Hinduism in a Postmodern World (Part 1)

With the negation of reason, logic and objective truth as its central dogma, postmodernism makes it impossible to have a dialogue with other systems of thought and thus promotes conflict.

Hinduism in a Postmodern World (Part 1)

The following is intended to be a survey of the challenges that Hinduism faces in our times. It attempts to identify the chief sources from where the challenges emerge and how those have manifested over time in various ways. This chapter, titled “The Problem”, is the first and introductory part of the survey, where we mainly discuss the nature of the challenges in their inception as abstract philosophies and the concrete problems they have consequently evolved into. In the subsequent parts, to be published in near future, we will search for both theoretical as well as practical ways to adequately respond to the challenges and confront the problems in detail.

The Problem

Hinduism and postmodernism represent two separate worlds, or, we may reasonably say, worldviews. Why and how?

In order to answer those questions, we will have to closely look at areas where the two encounter each other philosophically and intellectually, if at all, and what reactions are produced as a result of that interaction. There is a good chance that this enquiry may turn into an individual’s quest for checking the limits of his self-projection, but that should not deter us from undertaking the enquiry upon ourselves – and upon each of ourselves if it indeed is an individual’s lonely quest for understanding things as they are. There you go: we are already hovering near a Kantian concept, called ‘thing-in-itself’, which is a conception of the unadulterated existence of an object not conditioned by space and time. Therefore, to avoid circular arguments, I would rephrase “quest for understanding things as they are” as “a quest for understanding/observing things when they are no more limited by the constraints of time, space” and, let me also add, the mind.

According to Advaita Vedanta[i] philosophy, the Brahman and the Ātman are one and the same – and they are beyond the time-space continuum; which is to say that they exist, as a single, inseparable entity, independent of both time and space. In fact, this postulate can be interpreted using a slightly different phrasing as follows: that Ātman/Brahman is the very essence of existence itself – manifesting in three aspects of existence: Sat (pure, unadulterated, true existence), Cit (consciousness of that existence) and Ānanda (bliss of the existence; that links spirituality and the divinity with aesthetic pleasure, or rasa[ii]). Discussing the non-finite, limitless nature of Atman/Brahman, Swami Sivananda states:

Limitation (Parichheda) is of three kinds: (1) by space (Desa), (2) by time (Kala) and (3) by things (Vastu). Body is limited by space. Atman cannot have any limitation by space, because it is all-pervading and all-full. It transcends space. Atman is eternal. It cannot be limited by time. This body is conditioned in time and so it is perishable. The third kind of limitation, by things (Vastu Parichheda), is of three kinds: (1) Sajatiya, i.e., limitation by the existence of a similar thing, e. g., a tree is limited as a similar tree exists. (2) Vijatiya, e. g., a tree is limited, as a dissimilar stone exists. (3) Svagata limitation by the existence of differentiation in itself, e. g., a tree is limited as it is differentiated into the trunk, leaves, branches, flowers, root, fruits, etc., or a man is limited as he is differentiated into face, trunk, hands, legs, etc. Isvara is Abhinna-nimittopadana Karana. He created this universe out of His own body (Maya), just as the spider creates its web out of its own saliva, and entered Himself into these names and forms. Therefore there cannot be any Sajatiya Bheda such as Jiva-Isvara Bheda. There is no second Atman. There are no two Sats.

This phenomenal universe is not real. It is a mere appearance like snake in the rope or silver in the mother-of-pearl. It has no independent existence. Therefore there cannot be any Vijatiya Bheda.

Sat, Chit and Ananda are one. Atman is partless and homogeneous. (Sivananda 2011)

This renders the Brahman/Ātman inexpressible through speech and unfathomable by intellect (avāṁmanasagocara), because both speech and intellectual activity are conditioned by time and space. This is so because speech as both source and preserver of knowledge is conditioned by language, which may stop making sense if it falls out of use over a span of time, either short or long. Language is also the most powerful vehicle of carrying out intellectual activity, if not the only one, because we primarily express our thoughts using the sonic (spoken word/sounds) and graphic (written word/signs) symbols of language. This is what is meant when it is asserted that language, and along with it both speech and the intellect, are conditioned by time and space.

Now, Hinduism considers the intimate, first-hand knowledge of Ātman/Brahman, known as Ātmajñāna/Brahmajñāna as the highest goal of all human endeavours. In other words, Ātman/Brahman is the highest object of knowledge in Hindu philosophical queries, especially in the various schools of thought within the Vedanta philosophy. This makes it imperative to consider ways to get at this highest knowledge, which will provide a foolproof epistemology to the philosophical quest. The epistemology, as famously expounded by Adi Sankara, is threefold: śravaṇa (heeding the traditional knowledge, passed orally, which is comparable to logos), manana (reasoning with the received knowledge according to one’s lived experience by reflecting upon it with all the intellectual and empirical focus) and nididhyāsana (meditating upon the Truth, or ultimate knowledge – to be one and the same with it). Thus, we see that this philosophical query accepts reason, logic and perception as valid means of acquiring knowledge; and that it also acknowledges the existence of an objective, ultimate Truth. This is where the question of comparing Hinduism with postmodernism really surfaces.   

Every intellectual movement and philosophical school has three components:

1. Epistemology: the means to acquire knowledge,

2. Metaphysics: the idea of what is of real value; i.e. what is true, and

3. Ethics: how should a human being apply that knowledge to organise and conduct himself/herself,  and his/her society, polity, economy etc.

Postmodernism is quite openly hostile to the traditional philosophical schools of Europe – starting from the Socratic to the Enlightenment thinkers. The very name of postmodernism suggests that it is an attempt to go beyond the modern project, which in turn is based on the philosophical premises of the Enlightenment, developed during the 17th to 18th century in Europe. Enlightenment thinking, which flourished in the wake of the renaissance in Europe, ushered in the Age of Reason. This age was a radical break from the previous era, which is generally tagged as the medieval age, in terms of its renewed emphasis on reason and perception as valid means to attain knowledge rather than on faith, tradition and dogma related to the Judeo-Christian world. The immediate consequence of this emphasis on reason and perception (i.e. sense perception, direct experience) as means to acquire knowledge was the development of science and the scientific outlook (epistemology), individualism (ethics), objective truth (metaphysics) and democratic polity in Europe, which gradually spread to North America as well.

The postmodern outlook claims to surpass this emphasis on reason, logic and objective truth by shifting the onus on subjectivity, innovation in convention or style (to come out with ever more interesting interpretations of texts or situations) and group-ism. (Hicks 2004) Moral of the story: reason and logic are not considered as valid means to acquire knowledge; and there is no objective, ultimate knowledge to be attained, as reality is only subjective, i.e. it changes from one person’s experience to another. This is why, according to postmodernism, there is only one way of engaging between groups which are inherently hostile and are struggling for power. And that is to declare war on the opposing group and its ideology/worldview/philosophical outlook.

Thus, merely stating the facts of the Hindu experience and achievements will not suffice to win the ideological war. I am using the word ‘war’ with utmost care and after much deliberation on its usage; as it has never been a debate, but a war unleashed by Marxism and postmodernism on Hinduism in India and elsewhere, most notably in the USA and the UK. It isn’t a debate because the postmodern epistemology does not believe in holding a debate/discourse/dialogue with its opponent, in which consensus is reached through a meeting of minds in the true sense; which is why postmodernists never look at any relationship between any two groups of people as anything other than a relationship of power. Getting back to why merely presenting facts to make a case for Hinduism (or anything else, for that matter) on any issue will not suffice to win this ideological war with postmodernism, one needs to thoroughly understand exactly what sources of knowledge are considered valid in postmodernist thinking.

As an intellectual movement, postmodernism does not regard the logos(Greek word for speech, thought, or reason) as a valid source of knowledge – logos, which is fundamental to the Judeo-Christian worldview and in turn central to the western civilisation. Jacques Derrida, the most influential postmodernist, coined the term phallogocentrism, to imply that the masculine gender enjoys the privilege of constructing meaning out of objects and phenomena in the world, especially out of the written text. It is noteworthy that logos is the root of the words logic and dialogue. Since postmodernists negate the role of logos in determining the meaning of texts, the role of authors in dictating the meaning of their texts is de-emphasised in postmodern critiques. Instead, the author’s place is taken over by the reader who must invent her own meaning. In fact, Derrida asserts that the reader must invent new and innovative interpretations of each and every text because written texts are to be removed from their logos-centric context, i.e. the spoken word, speech or the thinking that went into the making of a text has to be divorced from that written text. This is tantamount to saying that the written text that an author has produced has little or no connection whatsoever with the thinking process she had gone through in organising her ideas, getting her logic in place and ultimately putting it down in black and white. Therefore, the role of logic is also negated in interpreting a text’s meaning. All that remains is how innovative and iconoclastic a reader can be in his interpretation. This is how postmodernism not only encourages questioning everything starting from tradition and ending with scientific or empirical fact, it indeed makes it an absolutely necessary condition of a postmodern interpretation to be sceptical about everything – including lived, hard facts. And consequently postmodernism does not consider facts as a valid source of knowledge.

Dr Jordan B. Peterson explains the postmodernist view of ‘facts’ in the following manner: “facts for them [i.e. the postmodernist thinkers] are merely whatever the current power hierarchy uses to justify their acquisition of power.” This also highlights postmodernism’s obsession with power, which is central to the philosophy of Marxism as well. The only difference between the Marxist and the postmodernist narrative is that Marxism explains the whole of human history to be existing in the natural enmity between the two classes proletariats and bourgeoisie; whereas postmodernism explains everything in terms of a natural opposition between the oppressor and the oppressed – rendering postmodernism more flexible in comparison with its predecessor Marxism because now the dichotomy of two eternally hostile groups of people can be applied anywhere and not just in economy.

Dubbing Marxism as postmodernism’s predecessor is only justified, because the Marxist project and its adherents in Europe, especially in France and Germany, simply changed their narrative from class struggle between the proletariats and the bourgeoisie to the struggle for power between identity-based groups categorised on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity and religion; and tagged them as two eternally hostile groups – the oppressor and the oppressed – after they were shamed for their Marxist-communist identity when the world had witnessed the genocidal horrors of communism unleashed in the USSR, Latin America and China by the 1960’s (in India too, the seventies saw the horrors of the Naxalite movement that resulted in the bloodbath of Bengal and several other states in the country, killing hordes of youth who were attracted to Marxist-Leninist and Maoist ways). This is how the application of postmodernism in the humanities and social sciences brought forth identity as the sole object of value in academic studies, the direct result of which was the proliferation of identity politics in the political discourse.

Towards a Response – Rejection of Postmodernism

It is not at all far-fetched to say that any philosophical substructure, which denies or even de-emphasises the role of reason, reality and truth in any rational enquiry, is an intellectually untenable position. It is, of course, profoundly arrogant to deny the limitation of human knowledge – something that is exemplified in rejecting the mysterious, which reason has had a hard time in grappling with. But it is far more arrogant, even intellectually dishonest, to drop the investigation into truth (whatever it may be – existent or nonexistent) together with rejecting reason and logic as valid means to acquire knowledge about the human being and the universe in which he exists, just because these may have failed the postmodernists as a method in their pet project(s). 

Reason and logic were deemed inefficient as methods by the postmodernists because:

1. They failed to explain the mysterious, and

2. The invention of aporia – an insoluble problem that is supposed to be inherent in any reasoned critique – made it easier for them to cover up the murder of reason.

Some aspects of the mysterious, or at least those subjects that are out of scope of definitive, deterministic knowledge, are mainly dealt with within the disciplines of psychology and theology, both of which confront them in their own distinct ways. Philosophy has engaged with the mysterious, as a result of which metaphysics has evolved as a distinct branch of philosophical enquiry. But postmodernism, an avowedly anti-epistemological philosophy, has been able to delude generations into forgetting the goal of philosophy – which is to make sense of those (mysterious) subjects (such as death and how to come to terms with it) that the natural sciences, psychology and theology together have failed to decipher to a satisfactory degree.

Postmodernists have offered a solution to the human problem as constantly deconstructing the ‘constructs’ (they believe pretty much everything is a construct of some kind), and it is essentially a no-solution because no one has said what to do after they have undone the constructs. Some say, the solution has been given – and the solution is to be interesting in some way or the other, different from the rest, innovative in whatever they do. The intended effect is shock, anger, and unease: which will defer or delay the process of making sense of what is encountered by the recipient of postmodern art and postmodernist interpretations (of texts or situations). This is why postmodernism puts so much of importance on the concept of ‘différance’ (theorized by the central postmodernist figure of Algerian-French origins, Jacques Derrida). This is nothing but an obstinate denial of a large number of possibilities that could be, if only one opened oneself courageously to the unknown and acknowledged one’s ignorance or the (perhaps temporary) incapability to make sense of the unknown with reason, and ultimately know the truth. Thus, this obstinate denial also entails a lack of courage. It is basically this, apart from the tendency to place innovation before reason/logic, wherein the hubris of postmodernist thinkers lay.

In his book Being Different, Rajiv Malhotra illustrates, citing Anindita Balslev, how Richard Rorty refuses to engage with the orient; and how Rorty shows lack of interest and/or respect to the difference that exists between the Western worldview and the Dharmic worldview, among other worldviews of the East, by virtue of his refusal to engage in a dialogue. Malhotra dubs Rorty’s apathy as “difference anxiety”. (Malhotra 2011)

If we go a little deeper, then Rorty’s unwillingness to acknowledge/recognise the different worldview of the Eastern societies as holding any genuine value for the entire humankind and his lack of interest in engaging with the West can be located in postmodern epistemology. As a major American exponent of postmodernism, Rorty remains true to the tenets of postmodernism by upholding the incommensurability of cultures. The incommensurability of cultures arises out of postmodernist thinking as a result of, again, its obsession with power. Since, according to postmodernist thinking, no two cultures and the people who belong to those cultures can ignore an unequal relationship of power, existing between them by virtue of socioeconomic and linguistic factors working at the background of those cultures, they can in no way engage with each other beyond that equation of power. When such is a corollary that follows from one of the central tenets of postmodernism, then it is impossible to engage a postmodernist thinker in a comparative study or dialogue which bases itself on mutual respect. Also according to postmodernism, the only kind of relationship that can exist between different cultures, people or nations is the relationship of power and conflict, which can only be resolved through the use of force. Thus, it is a tenet of postmodernism that stops Rorty from engaging with any kind of difference with respect.

The challenges that postmodernism poses before Hinduism need to be given suitable responses. These responses should be based on the core philosophical tradition of one or more āstika or orthodox philosophies central to Hinduism. It is also not impossible to hoist postmodernism by its own petard. Such responses must be developed systematically, to be disseminated as a counter-narrative in the academia and mass media, in order to tackle the challenge of the postmodern trap, unless we are ready to gamble all that is of value in the Bhāratīya civilisation. In the upcoming parts of this series, we will take up the case of how to develop such responses from the abstract philosophical to the practical. 


Banner Image (used as per creative commons license guidelines): “Dempsey and Firpo” by George Bellows.

Bibliography

Hicks, Stephen R.C. Explaining Postmodernism. Tempe, Arizona and New Berlin/Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Scholargy Publishing, 2004.
Malhotra, Rajiv. Being Different. Noida: Harper Collins Publishers India, 2011.
Sivananda, Swami. “Atman is Sat-Chit-Ananda.” The Divine Life Society. 2011. (accessed August 21, 2017).
References / Footnotes

[i] The Sanskrit word ‘Vedanta’ is a combination of ‘Veda’ (the four Vedas, the word Veda means simply knowledge) and ‘anta’ (1. essence, core; 2. end); it collectively denotes the canon consisting of  12 major Upanisad-s, Srimad Bhagavad Gita, Brahmasutra and the traditional commentaries on all these texts.

[ii] “Raso vai Saḥ” – Taittirīya Upaniṣad

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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