Is India Civilized?
Some Personal Reflections On Prevailing Views Of Indian Culture
by Don Salmon, PhD
The Infinity Foundation has as one of its primary aims the promotion of a deeper and more accurate understanding of Indian culture and spirituality. During the past two years, through my association with the Infinity Foundation, I’ve learned a great deal about Indian cultural and philosophic traditions. I’ve also learned much about the numerous ways in which these traditions have been misrepresented. I’m grateful for what I’ve learned, as the varied and often contradictory portrayals of Indian culture have puzzled me for many years. In this personal essay, I reflect on some of the major mistaken and misleading stereotypes of Indian culture.
In the early 20th century, Sir John Woodroffe, a scholar and writer on Indian philosophy, published a book entitled, Is India Civilized? He wrote it in answer to negative criticism of Indian culture by the English drama critic William Archer. Indian philosopher-yogi Sri Aurobindo, in harmony with Woodroffe’s point of view, used that book as the starting point for a series of inspiring reflections on Indian art, architecture, history, literature, and philosophy, which have been published under the title, The Foundations of Indian Culture. I recently looked again at Sri Aurobindo’s essays, and was struck by the persistence, to this day, of many of the negative ideas and images of Indian culture which he addressed over 80 years ago. In this article, I will describe my efforts to discover the underlying reasons for the endurance of these negative portrayals.
I offer the following medley of quotations as my starting point since, collectively, they contain the major themes around which my own reflections have revolved.
“[Archer believed that Indian] emphasis on the Self, the eternal,… the infinite, discouraged life [and] action and led to a false and life-killing asceticism. [According to Archer] India achieved nothing of importance, produced no great personalities, was impotent in will and endeavour, her literature and art are a barbaric and monstrous nullity not equal even to the third-rate work of Europe, her life story a long and dismal record of incompetence and failure.” – Sri Aurobindo, A Defense of Indian Culture1
“Ramakrishna’s relationship with his young followers appears to have all the characteristics of what Freud called a polymorphous sexuality, a pregenital sexuality in which the whole body is sexually sensitive and alive…. A full dialectic of the sacred in which the pure is synthesized with the impure – in which infantile sexuality is replaced (but not lost) in genital sexuality – is not present in Ramakrishna… Ramakrishna .. is emphatic about the fact that the purity [of his disciples]… should never be sullied by the impurities of the world; and insisting that this is the ultimate unspiritual practice, he precludes the full operation of the dialectic of the sacred. In Normal O. Brown’s neo-Freudian vision, “love’s body” is not possible without full immersion in the world. The mature lover rediscovers the polymorphous sexual body in a process of returning to Eliot’s garden and ‘knowing it for the first time.’ Eliot’s development may be seen as fulfilling the threefold dialectic of premodern>modern>constructive postmodern, while Ramakrishna’ position may be interpreted as one stuck in premodern notions of innocence and totality.” – Nicholas Gier, Spiritual Titanism2
“Indian philosophy does in fact elevate power, control or freedom to a supereminent position.. the ultimate value.. is not morality but freedom… complete control over one’s environment – something which includes self-control but also includes control of others and even control of the physical sources of power in the universe….” – Karl Potter, Presuppositions of India’s Philosophies3
“[Karl]Potter concludes that Euro-Americans have a better understanding of their limitations than their Indian counterparts. The scientific view of nature as ‘impersonal neither in our control nor controlling us’ is alien to the Indian mind, which has no doubt about ‘the power of the yogi to control not only his body but the bodies of others – indeed, the whole universe’. – Nicholas Gier, Titanism4
“It’s not an accident if America [has today undertaken] military actions in numerous countries where generations of colonial British soldiers have campaigned (…) in zones where Western armies had to intervene in order to quell disorder… Afghanistan and other troubled countries are today imploring [the West] to impose an enlightened foreign administration like that once offered by those confident Englishmen wearing jodhpurs and their colonial helmets.” – Max Boot, The Case for American Empire5
Before entering high school, I had not read much serious literature, much less philosophy. I’m not sure what moved me one day to pick up an encyclopedia of philosophy at my high school library. I do remember quite vividly, however, the effect of two of the articles I read. The first statement which caught my attention was a comment from Immanuel Kant, asserting (more or less) that space and time are basically constructs of the human mind by means of which it attempts to understand the universe. Upon reading this, I felt dizzy, and reached out to a nearby shelf to steady myself. I then took the book to a nearby table where I sat down and continued browsing. At Plato’s parable of the cave, I paused. In reading of the prisoner who broke free of his chains and ascended to the light above, I had a dim feeling of recognition, as if I had somehow heard this story before.
Having no background in philosophy, I turned to the commentary by eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell with the hope of gaining some greater understanding of this inspiring story. Russell presented what I later discovered was the standard interpretation of Plato’s “Ideas” – essentially that all earthly forms are imperfect replicas of highly abstract intellectual forms known as “archetypes”. As an example, Russell described the hypothetical existence of a perfect triangle that serves as an archetype and source for all the triangles with which we are familiar.
I had a feeling of discomfort as I read this as I felt Plato was trying to convey something quite at odds with Russell’s interpretation. But who was I, I thought, to question one of the great philosophers of the 20th century. Over the next seven years, I read quite a bit of philosophy – at first Western, later Indian. From time to time, I would look at other commentaries on Plato’s parable. All presented Plato as developing his “theory” of archetypes by a process of pure intellectual speculation. Each time I had the same reaction: that they had somehow failed to see what I sensed Plato was pointing to, in spite of being “expert commentators.”
When I was 21, I happened upon a commentary on Plato’s allegory by a Swami of the Ramakrishna order. To my surprise and delight, the Swami’s comments were perfectly in tune with what I had dimly felt seven years before. By that time, I had been reading extensively a wide range of original works and commentaries on Indian philosophy. Again, I was struck by the difference between what I understood of the original texts and the interpretation of the commentators. Again, I assumed that this was a result of my ignorance and lack of philosophic training.
Since my late teens I’d had the sense that one day I would be engaged in developing an integration of psychology and spirituality, and by age 20, I had come to believe that Indian spirituality provided the best foundation for this integration. I considered many options for further study along those lines, none seemed appealing at the time. Behaviorism was still the dominant outlook in psychology. Psychiatry was moving away from psychoanalysis – a good thing, I thought – but seemed bent on finding a biological basis for all mental phenomena, leaving little or no room for spirituality. I briefly considered doing graduate work in Indian philosophy, but realized that would require spending an inordinate amount of time studying the works of the same western commentators whose interpretations I found so contrary to my own intuitions.
Some 35 years after having first encountered Russell’s interpretation of Plato’s allegory of the cave, I had completed my doctoral degree in psychology, was working as a psychologist, and had begun my association with the Infinity Foundation. By then many years had elapsed since I’d looked at academic portrayals of Indian culture and philosophy. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, to some extent, times had changed. Through my association with the foundation, I discovered an increasing number of highly qualified scholars writing with a deep intuitive understanding of Indian philosophic and spiritual texts, some of who were long-time practitioners of the contemplative arts.
However, I also learned that some things had not changed. As I continued to explore the writings of some leading scholars in the field of South Asian studies, I found echoes of previous criticisms still resounding in the halls of the academy. The same pejorative portrayals of India seemed to emerge over and over: her thought and culture as naïve, primitive, obsessed with the return to a narcissistic infantile state; her spiritual philosophies as pessimistic and world-negating; her ethics as seriously lacking; her religion a confusing mixture of high culture and barbaric superstition, whose universalist tendencies lead to the devaluation of religious diversity and a “pallid universalism”.
Here I explore some of these critical themes.
I. India as a backward, primitive culture
The typical scholarly perspective on India’s most ancient scriptures – the Vedas – is here nicely encapsulated by Nolini Kanta Gupta, a disciple of Sri Aurobindo:
“The Vedas [according to this view] are the first attempt of man at literature. They are a mere collection of pastoral songs comparable to the lispings of a baby. Man in his uncultured and innocent state used to feel every object infused with life and imagined spirits behind the forces of Nature. Therefore he prayed to Indra and Varuna for rain, to the Sun for its rays of light. Frightened by the hurricane and storm he would implore the Maruts for safety, and charmed by the soothing beauty of Dawn he would sing her eulogy.” – Nolini Kanta Gupta, An Introduction to the Vedas6
Sri Aurobindo, in stark contrast to this typical scholarly construal, sees the Vedic texts as presenting, in a symbolic manner, profound psychological and spiritual truths. For example, he sees “Nature” in the Vedic sense as referring to more than that which we perceive with our physical senses. Rather, it is the expression of the infinite Spirit, something which imbues every flower, rock and stream with the glory of the Divine. I find it not surprising that a yogi whose consciousness is united with the Infinite, would see inner truths expressed through symbolic language in the pages of a sacred text such as the Vedas. Nor should I be surprised to find scholars – who are trained to actively ignore intuitive promptings from within – seeing in those same pages the musings of “man in his uncultured and innocent state”. But this inability (or unwillingness) of modern thinkers to enter into the worldview of a sacred text has unfortunately also biased many who look to these thinkers to shed light on such texts – people who might otherwise be sympathetic to the subtler aspects of Indian spiritual writing and are thus deprived of its deeper significance and impact.
I remember reading the comments of historian William Irwin Thompson on Sri Aurobindo’s interpretation of the Vedas. So convinced was he of Sri Aurobindo’s stance as a mere ‘apologist” for Indian texts, that he didn’t even think it necessary to support his contention that there was no basis for a psycho-spiritual interpretation of the Vedas. They were, he said, exactly what conventional scholars had portrayed them to be – interesting, perhaps sometimes inspired, poetry conveying the ritual practices of a primitive nature-worshipping people. I’ve also come across numerous Jungian writings which, while granting some degree of wisdom to India’s sacred texts, assert that they nevertheless reflect a basically pre-modern, naïve understanding on the part of yogis whose primary aim was to escape from a painful world they couldn’t comprehend.
What is the fundamental dynamic underlying this persistent interpretation of ancient Indian texts as “naïve” and “primitive” on the part of contemporary scholars and western thinkers in general? Another passage from Nolini Kanta Gupta on the subject of Indian unity illustrates a different approach:
“The unity of India lies in her soul-power. The unity that we see in the education, culture, behavior, conduct and the mold of her character are the outer manifestation of an inalienable unity which is derived from a still profounder living being. Behind India stands the ‘One being’, purusam ekam… It is the descent of the soul-power of India that is pressing to fuse India into a single nation. The political unity of India is not only possible but inevitable, and the secret of that consummation is to be found in this mystic fact.” – Nolini Kanta Gupta, The Unity of India7
What a far cry from the usual cautious academic style. Gupta does not intend this “living being” to be taken as some poetic fancy; he is speaking of a “soul-power” that he considers to be as real – or more real – than the physical chairs and tables whose “reality” we take for granted.
What is at stake in beginning to question this common-sense “reality” that we have assumed to be the one and true reality? How would our world change, how would our view of ourselves change? Psychologist Charles Tart suggests that there is a great deal of fear involved in letting go of the attachment to what we ordinarily take to be real.
In the next passage, Sri Aurobindo describes the attitude of the rationalist when faced with a spiritual teaching rooted in the fearsome vastness of Infinity:
“[To the rationalist, spirituality should be] directed towards the finite, not towards the infinite, towards things temporary, not towards the eternal…. The thought and suffering which seam and furrow the ideal head of Homer, there, we are told, is the sane and virile spirituality. The calm and compassion of Buddha victorious over ignorance and suffering, the meditation of the thinker tranced in communion with the Eternal, lifted above the seekings of thought into identity with a supreme light, the rapture of the saint made one by love in the pure heart with the transcendent and universal Love, the will of the Karmayogin raised above egoistic desire and passion into the impersonality of the divine and universal will, these things on which India has set the highest value and which have been the supreme endeavour of her greatest spirits, are not sane, not virile. This, one may be allowed to say, is a very occidental and up to date idea of spirituality. Homer, Shakespeare, Raphael, Spinoza, Kant, Charlemagne, Abraham Lincoln, Lenin, Mussolini, these, shall we suggest, are to figure henceforth not only as great poets and artists or heroes of thought and action, but as our typical heroes and exemplars of spirituality. Not Buddha, not Christ, Chaitanya, St. Francis, Ramakrishna; these are either semi-barbaric Orientals or touched by the feminine insanity of an oriental religion. The impression made on an Indian mind resembles the reaction that a cultured intellectual might feel if he were told that good cooking, good dressing, good engineering, good schoolmastering are the true beauty and their pursuit the right, sane, virile aesthetic cult; and literature, architecture, sculpture and painting are only a useless scribbling on paper, an insane hacking of stone and an effeminate daubing of canvas; Vauban, Pestalozzi, Dr. Parr, Vatel and Beau Brummell are then the true heroes of artistic creation and not Da Vinci, Angelo, Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare or Rodin. [Here] we see the opposition of the standpoints and begin to understand the inwardness of the difference between the West and India.” – Sri Aurobindo, A Defense of Indian Culture8
Sri Aurobindo here identifies several of the attitudes which underlie the difficulties of Western scholars in attempting to understand Indian texts. He notes several times that the focus on egolessness, transcendent love, infinite calm, etc. appears somehow “effeminate.” I would suggest that the term “effeminate” here stands not only for the quality of being inappropriately feminine, but carries with it as well the sense of being primitive, infantile and naïve. We’ve seen above how Gier characterized Ramakrishna as being stuck in a state of premodern innocence, still bound to a kind of “infantile sexuality”.
But lack of virility is not the worst accusation thrown at the Indian yogi apparently lost to the world in his meditative trance. Sri Aurobindo suggests that anyone who takes the Spirit to be a reality – particularly one more real than the banks and shopping malls which sprout like weeds across the American landscape – must have taken leave of his senses, perhaps suffered a full-blown psychotic break.
At the end of the passage, Sri Aurobindo refers to the “inwardness of the difference between the West and India”. Now we start to see some of the reason for the incapacity of so many scholars to understand the point of view of the Vedas, to grasp the meaning of the “soul-power” which inspires Indian civilization. It is an inner, psychological difficulty having its roots in the disparity between intellectual and intuitive ways of knowing. For one attached to the rigid boundaries of the intellect, the experiences of the yogi might well seem indicative of a loss of sanity.
In the next passage, Gupta portrays the difference between a philosophy based on intuition and one that takes its stand on reason:
“The Indian standpoint… is first to contact the truth by a direct realization – through meditation, concentration, an uplifting and a deepening of the consciousness, through yoga, spiritual discipline, and then endeavor to express the truth thus realized, directly intuited or revealed, through mental terms, to make it familiar and communicable to the normal intelligence…. One sees the truth or reality and describes it as it is seen, its limbs and gestures, its constituents and functions. Philosophy here is fundamentally a recording of one’s vision and a translation or presentation of it in mental terms. The procedure of European philosophy is different. There the reason or the mental light is the starting-point. That light is cast about: one collects facts, one observes things and happenings and then proceeds to find out a general truth – a law, a hypothesis – justified by such observations.” – Nolini Kanta Gupta, Darshana and Philosophy9
One of the defining characteristics of modernity is a belief in the supremacy of rationality. Truth is sought – by philosophers and scientists alike – by means of the intellect. All other ways of knowing – intuition, imagination, inspiration, revelation – are lumped together and seen as essentially inferior.
I recently observed an exchange of letters between a materialist and someone interested in Indian philosophy. The materialist – a computer scientist working in the field of artificial intelligence – was obviously exasperated by the audacity of the other to even suggest that physical science could not account for everything in the universe. At the conclusion of his final letter, he delivered what amounted to a mini-lecture saying in effect: “Anybody who believes that consciousness has a status greater or more all-embracing than matter is obviously a child ruled by wish-fulfillment rather than an adult who has come to terms with the real nature of the universe”.
This sometimes seems to be the predominant position of some of the scholars who study Indian philosophy and religion as well: “Ramakrishna’s position may be interpreted as one stuck in pre-modern notions of innocence and totality.”10
In the next passage, Sri Aurobindo challenges the belief that reason should be the rightful basis of a truly mature civilization:
“Does the future of humanity lie in a culture founded solely upon reason and science? Is the progress of human life the effort of a mind, a continuous collective mind constituted by an ever changing sum of transient individuals, that has emerged from the darkness of the inconscient material universe and is stumbling about in it in search of some clear light and some sure support amid its difficulties and problems? And does civilization consist in man’s endeavor to find that light … in a rationalized knowledge and a rationalized way of life? An ordered knowledge of the powers, forces, possibilities of physical Nature and of the psychology of man as a mental and physical being is then the only true science. An ordered use of that knowledge for a progressive social efficiency and well-being, which will make his brief existence more efficient, more tolerable, more comfortable, happier, better appointed, more luxuriously enriched with the pleasures of the mind, life and body, is the only true art of life. All our philosophy, all our religion – supposing religion has not been outgrown and rejected – all our science, thought, art, social structure, law and institution must found itself upon this idea of existence and must serve this one aim and endeavor. This is the formula which European civilization has accepted and is still laboring to bring into some kind of realization. It is the formula of an intelligently mechanized civilization supporting a rational and utilitarian culture.” – Sri Aurobindo, A Defense of Indian Culture11
Is Indian thought and culture essentially pre-modern? Was Freud right when he suggested to the French writer Romain Rolland that Ramakrishna’s spiritual experiences represented a desire to return to the womb? If this view is accurate, then by all means, we need to grow up, face the cold, hard facts of reality and accept reason as the highest means of gaining knowledge of the universe. Was Max Boot correct when he stated that the civilizations of the Non-Western world need the modern-day equivalents of “confident Englishmen wearing jodhpurs and their colonial helmets” to save them from their primitive heritage? The problem is that these questions have no final answer within the purview of the rational intellect.
II. The Pessimistic, World-Negating Spirituality Of India
Equally is it a misrepresentation to say that Indian culture denies all value to life, detaches from terrestrial interests and insists on the unimportance of the life of the moment. To read these European comments one would imagine that in all Indian thought there was nothing but the nihilistic school of Buddhism and the monistic illusionism of Shankara and that all Indian art, literature and social thinking were nothing but the statement of their recoil from the falsehood and vanity of things. It does not follow that because these things are what the average European has heard about India or what most interests or strikes the European scholar in her thought, therefore they are, however great may have been their influence, the whole of Indian thinking.
The ancient civilisation of India founded itself very expressly upon four human interests; first, desire and enjoyment, next, material, economic and other aims and needs of the mind and body, thirdly, ethical conduct and the right law of individual and social life, and, lastly spiritual liberation; kama, artha, dharma, moksa. The business of culture and social organisation was to lead, to satisfy, to support these things in man and to build some harmony of their forms and motives. Except in very rare cases the satisfaction of the three mundane objects must run before the other; fullness of life must precede the surpassing of life. The debt to the family, the community and the gods could not be scamped; earth must have her due and the relative its play, even if beyond it there was the glory of heaven or the peace of the Absolute. There was no preaching of a general rush to the cave and the hermitage.” – Sri Aurobindo, A Defense of Indian Culture12
Over the years, I’ve encountered many critics who believe that Indian spirituality is essentially pessimistic and world-negating. While, as Sri Aurobindo acknowledges, there are certain schools of Indian philosophy that might be characterized as such, they represent only a small portion of the vast spiritual tradition of India. Some of these criticisms seem based more on ignorance of the facts than an aversion to mystical experience. In the next passage, Sri Aurobindo counters the criticism that the best India has to offer is in the more “effete” realm of literature, art and philosophy, but nothing of any practical consequence.
“[William Archer grudgingly acknowledges that India has at least some forms of literature, art, philosophy, etc to its credit] But these things are, it may be said, the things of the mind, and the intellect, imagination and aesthetic mind of India may have been creatively active, but yet her outward life depressed, dull, poor, gloomy with the hues of asceticism, void of will-power and personality, ineffective, null. That would be a hard proposition to swallow; for literature, art and science do not flourish in a void of life. [But] India has not only had the long roll of her great saints, sages, thinkers, religious founders, poets, creators, scientists, scholars, legists; she has had her great rulers, administrators, soldiers, conquerors, heroes, men with the strong active will, the mind that plans and the seeing force that builds. She has warred and ruled, traded and colonised and spread her civilisation, built polities and organized communities and societies, done all that makes the outward activity of great peoples.” – Sri Aurobindo, A Defense of Indian Culture13
Among the many possible reasons why critics of Indian philosophy persist in this characterization, once again what stands out to me as most significant is the inability of the reasoning mind to grasp the outlook of the intuitive mind. For the academic who believes that scholarship requires a purely objective, analytic stance, the inner, subjective outlook of Indian philosophy may appear not only impractical and “effete”, but threatening to the solidity of his own worldview.
One well-known description of mysticism characterizes it as “beginning in ‘mist’ and ending in ‘schism’.” To the logical mind, comfortable with neatly defined boundaries, the inner-directed attention of the mystic may well seem ‘misty’. Such inner-directedness may also seem to negate in some way the hard, solid reality of earth, rocks, trees, of “banks and shopping malls.” One often hears, in the West, the word “introspection” accompanied by the adjective “morbid.” For someone attached to objective forms, the inward turn required by spiritual endeavor may look like a kind of “death.” It can in fact be said that in a certain sense, all spirituality is “world-negating” – however, the “world” which it negates is not the real one, but the model constructed by the mind.
“[There is an unwillingness of] objective, scholarly and analytical thinkers to deal adequately with the subjective, the intuitive and the more humanistic and cultural forces at work in the world. This is precisely the challenge that Sri Aurobindo is offering as he reflects upon the destinies of India and the destinies of man in the twentieth century when basic decisions must be made in India on whether to conform to the more objective and rational approach of the West or to maintain the spiritual approach of traditional India in order to sustain a more meaningful vision and to release the abundant psychic energies needed for building the future” – Thomas Berry, “‘The Foundations of Indian Culture’: Its Contemporary Significance14
To the modern mind, which takes reason applied to action as the foundation of a healthy life, religion is a thing best confined to Sunday mornings. Religion is understood to have no practical bearing on the way life is conducted on the other days of the week. If by “religion” is meant a blind acceptance of a dogmatic creed, concerned mostly with the afterlife, this modernist attitude of rationality certainly represents an improvement over the pre-modern attitude of blind superstitious belief. But “religion,” in the European sense of an organized set of beliefs to which adherents must subscribe, never really existed in India. Sri Aurobindo, in the next passage, makes clear the distinction between this conventional notion of “religion” and true spirituality – a spirituality which he says offers the most practical means of attaining the goals of world peace, economic justice and international unity, deemed worthwhile in the modern era.
“Religion has been a central preoccupation of the Indian mind; some have told us that too much religion ruined India, precisely because we made the whole of life religion or religion the whole of life, we have failed in life and gone under. If we give rather to religion the sense of the following of the spiritual impulse in its fullness and define spirituality as the attempt to know and live in the highest self, the divine, the all-embracing unity and to raise life in all its parts to the divinest possible values, then it is evident that there was not too much of religion, but rather too little of it – and in what there was, a too one – sided and therefore an insufficiently ample tendency.
The right remedy is, not to belittle still farther the agelong ideal of India, but to return to its old amplitude and give it a still wider scope, to make in very truth all the life of the nation a religion in this high spiritual sense. This is the direction in which the philosophy, poetry, art of the West is, still more or less obscurely, but with an increasing light, beginning to turn, and even some faint glints of the truth are beginning now to fall across political and sociological ideals. India has the key to the knowledge and conscious application of the ideal; what was dark to her before in its application, she can now, with a new light, illumine; what was wrong and wry in her old methods she can now rectify; the fences which she created to protect the outer growth of the spiritual ideal and which afterwards became barriers to its expansion and farther application, she can now break down and give her spirit a freer field and an ampler flight: she can, if she will, give a new and decisive turn to the problems over which all mankind is labouring and stumbling, for the clue to their solutions is there in her ancient knowledge. Whether she will rise or not to the height of her opportunity in the renaissance which is coming upon her, is the question of her destiny.” – Sri Aurobindo, A Defense of Indian Culture15
III. The Absence Of Ethics In Indian Culture
“To many Westerners, all Hindu thinkers tend to treat the problem of evil too cavalierly and nonchalantly. [who are these ‘many westerners; certainly not the materialists who find no basis in a world of meaningless matter for any kind of values] The Hindu nondualistic perspective and the concomitant belief that good and evil (together with all the other sets of polar oppositions) are nothing but complementary facets of a single reality, must appear to those who have been nursed by the milk of Moses and the Hebrew prophets, of Jesus, Augustine an Aquinas, to meld the polarities together and to pass over the dilemma posed by their contrariety without actually confronting the problem of conflict seriously.” – J. Bruce Long, A New Yoga for a New Age16
I have never understood the “problem of evil” which seems to plague so many philosophers. If you’re a materialist, the question of the ultimate meaning of “good” or “evil” can’t arise, because neither good nor evil is an inherently existing reality in a strictly material universe. If nothing in the world exists but the Brahman (the Divine, God, Ultimate Reality or whatever term you wish to use) then good and evil have only a relative, not an absolute meaning. It seems to me that evil only presents a philosophical “problem” if you believe in an extra-cosmic God who – in a matter I can’t comprehend – created a world entirely separate from himself over which he has complete control. If this were the case, evil would be an overwhelming and ultimately unsolvable problem.
But did Jesus really teach the existence of such a God? Did any spiritually awakened individual ever teach the existence of such a monstrous being who would create a world separate from himself and subject it to all the horrors born of evil? If not, then is it possible that the whole “problem of evil” has its roots in the misunderstanding of what the great religious founders actually taught – that they never taught the existence of a God separate from his creation?
J. Bruce Long, author of the passage quoted at the beginning of this section, goes on to acknowledge that Indian spirituality might hold a legitimate answer to the problem of evil:
“[ A Hindu might] respond to this contention with the observation that Westerners are too preoccupied with the problems of sin and evil and that, were they to view the world through the spectacles of nondualistic Truth, they would perceive that good and evil are but two sides of the same reality, are nothing but chimeras in the passing scene of life, and therefore do not deserve the excessive dotage which Western thinkers have bestowed upon the topic.” – J. Bruce Long, A New Yoga for a New Age17
If we grant Long his point, would there then be any basis for the accusation that Indian civilization lacks an ethical sense? Is nondualist awareness perhaps only for the yogi elite, leaving the rest of the population bereft of a moral compass? Once again, I believe the difficulty lies in the difference between two different ways of knowing and understanding reality. The European ethical sense derives from a rather rigid intellectual categorization of behaviors seen from an outer perspective; the Indian sense derives from an inner intuitive discernment of relative good and evil within an Infinite Divine Reality beyond mental comprehension.
“In Europe they want to regulate life through codes, moral and legal; forced by circumstances and for the sake of mutual interest they have set up a mode of moral standard, and this they want to impose on all peoples and countries. The utmost contribution of European religion has been a kind of temporizing and understanding with the lower propensities of men and somehow presenting a smooth and decorous surface of life. No doubt, the East has moral codes and in profusion, but they are not considered to be the last word on spirituality; they all fall under the category of the ‘Lesser Knowledge” (Apara Vidya) and therefore the East has not confined itself within the play of the lower – the three gunas of nature. Its gaze is fixed on a still higher region.” – Nolini Kanta Gupta, East and West18
A large number of contemporary individuals have rebelled against the rigidity of European civilization’s longstanding moral and ethical codes. However, with nothing greater or truer to replace the old constraints, the result seems to have been an increase in the reign of desire and ambition, rather than a growth into a more fluid understanding based in a consciousness beyond the mind. Perhaps it is precisely its understanding of what lies beyond the mind and beyond ethics that has allowed India to sustain its rich tradition of ethical culture for so many centuries.
In a conversation with some of his disciples, Sri Aurobindo said,”Indian culture knew the value of morality, and also its limitations. The Upanishads and the Gita are loud with and full of the idea of going beyond morality. For instance, the Upanishad says, ‘he does not need to think whether what he is doing is good or bad’ – Sadhu, Asadhu. Such a man attains a consciousness in which there is no need to think about morality because the action proceeds from the Truth.”19
Glimmers of such an understanding can be found in European culture as well. In light of speculations about Indian influence on the development of early Christianity, is it possible that when St. Augustine declared, “Love and do what you will” as the basis of ethical behavior, he had the Upanishads in mind?
IV. The “Pallid Univeralism” Of Indian Spirituality
“The initial difficulty that militates against an understanding of Hinduism is that it seems to be many things to many people. Has it a single scripture like the Bible or the Koran? A single founder like the Buddha, Christ or Mahomet?… No wonder[someone] once said, stung by exasperation, that Hinduism is not a religion, but a contagious disease!” – K.R.S. Iyengar, Sri Aurobindo: A Biography and History20
I’m perhaps biased toward a universalist perspective, having been raised in the Unitarian (now “Unitarian-Universalist”) church. I find it difficult to understand the need many seem to have for establishing a rigid boundary between one religion and the other. Perhaps in a previous birth I was one of those Chinese people whom Buddhist practitioner John Blofeld spoke of as feeling perfectly at ease in calling himself a Taoist, Confucianist and Buddhist.
From a largely Jewish background, at age 7, I decided I was an atheist. When at age 15, my friend Joshua explained that not all religious people believed in a God who was an old man with a long white beard living somewhere up in the sky, I revised my status to “agnostic.” Over the next 30 years, I went on to study with an Indian meditation teacher for ten years, a Sufi teacher for two years, and a Tibetan Buddhist teacher for one year. During that same period, as choir director at a Catholic Church for ten years, I had many conversations with a mystically-oriented priest who taught me a number of medieval Christian contemplative practices. I also attended a Pentecostal Church in Brooklyn for one year, and have practiced Buddhist meditation for more than 25 years. So as a Jewish, Unitarian, atheistic, Pentecostal, Sufi, Tibetan Buddhist agnostic who believes with Sri Aurobindo that “there is nothing in the universe but the Divine”, why is it that I don’t feel the least bit confused?
Here is someone who appears to be confused by the “universalist” perspective of Indian philosophy:
“The question that must arise inevitably when confronting a highly eclectic and synthetic system of thought is this: despite the obvious gains in incorporating a great diversity of ideas and perspectives within a single philosophical orientation, does not one face a far greater danger than sterile scholasticism and intellectual parochialism? Namely, does one not run the risk of identifying entities which are clearly distinct and arise from quite different existential bases and thereby bypass or ignore intellectual distinctions which are crucial in defining one’s intellectual position and style of life? From the viewpoint of religious theism, nothing is more devoid of religious meaning than a pallid universalism, just as in the eyes of a historicist, nothing is more destructive of the integrity of historical facts than a philosophical Idealism.” – J. Bruce Long, A New Yoga for a New Age21
To me, this statement exemplifies the typical misunderstanding of the universalist perspective of Indian spirituality. It is true that virtually all major philosophic and theological ideas and attitudes can be found in one or another school of Indian thought: theism, non-theism and atheism; non-dualism, qualified non-dualism, and dualism; ascetic purity, hedonistic indulgence, etc. Looking at this apparent diversity – which some would call a “cacophony” – many scholars have difficulty understanding how all its elements could possibly be reconciled. However, the vision of a unifying Absolute reality has existed in India for millennia.
“That which is known by Shaivas as Shiva, as Brahman by the Vedantins, as Buddha by the Buddhists, as Arhat by the Jainas, and as all-ruling Karma by the Mimamsakas. May that Hari, Lord of the Triple – world grant us the Fruit we desire”. Commenting on this verse, Sri Krishna Prem writes, “Such expressions as this can be found throughout the Indian tradition, which from the far away Vedic times, has ever proclaimed that ‘the Real is One; [though] the learned call It by many names”. – Sri Krishna Prem, The Yoga of the Kathopanisad22
I recently spent several months living in a spiritual community. The core of the community’s mission involved the development of what was termed a “universal” form of spiritual life. The nature of this “universalism” ultimately became the source of much controversy. One member of the community grew to feel that a universalist approach somehow made his individual spiritual path less valuable, and that it ignored meaningful distinctions between various spiritual traditions.
As I understand the term, a true “universalism” does not ignore differences or foolishly fuse together distinct entities. What is the difficulty so many scholars and lay people alike seem to have in understanding the nature of the Indian universalist perspective? How can we make sense of this confusion?
Steven Hagen, a research scientist and Zen Buddhist teacher, has a clever way of illustrating what seems to me to be the source of this difficulty. And, yet again, we find ourselves face to face with the limitations of the mind’s way of knowing.
The mind, Hagen explains, works by means of a process of conceptualization which splits the world into opposites – good vs. evil, simplicity vs. complexity, tradition vs. progress. As an example, he gives the typical opposition of good vs. evil embodied in old western movies in which the “good” guys wore white hats and the “bad” guys wore black ones. This made the story easy to follow – you always knew whom to root for, and you could rest assured that the good guys would always win in the end. The problem Hagen points out, is that life is not so neatly divided up according to our mental categories. If we wish to arrive at a reconciliation of good and evil, we need to transcend both without ignoring the distinctions between them (which would mean a regression to a state of ignorance prior to the emergence of these distinctions).
So what is the position which transcends the opposites of “white hat” and “black hat”? According to Hagan, it is “no hat”. One simply “sees” (in the Indian sense of “darshana” – literally, seeing the Divine) that Absolute reality which contains all ‘hats’ (or perspectives) in itself.
But let’s suppose that in a brief flash of insight, we were able to gain a glimpse of this transcendent reality which holds all opposites. In the next moment, the mind leaps on this insight, saying “Now I’ve got it”, and, before we know what’s happened, the new insight becomes one side of a new opposition – black and white hats vs. no hats, or “good and evil” vs “transcendent insight”. The “transcendent insight” thus loses its absoluteness, its reconciling power, and becomes relativized.
Curiously, so-called “simple” people – those lacking much formal education – are often better able to grasp the essence of this than are many highly educated scholars. Perhaps it is because with increasing years of education, it becomes increasingly difficult to let go of conceptualization long enough to allow a ray of insight into the mind.
What are the consequences of being able to hold such a transcendent view? Perhaps the most important one from a social perspective is that it allows for an embrace of differences, because one’s being is rooted in a larger Unity.
“[The Indian spiritual tradition] is… catholic and synthetic, a cosmos of creeds and experiences… the Indian view and way of life are responsible for the utter lack of religious intolerance we observe in Indian history.” – K. D. Sethna, The Indian Spirit and the World’s Future.23
The universalism of the Indian tradition does not, in fact, ignore differences. It is an all-embracing, comprehensive view based not on reason but on a direct perception of Unity – a Unity that cannot be conceived by the intellect, but can be seen by the intuition.
“It is essential to go beyond the more-or-less typical Western points of view – in practially all areas of philosophy – in order to reach a comprehensive and therefore adequate philosophy… The greatest contribution.. of Indian traditional philosophy, especially in the Upanisads and Indian philosophy derived therefrom – is the need to advance beyond even the highest reaches of traditional western philosophy so as to attain a higher and more comprehensive, truer view which will not only include the partial points of view of the West but also bring to light the highest truth, the highest reality, spiritual perfection. In this sense, the West is not wrong but is merely inadequate in its search for truth.” – Charles Moore: Sri Aurobindo on East and West24
Sri Ramakrishna, the great Indian saint whom Gier characterized as “stuck in premodern notions of innocence and totality,” was perhaps one of the greatest postmodern geniuses in regard to a profound understanding of this universalist vision. According to Gupta:
“When spirituality had almost disappeared from the world and even in India it existed, as it were, merely in name, there was the advent of Sri Ramakrishna bringing with him spirituality in its sheer plenitude and investing it with eternal certitude and infallibility. Sri Ramakrishna sowed the seed of a future creation. He seems to have assimilated the essence of all the different spiritual practices of the past and discarded… all the non-essentials. – Nolini Kanta Gupta, Sri Ramakrishna25
Rather than a “pallid unviersalism” which collapses differences, the universalist view which has prevailed in India for thousands of years is a vibrant and dynamic one, embracing distinctions within an infinite unity. At a time when there are so many conflicting forces in the world, it may be that only such an integral and universalist vision can provide lasting resolution to our many problems.
“The religion which embraces science and faith, theism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism and yet is none of these, is that to which the World-Spirit moves… This sanatana dharma [Eternal Truth] has many scriptures.. but its real most authoritative scripture is in the heart in which the Eternal has His dwelling26 … A spiritual religion of humanity is the hope of the future. By this is not meant what is ordinarily called a universal religion, a system, a thing of creed and intellectual belief and outward rite. Mankind has tried unity by that means; it has failed and deserved to fail, because there can be no universal religious system, one in mental creed and vital form. The inner spirit is indeed one, but the spiritual life insists on freedom and variation in its self-expression. A religion of humanity means the growing realization that there is a divine Reality in which we are all one… It implies a growing attempt to live out this knowledge and bring about a kingdom of this divine Spirit upon earth.” – Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity27
I don’t know if I’ve grown any wiser since that day some 35 years ago when I first read Bertrand Russell’s commentary on Plato’s parable of the cave. Perhaps the Western scholars are right and my reading of Plato as describing a suprarational reality is incorrect. Perhaps there is no suprarational reality, and Indian culture and spirituality is truly primitive, irrational, without ethical foundation and a confused hodge-podge of conflicting and contradictory beliefs.
But suppose that the rational understanding of life held by the modern world to be the supreme achievement of ‘man’ is not the ultimate form of knowledge. What if there is a way of knowing which is superior to reason? If the attainment of “jnana” – a Sanskrit word meaning “direct unmediated knowledge of Reality” – is a real possibility, then the Indian tradition has something to offer that modern interpreters are missing. Having attained jnana, giving up the limits of the intellect may be seen to be the means of gaining access to a greater reality; what looks like a loss of identity may actually be the finding of a greater identity; what seems to be a meaningless dissolution of ethical standards may be actually lead to the development of a greater love.
1. Sri Aurobindo, 1997. The Renaissance in India: with a Defence of Indian Culture, p. 241. Volume 20, The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo. Pondicherry, India: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department.
2. Gier, N. (2000). Spiritual Titanism, pp. 143-145. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
3. Potter, Karl H., 1963. Presuppositions of India’s Philosophies, p. 153, cited in Gier. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
4. Gier, N. (2000). ibid, pp. 8-9. Quoted passage from Potter, ibid, p. 95.
5. Boot, Max, (2001). The Case for American Empire, The Weekly Standard, October 15.
6. Gupta, N., (1970). An Introduction to the Vedas, p. 66, in “The Collected Works of Nolini Kanta Gupta”, Volume 8. Pondicherry, India: Nolini Kanta Gupta Birth Centenary Celebrations Committee.
7. Gupta, N., (1970). The Unity of India, p. 243, in “The Collected Works of Nolini Kanta Gupta”, Volume 7. Pondicherry, India: Nolini Kanta Gupta Birth Centenary Celebrations Committee.
8. Sri Aurobindo, ibid, p. 121.
9. Gupta, N., (1970). Darshana and Philosophy, p. 343-344, in “The Collected Works of Nolini Kanta Gupta”, Volume 1. Pondicherry, India: Nolini Kanta Gupta Birth Centenary Celebrations Committee.
10. Gier, N., ibid, p. 144.
11. Sri Aurobindo, ibid, p. 67.
12. Sri Aurobindo, ibid, p. 125.
13. Sri Aurobindo, ibid, p 245.
14. Berry, T. (1974). The Foundations of Indian Culture: Its Contemporary Significance, p. 46. In “Six Pillars: Introductions to the Major Works of Sri Aurobindo”. Editor, Robert A. McDermott. Chambersberg, PN: Wilson Books:
15. Sri Aurobindo, ibid, p. 37.
16. Long, J. Bruce, (1974). “A New Yoga for a New Age: A Critical Introduction to ‘The Synthesis of Yoga’, p. 125. In “Six Pillars: Introductions to the Major Works of Sri Aurobindo.” Editor, Robert A. McDermott. Chambersberg, PN: Wilson Books:
17. Long, J. Bruce, (1974). “A New Yoga for a New Age: A Critical Introduction to ‘The Synthesis of Yoga’, p. 125. In “Six Pillars: Introductions to the Major Works of Sri Aurobindo.” Editor, Robert A. McDermott. Chambersberg, PN: Wilson Books:
18. Gupta, N., (1970). Ast and West, p. 257. In The Collected Works of Nolini Kanta Gupta, Volume 7. Pondicherry, India: Nolini Kanta Gupta Birth Centenary Celebrations Committee.
19. Purani, A. ed, (1959). Evening Talks with Sri Aurobindo, p. 66. Pondicherry, India: Sri Aurobindo Society.
20. Iyengar, K.R.S, (1945). Sri Aurobindo: A Biography and a History, p. 477. Pondicherry, India: Sri Aurobindo International Center of Education.
21. Long, J. Bruce, (1974). “A New Yoga for a New Age: A Critical Introduction to ‘The Synthesis of Yoga’, p. 126. In “Six Pillars: Introductions to the Major Works of Sri Aurobindo.” Editor, Robert A. McDermott. Chambersberg, PN: Wilson Books.
22. Sri Krishna Prem, (1955). The Yoga of the Kathopanishad, p. 64. London: John M. Watkins.
23. Sethna, K.D., The Indian Spirit and the World’s Future; cited in “Essentials of Sri Aurobindo’s Thought: Essays in Honor of Madhusudan Reddy”, p. 285. Hyderabad, India: Institute of Human Study.
24. Moore, C., Sri Aurobindo on East and West, in “The Integral Philosophy of Sri Aurobindo”, ed. Chaudhuri, H. and Speigelberg, F., p. 110. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.
25. Gupta, N., (1970). “Darshana and Philosophy”, p. 223, in The Collected Works of Nolini Kanta Gupta, Volume 7. Pondicherry, India: Nolini Kanta Gupta Birth Centenary Celebrations Committee.
26. Sri Aurobindo, (1999). The Ideal of the Karmayogin, p. 6. In “Essays in Philosophy and Yoga, Volume 13. The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo. Pondicherry, India: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department.
27. Sri Aurobindo, (1999). The Ideal of Human Unity; p. 577. Volume 25, The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo. Pondicherry, India: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department.