In PEL’s foray last year into the understanding and discussing Indian thought vis a vis The Bhagavad Gita, the PEL team and their guest Shaam Amin did a great service in bringing forth the Indian system of thought to PEL listeners. As someone who has a strong background in both Western Philosophy and Indian Philosophy and founder of a podcast and blog on Indian philosophy called Meru Media, I feel there are a few major points to keep in mind when one begins to engage with the Indian tradition. Please bear with me as this is a long-form post, in which I hope to highlight the basics of the Indian tradition, the issues in its analysis and interpretation and finally how to engage with the tradition.
The Indian tradition is the oldest living continuous tradition on the planet, on the conservative estimates it is between 4000 to 5000 years old beginning with the oldest religious and philosophical “texts”, the Vedas (I use texts in its broadest sense as literature, the Indian tradition was and is in many respects an oral tradition). The traditions and worldviews of the Greeks, Romans, Persians, Chinese and others are long gone and if they exist they exist within an entirely different tradition. Gone are the days that Greek philosophy was viewed and couched in the tradition it was born of, rather it is now in a new form whether it be in Chrisitan tradition (via Aquinas), or Islamic tradition (via Al-Kindi and others) or its more modern forms. That’s not to say they don’t have a massive impact as we can see from the now hundreds of podcasts and blogs that PEL and others dive into on a daily basis but it’s not in its original worldview. This is not the same with India.
The Indian traditions include various schools of Hinduism, Buddhism, Charvaka, and Jainism. Within each of these traditions, there are dozens if not hundreds of different schools of thought, many of which no longer exist intact or in practice. The general demarcation is that the Hindu schools belong to a group called astika (meaning accepting the authority of the Vedas) and the Buddhist, Jain and Charvaka schools belong to the nastika (meaning not accepting the authority of the Vedas). The major schools in each tradition (generally called Darshana meaning that which is seen) are the following:
- Samkhya: literally means enumeration by counting, it is a school of thought that can be either theistic or atheistic, it posits two fundamental realities Prakriti (meaning Nature or Matter) and Purusha (in this context meaning consciousness);
- Yoga: is not the idea of Yoga most people have today in simply doing physical postures, rather it is a system of practice in which the goal is to stop the fluctuation of the mind and enter into a meditative state in which the practitioner unites with the Supreme;
- Nyaya: is a rigorous school of Logic, it later subsumes Vaisheshika into its fold;
- Vaisheshika: means that which is distinguished and it is a school of atomism somewhat comparable to Democritus theory of atomism;
- Mimamsa: which means investigation, it is a hermeneutical school of thought that focuses on interpretation and analysis of the Vedas, considered by many to be the origin of linguistics; and
- Vedanta: literally means the end or the goal of the Vedas, it is a comprehensive system of thought that delves into metaphysics and ontology with the goal of understanding the universe and how to liberate oneself.
- Buddhism: there were more than 2 schools originally but they are gone now, both Mahayana and Theravada are atheistic in the sense of no supreme deity but Mahayana skirts very close to the idea of ultimate being but in couched terms.
- Mahayana: It means the Greater Vehicle and most people would be acquainted with this school via one of its subschool which is Madhyamika Buddhism of which the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Buddhists follow.
- Theravada/Hinayana: is considered the older school of Buddhism that is stripped of the religious and metaphysical ideas of the Mahayana school
- Jainism: the schools of Jainism differ in practice and doctrine but not so much in terms of philosophical issues, both schools are atheistic in that they don’t posit a creator God
- Digambara: literally means the sky clad, implying naked
- Shvetambara: literally means the white-clad, implying those who are clothed
- Charvaka: means the chewed speech, the idea is that the adherents of the school chew the idea of the self and discard it, they were materialists and unabashed atheists
Each of these schools accepts different epistemological sources, the Hindu schools generally all accept the following: pratyaksha (“sense perception” including meditative experiences), anumana (“inference” or syllogistic reasoning) and shabda (“scriptural or spoken authority” basically the idea that scriptures are a valid method of knowing). The nastika schools only accept the first two, there are some variations but that is the general breakdown.
Each of these schools both in both astika and nastika groups have complete systems of ontology, logic, epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and practice. I provided a general snapshot of these major schools to show that the Indian traditions are complex, comprehensive and interrelated to some extent. It is akin to understanding the flow of thought from the Pre-Socratics to Neo-Platonism, but the time span is not in centuries but millennia. Hopefully, I will be able to provide more information and discussion on these schools over time.
A major difference in the Indian traditions from the Greco-Roman-Western tradition is that the Indian tradition has a major focus on expounding their philosophy within a commentarial tradition. This means that any particular school of thought develops their particular philosophy by commenting on a previous text or texts. There are some philosophers who have built their own schools by writing a standalone text but by and large, it is a commentary on another text that the school holds in high esteem. For example, the Madhyamika school of Buddhism was developed by Nagarjuna who wrote his own text called the Madhyamika Sutra, an example of the commentarial tradition is of Sankara who developed the Advaita (“Non-Dual” Monism school) tradition by writing a commentary on Bhagavad Gita and another text called the Brahma Sutra (“Aphorisms on Brahman or Being”).
Given the above, let’s spend some time talking about the Bhagavad Gita and try to unwrap the difficulty in trying to read and understand that text without the other schools. Let me start with this caveat, the problem with dating texts or concepts in the Indian tradition is that it is entirely subjective, for example, most scholars of the Bhagavad Gita cannot even reach consensus on the dating, it ranges from 5th century BCE to 5th century CE, almost a thousand years! My own view is that the text is older than 5th century BCE but we don’t need to get into that. So let’s leave the dating of most of these texts out of the equation.
The Bhagavad Gita (“the Gita”) or the Song of God is not a standalone text but belongs to a much larger epic, the longest epic that we humans have, the Mahabharata, which is about 13 times bigger than the Illiad and the Odyssey combined. The Mahabharata is a complex and encyclopedic text that covers issues of law, morality, religion, philosophy, statecraft, politics and a lot more. The text itself says “whatever is found in here is found elsewhere but what is not found here is found nowhere else”. The central story is about a civil war between two sets of cousins, the five Pandava brothers, and the 100 Kaurava brothers. The war is not just an earthly war but a war of cosmic portions, many of the combatants on both sides of the war are either gods or demons that have taken birth in humanity, bringing the celestial battle to the earthly realm. In midst of this, is Krishna who through the text is enigmatic and in the background, most people think he is a just a noble or prince of republican government (India had republics as long, if not a bit before the Greeks did) but only a handful of people know that Krishna is in fact, the Avatara (“literally he who crosses over from above”) of the Supreme God Vishnu.
The Gita takes place on the first day of the civil war, when the Pandava prince and greatest warrior of his time Arjuna instructs his charioteer Krishna, who had taken an oath to not fight or take up arms in this war, to steer his chariot into the middle of the battlefield so that he could see both armies. When he surveys the battlefield he is filled with compassion and enters into a despondency, seeing all his loved ones on both sides. His brothers, sons, friends, and in-laws on his side and on the other his great-grandfather, his beloved teacher, his cousins, his uncles, his friends and so on. At this moment, he drops his bow and sits on his chariot and refuses to fight in tears. Krishna then begins the Gita, where he instructs Arjuna on metaphysics, Dharma, ontology, psychology, and other topics. As Krishna continues to instruct Arjuna, Krishna begins to make larger and larger claims about who he is, resulting in Arjuna asking him who he is and Krishna revealed to Arjuna in a theophany, his true nature as the Supreme Being and providing Arjuna a vision of his celestial form that is infinite in space, eternal, spanning all moments of time in an instant and with all beings and things being within him. The Gita ends with Krishna telling Arjuna “whatever you wish to do you do, I have told you all that is required”, at which point Arjuna picks his weapons and readies for war.
I have given a very very brief overview of the Gita and the Mahabharata, there is a lot more to be said but that is the most basic foundation. Now, why is it difficult to analyze, interpret and discuss the Gita? Firstly, one has to have a foundation in Sanskrit, translations do not do the original justice. As I explained before India has a long oral tradition and because of that language, especially Sanskrit, is vitally important. Let me give an example, in the PEL episode the term Purusha came up a few times. Purusha means multiple things it can mean man, being, human, consciousness, self or person. Sometimes it is used to mean some of the above at the same time. Another word that is intractably difficult to translate is Dharma which can mean righteousness, morality, justice, nature, law, duties, religion, practice or other meanings. How these terms are used or meant depend on context and the context depends on having prior knowledge of some of the Darshanas I mentioned in the beginning.
Secondly, the Gita has strong underpinnings of Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, and Vedanta. What the term Purusha means in Samkhya differs from Vedanta, where the former may mean consciousness in the latter it means Supreme Being or even individual self or seat of consciousness. In addition, the Gita is based on the Upanishads, a group of texts that are at the end of the Vedas which are highly philosophical and spiritual texts that delve into the nature of Being, Nature, and Self.
For example, when Krishna speaks about the idea of individual agency and action, he delves into the concept that actions and agency are entirely the product of the workings of karma and Prakriti. What he means is that what we think is our action is, in fact, a series of prior actions and processes issuing out. The karma from prior births plays out in this birth through both our internal process i.e. our subconscious or unconscious mental psychology and through the events that interact with us in the outside world. We don’t know why we do what we do or feel what we feel but we nonetheless justify it as our own will or agency, this is a false sense because we are nothing more than the jumble of prior actions and Prakriti. By I or we here, Krishna means the conditioned self, the self that is the product of Karma and Prakriti but he also speaks of a higher or true self, the Purusha or in other places the Akshara (“the unchanging”). This higher self or our true nature is pure consciousness that isn’t conditioned and isn’t subject to change, sometimes he uses the term Purusha or Atma but this self is the experiencing self, a ghost in the machine that doesn’t act or choose but due to the association with Prakriti believes itself to be the conditioned self. The analogy here would be the difference between our dream state and our deep sleep state, the deep sleep state is the true self-experiencing itself while the dream and waking state is the self-experiencing either purely mental phenomena or both physical and mental phenomena and thinking that it is somehow both. I hope this gives a quick and basic understanding of how the Gita deals with the complex idea of action and agency, there is a lot more depth and exposition in the Gita on this topic and I’ll try to deal with it in a later post.
Thirdly, the Gita has a few purposes but I will talk about two main purposes, first is that it is meant to distill and simplify the complex and highly technical philosophy of Upanishads and other schools into something that is easy to understand and live for regular people. The second purpose is that it is itself a complex codex for those who are deeply ingrained in the philosophical ideas of the Indian world. In other words, it provides something different for each person who approaches it depending on their own knowledge and ability. That is why someone like Henry David Thoreau or Ralph Waldo Emerson could read the text and get a sublime vision of the universe while scholars read the text and find a highly technical exploration of ideas.
Whew, that was long and maybe a bit dense especially with the new terms and ideas but I believe it is a necessary starting point to understand the Indian traditions. My purpose in writing this post for PEL is that I know that engaging with the Indian traditions and philosophy can be tough especially when most people don’t have much if any understanding of the histories, traditions or concepts. Many times, this can create incorrect reading and interpretations of the texts/traditions. This is why I have partnered with a few other people and scholars to start a blog and podcast called Meru Media to address and expound on these traditions from a place of indigenous expertise and perspective. Hopefully, you have all enjoyed or at a minimum found value in this post, drop me a line or message at Mukunda@meru.media if you would like to learn more or have comments/suggestions.