Thursday, September 1, 2011

Asian Philosophy: Indian Thought, Hinduism & The Vedas

Since this is the first lecture of the course, and because we are studying Eastern philosophy rather than Western, it is important to introduce philosophy and why the West does not have a monopoly on it.

Human thought, and thus the human world, is dominated by pairs of opposites. It is often useful to think of these opposites in terms of positive and negative. Good is positive, while bad is negative. Happy is positive, while sad is negative. Being is positive, while non-being is negative. Full is positive, while empty is negative.

Notice that "positive" does not always mean happy or good and "negative" does not always mean sad or bad. When we say "order" and "chaos", closure (stability) sounds good and openness (instability) sounds bad. However, when we say "freedom" and "restraint", openness (unconstrained) sounds good and closure (constrained) sounds bad. When we want stability or order, openness is bad ("chaos"). When we want to be free and unconstrained, openness is good ("freedom"). A person, place or thing can be positive in some ways and negative in others. It depends on context, position and location. In many ways, places and times, happiness and solidity are good and in others they are bad. Also, no particular thing is perfectly good or completely solid. We judge the table (and the wheel, as Lao Zi the patriarch of Daoism will explain soon) to be simply solid and the space around it to be simply empty, but no table is immortal or unbreakable, and no space is a perfect vacuum. Even outer space is full of dust, light and everything else in the universe. In the same way, particular things that are good or make us happy do not always make us happy and do not make everyone happy. Often, things that make one person happy continue to make another unhappy because they make the first person happy.

Human belief/judgment has its own special pairs of opposites. The most basic is belief (positive) and doubt (negative). Belief is an answer or answering, and doubt is a question or questioning. In politics, conservatives lean towards believing and affirming the institution (often looking to the stability and consistency of the past) while progressives lean towards doubting and questioning the institution (often looking to the openness and change of the future). In systems of thought, dogmatists (also called positivists today) lean towards answers and affirming the truths of the system ("There are certain facts, morals and truths.") while skeptics lean towards questions and doubting the truths of the system ("Are there certain facts, morals and truths?"). According to Hegel, one of my favorite philosophers, human thought is an endless battle between dogmatism and skepticism. This battle is also a symbiotic evolution requiring both sides.

When we look at the history of human thought, from its origins in shamanism to its evolution and specialization with religion, philosophy, art and science, we can see that both dogmatism and skepticism play necessary roles. Without a base that is assumed and unquestioned, nothing new can be produced. However, without reaching for the new and questioning the old there is no growth to improve and fit new circumstances. The great thinkers in human thought, across all systems, incorporate the old while bringing us the new. Often they are called heretics in their time and only canonized after they are safely dead because they have to question the very system that they stand for.

Many unfortunately believe that philosophy was born in ancient Greece, when in fact wisdom is universal to human kind even though it is difficult to achieve. The wise, though rarer than we would like, have been celebrated in all cultures, and their wisdom has similarity across all cultures even though their beliefs can differ widely. While the word ‘philosophy’ is an ancient Greek word, great thinkers and questioners can be called philosophers and sages in any culture.
Consider the following passage from Euclid in the Rainforest (first published in 2006) by Mazur, a professor of Logic and Mathematics. I like much about this work, which examines how logic and math require not only deductive rule following but individual leaps of intuition and interpretation. Keep in mind that “Western” is a recent word that has replaced “European race” only within the last century:

“Sometime early in the sixth century B.C., two things happened to dramatically alter the way Western civilization explained the world. The first was the use of cause and effect, as opposed to the supernatural in explaining natural phenomena; we might say that nature was first discovered then. The second was the practice of rational criticism and debate. These fresh developments occurred after a time of great political upheaval in the eastern Mediterranean, which led to profound changes in the political structures of Greek cities. Democracy in Athens meant that citizens could participate in government and law, freely debating and questioning political ideas. Before the establishment of the Greek city state, a change in rule usually meant merely a change from one tyrant to another.”

This is the sort of view that is orthodox in academics today, and one I love to hate. Many claim that the Greeks invented or discovered nature, explaining things through material cause and effect, rational criticism and debate, Democracy, and questioning political ideas. This is odd, considering the democratic assembly of Athens, put Socrates to death for encouraging the youth to question truth, tradition and politics.

Let us carefully work through this, point by point. First, cause and effect are basic to human explanation, whether that explanation could be called supernatural or natural. The spirits and gods were thought to cause things, they were considered part of the natural world and made of fire as was the individual soul or mind, and most ancient Greek thinkers, including Socrates, Plato and Aristotle all believed in polytheistic gods even as they pushed towards a more monotheistic/monistic cosmos beyond the many gods which is why Plato and Aristotle were, even though polytheists, revered and brought to us by the Islamic and Christian traditions. Doing Logic was largely doing Aristotle to many of the Islamic and Christian logicians we will study in this class, though others questioned Aristotle.
Second, rational criticism and debate are basic to human cultures. Athens was the only temporary democracy in ancient Greece, so it was not a profound change to the structure of the Greek city state nor was it established with the Greek city state, as there were several. During most of ancient Greek history, change in rule was merely a change from one tyrant to another. As far as democracy being invented in Athens, in the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh we can see that king Gilgamesh wants a war, so he goes to the higher senate, composed of the rich elites like Athenian democracy, and they reject his proposal, so he then appeals to the lower house composed of lesser but a greater number of elites, who accept and help him to override the consensus of the senate. In African villages, we can see everyone sitting down and men and women standing one at a time and airing their grievances, and then the chief makes a decision based on the debate. The brief period of Athenian democracy was not categorically free debate, nor was previous politics categorical tyranny. Individual and group decision making are found in complex arrangements in all cultures, including the earliest and most primitive, ancient Athens, and our America today.
It should also be mentioned that philosophers were not welcome in ancient Greece as they questioned the ways of things (traditional polytheism) and as such Socrates was put to death for “inciting the youth to riot”, Aristotle was chased out of Athens after the death of his student Alexander (a foreign Macedonian who conquered Athens by the sword, Aristotle being an unwelcome foreigner from Strageira in Athens himself), and Heraclitus, my favorite Greek philosopher, complains that his city state Ephesus exiled their best thinker for questioning things and it would be best if all Ephesians went and hanged themselves to leave the city in the abler hands of children.

What is philosophy? Philosophy has been called "thinking about thinking", questioning and answering the very process of questioning and answering itself. The ancient Greek philosophers (such as Heraclitus, Socrates and Plato) critically examined their own thinking and their traditions of thought and brought new answers by questioning the human mind and society. While these Greek thinkers should be read and admired, they were not the first or only ancient thinkers to ask abstract questions about thought itself.

The Greek word "philosophy" means "love of wisdom". What is wisdom? The German philosophers Kant and Hegel tell us that there are dueling parts of our individual mind that fight and cooperate on the individual level just as dogmatism and skepticism fight and cooperate on the social level. These two parts are understanding and reason, and these correspond to knowledge and wisdom. Understanding tries to hold things set and steady (the conservative force) while reason tries to challenge and rearrange things (the progressive force). Knowledge is a set understanding, while wisdom is the ability to reason. All systems of thought use both understanding and reason to produce both knowledge and wisdom.

The Greek philosophers were known for wisdom, for questioning the ways that individuals and societies can have knowledge, beliefs and answers. Were the Greeks the first or only ancient people to have philosophers? In Miguel Leon-Pontilla's book Aztec Thought and Culture, he argues that the Aztec and Mayan poets questioned their societies and systems of knowledge, asking open ended questions such as "Do we know the gods exist?", "Is there an afterlife, like the ancestors said there is?", and "Can we ever know these things?". Indeed, when we look at ancient cultures we find both questioning and answering, knowledge as well as wisdom, in ancient Greece and ancient everywhere else. No society would survive without pushing in both directions. Systems of thought are always sites of disagreement as much as they are of agreement.

Recently, the Attorney General of Arizona crafted legislation against teachers who provide programs celebrating Latino culture as they are dangerously “anti-Western”, and pointed specifically to teaching that Aztecs and Mayans had philosophers as Leon-Pontilla argues. Apparently, it is biased and thus un-Western to teach that concepts such as “you are my other self” (much like Confucius, who we will study) and “continue to investigate things endlessly” (much like Heraclitus, who we will study) is evidence that the Aztecs and Mayans had philosophy. It is perceived as a threat to American culture to equate the ancient Mayans with the ancient Greeks. It is not just the Attorney General who thinks this, but academics with PhDs who continue to provide the ground for this belief in their publications.

As far as the ancient Greeks or the Attorney General of Arizona being part of a specifically rational culture, let us consider the definition of logical validity. An argument is logically valid if the conclusion follows necessarily from the premises. Consider the following argument: “Because all elevators play jazz music, jazz is the Devil’s playground, and one should avoid the Devil, elevators are to be avoided.” You can follow this argument because it is logical. It does not matter whether or not the premises are true, but only that IF they are true so would the conclusion. You can construct logical arguments that include the premise, “All puppies are green”, which is useful to show how logic works. The elevator argument is in the form of Aristotle’s first syllogism, and because human reasoning employs chains so frequently it does not appear that he invented the form but rather examined it critically.

Introducing Indian Thought

Now, on to introducing Indian thought, but first a note on pronouncing Indian (and for later, Japanese) terms correctly for English speakers. In order to pronounce Indian terms correctly, it is important to remember that, just like in Japanese but unlike in English and other European languages, often, but not always, the third to last syllable is accented or stressed (like in the word ‘SYllable’, which is not pronounced ‘sylLAble’), not the second to last (as in ‘disCOvery’, which is not pronounced ‘DIScovery’). English and European speakers often pronounce Indian and Japanese terms wrong because of this difference. For instance, while many say ‘suDOku’ or ‘kaTAna’, in Japanese these are properly pronounced ‘SUdoku’ and ‘KAtana’. In Indian dialects, likewise, the Buddhist movement is pronounced ‘MaHAyana’, not ‘MAhaYAna’, as it is often said, a Jain patriarch is a ‘tirTHANkara’, the Hindu epic is the ‘MAhaBHArata’, not ‘MAhabhaRAta’, and the Buddhist doctrine of codependent arising is ‘praTITyasaMUDpada’. Note that the emphasis is always the third to last syllable as much as possible given the number of syllables in the word.

‘Hindu’ is the Persian name for India (Persia and India are next door to each other and have traded for thousands of years). Our society borrows the term from the British, who get the term from the Persians. As we read in the Vedas, Hinduism brought together many traditions from many regions with many gods, but there are three levels that are equally interchangeable and separable. First, each can have a particular god that is the emphasis of one’s particular branch of the tradition. Second, the many gods are each one aspect of a single god, often the great father and creator, named by most traditions Brahma. Third, there is a philosophical monism that goes beyond god or not god, living or dead, conscious or unconscious, that is the One. Locals practicing devotional worship often operate on the first level, priests who study the Vedas often operate on the second level, while philosophers and unorthodox Indian schools that do not accept the authority of the Vedas such as Jains, Buddhists and the materialist Carvakas operate on the third. As Hinduism was brought together as a tradition that brought together many separate people with separate traditions, first the Vedas spoke largely though not entirely on the first level, then particular passages of the Vedas and the later Upanishads spoke on the second level, and then many schools went beyond the Upanishads and understood a simple, neither theistic nor atheistic One to be the real underlying truth of the first and second levels. Vedanta, literally “Veda’s End”, debated back and forth between the second and third levels in the tradition of the Upanishads.

This came together over many periods in the history of Indian thought. About 2000 BCE, India was invaded by a fire worshiping people who likely came from modern day Iran. This was a big influence on the Vedas and Indian culture, however today scholars are critical of just how influential as it was said only recently that the Aryans civilized India and brought the Vedas with them, but now archeologists have uncovered past civilizations who had incredible bathrooms with complex plumbing and while the Vedas may have been strongly influenced by the Aryans, it is debatable how much is composed of earlier native Indian pre-Aryan traditions. The Nazis, following earlier German historians, believed that the Aryans were Germanic tribes who civilized not only India but Egypt, Greece, and Persia. The swastika, and Indian name for a symbol that can be found in much of the world, including tribal German lands, was thought to be the sun symbol of the Aryans, and so it was used by the Nazis. Unfortunately for this Germanic theory of history, we know that the Aryans were indeed from modern day Iran, what became Persia very soon after the Aryan conquests in India.

Next, in the Vedic period, 1500-800 BCE, the four Vedas were composed as oral traditions that eventually were written down in texts, including the foremost Rg Veda of which there are selections in your reader. The golden age of Indian thought followed from 800-200 BCE, the time when the Upanishads distilled the Vedic hymns to the gods into inner philosophical/psychological teachings, the six orthodox schools that follow the Vedas (Vedanta, Yoga, Mimamsa, Samkhya, Nyaya and Vaisheshika) as well as the unorthodox schools (Carvaka, Jainism and Buddhism) flourished, and the great Hindu epics (the Mahabharata and Ramayana) were written. After this, from 200 BCE – 500 CE is a period when the schools and traditions of the golden age were systematized into sutras or central texts. Finally, after 500 CE and up to the present time, is the period of commentaries written on the earlier systems and their sutras. This persisted through the period of conquest by Muslims of North India in the 1500s and then by the British in the 1800s.

There are three paths of worship in Hinduism. First, there is devotional worship, known as Bhakti Yoga (‘Yoga’ means ‘discipline’, or practice). In Bhakti devotional worship, the devotee prays, sings hymns, lights incense, and performs rituals to gain favor with the gods and heavens. It is impossible not to notice that most of what we call ‘religion’ the world over is in fact forms of Bhakti practice, devotion to particular gods and ancestral spirits. The two most populous forms of Bhakti Hinduism are Shaivism, the worship of Shiva (the transformer and destroyer) and his incarnations such as Ganesh (the elephant headed god), and Vaishnavism, the worship of Vishnu (the savior or preserver) and his incarnations such as Krishna. Worship is often called ‘darshana’, or seeing/experiencing, and Hindus will say, I am going to the seeing, meaning I am going to see and be seen by the god. Another common form of Bhakti devotion is worship of a particular goddess such as Kali. Notice that, like a scientist, Bhakti practitioners also believe in learning by experience and seeing, but their subject matter is quite different.

Raja yoga, the second path, is worship by meditation and asceticism (living in isolation, standing in place for days, fasting chanting the names of gods for hours, sitting on spikes, and other means of hard activity) meant to gain a meditative state of insight. Raja means ‘force’ or ‘effort’, and India is famous for its forest sages practicing these techniques.

Jnana yoga (“zshna-na”), the third path and my personal favorite, is worship by acquiring knowledge, wisdom and understanding the order of things through study and philosophizing. This class itself could be seen as a form of Jnana yoga, designed to bring you closer to the core by studying the ways of the world. All three paths, or any mixture of the three, are understood to work towards the same goal: liberation from the bonds of attachment and desire, rising into enlightenment and release from the constraints of identity to join together with the whole.

There are two ultimate goals to this process. First, there is hope for a better next life. Many are familiar already with the Hindu idea of reincarnation. This is not a form of afterlife particular to India, but in fact there is evidence that many tribal cultures and early Egypt believed that one’s present life will be reincarnated in another life on earth based on one’s actions and intentions. This interconnection is called ‘Karma’, which simply means ‘action’ in Sanskrit. Interestingly, physical causation is ‘karma’, just as metaphysical causation (next life physics) is ‘karma’, same word and understanding of cause and effect applied to a different sphere of existence. If you punch someone in the head, it is karma that makes their head reel backward, and karma that also weighs down your chance for a favorable life after death in the Hindu tradition.

Second, there is hope for release, for freedom from rounds of rebirth on earth. This can be thought of as dwelling in a heaven with one’s personal or family god, but also as a dwelling with the order of things without residing in any particular place. Bhakti yoga tends to favor the dwelling with a lord, while Raja and Jnana tends to favor the dwelling with the universe as a whole, however it is important to remember that some Hindus believe that both amount to the same exact thing (while others will insist that their school’s truth is ‘more true’, the same variation one finds in any religion and in our own culture). This release is also called Moksha and Samadhi, but in America we know this first and foremost by the same name as the famous grunge band, Nirvana.

While moksha is the ultimate goal, via the more immediate goal of positioning oneself favorably for moksha either in this life (dwelling in the forest or a monastery) or in a next life, there are three other goals that Indian philosophy points to as desirable making four in total. In addition to moksha/nirvana, there is law or morality, ‘dharma’ (the term Jains and Buddhists use to describe their traditions and rules), pleasure, ‘kama’ (as from the Kama Sutra), and material wellbeing, ‘artha’. Clearly, the overall idea is that pleasure and comfort (kama and artha) are not in themselves evil, but one should pursue liberation through discipline (moksha through dharma).

Ancient India saw a great deal of development in science and technology. They observed the natural world and put phenomena into families and categories as did the ancient Greeks and as we still do today. The Romans would trade Germanic and Celtic slaves to India in exchange for Indian wootz, the metal most prized for weapons in the ancient world. In mathematics the Indians were unsurpassed by ancient civilizations, developing the base ten system and the Indian-Arabic numerals we use today. They laid down the basics of symbolic equations, the concept and symbolization of zero, and invented the variable (originally a thick dot). All of this got picked up by the Muslims, who turned it into algebra, which then got picked up by the Europeans, who turned it into Calculus. Typically, we learn about Euclid and the Greeks doing geometry as the source of the Western mathematical tradition. Muslims were influenced by the Greeks and Euclid, but Euclid argued about lines drawn in sand and did not use equations. It was the Indians who invented the sorts of mathematical symbolism that the Muslims turned into step by step symbolic mathematics as we know it today and teach it up through high school.

In spite of all of these developments, Indian thought is typically anti-materialistic and concerned with spirituality or psychology depending on one’s vocabulary. Knowing the mind/spirit is knowing the essence of the whole as self-knowledge, or ‘atmavidya’. Hindus believe that one has an eternal self/soul/mind, the ‘atma’, as opposed to Jains and Buddhists who believe in ‘anatma’, or no-self (permanent, anyway).

On a final note, it used to be the opinion not only of most Hindus but also European scholarship until very recently, that Jainism and Buddhism took parts of Hinduism and broke away to form their own traditions. Recently, new studies have shown that Jainism and Buddhism were forming at the same time as Hinduism was becoming an official tradition. The Hindus accepted the Vedas and Upanishads while the Jains and Buddhists broke from the Vedas to follow more Upanishad-like understandings, but Hinduism as a centralized tradition was, in part, a reaction to the development of the Jain and Buddhist traditions. Thus, similar doctrines of reincarnation and psychological skepticism/idealism may have developed at the same time or been borrowed by Hinduism in its fully developed form rather than borrowed from Hinduism as it was previously thought. Even so, there is some truth to the common Hindu understanding that “Buddhism is Hinduism for export”, as Buddhists took the ideas in the Upanishads and Indian tradition, removed the dietary restrictions, caste system and other traditional purity laws, and became possibly the world’s largest system of thought in history, although it is debatable whether Christianity or Buddhism has that title.