Friday, 10 July 2015

An Indian Contribution To Philosophy

Internet maven Kanishka Sinha has written up a whirlwind summary of all major Western philosophical thought, and has also tried to explain with a diagram how some representative schools of Eastern thought relate to this body of work. I think he has done a remarkable job of explaining the various ideas expounded by Western philosophers, and while I cannot claim to understand the Chinese philosophers with any authority, there are a couple of points I would like to make about Indian philosophy and some points of congruence and contrast with Western philosophy.

There are two irreconcilable viewpoints in Hindu religious thought, and they are Monism (Advaita) and Dualism (Dvaita). They deal with the relationship between a hypothetical Creator or Supreme Intelligence on the one side, and all of Creation, including human beings, on the other.

The Dualist or Dvaita philosophy maintains that the two are independent entities that can never be the same. The Creator can bring Creation into existence and will it out of existence, but Creation never becomes one with the Creator. The implication of this on religious belief is that the Bhakta (devotee) is forever distinct from Bhagwan (God). The Dvaita concept of moksha (liberation) is that the soul of the bhakta is no longer required to be reincarnated again and again but gets to remain in the company of Bhagwan, deriving bliss from being able to see and worship Bhagwan for all time. (As an atheist, I cannot think of a better description of hell, but hey, to each their own.)

The Monist or Advaita concept is the very opposite. Advaita avers that the distinction between Creator and Creation is illusory. All Creation is but a manifestation of a Supreme Intelligence (the Brahman). Indeed, it makes no sense to call this intelligence a "creator" if there is nothing that is created. Even the Hindu Trinity of Creator, Preserver and Destroyer are just less abstract personifications of the ineffable Brahman. Liberation or moksha in the Advaita philosophy comes about when an individual's soul realises its true nature as just a manifestation of the Brahman, and instantaneously becomes one with it. All of Creation vanishes, so to speak, since it is recognised to be entirely illusory.

Comparing and contrasting the Dvaita and Advaita schools of thought with Western philosophy, we can readily see the parallels between Dvaita and the Abrahamic religions. A Christian, for example, believes that when they go to heaven, they will be with Jesus Christ and God, but will not themselves become one with Jesus or God. This is the dualist vision of heaven, where they will enjoy the blissful privilege of being able to praise God forever.

The lucky ones get to enjoy the unending company of the two gents at the top, including the bad-tempered one (seated) who expects to be constantly praised. Settle in for an eternity of boredom, because the landscape looks pretty bleak.

We can readily see the parallels with Dvaita.

The lucky ones get to perch precariously on the snake and forever sing the praises of the reclining gent. The clothes are more colourful, but even they can get boring  pretty quickly when we're talking eternity. 

Advaita though, has no parallel in Western philosophy. The notion that everything that we can observe is not real but in fact illusory is quite an original idea! Postulating that a Supreme Intelligence has created this illusion for itself on a whim (leela) is another original idea.

That's the bit I think Kanishka should add to his philosophical roundup. Advaita is a unique philosophical idea that does not seem to exist anywhere in Western philosophy.

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