a whole. This is often held to be true for biological and social systems, for example, an organism, an ecosystem, an economy, or a culture.  A corollary that is typically held to follow from this view is that such entities have properties that cannot be reduced to the entities’ constituent parts.”   

Western philosophers often claim that the fundamental philosophical question that keeps them preoccupied is actually the question of meaning. This can be rephrased to claim that what they and their disciplines are concerned with is how to interpret concepts and terminologies. Therefore, a big part of Western philosophy is the philosophy of language, which is that branch of Western philosophy that concerns itself with the nature of meaning of thoughts/ideas/feelings/concepts as expressed through language, and the relationship between language and reality. This discussion is necessary to understand how Western philosophy categorises traditional Indian darśana (loosely translated as philosophy) according to its own labels. This sort of labelling is a form of linguistic translation (i.e. translation of one language’s words/terms/conceptual categories into another’s), and as a result of the vast differences between the approaches of Western and Indian worldviews to the world, such translations are often marked by the defect of reductionism.

It has been frequently observed that philosophers who write in English and other European languages (including Indian philosophers) often translate Nyāya darśana as realism and the Buddhist darśana in general as phenomenalism. These English philosophical terms can grasp the Indian darśana terms only to a certain extent; for the goal of Western philosophy is abstraction of the gross (i.e. what is made up of material or perceptible elements) and the specific, whereas the goal of Indic darśana is to clearly indicate the harmony of the abstract and the mere material through sensory experience. Thus, the philosophies of realism, phenomenalism, and even holism fall short of capturing the essence of any of the Indic schools of philosophical thought mentioned above. Yet, these Western schools of philosophical thought are not destructive for Hinduism or any other Indic dharmic tradition as postmodernism tends to be. In fact, postmodernism demonstrates the same destructive tendency in its approach to each of the above Western schools as well. This is because the central dogmas in postmodernism are by their very nature destructive to the values that have been cherished across several human civilisations. Those central dogmas are:

  • Every single interpretation of a phenomenon or a text is equally valid; i.e. each interpretation has the same value – there is no reason as to why one should have precedence over another
  • All human relations are defined by power structures; i.e. humans interact with each other according to the need for one group of humans to acquire the power to control another group of humans 
  • Knowledge, Reality, Reason or Truth are inadequate for solving the problems of the human existence; and in fact they are the agencies to bring about dominance, oppression and destruction

How to Be On Guard without Being Defensive

We have to make our understanding of the intellect, and consequently those who are considered intellectuals, very clear. Any confusion in this regard is both disasterous for the individual as well as for the society, for it is the individual’s understanding and interpretation of concepts that determines a society’s standards. Intellect sans the discriminating faculty is a dangerous attribute, both at an individual level and at a societal level. It is like a mad elephant unleashed on the streets of a dense locality, without the command of its maahut – immensely powerful, yet all that power has been reduced to just one potential – that of destruction. At this juncture, it must be observed that one should not take the word “discrimination” in its narrow, negative sense in the context of this discussion. The power to discriminate between śubha and aśubha, between śreyaḥ and preyaḥ is the only real moral compass for the individual, as well as for the society, which provides both these entities with the proper direction for forward movement, to reject the evil side of things and extract only the good in them – for all things come in packages containing both bad and good; and no one or nothing can really be “pure evil” or “pure good” as long as they are being experienced in the mundane dimension as opposed to the spiritual domain.

There is a reason that the Hindu Goddess Sarasvatī is depicted as a fair/white-skinned feminine. She is depicted as a feminine figure for the fertile aspect of the female – knowledge is potent: it brings forth new innovations into the world, it creates, it gives birth, it bears new fruits. White, because at a spiritual level, white depicts good. In choosing white over dark or for that matter any other shade, the Hindu imagination has shown its thoughtfulness and discriminating power: it has unhesitatingly rejected anything less than śubha or good and kalyāṇ or Śiva, who is also a white-skinned God. Hence, discrimination or viveka has been given a higher place than intellect in Hindu/Vedic thinking, speech and symbolism.

Finally, a Manifesto?   

A deconstruction of postmodernism will hardly be complete without a call being issued to those who: endowed with an open, inquisitive, and seeking mind, can affirm that they belong to, are rooted in, or are sympathetic to Indic religions and traditions. In the final analysis, the deconstructive process, applied on something like postmodernism which itself lives off deconstruction, becomes a game of not taking claims, things or individuals as they may appear on the surface.

Hence, a manifesto is due. तेजस्वि नावधीतमस्तु || 

About Author: Sreejit Datta

Sreejit Datta teaches English and Cultural Studies at the Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham University in Mysore. Variously trained in comparative literature, Hindustani music and statistics; Sreejit happens to be an acclaimed vocalist who has been regularly performing across multiple Indian and non-Indian genres. He can be reached at: Email: sreejit.datta@gmail.com Blogs: https://medium.com/@SreejitDatta http://chadpur.blogspot.in/

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