On criticizing Vedanta/Upanishads
#1
Context: http://nirmukta.com/2012/02/16/deconstru...worldview/

In arguing with Vedantic spiritualists, the main point to note, borrowing from Ranganath's article, is this, "[S]keptics are not dismissing the theories of the Vedanta. They are trying to question the claims of this school of ‘philosophic’ thought that their version of ‘truth’ or conception of the nature of reality is the real deal."

The real problem with the spiritualists of today is that they take the Upanishads too seriously- as a world view, and worse, as a guide to living. This adherence to Upanishads, in my opinion, and the unwillingness to look at it from a critical perspective is the *principal problem*.

Objectively speaking, Hardayal's suggestion to 'only read western philosophers such as Aristotle, Marx, etc.' is not a sound recommendation. If we seek to address the 'principal problem' that I've defined above, we should avoid citing opinions such as Hardayal's. Aristotle, Marx, etc. are quite irrelevant today, from a skeptical and critical perspective. We really should only look to study their philosophies as data points in the history of human thought.

Aristotle, Marx, Nietzsche, and Burke have all been the subjects of similar 'principal problems'. The church's retrograde views about science were steeped in a belief in Aristotle. The failure of communism is an indictment of the dogmas of Marx. Nietzsche had his turn in inspiring Nazism. Edmund Burke's views continue to be one of the main inspirations for the dogmas of political conservatism in the US and UK.

Vedantic literature is clearly among the sole sources (along with the writings of the Buddha, Mahavira, Carvaka, and the subsequent commentaries) of the history of India thought, just as Greek philosophers are of western thought. Consequently, Vedanta often becomes an issue of identity. Pre-independence nationalists who are presumably, the targets of criticism of Ambedkar and Hardayal, used Vedantic pride to consolidate the Hindu identity.

While criticizing the Upanishads, we should be sensitive to the fact that they are a source of pride to Indians. This pride, in my opinion, is what causes spiritualists such as H. A. to retreat deeper into their dogmatic shells when faced with views critical of the Upanishads. I do not condone such pride as it can lead to chauvinism. Nevertheless, we should acknowledge it exists, and factor it into our approach to criticizing Vedanta. Pride, though an unnecessary emotion, is to an extent justified in this case, given the literary merit and historiographic content of the Upanishads. The same cannot be said about explicitly theological works like the Bhagavadgeeta or the Bible.

Vedanta is just another data point in the study of the history of human thought. It is no guide to modern life, or to the understanding of the universe. The same can be said about most of Hardayal's western thinkers, considering that it does *not* include David Hume.
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#2
(18-Feb-2012, 05:21 AM)karatalaamalaka Wrote: Vedanta is just another data point in the study of the history of human thought. It is no guide to modern life, or to the understanding of the universe. The same can be said about most of Hardayal's western thinkers, considering that it does *not* include David Hume.

Here are some miscellaneous notes on how best we can make use of this 'data point in the history of human thought'.

Grappling with the foremost wrestler: The argumentative tradition which the Vedantists as well as the Shramanas of antiquity reveled in, at least in theory included aspects which current freethought advocates can benefit from. Every Vedantic school insisted that the preparatory course of beginning disciples include a comprehensive study of 'Poorva Paksha' (literally, 'Earlier phase'), namely a thorough study of the tenets and conclusions of opposing schools. This was intended not simply as a quote-mining study to pick chinks in the armour of opposing schools, but as a way to ensure that eventual preparation measures up to the best of challenges. The 'Prathama Malla Nyaya' (literally, 'foremost wrestler analogy') implies that anyone wishing to claim the mantle of the foremost wrestler in the land, needs to win but one battle to do so, namely beat the reigning champion. No amount of victories with minions can substitute for this. The 'Prathama Malla' is the metaphorical opposite of a 'straw-man' and bringing on the foremost wrestlers rather than straw-men is one way of demanding a degree of intellectual honesty. In contemporary settings, this means that freethought advocates in their critiques of religion must, besides attacking the egregious fanatical expressions of faith, also address what seem prima facie like benign and plausible cases for faith.

An example of the 'Poorva Paksha' approach is the Sarva Darshana Sangraha of Madhava Vidyaranya, a medieval Advaitic pontiff of the Shringeri monastery, where he summarizes what he as an honest outsider sees as the summum bonum of all heterodox and orthodox schools active in that period, tellingly omitting mention of Advaita itself with the magnanimous assurance that it has been expounded on at length elsewhere. It is hard to imagine a present-day theologian of any persuasion write a text which summarizes the fundamentals of all faiths save their own! A testament to the sincerity of Madhava Vidyaranya's exercise is that it is his summary of the Charvaka view that is quoted with gusto and great approval by even contemporary materialists.

Image-building and avoiding bad press: C Rajagopalachari, who besides his role in the freedom movement was also one of the authoritative 20th century retellers of the Indian epics, says that what constitutes a religion or a religious way of life are the three strands of 'philosophy, rituals and mythology'. In more contemporary parlance, we may instead choose to call these three aspects, 'a theoretical framework', 'a shared symbolism and work ethic' and 'a sense of history and shared destiny'.

While the Shramana traditions had the intellectual wherewithal to counter the 'theoretical framework' of the Vedas and Vedanta, their relative lack of staying power has often been attributed to their relative indifference to building symbolism for civilizational pride. Even though the social organization sanctioned by the Vedantists constituted obvious affronts to human dignity, it was ironically the more egalitarian Shramana traditions that received the 'bad press' about their seeming abdication of social responsibility inherent in their monastic emphasis. The Upanishadists staved off 'image problems' of this sort by judiciously trotting out the 'royal sage' Janaka as a role model along with a pageant consisting of 'career theologians' such as Yajnavalkya, Chakrayana Ushasti and so on, who tellingly were not celibate monks, unlike the Vedanta staff-bearers of the Dashanami Sanyasi lineage to which both Shankara and the latter-day Vivekananda claim allegiance.

Conveying the appearance of a 'life-affirming philosophy' with due attention to designing 'cultural props' to sustain a worldview, is one area where the Vedantists seem to have been more successful than the Shramanas. Freethinkers today need not perhaps interpret this message as literally as Alain de Botton does in his call for atheist temples, but need to be mindful, like Tom Clark that atheism by itself is not a worldview and that building one compatible with our beliefs is an ongoing, open question. Tom Clark's proposal of 'worldview naturalism' features a theoretical framework that links empiricism to equality, calls for the design of 'behavioral technology' to obtain greater control over our circumstances to the extent possible, and emphasizes our material connectedness with society and the world at large.

The view from afar: Vedanta, besides the excoriation of Huxley also more famously received a great deal of approbation from the West, notably from American transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau even before the arrival of Vivekananda on the scene. As an analogy to explain the appeal of Vedanta to a far westerner, we can perhaps consider how a Far Easter philosophy like Taoism to a curious contemporary Indian who may be unfamiliar with the ritualistic paraphernalia and trappings surrounding the folk version of the faith and is familiar only via the works of Lao Tzu. Lao Tzu may seem to make perfect sense to such an Indian in his disapproval of over-government, especially when liberal thought in India today is threatened by censorship of all kinds, and in his rejection of war which too speaks to contemporary sensibilities. Had the reading of Lao Tzu been tempered by the fact that charms and talismans are part of Taoism's more visible wares than the Tao De Ching, then perhaps the approval of this reader may not have been as forthcoming.

Likewise, a western reader lost in the sublime-sounding Upanishads, untroubled by the suffocation of homa-altar smoke and by sights of casteist segregation, can quite understandably be more magnanimous in their appreciation of the worth of the text as anthropological specimens if not theological treatises. Besides the disappearance of the possibly unsavoury cultural backdrop, the view from afar also obscures differences between rival schools of thought. For instance, Will Durant mentions Buddha and Shankara, the heterodox Buddha and the revivalist Shankara, in the same sentence. This too isn't surprising, because though Taoism emphasizes 'following one's nature' and Confucianism, the counterpoint of 'adherence to regulation, both are routinely conflated as related 'graceful life philosophies'.

Edit (31/03/2014): Fixed links.
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#3
(18-Feb-2012, 05:21 AM)karatalaamalaka Wrote: Context: http://nirmukta.com/2012/02/16/deconstru...worldview/

Objectively speaking, Hardayal's suggestion to 'only read western philosophers such as Aristotle, Marx, etc.' is not a sound recommendation. If we seek to address the 'principal problem' that I've defined above, we should avoid citing opinions such as Hardayal's. Aristotle, Marx, etc. are quite irrelevant today, from a skeptical and critical perspective. We really should only look to study their philosophies as data points in the history of human thought.


While criticizing the Upanishads, we should be sensitive to the fact that they are a source of pride to Indians. This pride, in my opinion, is what causes spiritualists such as H. A. to retreat deeper into their dogmatic shells when faced with views critical of the Upanishads. I do not condone such pride as it can lead to chauvinism. Nevertheless, we should acknowledge it exists, and factor it into our approach to criticizing Vedanta. Pride, though an unnecessary emotion, is to an extent justified in this case, given the literary merit and historiographic content of the Upanishads. The same cannot be said about explicitly theological works like the Bhagavadgeeta or the Bible.

My response to the criticism of Lala Hardayal's recommendation to read works of European empiricism would be that it not be taken literally. Our culture is already suffering from an over-dosage of theological indoctrination of the Upanishads and the Puranas. We need to move away from that hangover.

Not just the Vedas, Upanishads or the Puranas, but even MK Gandhi is a sacred relic of history for many in the intelligentsia. While being mindful of the sensitivity problem, one still cannot ignore that this is more a 'holy cow' syndrome. Religious or cultural sensitivities can only provide a shield from critical scrutiny up to a point

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