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Following is my review of:
• India and Europe by Wilhelm Halbfass
Review of India and Europe
by Wilhelm Halbfass
Reviewed by Debashish Banerji
With the ascendency to Indian politics of the Bharatiya Janata Party, a plethora of literature has appeared paying serious attention to the phenomenon of "Neo-Hinduism" in
But to describe the phenomenon of nationalism in these terms only, is to leave indistinct its most pernicious and potent aspect, that of its teleology. The roots of modern Nationalism may be found in the European Enlightenment of the 17th century. The Enlightenment replaced the religious teleology of a Christianized world with a new technological teleology - a world organized by the powers of reason, rendered rationally transparent and thereby fulfilling the highest capacity of Man, the measure of all things. Latent to this ideology was the sense of an evolution from darkness to light, but light conceived as the power of Reason. Man, the measure was of course, European Man, armed with the omnipotent machinery of Science, bringing civilization to the darker continents. There is a latent ambiguity here - in that, though reason was supposed to be the universal possession of all human beings, clearly western man could be credited with its most systematic and full-blown use. Thus Asians, Africans, South Americans and other "natives" world-wide, patristically liberated through subjection to colonization, needed to be accounted for in their "otherness" to the west. Were these "humans" the same as westerners, capable of the same manifestation of rational divinity or were they somehow never up to the mark, always xenologically inferior to the civilized standards of western man? This ambiguity was to find a number of remarkable expressions in the 18th century, in which racism and cultural ethnocentrism became the dominating narratives in the divvying up of the world-pie. Undoubtedly the most seminal of these narratives was that provided by GWF Hegel, in his all-encompassing Philosophy of History. In Hegel, the teleological bases of Christianity and the Enlightenment come together and find relational fulfillment in a historicized world-scheme. According to Hegel, the basis of unbridgeable racial differences across the world was spiritual. The human species expressed through its history the progressive manifestation of Spirit, evolving inexorably towards perfect rational embodiment. In this evolution, the world was seen as inhabited by different races, involved in manifesting historically partial evolutionary experiments, expressing Spirit in its temporal embodiment as Zeitgeist or "spirit of the age". Such historical developments were however, structurally predictable, entirely conditioned by a dialectic relating to a form of consciousness, which was specific to each race. These forms of consciousness could be arranged hierarchically in a classification which led from brute matter to the perfect embodiment of spirit. In Hegel's view, the non-European peoples of the world represented races which had been involved in earlier phases of the Spirit's evolution, which had reached its culmination in German rational Protestantism of his time.
Thus the notions of racial essences, of unchanging cultures and nations based on these, which our early 21st century finds itself obsessively engaged with, received their clearest philosophical articulation in a grand totalizing narrative by Hegel. Moreover, this teleological narrative, prioritizing rational and Christian Europe, took into its purview all aspects of human culture, spanning the world spatially and temporally and classifying these in a singular structure. Thus, in Heidegger's phrase, Hegel can be seen as the initiator of the modern "Age of the World-Picture", though his real achievement lies in articulating within an integrated edifice the totalizing epistemological assumptions already implicit in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Further, germane to our present consideration, his relational history of world cultures presents an evolutionary view of the cultural expression of different "nations", including that of
It is not difficult to extrapolate a strident German nationalism from the Hegelian historical teleology. Since the Zeitgeist had supposedly found its culmination in Hegel's
A plethora of publications have appeared in the last decade from the western academy, expressing alarm at the Hinduizing of Indian politics. A variety of foci have arisen from this attention, relating the congruence of a national identity with Hinduism as an Orientalist-Nationalist construction of the 19th century. A number of 19th c. ideological inventions are seen as the fruits of this labor, with its localized concentration among the bhadralok intelligentsia of
The present essay is not meant to be a systematic review of "
The first half of Halbfass' book has to do with European perceptions of
In identifying these fundamental issues, Halbfass explicitly draws on another modern German thinker, Paul Hacker. Much of the second half of "
In excavating the bases for a hermeneutical dialogue between Europe and
However, perhaps the greatest strength of the book lies in its identification of the concepts of "experience" and "inclusivism" as forming two of the most important transformational building-blocks of the modern discourse of Neo-Hinduism. Both in its emphasis on the darshana aspect of Indian philosophies as well as the identification of the primary goal of all Indic thought as "experience", Neo-Hinduism according to Halbfass carves a distinguishing niche for itself in the field of world-thought. Halbfass considers here, apart from modern thinkers, the lives of such figures as Sri Ramakrishna and Ramana Maharshi as exemplifications of the primacy of "experience". He brings in Sri Aurobindo as an unique case of an original "thinker" who bases all his "thought" on experience. Of course, followers of Sri Aurobindo may contend here that there is no "thought" in Sri Aurobindo, only statement of experience, but such statement is made in a logically discursive mode, which does not negate the instrument of "thinking" and so, from this point of view, Halbfass' characterization may stand. However, he goes on to consider if the primacy of experience, not merely as soteriological goal, but as primary basis of philosophy, was indeed a traditional norm, as claimed by modern Indian thinkers such as Vivekananda or Radhakrishnan. For this, he looks to Shankara and shows that Shankara does not make reference to his own or to others' "experiences" in the development of his philosophical arguments. Instead, he rests ulitmately on the primary truth of the Veda, which he considers to be authorless. Undoubtedly, Halbfass agrees that the goal of Shankara's philosophy is the experience of the One Reality, but this is a bodiless "experience", where even the distinction of experiencer and experienced disappear, so that the term "experience" per se as a translation of this state runs into difficulties. He also draws attention to several Buddhist thinkers who explicitly warn against reliance on personal experience without guidance from guru or shastra as conducive to error. In Halbfass' delineation, the neo-Hindu emphasis on "experience" as the basis of Indian philosophy is an innovation, an "internal" correlate of the western "external" scientific empiricism based on experiment and observation. He also points to William James' "Varieties of Religious Experience" as a source for the prominence of the term "experience" in Neo-Hindu thought. It is true that both Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo present comparisons between yoga and science, particularly in the understanding of their processes and the universal reproducibility of their results, arrived at through experiment and observation. Also, particularly in Sri Aurobindo (as also in Sri Ramakrishna and Ramana Maharshi) there is a trust in the self-evident nature of Truth and the power of experience to illuminate shastra and not vice versa. But Halbfass' exclusive selection of Shankara and a few Buddhist thinkers (all examples of an excessive dependence on logic) to make his point of the absence of "experience" as a basis of thinking in Indian philosophy is a gross over-simplification that caricatures the rich and complex field of traditional Indian thought. Though Halbfass draws attention to Bengal Vaishnavism in a footnote when dealing with Debendranath Tagore's deviation from Rammohun Roy in trusting to the primacy of his experience, we find no mention of either Vaishnava, Tantric or Shaivite sources in his discussion of "experience" in Indian tradition. Why this prioritization of Advaita Vedanta and Buddhism? Unmethodical inconsistencies of this kind mar "
An idea which Halbfass borrows from Paul Hacker to characterize Neo-Hindu thinking is that of "inclusivism". Halbfass points to the way in which this idea develops in Hacker's own writings on India, starting as a related concept to "religious tolerance", more appropriate in a variety of Indian contexts and ending, in his last writings, as the essential Indian alternate to "tolerance", categorically opposed to the latter and exclusive to India. The nationalistic resonance of "inclusivism" is also immediately evident when we consider that what we normally consider as dangerous in nationalism is its "exclusivism" and its "expansionism". But whereas expansionistic dynasties, races, religions, ideologies have gone abroad in the multitudes, invading their surroundings with the exclusive reality of the truth they represent, India presents the image of the infinite receptacle, into which the exclusive expanders enter and become included. Hacker makes the case that this image of
In his discussion of inclusivism, Halbfass points to the discursive tendency of traditional sectarian Indian thought to develop doxographies in which "others" are neutralized through inclusion and subordination. In this, he divides the strategy of inclusivism into two major types, based on images developed within the Indic tradition. The two images are: (1) that of the ocean into which rivers merge, discharging their waters and losing their names, but remaining preserved in essence and substance; (2) that of the elephant's footstep, which includes through exceeding the footsteps of other animals, covering larger terrain than any of them individually and erasing or obliterating them in the process. Halbfass characterizes these strategies as hierarchism and perspectivism respectively, and sees examples of the first in Advaita Vedanta and the second in Jaina doxographies. Halbfass considers several textual instances of either type, exposing their inclusive strategies in the process. As may be clear from such an understanding of inclusivism, it is certainly not the same as "religious tolerance" as claimed by modern thinkers, mainly of an Advaita Vedanta bent, such as Vivekananda or Radhakrishnan. The Advaita Vedanta doxographies are shown to include other systems of thought and practice as stages leading to partial results, in an ascending scale at whose apex is the nameless and formless transcendental sole Reality, which is the goal of the Advaita soteriology. However, Halbfass also points out that such strategic inclusivism is not exclusive to
The difference, of course, is to be sought in that other self-characterization of Neo-Hinduism, "experience". The truth claimed for Advaita doxographies in modern times rests on an appeal to reproducible experience. Vivekananda bolsters his case by drawing attention to the experience of Sri Ramakrishna. Sri Ramakrishna's personal life may be seen as a compendium of the experiences of different Indic as well as non-Indic (Islamic, Christian) religious soteriologies. But is this a case of hierarchism or perspectivism? Sri Ramakrishna's own statements on the matter are ambiguous. Whereas there is often the statement that all paths lead to the same goal or that the One Goal is called differently, we also come across the statement that the sky appears blue from a distance but colorless when one enters it. Vivekananda selectively prioritizes the second statement equating the "apparent blueness" of the sky to the "experience" of theistic paths and its "real colorlessness" to that of Advaita. But Sri Ramakrishna was a mystic, not a thinker and did not feel the necessity to be logically consistent. This leaves us with a dilemma. How does one philosophically reconcile Advaita hierarchism with perspectivism or relativism? If, as per Vivekananda, Sri Ramakrishna affirms the Advaita hierarchism, he more characteristically echoes Ramprasad and other advocates of theism in his statement: "I want to eat sugar, not become it". Halbfass does not explicitly raise this question, but I would call this a mystic refusal to pass hierarchic judgement on the nature of Reality, affirming its ultimate mysteriousness. This is a basis for religious tolerance, which we also find variously in the Indian tradition. Another such basis is the concept of adhikaravada, which Halbfass explores somewhat, without making the explicit connection with tolerance. Adhikaravada can work in the favor of any sectarian doxography while keeping a tolerant attitude towards "others" on the ground of the privilege or failure of inborn spiritual capacity. On the whole, however, Halbfass does, indeed, draw attention to the existence of religious tolerance in the Indian tradition, in opposition to Hacker's more exclusive claim for inclusivism, but he nevertheless heightens the traditional importance of inclusivism and its nationalistic espousal in modern neo-Hinduism.
If the mystic can claim immunity from hierachic judgement, the problem for philosophy remains. Doctrinal debates, never fully resolved, have dogged the evolution of Indian thought, sectarian differences remaining intact with their relative prioritizations to this day. The Advaitin sees the Nameless and Formless Transcendental as the supreme reality and all theistic adoration of form as inferior. The Gaudiya Vishnav sees the formless aspect of the One Reality to be merely the aura of the Supreme Person, whose Transcendental Form is the supreme reality. The Shaivites see the soteriological goal of service to and adoration of the supreme Person as advocated by Vaishnavism to be inferior to its own goal of liberation in and complete identification with Shiva. The Tantrics prioritize the feminine principle as the Goddess or Mother with her boons of worldly power and enjoyment over the sole emphasis on transcendental liberation or service to the Divine. One of the failures of "
In his characterization of Sri Aurobindo, Halbfass does acknowledge the radical nature of his contribution. He echoes Hacker in calling him "the most original" Neo-Hindu thinker. He notes that Sri Aurobindo does not, unlike the others in his consideration, feel that the Hindu tradition has said its last word, or that his own "philosophy" is an apologetic re-statement of some or all sectarian interests of the past. However, he considers Sri Aurobindo's explorations of the ranges of mentality transcending human capacity and leading to the Supermind as speculative and does not have much to say about Sri Aurobindo's philosophical solutions. Unlike Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Aurobindo does not shy away from philosophizing. Moreover, in Halbfass' own characterization, Sri Aurobindo "clearly exceeds [Vivekananda] in intellectual and visionary power". What then is Sri Aurobindo's attitude to other sectarian soteriologies? Is it inclusivistic? And if so, does it embody the image of the ocean or that of the elephant's foot?
In his letters and talks regarding his personal experiences, in his writings on yoga (The Synthesis of Yoga) and in his major philosophical work (The Life Divine), Sri Aurobindo makes ample reference to both Indic and non-Indic soteriological systems of theory and practice. He does not prioritize Advaita over the theistic schools - in fact, if one were to consider the evolution of his own spiritual experience, the opposite would appear to be the case. On the other hand, it would be difficult to call his yoga or philosophy theistic. No pre-eminent place is given to any of the traditional deities in his teaching. But is Sri Aurobindo's Integral Advaitism, as the name itself suggests, a form of inclusivism? And if so, what form?
In The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo points out that the Formless Transcendentalism of Advaita, the Theistic Universalism of Vishishtadvaita and the Devotional Relativism of Dvaita, each consider themselves to be the highest Truth, with the others as subordinate. He provides a reason for this in the limitation of Mind.Calling attention to what he calls the Triple Status of the Supermind, he shows how these three Truths coexist as necessary aspects of a Supramental Truth, a simultaneity of Real-Existences which Mind cannot comprehend in its totality, due to the limitation of its capacity to experience more than one Reality at a time. Thus he attributes the hierarchic inclusivisms of these schools to their phenomenal bondage to the limitations of Mind. A tranquil mind, reflecting the Transcendental Truth of the Supermind, asserts the primacy of Advaita; the same reflecting the Universal Truth of Supermind asserts the primacy of Vishishtadvaita; reflecting the Individualized Truth of the Supermind, it asserts the primacy of Dvaita. A change of experiencing consciousness from Mind to Supermind enables the possibility of the simultaneous, non-hierarchic assertion of these Truths. Does this mean that in Supermind one sees that all spiritual paths are equal aspects of the One Reality? And if Sri Aurobindo is claiming that this One Reality is the Supramental, then is his philosophy not hierarchism and perpectivism rolled into one, the One Truth which subsumes all others, while at the same time rendering them redundant?
All spiritual paths are not indiscriminately equal aspects of the One Reality according to Sri Aurobindo. In Supermind, a change of consciousness allows a totalism of experience, which positions all manner of truths related to spiritual soteriologies in a multi-dimensional supramental space, whose topology, if expressed in Mind's language, necessarily renders false its reality. We are reminded of Arjuna's experience of the Vishwarupa, where multitudinous hierarchized forms coexist with formlessness (a mass of radiance with no beginning, middle or end) in a single indescribable Form. As for inclusivism, if we accept to view things from the domain of this term, the reasoning mind, then the Supermind, as Sri Aurobindo develops it, is certainly inclusivistic, in a grander sense than Advaita or the various theistic schools. It is the ocean and the elephant's foot at once, with the difference that neither do the rivers disappear into it, nor are the smaller feet obliterated, each remains intact with a simultaneity of distinctness, a mental impossibility. And if, in spite of the apparent mismatch of modalities, we insist on stretching this analogy further, is this a form of tolerance or is it a totalitarianism, a subjection of all "lesser" truths to the supremacy of the Supermind? Indeed, for Sri Aurobindo, the Supermind is the One Reality, the One as the One, the One as the All and the One as the Each. But Sri Aurobindo is not interested in convincing everyone or anyone, for that matter, of the superiority of this Truth. He upholds the characteristic Indic value of adhikaravada, the spiritual capacity of an individual, which determines the scope of his or her experience.
But at the same time, let us not forget, that of all Indic soteriologies, Sri Aurobindo's is the only one which has an universal teleology associated with it, the inevitable evolution of consciousness from Ignorance to Knowledge, Matter to Supermind and beyond. Does this not remind us of Hegel and is there not the same political danger associated with it? Sri Aurobindo makes it amply clear that the Supermind is not the property or possession of any race, nation or culture. No religion can lay hold of it and yet, in his view, it is the ultimate goal of history. How then will it come about, if not by human agency, by praxis, as all teleologies project for themselves? Here we come to Sri Aurobindo's master idea, the crux of his message. This does not lie in philosophy, religion or politics. It lies in a change of human consciousness through the power of yoga. Moreover, in this the activation of the Supermind in the terrestrial consciousness, hitherto unrealized, is a necessity. Such an activation would make possible the conditions, primarily inner, but as trigger and consequence, outer also, for an universal change of consciousness, leading to an accelarated and infallibly guided evolution to the Supermind. The disciples of Sri Aurobindo believe that he and the Mother have brought about such an activation of the Supermind through their yoga, that the world has entered into a new age, the Age of Sri Aurobindo's Yoga as a result, that all human beings living in the planet today, are whether they are aware of it or not, within the force-field of the supramental yoga, their lives experiencing its pressure towards a change of consciousness. No wonder, from the standpoint of Halbfass' adhikara, though he acknowledges the "intellectual and visionary power" of Sri Aurobindo, he sees so much speculation in him. In the meantime, the agents for this change must bring it about in themselves, their faith the consequence of their adhikara, their inner intuition of the reality of its Truth, and of the emergence from latency of the faculties experiencing its certitude.
- end -
Keywords: inclusivism, Orientalism, Gadamer, Europe, hermeneutics, SriAurobindo, Review, religion, Knowledge, India, Heidegger, Darshan, Culture, CriticalTheory, Anthropology
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