Donnerstag, 26. Juni 2014

Transcendence in Indian Thought

I've written this little essay for Dominik Wujastyk's brilliant lecture "Historical Introduction to Yoga philosophy and Early Indian Traditions of Meditation" and I've got to say it helped me quite a lot to find a stance towards Indian thought. As - I think - many do nowadays, I've always felt quite attracted to "Indian" thought (I am aware of how broad a term that is), sometimes even felt rather intimidated by the more radical concepts of Nirvana and so forth. But I think I have found something, where I do defer from what Indian thought aims for and I've tried to express this in this little essay...very short summary: that our modern societies might be able to think even closer to immanence than the ancient Indian.
This could fill books. See it as a starting point. I'll for sure come back to that.


Transcendence in Indian Thought

Quite often Indian thought or teachings are characterised as philosophies or theologies of immanence.
"Our" Occidental tradition with a strong heritage of the three major monotheisms Judaism, Christianity and Islam have always been strongly leaning towards a thinking of transcendence. A good and heavy-weighted example is Plato, to whom the material, present world does only receive form and significance by a superior and eternal sphere of ideas. These proverbial platonistic ideas are the reason why we are able to identify two different objects as the same things, like two different chairs - they share the idea of the chair. Our entire world is therefore structured and made possible by a transcendent sphere of ideas, that is guaranteeing its meaning as well as being.
This necessity of a transcendence can be deemed as inherently occidental, most occidental thinkers - not to speak of religions - needed to refer to some transcendence that is external to our material, perceptible world to explain the same. Prior to the Renaissance this transcendence was mostly a mix of platonistic ideas and the monotheist JHWH / God / Allah. With the slow emergence of modern natural science (that is inherently immanent), the occidental notion of transcendence was exposed to its inherent deficiencies and needed to be replaced to the cogito (Descartes), the human consciousness (Kant, Husserl), the Weltgeist (Hegel), language (Frege, Russell, most of analytical philosophy, as Wittgenstein shows) and even sexuality (Freud).
With Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Foucault and Deleuze modern western philosophy developed an occidental concept of immanence, which gained proximity as well as inspiration from Indian thought, which was "discovered" around the time of Schopenhauer. Indian traditions like Yoga, Buddhadharma or Jainadharma1 have never had a mind-body-dualism in the occidental understanding, god (Ishvara) wasn't the transcendent being that created the world - for those traditions everybody or -thing was part of one concept (Brahman), time wasn't understood as some linear concept pointing towards paradise and the human wasn't a privileged or outstanding being with free, autonomous will. The above mentioned occidental thinkers were drawing closer to such an understanding of the world and so it seems clear, that Indian thought bore a lot of inspiration for Western thinkers. To put it into the words of Mircea Eliade: Indian thought since the Upanishads has always had one main concern: that of the conditionality of the human [Bedingtheit der menschlichen Verfassung]. Beginning with Hegel and getting stronger ever since this conditionality found its way into occidental thinking.2 The big impact of the so called "discovery" of the unconscious by Sigmund Freud could have never taken place in India, for they always had a strong concept of the unconscious which didn't need to monopolise (or transcend) the libido as source of the unconscious.3
All of this explains the huge attraction of Western thought to Indian philosophy which is, as stated above, often classified as "thinking of immanence". In my latest reading I have discovered that this labelling might overshot the mark and might not be more than a wishful projection of occidental thinkers.
As already mentioned, transcendence was established in the occidental tradition by a dualistic approach that saw the material world and the body on one side, and the spiritual world and the mind (spirit, soul) on the other. Even today, contemporary scientists like Colin Renfrew still feel the need to clarify, when they conceive mind as something material4, which shows how deep-rooted the occidental dualism is.
It is true that within Indian thinking, this dualism can not be found in such a way. The mind and the body are both seen as part of one cosmos5. Thinking and acting are both seen as to be carried out on one monistic level. This can be highlighted by the following example: in the Mahabharata there is a section on the senses and their respective organs. The task of a Yogin is to withdraw his senses from their objects and focus them in a sixth organ - that of the mind, in Edgertons translation: the thought-organ.6 In one of the most important books of occidental philosophy, Περὶ Ψυχῆς - On the soul by Aristotle there is also much talk about the senses, their respective qualities, purposes and organs. But contrary to the Mahabharata, Aristotle can't locate a thought-organ or - as we call it today - brain. Aristotle makes it clear that there can not be a sixth organ for thought and clarifies: "the faculty of sensation is dependent upon the body, mind is separable from it."7 This is paradigmatic for the occidental body-mind-dualism, which has to locate the ideas of thinking in some transcendent sphere.
This above exemplified dualism does not exist within Indian dualism. The need to explain thought by some transcendent sphere - and thereby establishing some guarantee for certainty, as can be best observed with René Descartes - seems not to be shared by Indian concepts. But although Indian philosophies locate the senses (material) and thought (mind) in the same world, it would be to quick to label Indian philosophy as a monism, in which everything is understood immanent and in relation to everything else. To me it seems that Indian philosophy does have a dualism, but that it locates it somewhere completely different then Western traditions do, which makes it hard for "us" to discern it and explains, why we tend to label it as a monistic philosophy of immanence.
Since the thought-organ is located in the material world, there can neither be a cartesian concept of certainty (which relies on some transcendent sphere of thought, that guarantees the validity of 'I think') nor an occidental human exceptionalism, for the difference between cosmos and human is one of degree, not essence8. Among others, these two key divergences make Indian thought so attractive for a secular, modern Europa, that is receding from transcendence since Schopenhauer.
But, as I mentioned above, Indian thought does not manage without transcendence - it is simply located somewhere else. From the Yoga-Sutras, to Buddha or Isvara Krsna, the whole of existence is pain and suffering. Nevertheless, none of the Indian philosophies result in despair - it is from this point, that all of them take their soteriological motivation.9 The universal worldly suffering is seen positively as some incentive for the liberation of the human. Every metaphysical undertaking and even the field of logic (where some striking parallels can be found to Wittgenstein) is oriented towards ending this universal pain.10
In order to achieve this liberation, all those Indian philosophies seem to need some transcendence, which is either called the self, or the spirit. This self is "what one really is, different from one's body and even from one's mind" and "[t]his core of one's being, this self, what one really is, does not act."11
The definition of egoism, that results from this concept, is that the egoist is that kind of person, that things "he is the doer", although his self never acts. He confuses to be his self as part of the material world (that includes the mind and consciousness).12 A rather radical ethical standpoint results from this, which can be summarised by this rather bizarrely funny sentence from the Samannaphala Sutta: "Even if with a razor-sharp discus a man reduce all life on earth to a single heap of flesh, he commits no sin."13
This self is ontologically different14 from mind and body and is what I think one has to identify as the element of transcendence in Indian thought. Furthermore - and closely related - this is also were an Indian dualism can be traced down, which is different from the occidental one, for it locates thought and act on one side of the dualistic concept. This true self can not be found by cognition, but can only be revealed to the human - which is another signifier for transcendence.
As we have seen, the cosmos is a source of universal pain, from which all major Indian philosophies want to liberate the human, by showing him, that the true self is not part of the cosmos. The soteriological practices defer between different Indian traditions - for example Jainadharma is pretty much outspokenly directing you directly to end your life15, whereas a Yogin is still alive, when he gets reunited with that primordial self16.
Nonetheless for all those Indian traditions the aim is to untie oneself from the cosmos, doing your part of undoing or removing the cosmos, that is universal pain and (re-)uniting with the real self.17 This is some clear act of transcendence and is also identified by Mircea Eliade as such18.
So - to conclude this very quick argumentation - to me it seems unjustified, that Indian thought is labeled as a philosophy or theology of immanence. To some extent it might be true to claim that Indian philosophy has always had an immanent world view - if we understand "world" as the material cosmos in which we act and think. And from this draws the fascination of Indian thought for the occidental world, that from at least Plato to Kant has not been able to understand this same world by a concept of immanence, for thought has always been something transcendent.
But although Indian thought has perhaps had an immanent world view, it seems to me that it could not really bare that world that was identified as universal pain and suffering, and therefore had to establish some transcendence to undo that horrible world.
The modern, secular occidental world seems to have developed and still is developing a concept of immanence, for which the Indian traditions have been and are a huge source of inspiration. But if we understand the mission of contemporary philosophy as developing a philosophy of immanence19, we should also see where Indian philosophy has its limits i.e. becomes transcendent.
Michel Serres points out, that within the last 70 years, modern medicine has changed the - at least occidental or, sadly, rich - world in such a way, that - for the first time for humankind - no longer pain and illness are the norm, but sanity and health.20 So, thanks to penicillin, antibiotics and all other remedies of modern medicine, we might be able to see the world as immanent but not painful. With health becoming the norm, the world might become endurable enough, to not need to establish some however natured transcendence.

Kilian Jörg, 7-9th May 2014, Vienna

1Elmar Holenstein claims that the terms "Buddhism" or "Jainism" are very Western ones that do not really do justice to the real Indian concept. The teachings of Buddha don't have anything to do with ideology, which is usually expressed with the "-ism"-ending. According to him, it is much more understood as a way, or, in Sanskrit, dharma. Consequently, he proposes to use the terms Buddhadharma instead of Buddhism, Jainadharma instead of Jainism. I believe that this is a wonderful idea to overcome some imperialism that is transported within our language and intend to follow his proposal. See: page 28 of Holenstein, Elmar: Philosophie-Atles: Orte und Wege des Denkens. Dritte Auflage. Ammann Verlag: Zürich 2004.
2compare p. 4-5 of Eliade, Mircea: Yoga - Unsterblichkeit und Freiheit. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt / Main 1985.
3compare p. 53 of Eliade, Mircea: Yoga - Unsterblichkeit und Freiheit. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt / Main 1985.
4compare p. 115 of Renfrew, Colin: Prehistory - the making of the human mind. Phoenix: London 2008.
5compare p. 29 of Eliade, Mircea: Yoga - Unsterblichkeit und Freiheit. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt / Main 1985.
6p. 261 of Edgerton, Franklin: The Beginning of Indian Philosophy - selections from the Rig Veda, Atharva Veda, Upanishads and Mahabharata. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA 1965.
8compare p. 30 of Eliade, Mircea: Yoga - Unsterblichkeit und Freiheit. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt / Main 1985.
9compare p. 19 of Eliade, Mircea: Yoga - Unsterblichkeit und Freiheit. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt / Main 1985.
10compare p. 29 of Eliade, Mircea: Yoga - Unsterblichkeit und Freiheit. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt / Main 1985.
11p. 28 of Bronkhorst, Johannes: Greater Magadha - Studies in the Culture of Early India. Brill: Leiden, Boston 2007.
12p. 30 & 37 of Bronkhorst, Johannes: Greater Magadha - Studies in the Culture of Early India. Brill: Leiden, Boston 2007.
13p. 48 of Bronkhorst, Johannes: Greater Magadha - Studies in the Culture of Early India. Brill: Leiden, Boston 2007.
14compare p. 23 of Eliade, Mircea: Yoga - Unsterblichkeit und Freiheit. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt / Main 1985.
15p. 23 of Bronkhorst, Johannes: Greater Magadha - Studies in the Culture of Early India. Brill: Leiden, Boston 2007.
16compare p. 103-4 of Eliade, Mircea: Yoga - Unsterblichkeit und Freiheit. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt / Main 1985.
17compare p. 50 of Eliade, Mircea: Yoga - Unsterblichkeit und Freiheit. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt / Main 1985.
18compare p. 107 of Eliade, Mircea: Yoga - Unsterblichkeit und Freiheit. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt / Main 1985.
19which is of course highly debatable, but at least how I - mostly - read Deleuze and similar authors.
20p. 16-8 of Serres, Michel: temps de crises. Éditions Le Pommier: Paris 2009.

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