Saturday, December 29, 2012

An Indian sceptic



At long last, I have read Prof. Daya Krishna’s book Indian Philosophy. A Counter Perspective (OUP, Delhi 1996 (1991)). When the book first came out, I had just resolved that the contemporary history of India’s communal situation was more an urgent need than the abstruse philosophies which I had come to Varanasi to study. Also, I was convinced that young people have little to say in philosophy, that first you have to prove yourself in more mundane pursuits, of which one had forced itself upon me. In subsequent years, I did read some books on Indian philosophy, including Daya Krishna’s own edited volume Discussion and Debate in Indian Philosophy (2004), but I didn’t follow the subject closely.

And when at last I was drawn to reading this book when it was presented to me, it was still not because by now I had come to value philosophy once more, but because Daya Krishna (1924-2007) had been a member of the Changers’ Club, the debating circle of friends at Delhi University, featuring the later journalist Girilal Jain, economists Ram Swarup and Raj Krishna and historian Sita Ram Goel. To my knowledge, just one member is still alive, and with her I only talked briefly in 2009. Daya Krishna died just when I had made up my mind to interview him about the Changers’ Club and later developments, so that didn’t work out. But I trust that up there, he is taking it philosophically.  

In some chapters, Daya Krishna seems to talk as if he takes for granted that the Vedas are apaurusheya, “impersonal”, i.e. of supernatural origin, but in Indian Philosophy he musters arguments why the Vedas are just human literature. Thus, the existence of different versions of the Yajurveda was consciously countenanced by the Yajurvedic rishis: “Obviously, they would not have regarded it as apaurusheya or revealed” (p.84). Repetition of Vedic verses is another key to the natural process of intertextuality: ”It is not only that a very large number of Mantras from the Rgveda are repeated in the other Vedas, but that there are substantial repetitions in the Rgveda itself.” (p.86)

 The rishis freely borrowed from each other, they could see far because they stood on the shoulders of giants: “But if this was the relation of one Vedic rsi to another, how can that relation be understood either in terms of apaurusheyatva or revelation, or even in terms of Vedic authority?” (p.86) Answer: it cannot, i.e. it should not be understood as a divine revelation like what is claimed for the Ten Commandments or the Quran. It must be seen as just a collection of hymns to (not from) the gods by human poets. We know their names, their genealogies (with one of them the brother or the grandfather of another), their whereabouts, roughly also their chronology, so we are very much dealing with a human composition.

                In traditionalist circles it would be sacrilege to say this, but: “In fact, the very large proliferation of the shakhas [‘branches’, channels of transmission], at least as mentioned in the tradition, testifies to the fact that the Rishis of those days treated their Vedic patrimony with a degree of freedom that seems sacrilegious when viewed in the perspective of attitudes with which the Vedas have been traditionally looked at for a long time. (…) the Vedas were regarded in a totally different way in Vedic times.” (p.84) So, next time I say this, I can quote a Indian authority for it, and that will hopefully silence those who see Western conspiracies against Hinduism everywhere.

                Enthusiasm oozes out when he  describes the ancient Hindu philosophies. Today’s devout God-fearing Hindus, temple-goers and practitioners of a daily puja, would not feel at home with the old-school Hindu philosophers, many of whom were functionally or even explicitly atheist. Daya Krishna cites Karl Potter with approval: “If, for example, one chooses the second century AD, one would discover that ‘the major systems extant at that time – Samkhya, Mimansa, Nyaya and Vaisesika, Jainism, the several schools of Buddhism, and Carvaka – are none of them theistic’. But ‘if one slices instead at, say, the fourteenth century AD, one finds that Nyaya-Vaisesika has become pronouncedly theistic, that Buddhism and Carvaka had disappeared, and that several varieties of theistic Vedanta have come into prominence.’” (p.40) I guess that proves God punishes those who don’t believe in Him with disappearance. But it also shows in passing that medieval and modern Hindus are very different from their ancient ancestors, including the rishis they swear by.

Daya Krishna questions two common assumptions, viz. that Indian philosophy is “spiritual”, and that it is chiefly concerned with moksha, “liberation”. Of course much philosophizing was technical and not concerned with meditation and liberation. For instance, Nyaya philosophy has a lot to say on what philosophers call epistemology, i.e. the ways of knowing, but it has less  to offer to those who are eager for liberation. The philosopher quotes a list of mundane works (p.33-34), including treatises on painting and on eroticism, that start out with a promise that the knowledge provided here will lead to moksha. This was just a convention, a work that wanted to draw attention to itself just had to announce itself as a way to liberation; and the reader should use his own discrimination to decide which books really deal with liberation.

The difference between Indian schools of philosophy lies not in their respective conceptions of moksha. They quarrel about metaphysical or epistemological issues, about how many fundamental building blocks the cosmos has, or about the status of the Vedas – but rarely about the need for, and even less about the way to liberation. Moksha was taken for granted, at least in the age that concerns us here, after the introduction of alphabetic writing in India ca. 300 BC. The way towards liberation was generically called yoga, and its modus operandi was left to teachers in confidential settings.

Coming to the Upanishads, it is their classification that arouses unorthodox suspicions. According to Daya Krishna: “Most are not independent works, but selections made out of a pre-existing text”. (p.104), which raises questions, such as: who made the selection, and why? Thus, the Aitareya Upanishad forms the middle part of the Aitareya Aranyaka, the Kena forms the 10th chapter of the Jaiminiya Upanishad-Brahmana, the Taittiriya is the 7th to 9th chapter of Taittiriya Aranyaka, while the Katha is part of the Taittiriya Brahmana.

Daya Krishna wisely avoids pronouncing on the difficult question of their absolute chronology, but he observes that in relative order, Upanishad is a genre stretching from the old Upanishads which are embedded in Vedic literature, through the middle ones to a host of late ones as recent as the Muslim period. Again, the fact that many clearly postdate the Vedic period (even by the large definition of “Vedic” current in India) casts doubt on their status of apaurusheyatva. Here too, we know the situation and the story of Yajnavalkya, Satyakama Jabala, Uddalaka Aruni and others seers, as of any human writers.

Briefly, Daya Krishna was a Hindu philosopher who knew his classics very well, and who took a questioning position. He was not a secularist, the kind who know next to nothing of their tradition yet condemn it out of hand anyway. But he was not a believer either, aware as he was of the contradiction between the common beliefs about Vedic literature and what the Vedas themselves say. 

11 comments:

अश्वमित्रः said...

[So, next time I say this, I can quote a Indian authority for it, and that will hopefully silence those who see Western conspiracies against Hinduism everywhere.]

Well, obviously his mind had just been corrupted by western influence blah blah blah. You can't win.

windwheel said...

My memory is that this particular Prof. was supposed to be doing something on ancient Indian Mathematics but then he died. I may be wrong. Come to think of it, everybody was supposed to be on the verge of publishing something about how such and such ancient philosophy was just the product of the silly theories suggested by the Mathematics of the period. I wonder if anything came of it. Bound to have, I suppose, so there's probably some Indian Badiou or Deleuze out there.
My own guess is that the Indians were bound to have had some sort of discrete math or O.R tradition which we'd now call cellular automata theory- and that apauresheya does actually have an interesting philosophical sense (i.e. refers to at least one contemporary open problem like P=NP)rather than stupidity about the Supernatural.
Briefly, something is apauresheya if its apurvata is inexhaustable rather than having some cause-effect terminus however remote (apurva). For a discrete math tradition this boils down to whether some heuristic which throws away inflationary processes- cancels them out- is or is not licit.
Statistics we will always have with us- at least so long as we have a State- and bad Stats certainly played a big role in screwing India over back when this Prof. was part of the Changers' Club.
The odd thing is Indian math/stats guys tend to be crappier than average in their take on the only potentially non-crap approach (as far as I know) to ancient Indian psilosophy.
Whose fault is it? America, no question. Guns aren't just for Christmas you know.

ysv_rao said...


It amazes me that people in ancient India seem far less gullible in matters of religion than they are today.

I would reckon a guess that fewer people were killed or tortured for being witches back say during the time of Ramayana than they are today.

When Rama returned from Ayodhya, after rescuing and cementing his standing as an avatar of Vishnu, a common washerman could laugh at him for accepting Sita who they though was violated by Ravana!

During Mahabharata, there are strong indications that most common people thought he was a fraud and a thief.

Way before that, we had naastika and Ajivikas as proto cynics who ridiculed the Vedas and the gods who they believed to be figments of Brahmins imaginations.Also they compared the latter to frogs croaking in the well and mocked their shlokas thus "Om give us food"!

I agree that in matters of religion it was a much more open minded society.

However the direction of divine conversation wasnt always one sided.While much of the Vedas are invocations, you also have demons and humans recieving boons(ie revelations and powers) from various gods such Devi,Brahma,Vishnu,Shiva etc.

Much of our science was divinely inspired it is claimed.For eg. the Matsay avatar(compass), Kuruma(understanding of the magnetic field ,invaluable to the creation of Vastu Shastra), Varaha(the boar- demonstrating that earth was created in the ocean and rose to the top gradually)

More recently Srinivas Ramanujam claimed the solutions to an equation came to him from in a revelation by Devi.

Karthikrajan said...

Sir,
There is a saying in tamil : A frightened mind sees ghost in every dark space. This seems to be the case with hindus who stick to the belief that vedhaas are divine revelations. The onslaught of prophetic religions seems to have scared their wits that they think the only line of defense that can save Hinduism is the ‘apaurusheya’ concept. Now that Hinduism has proved its resilience, coupled with the fact that modern psychology has knocked the teeth out of the so called ‘prophetic revelations’ , hindus need not have any hesitation in accepting the human origin of the vedhic texts.

ShankaraBharadwaj Khandavalli said...

Why Prof. Daya Krishna, you have Kavyakantha Vasistha Ganapati Muni who elaborately refutes the idea of Apourusheyatva. But nevertheless Apourusheyatva is not limited to the notion of revelation. Much less is it a faith thing. In the context of epistemology and Sabda Pramana the Apourusheyatva, not just of Veda but of the Samhita portions of Agamas, has an irreplaceable logical need. The acceptability of Sabda Pramana in the sequence of Sruti, Smriti, Pauranika, Jana Sruti, Sthala Purana.. hinges on where the most primary source is fixed, and that got to be called Apourusheya. While there are traditions in Hinduism that are not fixated on this notion (and are also not fixated on Sabda Pramana itself), I do not see why the notion should be of any issue. Repetition of mantras/suktas hardly refutes the Apourusheya nature of mantras. As the name Samhita itself implies compilation does not always means the drasta. The Anukramani takes precedence in this matter.

Karthikrajan said...

To decide on apourusheyatva nature of vedhas , it is necessary to understand the difference
between intelligence and creativity. I have seen on tv, where parents of teenage carnatic music (creativity)
prodigies are moved to tears at their ward's achievements and give the credit to some divine
entity at work. But one hardly sees any such reaction from parents of teenage academic (intelligence) prodigies
who have accomplished Masters degree. In fact the parents are puzzled and even feel uncomfortable,
as their children then cannot mingle freely with their peers which can affect normal growth. The
vedhic and later stage seers were probably not sure how to treat the vedhic texts : were they
result of human intelligence or a creative mind ? To my knowledge it is intelligence with plenty
of psychology at work.

ShankaraBharadwaj Khandavalli said...

Karthikrajan, the notion of apourusheya is not so trivial or frivolous. As I said, it is not just Veda but the Samhita parts of Agama-Tantra literature also which is treated the same way. I also disagree with Dr. Koenraad Elst's equation of revelation concept with Apourusheya. The "word of God" is abundant in Smriti literature right from the celebrated Bhagavad Gita, and that directly refutes such equation. To appreciate the notion of Apourusheya we need to see that part of literature as the root of all literature - which has nothing to do with its chronology. There are several portions in Veda which happen to be chronologically later than many Smriti and non-Apourusheya portions.

One must also differentiate between the notion of "mantra darsana" which is limited to Samhita, and the notion of Apourusheya which applies to entire Sruti.

Karthikrajan said...

@ShankaraBharadwaj Khandavalli: { Karthikrajan, the notion of apourusheya is not so trivial or frivolous }
Agreed, what i am trying to understand is why people are so intent on contesting the apourushya nature of these texts.
Is it because this is the first step to know the supreme truth (attaining sidhdhi)?, or is it that hinduism lose its sheen ?

{ I also disagree with Dr. Koenraad Elst's equation of revelation concept with Apourusheya }
ok, in that case u need to specify what this concept means. Agreed that this can't be equated to
the so called prophetic-revelations which are nothing but blabbing. In the hindu scriptures one can find
plenty of intelligence at work. Should then intelligence itself be equated to apourusheya ? I am unable to decide on that.

I have read the translation of rig vedha by H.H Wilson and umpteen times it says "we have composed this hymn in your praise".
Now, how does one interpret the term "we have"? This is what KE refers to prove the human source of vedhic compositions.
If it is to be accepted that all other scriptures were composed after the RV, then it only reinforces the psychological
evaluation that 'word of god' was merely appended in abundance to lend credibility and acceptance among the general public.

Skanda said...

Dear Karthikrajan,

There is actually no need for contesting the Apourusheya nature, because calling it man-made would give you no logical advantage.

"ok, in that case u need to specify what this concept means. "

Guess I did in my earlier posts - one needs to see the Mimamsaka stand on this for more elaborate explanation.

To call something a "revelation", it needs a single trusted human agency - which Veda is not. Mantra darsana is a little different, and anyway Apourusheya applies to entire Sruti and not merely the Samhita - so revelation of mantra and apourusheya are not synonymous.

"Should then intelligence itself be equated to apourusheya ? "

Lets just say axiomatic knowledge is called apourusheya and deductive knowledge that is based on that axiomatic knowledge is rest of literature - smritis darsanas etc.

"Now, how does one interpret the term "we have"? This is what KE refers to prove the human source of vedhic compositions."

Hardly matters - because the very word samhita means compilation, and the several layers of compilations are definitely man-made. That itself goes to say apourusheya has more to it than not being man-made.

"If it is to be accepted that all other scriptures were composed after the RV, then it only reinforces the psychological
evaluation that 'word of god' was merely appended in abundance to lend credibility and acceptance among the general public."

Again no, because several non-sruti portions predate several portions of veda, and apourusheya does not merely apply to RV Samhita but to entire Veda - all four vedas with brahmana and aranyaka included. Moreover even the Samhita of Tantra texts is also accorded the same status - which just reinforces the point that it is not chronological but a scheme of knowledge in which some portions are categorized that way.

Actually Vasistha Ganapati Muni argues elaborately against Apourusheya nature in multiple works, including Sabda Pramana Mimamsa.

Karthikrajan said...

@skanda: I had made a mistake, intead of 'insisting' i had written 'contesting'. But going by your
info if ganapati muni and the scriptures themselves attribute part of it to compilation and another
part to apourusheya contribution, then i think it should be fine. From this view, we can infer that the
apourusheya part is equivalent to the axiomatic knowledge developed by the great scientists like newton,einstein
heisenberg etc. After all these people did not 'create' anything, they have just discovered the secrets of nature
by wracking their brains, and the engineers developed 'compilations' or applications based on this for the benefit of the society.
Of course these scientists and engineers generally do not give the credit to the divine-entities. I understand that even the greek philosophers plato, aristotle, socrates and confucious did not give credit to the gods for the philosophies developed by them. At least in confucious case it is the public who have attributed divinity to him, like budhdha and
mahaveera.

{ because calling it man-made would give you no logical advantage. }
Yes, and i am looking for a strategic one. Accepting the human source of vedhas would deal a body blow to the prophetic religions, works of humans proving to be far better than divine revelations!

ShankaraBharadwaj Khandavalli said...

Karthikrajan,

Sorry for the confusion, the previous post was sent from a friend's id.

"But going by your
info if ganapati muni and the scriptures themselves attribute part of it to compilation and another
part to apourusheya contribution, then i think it should be fine."

A small clarification here. What I meant is that Ganapati Muni etc do not hold Veda to be apourusheya. Sabda pramana includes sruti (entire veda), smriti etc, and whether sruti is apourusheya or not is not something unanimously held by all schools.

Purva Mimamsakas hold the apourusheya nature of veda. From this standpoint the axiomatic nature can be affirmed.