Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Shankara - a Philosopher or a Theologian?

A few days ago it was asked (on another blog) whether one could really consider Shankara a philosopher because his base belief was in the ‘not of human origin’ (apoureshya) nature of the Vedas which he (Shankara) regarded as the truth against which all other truths could be gauged. Was he then ultimately a theologian and not a philosopher at all? The imputation was that his fundamental bias was such that rationality could not be a primary value as should be the case for all true philosophers, particularly if they are Scotsmen. My response to this was a kindly one. I pointed out several places in which Shankara was apparently doing what ordinary philosophers, in the common acceptation of that term, do. Was that obtuse of me? Is this a mistake on my part, not to recognise the contemporary fundamentalist assumption that if you are a believer you have disbarred yourself from the goodly company of the rational. On the other hand the question may have issued from a genuine need for clarification.

No one has yet spotted a monad (Leibniz) or an ‘eternal object’ (Whitehead). These are two philosophers who were believers without that being a contradiction in terms. Suppose then that we admit Enlightenment as the end and purpose of life. This is a difficult thing to demonstrate along Euclidean type lines. Is it an example or instance of a desideratum that we could rationally accept? The state of enlightenment though often spoken of and written about in the Eastern tradition is a mysterious and anomalous beast. It is not a state, they all agree. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form, dream and samadhi are the same sort of fleeting state.

Can it be rational to pursue a state that you couldn’t even know you were in? How does the feeling that one is on a wild goose chase not overwhelm the seeker? Well yes, strictly it ought to be so but there are two major indications that one is on the right path. One is the teacher who is the embodiment of the goal and the other is the confirming experience as one progresses along the path. It is along this secondary trajectory of experience that philosophy becomes useful. We have to distinguish the true from the false and the half-true. Have we drawn the correct implication and what is the meaning of this utterance which even though it may be of non-human origin has to be understood as it applies to a situation.

What can Tat Tvam Asi mean? Shankara keeps circling around that mahavaka attempting to elucidate it. In another post I will attempt to hack a clearing in that jungle. Isn’t that what Philosophy tries to do - give us space to turn?


elisa freschi said...

Great post, Michael. You raise at least three points, and I think they are all right:
1. philosophers who are seemingly not believers (because they claim not to use faith nor authority among their sources) usually assume the existence of other "weird" things ---whose existence they cannot demonstrate (such as the real existence of outer objects exactly corresponding to how we see them)
2. There is a general prejudice against philosophers who are also believers (in the religious sense)
3. philosophy is not (or not just) putting tnt around, exploding it and then building anew

(May I link to this post in the blog you refer to?)

ombhurbhuva said...

Thanks Elisa, Of course you can link to it.

I agree with you about the tnt. So many disparage the idea of tradition and the surest way to make a name for yourself is to come up with something paradoxical or a bizarre new thought experiment.

elisa freschi said...

I agree! (here is my denial of "new" as a value in itself: