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.

(Image Courtesy- Gooogle Search)

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Koenraad Elst

Koenraad Elst

Koenraad Elst (°Leuven 1959) distinguished himself early on as eager to learn and to dissent. After a few hippie years he studied at the KU Leuven, obtaining MA degrees in Sinology, Indology and Philosophy. After a research stay at Benares Hindu University he did original fieldwork for a doctorate on Hindu nationalism, which he obtained magna cum laude in 1998. As an independent researcher he earned laurels and ostracism with his findings on hot items like Islam, multiculturalism and the secular state, the roots of Indo-European, the Ayodhya temple/mosque dispute and Mahatma Gandhi's legacy. He also published on the interface of religion and politics, correlative cosmologies, the dark side of Buddhism, the reinvention of Hinduism, technical points of Indian and Chinese philosophies, various language policy issues, Maoism, the renewed relevance of Confucius in conservatism, the increasing Asian stamp on integrating world civilization, direct democracy, the defence of threatened freedoms, and the Belgian question. Regarding religion, he combines human sympathy with substantive skepticism.