Gandhi Was Not a Theorist

Mahatma Gandhi portrait, 1931. Image Source: Wikimedia

Mahatma Gandhi portrait, 1931. Image Source: Wikimedia

In much of what I’ve recently read on Gandhi, there exists the impulse to find a unifying structure which underlies his thought. Most recently I’ve been reading Faisal Devji’s The Impossible Indian, and various essays by Akeel Bilgrami on Gandhi, which exhibit this trend.[1]

I think this recent impulse might be a reaction against an older mode of thought, which is now perceived as either outmoded, or unsophisticated. In the old paradigm, Gandhi was framed either as a shrewd politician, or an irrational mystic. Both these stereotypes lend themselves to portraying a disunified view of Gandhi’s thought in which either he is inconsistent for political or philosophical reasons.

The problem for me is that the old way of thinking about Gandhi, passé and rigid though they may be, contain much which is valuable. Given his triple identity as a political philosopher-politican-mystic, I’m not sure that we, even under charitable conditions, should expect a consistent system out of Gandhi.

Gandhi was a philosopher-politician: This is perhaps the most obvious fact about Gandhi. But as of late, he seems to be treated differently from other philosopher-politicians. Consider the following names: John Stuart Mill, Woodrow Wilson, the American Founding Father, Mao Zedong, Vladimir Lenin. It is completely normal for academics to acknowledge that these people had contradictions between their political theories, and their stated/enacted policies. Rather than doing intellectual gymnastics to explain how Gandhi can simultaneously support and decry fighting in World War 2, fighting in Kashmir, and a hypothetical Indian civil war, can we not just acknowledge that Gandhi often wrote with an eye towards political strategy?

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Reading List, and Thanks to Event Attendees

Edit: I created this list for one particular presentation, but I’ve been using it for many ensuing presentations.

Welcome to any new readers who I might have picked up from the Hinduism 101 presentation I did at the Orangeburg Library, or at any subsequent events. To older readers: I apologize for not advertising it on this page beforehand. I’ll advertise future presentations on this page before anywhere else, but this time the event “sold out” before I got the chance.

For those who attended, here is the powerpoint I used (ppt), and here is the handout and glossary (docx) I used.

There were also many requests for a more detailed book recommendation list on Hinduism. I’m linking to Amazon out of convenience, but if you look around you might be able to find a better deal. This list will probably undergo frequent revision. Feel free to add your recommendations in the comment section, or to disagree with any of my selections.

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Hindu man reading the Bhagavad Gita. Image source: TrekEarth

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Covert Lokayata II: Proto-Materialism in Vedic and Tantric Traditions

(Click to go back to Part I: Doctrines)


lokayatachartfiddled_2Proto-Materialism in early Indian thought:

           Dr. Chattopadhyaya has done a wonderful job presenting the theory that in the earliest days proto-Tantra and proto-Lokayata were a single system, which either originated or was most prevalent in northeast India.[1] His argument rests on a theory of magic as a necessary precondition of religion, similar to the theories of anthropologists such as Andrew Lang and J.G. Frazer: [2] [3]

The theory goes as follows: magic precedes, and then accompanies religion in early human societies. Magic does not necessitate Gods; it is simply an attempt for early humans to manipulate the forces of nature without knowing the actual mechanisms of how nature works. For example, it makes sense for someone ignorant of physics, chemistry and the hydrologic cycle to attempt to generate rain by ritualistically pouring water on the ground and calling to the sky. It is worth experimenting with at the very least. In this sense, magic is a sort of proto-science.

The problem is that when these magic practices are empirically tested over generations, most of them will be found ineffective. Yet still perceiving order and regularity, the population generally will infer that other conscious agents called Gods are in control, and will adapt their magical beliefs and practices into a theistic system. By this process the magic becomes a religion, and “experimental” processes ossify into religious rituals.

The magic underlying Hindu religion is evident in all the early texts. The Rig Veda contain a huge number of passages asking the Gods for purely material things such as cattle, crops, prosperity, or protection from the elements. [4] [5] [6] These are likely magic rituals to induce crops, or protect cattle adapted into a theistic framework. Other passages frequently identify the Gods as a “powerful chief” “foremost amongst men,” “the bravest among all humans” (In the case of the Rbhus, this is made explicit: being mortals they earned immortality”, RV, I.110.4) which is perhaps a clue that these first Gods were in fact God-kings or the deified spirits of ancestors, who were perhaps thought to be able to control physical processes from the next world. The Arthava Veda consists almost entirely of magic techniques, mantras and rituals, not dissimilar from what we find in Tantra. Several early Upanishads also espouse a belief in the magic power of breath manipulation. [7] [8] It seems likely that many of these writings exist because early experimenters with meditation found them to be materially effective in inducing samadhi states. In other words, early meditative practices can be thought of as successful early attempts at quasi-scientific experimentation with the human body and brain. Sinha argues that the materialist trend represented in the Vedas culminated in Lokayata in the 7th century BC. As evidence he cites many examples similar to those above, but also emphasizes the fact the in the Vedic canon, the progenitor of materialist philosophy is the deified guru named Brihaspati.[9] Another word for Lokayata is Brihaspati Darsana.

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According to the Vedas, Brihaspati invented materialism in order to fool the Asuras into incorrect beliefs and practices. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

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Covert Lokayata I: Doctrines

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This chart doesn’t represent every possible influence between the subject categories, just those relating to Lokayata’s influence. Each post will start with this chart, darkened to signify which relationships will be explored in that post.

This will be the first in a series of posts exploring the hidden role of Lokayata, and closely related forms of materialism, in Indian history and philosophy.

Reconstructing the influence of a dead school of philosophy is a difficult task, made all the more difficult in the case of Lokayata, where none of the original source material has survived. We are left to rely on the few fragmentary quotations, which pass on to us exclusively from critics of the school. The following posts rely heavily on the work of Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, Dale Riepe, and Rasik Vihari Joshi, both in their analytical capacities, and in the collections of primary source fragments they’ve published.

In future posts I will examine the proto-materialist origins of Lokayata, Tantra, and Vedic religion, the impact of Lokayata on the orthodox darsanas, the impact on social and physical sciences,  the impact on culture and art, and the 20th century revival of interest in Lokayata. But this first post will simply be an overview of the remarkable characteristics of Lokayata.

Core Features of Lokayata

Though Lokayata (also known as Carvaka, or Brihaspati Darsana) changed over time the main features were as follows:

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If you Meet Krishna on the Road, Kill Him.

(Disclaimer: The title is a reference to the Buddhist saying: “If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him.” meaning something like: To fetishize your interpretation of Buddha is to disregard his teachings. If you think that you’ve discovered the truth, shatter your illusion.)

This will be a response to some of the criticism I’ve received on and offline for the post The Yoga of Arjun’s Despondency.

The most common criticism I receive is that I didn’t “get” it. I interpreted the text literally, whereas it is a metaphorical or spiritual treatise. Its really about an “inner battle” whereas I focus entirely on the external battle.

The second criticism I get is that since I disagree with Krishna’s conclusions, I must not understand, or disagree with his reasoning.

I find these criticisms unsatisfactory, but they comes up a lot so I might as well address them:

Image Source: ISKON/Corbis

Image Source: ISKON/Corbis

Levels of Analysis: First of all, Hindu exegesis has (at least) three levels. First, adhyatmika (analysis on a philosophical, spiritual, transcendental level) second adhidaivika (analysis of cosmological, ritualistic, psychological factors) and third adhibhautika (analysis of physical events, the sphere of matter and nature.) Check out Page 76 of this paper for a better set of definitions.

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The “White Hindus” Phenomenon

Hello readers,

Today will be a short post. On October 5th I’ll be speaking at Princeton University in the practicioner section of this event titled: The “White Hindus” Phenomenon: A Symposium on Sanatana Dharma, Race, and Identity. I’ll be discussing the tensions of multiple identites (Hindu, non-Hindu. Indian, white), and also probing into how white Hindus sometimes come to unusual interpretations of the tradition. This link has all the information you’ll need. If you are interested in attending, please email the  Coordinator for Hindu Life at Princeton: vchander@princeton.edu

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Click to see full size image

Maybe I’ll see some of you there!

Duryodhana II: Hated by the World

“King Duryodhana was born from a portion of Kali, he of evil mind, of evil counsel, dishonour of the Kurus; he who, being a man of dissension, was hated by the whole world.” -Mahabharata1.16.60-81[1]

“The wise man beholds all beings in the Self and the Self in all beings; for that reason he does not hate anyone.” –Isa Upanishad [2]

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Duryodhana showing his army to Drona. Image source: Wikimedia

This will be a relatively diffuse postscript to a prior post I made: Playing Duryodhana’s Advocate. Duryodhana is one of the more despised characters in Hindu mythology. This is a shame.

The basic message is this: While Duryodhana is clearly a villain, dismissing him wholly or decrying him as evil incarnate would be to miss the point of the text. The Mahabharata is nuanced, and represents an unresolved tension between on one hand, the counterrevolutionary, materialist, tradition upholding Kshatriya: Duryodhana— and on the other hand, the devotionalist Pandavas, who uphold a newer system of ethics rooted in idealism and theism rather than tradition and pragmatism. Just because modern Hindu discourse is permeated with devotionalism does not mean that always was the case, or always must be the case.

Bhasa’s Depiction of Duryodhana: 

Duryodhana may be hated by the world, but at least one respectable writer offered him a charitable representation as a consistent practitioner of Kshatriya Dharma. In Bhasa’s writings, Duryodhana’s virtues, particularly his earthly “master morality” are more pronounced than it is in the epic. Take the following line from the play Duta-Vakya. This is how Duryodhana responds when asked to return part of his kingdom to the Pandavas:

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Imaginary Indias

Today I’m taking a break from the more serious, intellectual type of thing I normally do. How about we explore some alternative histories which have struck my fancy as of late?

I’ll start this off with the most interesting, thorough, and beautiful alternative history scenario I’ve ever read:

Gurkani Alam

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India in the year 2000. Click map for full size image.

Gurkani Alam (by Tony Jones) is premised on the historical theory that Aurangzeb’s incompetent reign was the turning point in Mughal history, which led to it’s decline and the ease of British domination starting in the 18th century. In some ways, the reality is more surprising than the alternative history. Aurangzeb was not Shah Jahan‘s chosen successor, and had to pull off a protracted coup d’etat in order to become ruler. His older brother, Dara Shikoh (who was killed at the conclusion of the coup), was extremely religiously tolerant. Shikoh had fostered a close relationship with the Sikh community, had 50 Upanishads translated into Persian under the title “Sirr-e-Akbar” or “The Greatest Mysteries” the “Kitab al-maknun” or “hidden book” referred to in the Koran, and authored a title called “Majma-ul-Bahrain” or  “The Confluence of the Two Seas,” which is an exploration of Sufi and Vedanta mysticism. In my estimation, Dara Shikoh’s religious pluralism outshines even that of Akbar.

To contrast, Aurangzeb’s leadership style diverged tremendously from prior rulers, especially in regards to religion. Akbar had established a set of policies designed to foster religious liberalism. He revoked the jizya tax on non-muslims, intermarried with Hindu kingdoms, and appointed non-Muslims to high administrative posts. Either out of the practical realities of ruling a mostly non-muslim population, or out of ideological sympathy, religious liberalism was largely retained by Jahangir  and Shah Jahan (with the notable exception of anti-Sikh violence perpetrated by the former.) These policies were scrapped by Aurangzeb in favor of a cartoonishly evil theocratic Islamic approach. This combined with his overly rapid (and very expensive) conquest, undermined the stability of Mughal rule. The empire became a soft target for Sikh, Pashtun, Rajput, and Bengali revolts, as well as Maratha, and eventually British incursions.

Gurkani Alam departs from reality in 1644, with the unexpected death of Aurangzeb in battle. Dara Shikoh becomes emperor, and continues in the old liberal Mughal tradition, while not weakening the empire with reckless expansion. The more stable outcome is a long lasting Mughal state in the north, in which Sikhism plays a much larger role, an independent South Indian federation, and a subcontinent which, while highly prosperous is not particularly permeable to Western imperialism.

I won’t spoil the details of the universe for you, but check out the concluding world map:

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Gurkani Alam in the year 2000. Click the map to see it full size.

Mughalstan

Ok, so when I said “alternate history” at the start of this post I was using the term perhaps too loosely. Mughalstan is more of an alternate future for the Indian subcontinent dreamed up by Islamic nationalists, possibly in cooperation with Dalit nationalists. It is amusing for two reasons:

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Most detailed version of Mughalstan map

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Book Review (sort of): Poems from the Sanskrit

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Cover art from the Ellora Caves Image source: Buddhism for Vampires

“If learned critics publicly deride

My verse, well, let them. Not for them I wrought.

One day a man shall live to share my thought:

For time is endless and the world is wide”

Bhavabhuti (p.53)

I try not to saturate this blog with book reviews, but I have a justification in this case. This review contains a slew of poems excerpted from the book, which are worth far more than my review, and my numerous tangents. Hit “Continue Reading” and scroll down if you just want to check those out.

John Brough’s Poems from the Sanskrit[1], despite its confusing title, (what is the Sanskrit?) is actually a very charming anthology of translated Sanskrit poems, ranging from roughly the 4th through 10th centuries.

The translator’s stated purpose for compiling this volume is as follows: Normally Sanskrit translators, focus on conveying meaning at the expense of poetic or prosaic style. But since Sanskrit and English grammars differ considerably, meaning focused translations often come across as stilted or sometimes even unreadable. Sanskrit Poetry compounds this problem, because so much literary value is vested in the poetic structure itself (for example: The number, repetition, and weight of syllables.) This is a translation, which attempts to give equal weight to content and form.

Translating a Sanskrit poem into rhyming verse while keeping the original meaning intact is an impossible task. Perhaps a more accurate description of the book is: an anthology of English poems by John Brough, based closely on Sanskrit classics. The purist in me recoils at this prospect, but if you read the poems without wringing your hands over the potential “butchery” of the originals which preceded them, they are actually quite lovely  on their own merits. And based on the samples and explanation of his technique as delineated in the introduction, I have faith that he has amply conveyed at least the basic sense of each work.

I’ll jump right into the verses and save my criticisms for the end:

I noticed some recurring patterns:

Anti-Clericalism: There are a surprising amount of poems in here, which are highly critical of priests, focusing on their hypocrisy foolishness, or exploitation. These are mostly secular poems, but it still surprises me. One has to wonder: Were they talking about priests generally or about “the bad ones” i.e. the heterodox ones?

“‘So, friar, I see you have a taste for meat.’

‘Not that it’s any good without some wine.’

‘You like wine too, then?’ ‘Better when I dine

With pretty harlots.’ ‘Surely such girls eat

No end of money?’ ‘Well, I steal, you see,

Or win at dice.’ ‘A thief and gambler too?’

‘Why, certainly. What else is there to do?

Aren’t you aware I’m vowed to poverty?'”

Sudraka (p.79)

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According to Doniger’s theory (described later), this is a “friar” similar to the one who is under critique in the above poem. He is an Aghori, a sect which split off from the Kapalika. The Kapalika would have been contemporaneous to Sudraka. Image source: Flickr

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Freudian Psychoanalysis vs. Intellectual Rigor in Hinduism Studies.

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Disagreement and debate have long been central to the Hindu tradition. Here is a mythological debate between Adi Shankara and Vyasa. Image source: Ramakrishna Mission

“The cure for pride is knowledge. Who can cure

A man who’s proud of knowledge?

If the patient should be allergic to amrita,

The prognosis

Is hopeless.”

-Shudraka[1]

Those who have read this website since its inception know that it forwards a heterodox perspective on Hinduism. I empathize with Duryodhana and Karna in the Mahabharata, and find Arjuna’s despondency to be justified. I’m deeply interested in naastik sects, and I’m critical of the conception of female morality, which has been derived from characters like Sita or Draupadi. This is the critique of a highly skeptical student of the Hindu philosophical tradition, not the kneejerk response of a blindly reverent follower.

Furthermore, I don’t wholly dismiss the work of the scholars I’m about to criticize. I’ve enjoyed her books immensely, and strongly respect the her work, including her work on eroticism, gender, and sexuality. I’ve cited some of their work in the past, and will continue to do so. Western scholars viewing Hinduism from the outside provide a useful perspective. To quote Wendy Doniger’s introduction to her and Brian Smith’s translation of The Laws of Manu:

“Of course, both native commentators and Orientalists have axes to grind, but they are different sorts of axes. The axe of the native commentator is honed on a more intense and immediate personal involvement in the text, which may give him good reasons to want to misread the text, to fudge or misinterpret the verse in order to make it mean what he thinks it ought to mean. The axe of the Orientalist, on the other hand is sharpened by cultural ignorance and lack of empathy, or a distancing from the culture, which may lead to misinterpretations of a very different sort.”[2]

Doniger isn’t a fool. She understands that she and her colleagues are coming from outside the tradition they study, and that this will necessarily introduce certain biases into their scholarship.

Knowing that she acknowledges her bias, at least in theory, lets proceed to the criticism:

The Short Version:

The main problem, which many Hindus have with her work, and the work of her students, lies in their Freudian approach. Critics from within and outside of Hinduism posit that this methodology is not intellectually rigorous, and often is used to formulate bizarre and (to a believer) denigrating portrayals of the religion based on untested psychological speculation. Defenders of the Freudian approach are quick to point out that though Freudian theories have gone out of style in clinical and research psychology, it is still very much in vogue in philosophy, literary criticism, and religious studies. This is a fair point, but simply being widespread doesn’t make the Freudian lens more tenable in this author’s opinion.

More damningly, the scholars under critique have committed a number of factual inaccuracies and translation errors throughout their work. Worst of all, since these scholars predominate in the field (critics sometimes use the word “cartel”) the peer review process is relatively ineffective in ensuring that their errors don’t make it into journals and published books. This isn’t necessarily a criticism of the scholars in question, but is a natural product of in-group bias. As a result, such works are praised, awarded, and often become bestsellers. These portrayals, which are of a decidedly outsider’s perspective form the basis of Hinduism as portrayed in encyclopedias, textbooks, and museums.

However, the response of Doniger and her Freudian colleagues to their critics is what truly raises the moralistic ire of the diasporic Hindu community. When critics such as Rajiv Malhotra (who normally poses unnecessarily aggressive critiques, but in this particular instance his polemic pointed to specific arguments and facts), Swami Tyagananda, S.N. Balagangadhara, or those at the Hindu American Foundation or the number of other Hindu groups point out their denigrating portrayals and inaccuracies, these critics are not treated as “insiders” giving a critique which might be biased in the opposite direction, but which nevertheless deserves consideration and response. They are instead accused of religious radicalism, bigotry, and a proclivity towards violence. It is true that there are Hindu groups and individuals which are guilty of these things, and much of the loudest and most rhetorically effective criticism of Doniger and the Freudians have been from this camp (The funny thing is that while Doniger is normally the centerpiece of this controversy, her writing is mild compared to that of her colleagues.) It is a disaster for free speech that her recent book was pulled from the Indian market at their behest, and their participation in the 2009 California textbook case pushed moderate Hindu voices into the background. But this does not justify conflating criticisms of erroneous content, with criticisms of a more emotional character, nor does it justify tarring their opponents as quasi-terroristic or Hindutva radicals. By this conflation, substantive Hindu critiques aren’t even recognized as legitimate much less addressed.

Let me substantiate this narrative:

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