Indian Culture is time tested and represented the progressively refined way of life, that had unfortunately suffered a set back, a sub culture process as it were, drifting from its salutary ways of living.
Did not Lord Mecaulay say in the UK parliament how the Indians had such a perfect social harmony and faith in their way of life, that they can not be subdued unless they were weaned from their prestige and made to adore the alien way of life, to feel subordinated to a ”superior culture”, wherefore they could be easily subdued and dominated for the best advantage of the colonial rule! That was perfectly achieved and Indians forgot their own merits in a strange infatuation with alien culture!
Foreign culture was best for them, unique to them, deserved respect, but not fit for absorption into our own way of life! Apart from an initiation into new unfolding findings of secular science and technology – which was absent in our nation under colonial subjugation – we had gained least in other spheres, particularly in the social and ethical qualities. We became divided, in the names of religion and castes losing the force of harmony that united us under the princely states!
The increasing divorce culture, night clubs and pub culture, promiscuity and desertions etc among youth, the divide and rule policy among the politicians, the aggressive conversions (against more benign missionary activities a century ago) are the only major impacts in the social domain.
So except the technological inputs, even economic exploitations under free trade or repressive regimentation under socialist govts that came from the west, have least served the society to achieve equality. Social impacts have been worse.
The break down of joint family system due to new life styles, uncontrolled deviancies in the name of liberty etc have made youth defy control of society and family in a big way. In a chapter on ”Consequences of Innovations” in the book by Rogers and Shoemaker entitled, ”Diffusion and Adoption of Innovations”, it is discussed how any change made in any aspect of social sphere – agriculture or medicine or arts or whatever – may end up in unexpected ”side effects” as well. The chaos in the aborigins of Australia after replacement of traditional stone tool etc make interesting reading!
In India itself, the introduction of rural TV programme for education of people in modern agricultre, health care etc was studied in UP state when Indiraji was Minister of Broadcasting, in 100 villages. The study revealed significant increase in knowledge and attitude of people in modern techniques and the project was cleared for large scale introdcution across the country. After govt project was ended, many behavioural scientists took up studies in change of life pattern in the villages. They came across many critical adverse changes traceable to exposure of untreated ”entertainment” programmes given by TV apart from the educatinal inputs!
Like that our adoration for the modern knowledge gained from the west, had made us adopt their other life styles as well to the detriment of society. So the demerits have been devastating as we see from the increase of family courts to deal with increasing divorce cases, the skewed development of trade and industy at the cost of other primary enterprises, policy of social divide by politicians for vote bank advantage etc!
In my opinion, we had paid a heavy price for all the technological good we received from the west, by our own unwise emulation of their social perceptions and political strategies as well!
have a good day!
TRADITIONAL CULTURE AND MODERNIZATION
This paper focuses upon three issues. First, I want to show that the perennial elements in traditional cultures like those of India and China are relevant even today as they play an important role in the achievement, on the one hand, of harmony between the individual and society at the social level, and, on the other hand, of harmony of spirit, mind, and body at the individual level. Second, we should not lose sight of the distinction between knowledge and information, between wisdom and knowledge, and more importantly between life and living. The perennial elements in the traditional culture have helped us to care for life, knowledge, and wisdom, which are essential for spiritual development. Third, modernization as interpreted by the West has a narrow connotation and is, therefore, a distorted concept. Through science, it brings in the colonial attitude, the imperialism of the West. It is possible for one to be modern without accepting all that is implied by modernization.
Culture, which comprises philosophy and religion, art and literature, science and technology, social organization and political administration, is the mirror of the theory and practice of a people. It is originated, developed and sustained by the people over a period of time. In turn, the perennial elements which constitute its core inspire and sustain the posterity to whom it is transmitted from time to time. Traditional cultures like those of China and India are undoubtedly ancient, but not antiquated; their ideals and practices, which are relevant in any situation, help the people to meet the new challenges which surface from time to time. As a result they not only survive, but are admired, adored, and accepted by the people. There cannot be a better explanation of the way a culture is able to hold the people and sustain them than the one given by Sri Aurobindo: The culture of a people may be roughly described as the expression of a consciousness of life which formulates itself in three aspects.
There is a side of thought, of ideal, of upward will and the soul’s aspiration; there is a side of creative self-expression and appreciative aesthesis, intelligence, and imagination; and there is a side of practical and outward formulation. A people’s philosophy and higher thinking give us its mind’s purest, largest, and most general formulation of its consciousness of life and its dynamic view of existence. Its religion formulates the most intense form of its upward will and the soul’s aspirations towards the fulfillment of its highest ideal and impulse. Its art, poetry, literature provide for us the creative expression and impression of its intuition, imagination, vital turn and creative intelligence. Its society and politics provide in their forms an outward frame in which the more external life works out what it can of its inspiring ideal and of its special character and nature under the difficulties of the environment.
We can see how much it has taken of the crude material of living, what it has done with it, how it has shaped as much of it as possible into some reflection of its guarding consciousness and deeper spirit. None of them express the whole spirit behind, but they derive from it their main ideas and their cultural character. Together they make up its soul, mind, and body.1 Of the various components of culture the role of philosophy and religion is significant. Philosophy and religion can never be separated though they can be distinguished. It may be that in a particular culture, philosophy is in the forefront and religion in the background. It can also be the other way with religion at the surface and philosophy in the background. The point to be noted here is that philosophy and religion interact with, and influence each other. Philosophy is made dynamic by religion, and religion is enlightened by philosophy. If it is admitted that there is the need for a unity of theory and practice, philosophy cannot remain merely as a view of life; it must also be a way of life.
In other words, philosophy has to become religious if it is to mold, organize and regulate life. Religion is not an untouchable; its need for life can neither be ignored nor underestimated. It will be helpful to contrast the pursuit of philosophy in Europe with that in India and China. Unlike the Europe of the Enlightenment where philosophy did not touch life at all, there was a tremendous impact of philosophy on life both in India and China. In the words of Sri Aurobindo: Philosophy has been pursued in Europe with great and noble intellectual results by the highest minds, but very much as a pursuit apart from life, a thing high and splendid, but ineffective. It is remarkable that, while in India and China philosophy has seized hold on life, has had an enormous practical effect on the civilization and got into the very bones of current thought and action, it has never at all succeeded in achieving this importance in Europe.
In the days of the Stoics and Epicureans it got a grip, but only among the highly cultured; at the present day, too, we have some renewed tendency of the kind. Nietzsche has had his influence, certain French thinkers also in France, the philosophies of James and Bergson have attracted some amount of public interest; but it is a mere nothing compared with the effective power of Asiatic philosophy.2 There is no doubt that the average European who draws his guidance not from the philosophic, but from positive and practical reason, puts “the philosophical treatises on the highest shelf in the library of civilization.” The situation is entirely different in India. Sri Aurobindo says: The Indian mind holds . . . that the Rishi, the thinker, the seer of spiritual truth is the best guide not only of the religious and moral, but [also of] the practical life. The seer, the Rishi is the natural director of society; to the Rishis he attributes the ideals and guiding intuitions of his civilization.
Even today he is very ready to give the name to anyone who can give a spiritual truth which helps his life or a formative idea and inspiration which influences religion, ethics, society, even politics.3 The phenomenon known as modernization is a product of the one-sided pursuit of both philosophy and science — philosophy purely as an intellectual affair without any bearing on life and science as the most effective instrument for the possession of unlimited power, eliminating the sacred. I shall take up the problem of modernization later. It may be added here that what is said about the Indian mind is equally true of the Chinese mind. Confucius, Mencius, and others are the great Rishis of China, the seers who exhibited the most uncommon insight into men and matters, into the moral and social problems of human beings.
Drawing a distinction between two kinds of philosophers, systematic and edifying, Richard Rorty characterizes Wittgenstein as an edifying philosopher, like Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and others. In a brief analysis of the spirit of Western civilization which is fully manifest in the industry, architecture, and music of our time, in its fascism and socialism, Wittgenstein openly admits that he has “no sympathy for the current of European civilization, that he does not understand its goals, if it has any,” and that “it is alien and uncongenial” to him.4 He goes on to say: A culture is like a big organization which assigns each of its members a place where he can work in the spirit of the whole; and it is perfectly fair for his power to be measured by the contribution he succeeds in making to the whole enterprise.5 Wittgenstein’s brief explanation of culture requires some elucidation.
He says that culture is a whole, that every individual has a place in it, that every individual has to function as a member of the whole, and that what he does is significant socially as well as morally. The two traditional cultures, Chinese and Indian, have recognized the importance of the ideas embedded in Wittgenstein’s explanation of culture. While the Indian culture appears to be predominantly spiritual and religious, the Chinese culture seems to be basically humanistic, with a clear emphasis on the moral and social dimensions of life. It must be pointed out in this connection that the difference between these two traditional cultures is only at the surface. Since the traditional culture comprehends the total life of a person, it provides a place for the different dimensions of life — spiritual, religious, moral, and social — which can be distinguished, but not separated. The spiritual and religious dimension of life presupposes the moral and social realm; and the moral and social sphere of life points to the religious and spiritual goals.
That the two realms, ethico-social and religio-spiritual, are complementary, has been recognized by both these cultures, even though the Indian culture lays emphasis on the spiritual and religious side of man while the Chinese culture focusses on the ethical and social side of man. The motif of the two cultures is the harmony of spirit, mind, and body; and it is to achieve this harmony that they take care of both realms of life. Once again what Sri Aurobindo says in this connection is worth quoting: A true happiness in this world is the right terrestrial aim of man, and true happiness lies in the finding and maintenance of a natural harmony of spirit, mind, and body. A culture is to be valued to the extent to which it has discovered the right key of this harmony and organized its expressive motives and movements.
And a civilization must be judged by the manner in which all its principles, ideas, forms, ways of living work to bring that harmony out, manage its rhythmic play, and secure its continuance or the development of its motives.6 There is need to harmonize the eternal and the temporal, for the spirit works through mind and body, which belong to the temporal; and this is what every great culture has aimed at. There are four components in the traditional culture associated with India and China.
They are: (1) the primal Spirit which is the source and support of the universe may be viewed both as transcendent to, and as immanent in, the universe; (2) this Spirit which is immanent in all human beings can be realized by every human being; (3) it lays down a discipline which is both moral and spiritual for realizing the Spirit; and (4) it has provided an organization of the individual and collective life not only for the sake of the harmony between the individual and society, but also for the sake of the harmony of spirit, mind, and body. Each one of these components needs some explanation in the context of these two cultures.
Though Indian culture as it is today is composite in character, comprising Hindu, Jaina, Buddha, Islamic, and Christian elements, it can be characterized as Vedic culture since not only Hinduism, which is predominant, but also Jainism and Buddhism, which originated in protest against Vedic ritualism, have been influenced by the Vedas, the basic and oldest scriptural text in the world. Islam and Christianity entered the Indian soil consequent on the invasion of India by the foreigners — by the Moghuls in the former case, and by the English, French, and Portuguese in the latter case. Though they try to retain their identity, the followers of these two religious traditions have been influenced by the Vedic culture. Kabir (1398-1518 AD), for example, who is a greatly respected personality in the religious history of India, is a product of both Hinduism and Islam. In recent times, Indian Christians talk about and practice inculturization, which is a new and growing phenomenon.
The predominant Hindu culture which has a long and continuous history is the Vedic culture; and the Vedic culture, which has its beginning round about 2500 BC, may be characterized as primal culture, since it traces everything in the universe to the primal Spirit, which is variously called Brahman, Ātman, Being, and so on. Spirit or Being is the primal reality. It is that from which all beings arise; being supported by it, they exist; and all of them move towards it as their destination. In the language of T.S. Eliot, the beginning is the end. The Upanisad says: That, verily, from which these beings are born, that by which, when born, they live, that into which, when departing, they enter. That, seek to know. That is Brahman.7 Spirit or Brahman is primal in the sense that it is foundational. It is the sole reality; it is one and non-dual; and there is nothing else beside it. It is spoken of as the First Cause, Unmoved Mover, of the entire manifest universe. With a view to bring out the independent nature of the primal Spirit on which the manifest universe is dependent, it is referred to as the Ground.
That which is independent is real; what is dependent is an appearance. The ground-grounded relation brings out the reality of Spirit and the appearance of the universe. Ordinarily we distinguish the material cause from the efficient cause; the one is different from the other. The wood from which a table is made is the material cause; and the carpenter who works on the wood and makes a table according to a certain design is the efficient cause. The carpenter is different from the wood. What makes the primal Spirit unique is that it is both the material and efficient cause of the universe, because it alone existed in the beginning and nothing else beside it. Like wood, it is the material cause of the world; and like a carpenter, it is the efficient cause of the world.
So, the Vedic culture traces all beings, living as well as non-living, to one source, viz. Spirit or Being. It may be pointed out here that in recent times quantum physics attempts to trace everything in the manifest universe to one source which is non-material or spiritual. Einstein declared: Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the Laws of the Universe — a Spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we, with our modest powers, must feel humble.8 That Spirit or Brahman is the source, support, and end of everything in the universe, is the major premise of the Vedic culture. Derived from the major premise are two minor premises, one relating to living beings called jīva and the other, to non-living beings called jagat. Since Spirit or Brahman is immanent in jīva and jagat, neither jīva nor jagat is isolated from the primal Spirit. It means that all living beings, whatever they may be — humans, animals, birds, reptiles, and so on — are spiritual or divine. Non-living beings which are material constitute the physical universe.
They are the products of the five elements — ether, air, fire, water and earth — which are material. The divine principle is present not only in living beings, but also in non-living beings, and so they are also divine. Characterizing Brahman as the indwelling Spirit (antaryāmin), the Brhadānrayaka Upanisad says that Brahman is present in all beings — the sun, the moon, and the stars, the elements which constitute the physical universe, and the organs of the jīvas. Just as our body does not know the Spirit inside it, even so the beings, whatever they may be, do not know Brahman, the indwelling Spirit in them. The following text is relevant here: He [Brahman or Spirit] who dwells in all beings, yet is within all beings, whom no beings know, whose body is all beings, who controls all beings from within, he is your Self, the inner controller, the immortal.9 That which dwells in material objects and controls them also dwells in all living beings and controls them.
Just as all living beings are essentially divine, even so the entire physical universe is essentially divine. Whatever may be the differences among the species and within the individual members of a species, all are essentially one, because one and the same divine Spirit is present in all of them. The message conveyed by these two minor premises of the traditional culture deserves careful consideration. First of all, if the land and the water and the sky of the physical universe are divine, then we should take care of them in the same way as we take care of our body. The claim that human beings are rational, that they are superior to the physical world, and that they are, in the words of Descartes, the “masters and possessors of nature” resulted in the unscrupulous, cruel, and destructive despoliation of nature in the name of the quest for knowledge, scientific development, and technological progress. It is not nature that is red in tooth and claw, but the human being who is unabashedly selfish and blatantly aggressive and makes nature bleed and scorch.
Fortunately for us, there is a global awakening to the significance of the earth and the water and the sky as sources of sustenance and nourishment. Secondly, the application of this principle of the oneness to the human realm is of great consequence. The understanding that all human beings are essentially one and that differences of color and caste, of gender and race, of sharpness and dullness of mind, and so on are due to the mind-sense-body adjunct by which the Spirit is enclosed will help us to tackle the universally rampant problem of discrimination of all kinds — social, religious, economic, and political. Vedāntic philosophy, which is an important component of culture, tells us what a human being is, does, and should do in order to achieve the harmony of spirit, mind, and body. A human being (jīva) is a complex entity consisting of Spirit and matter. The term used in Vedānta for Spirit is the Self or Ātman. Matter which is totally different from the Self is referred to as not-Self, as other-than-the-Self. According to Vedānta, the not-Self, which is the material outfit of the human being, is made up of the mind, the senses, and the body.
The Self in the human being requires a physical medium for its involvement in the day-to-day life as the subject of knowledge, the agent of action, and the enjoyer of the consequences of action. The mind and the senses are the cognitive instruments. With the help of the mind, the five senses give us knowledge of the things of the external world. The work of the mind does not stop with the cognitive support it gives to the senses. As the internal organ (antahkaraa), the mind generates the knowledge of the subjective states such as pleasure and pain. It also does something more, which is very important from the moral and spiritual perspectives. It gives us knowledge of the right and the wrong, dharma and adharma as they are called. When chastened by the moral and spiritual discipline, it is the mind which helps us to realize the primal Spirit or Brahman. So the work of the mind is manifold.
The mind is the most marvelous instrument that a human being possesses. The emergence of the mind has not only accelerated the evolutionary process in its upward movement, but also has given enormous powers to the human being, making him/her the crown of creation, unique among all living beings. In the course of his commentary on the scriptural account of the creation of the world, Sankara raises the question about the preeminence of the human being among all creatures and answers it by saying that the human being is preeminent because he alone is qualified for knowledge and the performance of prescribed duties (jnāna-karma-adhikārah).10 Why is it that he alone has this competence? Sankara justifies the supremacy of the human on three grounds.
First, he has the ability for acquiring knowledge not only of the things of the world, but also of the supreme Being, the primal reality. This is because he is equipped with the mind which, being inspired by the Self or Spirit in him is capable of comprehending everything including the highest reality. Secondly, he has the distinctive quality of desiring certain ends as a result of discrimination, deliberation, and choice. Thirdly, when he has consciously chosen an end, he is earnest about it, finds the right means for achieving the end, and persists in it till he reaches the goal. A scriptural text which is quoted by Sankara in this connection says: In man alone is the Self most manifest for he is the best endowed with knowledge. He speaks what he knows; he sees what he knows; he knows what will happen tomorrow; he knows the higher and the lower worlds; he aspires to achieve immortality through perishable things. He is thus endowed (with discrimination) while other beings have consciousness of hunger and thirst only.11
According to Vedānta, the Self in the human being is eternal, whereas his material outfit, the mind-sense-body complex, is temporal. The birth and death of a human being are connected with, and because of, the body. They are illicitly transferred to the Self with the result that we think of it as perishable and finite. The human being is caught in the cycle of birth and death because of ignorance (avidyā) whose beginning is not known. The empirical journey of the Self through its association with the material adjunct is due to avidyā. It is avidyā that pulls down the trans-empirical Self into the empirical realm, superimposes on it, which is non-relational, a relation with matter, and is thus responsible for the “fall” of the Self. What is above categorization is now categorized and made an object of knowledge; what transcends relation is now explained through the logic of relation; and what is beyond the scope of language is now brought within the grammar of language.
Thus, just as a tree and a table are known through perception and other means of knowledge, even so Brahman or the Self, we claim, is known through the scriptural text called Sruti. The trans-relational reality is viewed as characterized by omniscience and other qualities and also as the cause of the world. What is trans-linguistic is now spoken of as real, knowledge, infinite, and so on. In other words, we employ the categories of substance and attribute, cause and effect, whole and parts for the purpose of understanding the highest reality.
It will be of interest in this connection to refer to the views of two influential thinkers from the West — one belonging to the pre-sixth century and the other our own contemporary. Pseudo-Dionysius, who occupies an important place in the history of Western spirituality, observes: [The supreme reality] is neither perceived nor is it perceptible. It suffers neither disorder nor disturbance and is overwhelmed by no earthly passion. . . . It endures no deprivation of light. It passes through no change, decay, division, loss, no ebb and flow, nothing of which the senses may be aware. None of all this can either be identified with it nor attributed to it.12 Again, he says:
It falls neither within the predicate of non-being nor of being. Existing beings do not know it as it actually is and it does not know them as they are. There is no speaking of it, nor name, nor knowledge of it. Darkness and light, error and truth — it is none of these. It is beyond assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it, for it is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue of its preeminently simple and absolute nature, free of every limitation, beyond every limitation; it is also beyond every denial.13 Pseudo-Dionysius conveys in the most unambiguous terms the Vedāntic conception of Brahman or the Self. Instead of terms such as Brahman or the Self used by the Vedāntin, Wittgenstein uses terms such as the “metaphysical subject,” the “I,” the “philosophical ‘I’ ” and contrasts it with the “body.” The human body, he says, is a part of the world among other parts, but the Self or the philosophical “I” is not a part of the world; it is outside the space-time-cause world.
In the words of Wittgenstein: The subject does not belong to the world, but is a border of the world.14 The philosophical “I” is not the human being, not the human body, or the human soul of which psychology treats, but the metaphysical subject, the border — not a part — of the world.15 What is obvious from the foregoing account is that we have to make a distinction between two concepts, Brahman-in-itself and Brahman-in-relation-to-the-world, for the purpose of analysis. The latter concept is meaningful only on the presupposition of the fall of Brahman or the Self. When did this fall take place? No one knows, and no one can answer. Once there is the fall, the empirical journey of the Self goes on in different forms, conditioned by the space-time-cause framework. However, the promise of Vedānta is that the empirical journey of the līva can be put an end to, that the vicious cycle of birth and death can be broken by destroying avidyā through knowledge of one’s Self.
That is why there is the scriptural instruction of “Know thy Self.” Not only does scripture say that the Self should be realized or seen, but it also suggests the means for realizing it. It will be difficult to understand the full significance of the distinction between Brahman-in-itself and Brahman-in-relation-to-the-world without a reference to the principle of standpoints which is enshrined in Indian culture. There are two sets of features, perennial and temporal, in Indian culture which contribute to its continuity as well as its change. While the basic doctrines constitute its perennial dimension, religious practices covering a wide range are temporal and transitory. Decadence sets in when the temporal and transitory features gain importance almost to the point of ignoring or sidetracking the perennial features.
Historical, social, and political changes call for modification, sometimes radical, sometimes minor, in the religious practices and social norms of the people, while the basic doctrinal side remains intact. Continuity of the essentials amidst the changing flow of life helps to preserve the cultural tradition. The essential structure which has endured through the vicissitudes of time contains the basic doctrines as stated in the major premise and the two minor premises to which reference was made earlier. The three basic doctrines are: primal Being or Spirit is the source, support, and end of everything, sentient as well as non-sentient; all living beings are divine; also, the physical universe which has originated from the primal Spirit is spiritual. The monistic vision, which is pervasive in the Vedic corpus, is a notable feature of Indian culture.
The doctrine of levels or standpoints skillfully adopted by Indian culture helps to reconcile monism and polytheism as well as monism and pluralism. Though each pair contains two extremes in the religio-philosophical thinking, they have been accommodated as different standpoints at different levels. They are irreconcilable only when they are placed together at the same level. For example, one of the oft-quoted hymns of the Rg-veda provides a clue for reconciling the problem of one Godhead and many gods and goddesses. It says: “What is but one, wise people call by different names — as Agni, Yama, Mātarisvan.”16 Reference to gods, such as, Agni and Yama may be replaced by the well known gods of the Hindu pantheon such as Siva, Visnu, Sakti, and so on.
Sankara explains the distinction between the supreme Godhead and its various forms such as Siva, Visnu, and so on, as the distinction between the “unconditioned” reality, what we referred to as Brahman-in-itself, and its “conditioned” forms such as Siva and Visnu, all of which can be brought under Brahman-in-relation-to-the-world. _iva, Viu, and other gods are conditioned beings endowed with a name and a form and other qualities, whereas the One is unconditioned, devoid of name and form, specifications and qualities and is, therefore, trans-empirical, trans-relational, and trans-linguistic.
This mode of drawing the distinction between the supreme Godhead and its many forms for the purpose of worship and other religious practices of the devotees, which is unheard of in other religious traditions of other cultures, is of great consequence in the religious practice of the people. Since it is the one reality that is worshipped in many forms such as Agni, Siva, and so on, one who worships Agni or Siva, should not quarrel with one who worships Yama or Visnu, because Agni, Yama, Siva, and Visnu are the conditioned aspects of the same reality. This significant idea of the Rg-Vedic hymn was accepted, fully elaborated, and further deepened by the Upanisads. It provides a theoretical framework for religious harmony, which is one of the characteristic features of primal culture and which has received special emphasis right from the beginning till this day. What makes primal culture valid for all times and in all places is its inclusiveness.
It includes everything by providing a place for it in the whole. Religious, social, economic, scientific, and political activities are necessary and meaningful; but they must be made subservient to, and must be viewed and judged in the context of the spiritual goal of life. A culture which is mainly concerned with the bare economic necessities of life, social institutions, and political organization will be neither enduring nor elevating; it may look energetic and enterprising, but it is not worth the name, if it is not geared up to the spiritual side of life. Once again, what Sri Aurobindo says is worth quoting here: A mere intellectual, ethical, and aesthetic culture does not go back to the inmost truth of the spirit; it is still an ignorance, an incomplete, outward, and superficial knowledge. To have made the discovery of our deepest being and hidden spiritual nature is the first necessity and to have erected the living of an inmost spiritual life into the aim of existence is the characteristic sign of a spiritual culture.
17 The Vedānta philosophy solves the problem of monism versus pluralism on the basis of the distinction between two levels or standpoints called pāramārthika and vyāvahārika, or absolute and relative respectively. The Upanisads make use of this distinction in the explanation of the epistemological, metaphysical, axiological, and soteriological problems. What is true at one level may not be so at another level. A dream-lion which is accepted as real in dream experience loses its reality at the waking level. What is accepted as a value at one time may turn out to be a disvalue at another time. The pluralistic universe which is accepted as real may cease to exist in the state of liberation following the spiritual ascent. The pāramārthika or absolute standpoint is higher, whereas the vyāvahārika or the relative standpoint is lower. It must be borne in mind that the higher standpoint which transcends the lower does not invalidate it. One who has moved from the relative to the absolute standpoint knows the truth of the former; but one who is tied to the relative standpoint cannot understand the truth of the absolute standpoint.
Consider the case of two persons who attempt to climb up a mountain in order to reach the highest peak. While one of them reaches the top, the other, due to some disability, is not able to proceed beyond the foothill. The person who has reached the summit knows what kind of experience is available to one at the foothill; but one who is at the foothill does not understand the kind of experience one has at the top. We have to apply this logic to the different kinds of experience without subverting the pāramārthika-vyāvahārika hierarchy. The Upanisads describe the two levels as signifying higher wisdom and lower knowledge. Experience of plurality is quite common; it is quite natural; we have it in our daily life. No special effort or discipline is required for such an experience. But experience of oneness is uncommon.
One does not get it without special effort or appropriate discipline. The transition is from the common to the uncommon. A text of the Brhadārayaka Upanisad describes the two levels of experience as follows: For, where there is duality as it were, there one sees the other, one smells the other, one knows the other. . . . But, where everything has become just one’s own self, by what and whom should one smell, by what and whom should one know?18 Without disregarding the pragmatic value of day-to-day empirical knowledge, primal culture emphasizes the importance of higher wisdom. It will be of interest to quote Wittgenstein in this connection. He says: In religion every level of devoutness must have its appropriate form of expression which has no sense at a lower level. This doctrine, which means something at a higher level, is null and void for someone who is still at the lower level; he can only understand it wrongly and so these words are not valid for such a person.
For instance, at my level the Pauline doctrine of predestination is ugly, nonsense, irreligiousness. Hence it is not suitable for me, since the only use I could make of the picture I am offered would be a wrong one. If it is a good and godly picture, then it is so for someone at a quite different level, who must use it in his life in a way completely different from anything that would be possible for me.19 The teaching of the Vedānta philosophy is positive. According to it, life in this world is meaningful and purposive — meaningful for the reason that it serves as the training ground for one’s spiritual uplifting through the proper use of the objects of the world by the mind-sense-body equipment of which one is in possession, and purposive as one has to achieve freedom or liberation by overcoming the existential predicament. Freedom or liberation which is projected as the goal must be understood in the spiritual sense. It is true that human life is made difficult by economic constraints, political oppression, social hierarchy, and religious discrimination; and a situation of this kind points to, and calls for, freedom of different kinds so that a person can exist and function as a moral agent enjoying economic, political, social and religious freedom.
However, the goal of life remains unfulfilled in spite of these different kinds of freedom. Though they are necessary, they are not sufficient. The highest freedom which is eternal and totally satisfying is spiritual freedom, which is called moksa in Indian culture. A socio-political system may ensure political freedom, social justice, economic satisfaction, and unrestricted religious practice; but still there is no guarantee of harmony of spirit, mind, and body which one can achieve only through the teaching of philosophy and religion. The socio-political machinery cannot be a substitute for religion and philosophy, though it can and should maintain a system of rights and obligations in which alone a human being can lead a moral life as formulated in religion and can pursue the goal of liberation as projected by philosophy.
Sri Aurobindo says: The whole aim of a great culture is to lift man up to something which at first he is not, to lead him to knowledge though he starts from an unfathomable ignorance, to teach him to live by reason, though actually he lives much more by his unreason, by the law of good and unity, though he is now full of evil and discord, by a law of beauty and harmony, though his actual life is a repulsive muddle of ugliness and jarring barbarisms, by some law of his spirit, though at present he is egoistic, material, unspiritual, engrossed by the needs and desires of his physical being. If a civilization has not any of these aims, it can hardly at all be said to have a culture and certainly in no sense a great and noble culture. But the last of these aims, as conceived by ancient India, is the highest of all because it includes and surpasses all the others. To have made this attempt is to have ennobled the life of the race; to have failed in it is better than if it had never at all been attempted; to have achieved even a partial success is a great contribution to the future possibilities of the human being.20 Excepting the Cārvāka, which advocates a thoroughgoing materialism, all other philosophical systems in India accept the ideal of moksa.
The Indian mind, right from the beginning, has accepted a hierarchy of values, ranging from the bodily and economic values at the bottom to the spiritual values of which liberation is at the top. The human being leads his life at two levels — organic and hyper-organic. Bodily and economic values which he pursues belong to the organic level. In so far as the pursuit of the organic values is concerned — values which are necessary for life preservation — his life and activities are in no way different from those of animals; at this level, hunger and sleep, shelter and sex are common to man and animals. Endowed as he is not only with the body, but also with the mind, he also lives at another level, pursuing higher values such as truth, beauty, goodness. The life-activity of man which is fully reflective of his cognition, desire, deliberation, and choice cannot stop short of the highest value called moksa. It is not necessary here to discuss the broad scheme of values accepted in the Indian tradition. Suffice it to say that, though artha and kāma, which emphasize the importance of the material and hedonistic side of life, have been accommodated in the scheme of values, the moral and spiritual side of life has received special attention in Indian culture.
That is why it has accepted two higher values, dharma and moksa, the former functioning as a moral guide, and also as a regulative principle of artha and kāma pursued in our secular life, for the realization of the latter. All the philosophical systems, Vedic as well as non-Vedic, hold the view that moksa as the highest value is both ultimate and all-satisfying — ultimate since there is nothing else to which it can be the means, and all-satisfying since it comprehends all the higher values. Sankara says that one gets the feeling of the fulfillment of all values when one attains moksa.21 There are three questions that we have to consider in connection with the ultimate value. The first one is whether it can be realized at all. There is the view that the ultimate value is only an ideal to inspire and regulate our conduct and that it can never be attained. We can regulate our life so as to come nearer to it from time to time, from stage to stage; but we can never reach it. Such a view is untenable.
Also, it goes against the spirit of Indian culture. Realization of one’s true nature is liberation. We have already pointed out that the human being is a complex entity consisting of Spirit and matter. Spirit by its very nature is ever free and never bound. But it appears to be bound because of the material adjunct with which it is associated in the empirical life. Overwhelmed by ignorance, the human being does not realize that he is essentially Spirit and therefore free. When he attains the right knowledge and knows his real nature, he is no more under the limitation or bondage of the psycho-physical material outfit, because ignorance which conceals his real nature is removed by knowledge. It means that the ideal of moksa has a basis in the very constitution of the human being; also, the human being, not being satisfied with the material achievements, what the Upanisad calls preyas, longs for spiritual freedom, which is called Sreyas.
The Upanisad says: Both the good and the pleasant approach a man. The wise man, pondering over them, discriminates. The wise chooses the good in preference to the pleasant. The simple-minded, for the sake of worldly well-being, prefers the pleasant.22 One cannot have both Sreyas and preyas. The pursuit of the former requires the renunciation of the latter. Spiritual illumination follows purgation. Speaking about the importance of the ideal and its close relation to human nature, Hiriyanna observes: Ideals are rooted in needs inherent in human nature. It is their reality that constitutes their true charm. Take this charm from them, and they reduce themselves but to pleasant fantasy. The reality of such a value may not be vouched for by common reasoning. But we should remember that neither is there any adequate proof for denying it. Not to admit the ideal would therefore be to be dogmatic in the sense that we deny it without adequate proof for the denial.23 The second question is whether the ideal of moksa can be realized by all.
Here also the great philosophical traditions, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, are unanimous in their affirmative answer. There is nothing in human nature which either disqualifies or incapacitates him from attaining this ideal. Whatever may be the differences among human beings at the bodily, vital, and mental levels, everyone has the right and duty to aspire for the highest value by virtue of what he/she is. As every human being is endowed with the mind, the most precious and unequalled instrument through which one can look before and after, know the things given to him, and choose from them after discrimination and deliberation, he is not in any way incapacitated from pursuing the ultimate value. Indian culture looks down on the doctrine of the chosen few. Since ignorance is the obstacle that stands in the way of realizing one’s divine nature, realizing one’s Spirit, which is liberation, it can be removed by knowledge which anyone can acquire through moral and spiritual discipline. The philosophy of Vedānta, according to which every human being is divine, is opposed to the theory of privilege — of birth, intellect, spirituality, etc.
It is anti-hierarchical. In everyone there is a sleeping Buddha, a hidden Brahman, to which everyone can have access. That the doors to the spiritual realm do not remain closed to anyone is conveyed in a forthright manner by Sri Aurobindo: A wider spiritual culture must recognize that the Spirit is not only the highest and inmost thing, but all is manifestation and creation of the Spirit. It must have a wider outlook, a more embracing range of applicability and, even, a more aspiring and ambitious aim of its endeavor. Its aim must be not only to raise to inaccessible heights the few elect, but to draw all men and all life and the whole human being upward, to spiritualize life and in the end to divinize human nature. Not only must it be able to lay hold on his deepest individual being, but to inspire, too, his communal existence. It must turn, by a spiritual change, all the members of his ignorance into members of the knowledge; it must transmute all the instruments of the human into instruments of a divine living. The total movement of Indian spirituality is towards this aim.
24 The third question, whether the ultimate value can be realized here in this life or only hereafter, is answered in two different ways. Some philosophical systems maintain that the proper preparation that a person undertakes for achieving this end will help him to realize it only after death, whereas some other systems hold the view that it can be realized in this life itself, if one follows the prescribed moral and spiritual discipline. The former view is called the eschatological conception of moksa while the latter is known as līvan-mukti. “Līvan-mukti” means liberation-in-life. The person who has attained enlightenment or wisdom is free even while he is in the embodied condition. It is not necessary to discuss these two views of moksa in detail. It may be pointed out here that the view that it is possible to overcome bondage and attain liberation here and now deepens the significance of the present life. A līvan-mukta does not run away from society. He lives in society for the benefit of others; when he is engaged in activities, he has no sense of “I” and “mine”; his activities, that is to say, are impersonal. Also, he imparts spiritual instruction to others, for, having realized the truth, he alone is competent to do this.
The life of a līvan-mukta, as portrayed in the Hindu tradition, is comparable to that of a Bodhi-sattva as explained in the Mahāyāna tradition. The ideal of life goes beyond self-perfection; it also includes work for the universal good. According to the Indian tradition, knowledge is different from information, and wisdom is different from knowledge. We may say that information, knowledge, and wisdom constitute a hierarchy. To know a thing is to know it in a determinate way, as such-and-such — as a substance possessing qualities, as a whole consisting of parts, as the cause or effect of something, and so on. Every object has two kinds of relations, internal and external. A lump of clay, for example, is internally related to its color, its parts of which it is made. It is also externally related to the ground on which it is placed, its immediate surroundings, and so on.
No object remains isolated from other things; on the contrary, it has a network of relations with other things in such a way that it is what it is because of other things. When the poet says that, to know a flower seen in a crannied wall, one must know the plant, root and all, and also the wall, its location, and so on, he draws our attention to the fact that every object is an integral part of the cosmic system and that, to get an insight into the nature of a thing, one must know the whole of which it is an integral part. Bits of information do not constitute knowledge. Piecemeal information about the roots, the trunk, and the branches of a tree cannot be viewed as the knowledge of a tree. Just as knowledge is different from information, even so wisdom is different from knowledge. Though knowledge is superior to information, it cannot be a substitute for wisdom. The Vedic tradition draws a distinction between two kinds of knowledge, higher (parā) and lower (aparā).