Saturday, March 2, 2019

The False Synthesis of Hinduism

Besides its great age, what distinguishes Hinduism is its inclusivity by way of its systematic, comprehensive approach to the question of how best to live. Rather than being narrow-minded or dogmatic, the Hindu has multiple spiritual paths available, each of which finds its proper place in the sprawling edifice of religious and philosophical thinking from ancient India. In pop cultural form, you find the New Age writer and speaker Deepak Chopra, for example, tackling spiritual questions like a businessman or a politician, with a 12-point plan, appealing to various stages and hierarchies and principles. That approach derives from Hindu scriptures, according to which there are, for example, the four purusarthas or main goals in life: ethical action (dharma), wealth, pleasure, and liberation or spiritual release (moksha). Likewise, there are four ashramas or stages of life: student, householder, retirement, and renunciation. Of course, there are also the varnas, the proper social classes, as well as a god for every occasion, in the Hindu pantheon. No part of life is left out of the Hindu analysis.

What can seem like its greatest strength and sign of maturity, however, namely this eclectic, practical approach to life may instead be a profound weakness.

Historically, what scholars call “the Hindu synthesis” was meant to reconcile the ancient Vedic scriptures and principles with the Sramana or renouncer religions, among other Indian cultures and traditions. In the Vedic period of Indian history, dating from around 1,500–500 BCE, Indo-Aryans fled from the demise of the Indus-valley civilization, which had flourished for over a thousand years in the Bronze Age in South Asia, and migrated to the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent. The Vedic culture was priestly, ritualistic and hierarchical, and developed into Brahmanic orthodoxy.

Key Hindu concepts such as dharma and karma derive from the Vedic ideas of satya and rta (rita), of the underlying, absolute order of all things, and of the natural process of organizing everything to be in line with that order. These two foundational concepts are found in numerous ancient religions and philosophies. In Greece, the similar concepts are telos and logos, inherent purpose and rational organization. In Confucianism, there’s li, a system of ritual norms that establishes harmony with the laws of Heaven, while in Taoism there are tao, and te, the proper flow or way of nature, and how an individual cultivates and expresses that flow. All such teleological concepts hearken back to animistic prehistory, when there was likely no rigid distinction drawn between subject and object, when the human experience was childlike and magical on account of the intuitiveness of the animists’ free-flowing anthropocentrism and of their projection of social categories onto nature.

Vedic culture faded during the Second urbanization, between 600-200 BCE when a reform movement gained prominence in Magadha, in the Central Ganges Plain. These reformers were the Sramana, the ascetics who rejected Brahmin political authority as well as the spiritual authority of the Vedic texts such as the Rigveda. Jainism and Buddhism grew out of this independent religious and philosophical counterculture in ancient India. Whereas Vedic religious concepts were liable to be political, since they had to regulate a social order, the ascetics (rather like the Gnostics) put individual spiritual liberation ahead of all other undertakings. Ascetics who renounced wealth and pleasure, politics and violence were omegas (last in the social hierarchy) and social outsiders. Their commitment to spiritual enlightenment must have provided for a devastating juxtaposition with the ulterior motives of the Brahmins, whose scriptures and rituals could have seemed like so many convenient rationalizations of a corruptible, arbitrary political regime.

The Hindu synthesis began with the Second urbanization, when Vedic concepts were combined with philosophies and practices of asceticism. This synthesis continued into the Classical period of Indian history, from 200 BCE to 1,100 CE. The abstract Upanishads as well as the more concrete epics and dialogues such as the Bhagavad Gita were compiled throughout this time of engagement with the Sramana. These Hindu scriptures consolidated and harmonized the various Indian traditions. The Upanishads are philosophical texts which Hindus take to have discovered the highest purpose of the Vedas, that being to establish some proper relationship between ultimate self and reality, Atman and Brahman. The Bhagavad Gita deals explicitly with how such philosophical concepts apply to real life, such as to politics and even to warfare. In the dialogue, Prince Arjuna suspects that war is immoral because violence is contrary to spiritual ideals. He asks the avatar Krishna whether he should become an ascetic and renounce worldly concerns. Krishna counsels him instead to pursue the middle path of fulfilling his warrior’s “duty to uphold Dharma” through “selfless action.” There are, says Krishna, at least three paths to spirituality, those of knowledge, theistic devotion, and right action.   

The Anti-Natural Outsiders of Jainism

Here we see the essence of Hinduism, the medium being the message. Instead of an either/or choice between conventional society and a radical antisocial perspective, for example, the Hindu affirms both this and that. Everything is reconciled in a system of hierarchies and enumerations, since everything is divine as part of an underlying spiritual order. The problem is that human-friendly social conventions aren’t reconcilable with the assumptions of ascetic renunciation. The one affirms what the other denies. Take, for example, the Vedic teleology that would justify the Hindu’s elaboration of stages and hierarchies and levels of development. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica,
Rita is the physical order of the universe, the order of the sacrifice, and the moral law of the world. Because of rita, the sun and moon pursue their daily journeys across the sky, and the seasons proceed in regular movement. Vedic religion features the belief that rita was guarded by Varuna, the god-sovereign, who was assisted by Mitra, the god of honour, and that the proper performance of sacrifices to the gods was necessary to guarantee its continuance. Violation (anrita) of the established order by incorrect or improper behaviour, even if unintentional, constituted sin and required careful expiation.
Wikipedia lays out the etymology: “Avestan aša and its Vedic equivalent ṛtá both derive from Proto-Indo-Iranian *ṛtá- "truth", which in turn continues Proto-Indo-European *h2r-to- "properly joined, right, true", from the root *h2ar.” Citing Mary Boyce, the article goes on to explain the meaning of these equivalent terms:
Aša "cannot be precisely rendered by some single word in another tongue" but may be summarized as follows: It is, first of all, 'true statement'. This 'true statement', because it is true, corresponds to an objective, material reality that embraces all of existence. Recognized in it is a great cosmic principle since all things happen according to it. "This cosmic [...] force is imbued also with morality, as verbal Truth, 'la parole conforme', and Righteousness, action conforming with the moral order."
Thus, the Sanskrit concept of rita conflates objective with evaluated regularities. The context in which the word is used may dictate which sense of the word should come to the fore, but the other main sense—the physical order or truth of the universe or the moral law of the world—would be connoted as subtext in either case. Otherwise Vedic society wouldn’t have organized itself with rituals and sacrifices to preserve rita, the apparent patterns in nature. In other words, the Vedic religion takes natural processes to be filled with inherent purpose and value.

Now in Jainism, to take an example of a renouncer religion, there’s an opposition between mind and matter, since for Jains a perfect soul or god, being immaterial, couldn’t create or influence a material reality. As in Gnosticism and Platonism, souls are trapped in nature, but Jains maintain that the manifested soul (jiva) is encrusted with karmic substance, with subtle matter such as the body’s instincts and appetites that blind the soul to fundamental truths. Thus, far from wanting to harmonize with the cosmic order, as in the Vedic religion, Jains imply we’re at war with that order. For Jains, our goal should be the elimination of karmic bondage through ascetic renunciation, to liberate ourselves from samsara, from the cycle of reincarnation. That’s the inherent goal of an uncorrupted mind, and notice that the seeking of moksha or nirvana is unnatural: the highest task is freedom from the natural order, not the establishing of a rapport between nature and a supernatural, absolute or preexistent order. The vow of ahimsa (nonviolence) doesn't imply love of nature, of that which shouldn't be harmed, so much as a desire to prove the clear-eyed soul's superiority to nature or at least its lack of belonging in nature, which is why Jain cosmology contends that siddhas (liberated souls that have shed their karmas and mortal bodies) reside in Siddhashila, a place at the apex of the universe.

Jains, Buddhists, and ascetic outsiders generally are more naturalistic and self-interested than Hindus because the renouncers believe the human predicament is dire: there’s no divine salvation except in so far as our potential to free ourselves through philosophical revelation and withdrawal from social and natural distractions is godlike. We should liberate ourselves only because the inner strengths of rational, conscious beings are worth perfecting and protecting from the corruptions of what the neo-animistic Vedic religion reveres as rita (and from what Hindus would come to revere as dharma, as the actions that make life and the universe possible). In so far as it follows Vedic principles (and the initial animistic compulsion), Hinduism commits the naturalistic fallacy of taking factual regularities to be automatically proper. Meanwhile, being victimized by nature and society, ascetic outsiders are more likely to demonize those regularities or to regard them as amoral, as in a cosmicist vision of life’s absurdity. In short, Hinduism isn’t anti-natural, whereas the sramanic traditions are so. Of course, the Hindu synthesis includes moksha as a valid goal, but no sooner has a Hindu chosen to renounce worldly pursuits than she’s set herself in opposition to the natural and social orders. She’s then opposed even to the genetic programming of her body which strains to improve her standing in the social hierarchy and which drives her to sexually reproduce. The Hindu union of Vedic principles and ascetic renunciation is just nominal.

Cosmicist Buddhism and the Reality of "Illusions"

Or take the Buddhist’s functionally-cosmicist conviction that there’s no self at all and thus no justification for anthropocentric projections of propriety across all of nature. If in reality—as opposed to the world of illusory, misleading appearances which beguile the unenlightened—there’s no self or divine Atman, but just a field of interdependent processes, there’s no ultimate plan in the world; instead, there’s just the potential for change, as one process ends and another begins. If you want to end your suffering, based on an uncompromising vision of the nature of reality, you’ll abandon the foolish societal pastimes that generate more and more cravings that can never be satisfied. If instead you want wealth, power, or pleasure, that’s because you’re misled by a false, selfish view of the world, and you’ll suffer as a consequence. Ascetics want to be released from the collective daydream that binds conventional society, and they achieve that goal not by balancing various concerns in the inclusive Hindu manner, getting around to every option in turn, but by abandoning social commitments altogether.

Whereas the Hindu specializes in compromise, to the point of allegedly including in her worldview even the basis for ascetic renunciation of social pursuits, the ascetic herself comes to believe that compromise is always erroneous. There are two kinds of ascetic, the voluntary and the involuntary. The former gives up social goods, perhaps because she’s had her fill of them and eventually finds them empty, whereas the latter has likely always lost out in competition for wealth, love, or fame and so renounces the competition out of either bitterness or coerced enlightenment, that is, out of an objective sense, following from her abandonment by others, that their mass, urban society is the sick, deluded place.    

To be sure, Buddhists don’t think of their way of life as cosmicist in the Lovecraftian sense or as based on an acknowledgement that natural reality is horrific. But this is clearly an implication of all forms of ascetic renunciation and of omega-style rebellion. True, the ascetic’s aim isn’t to affirm horror but to find inner peace, and she does this by learning to ignore (or merely to observe rather than to grow attached to) the egoistic part of her mind that’s the source of her fear and of other forms of suffering. But as a matter of philosophical fact, the ascetic’s worldview is horrific. For instance, amorality is a consequence of denying intelligent design in metaphysics, and so the Buddhist has no business saying that our highest goal is to eliminate suffering. All the Buddhist can consistently speak of is the instrumental effectiveness of her plan of action for ending suffering, should you happen to want to achieve that goal.

Notice, then, that in summarizing some implications of asceticism above, I assumed that the rejection of worldly goods is supposed to be based on an enlightened understanding of the nature of reality. But contrary to conventional Buddhism, it’s not self-evident that if you understand that all that exists is the universe of things that interdependently arise, you’ll want to end your suffering because you’ll see that attempting to satisfy your egoistic desires is futile. If there’s no self and thus no God, there’s no overwhelming reason to value inner peace as being better than delusional egocentricity or than the frustration of being unable to fulfill a craving. Values in addition to cravings must be illusory (maya) along with the personal self, according to the Buddhist’s view of reality. And that’s the core of cosmicism: all human concerns count for nothing in the field of universal becoming, in the give and take of intergalactic happenings that have no independent substance or essential core. Hence the horror and the ascetic’s need for inner peace: to forestall the horror of the amoral, posthuman vision of the world-without-us, that is, of the world in which we as personal selves have never really been.

The Buddhist formulation of renunciation, however, should be laid aside, because the Buddhist notion of illusion is itself misleading. So-called illusions are real enough as constructs of forces and emergent processes; illusions are just constructs we tend to forget are such, as we reify them or grow attached to them. The personal self is as real as the sun. What the Buddhist is entitled to say, then, on her naturalistic view of causality is that neither the self nor the sun is everlasting or immutable. That much does away with theistic dogmas, which is fine. But the self or the sun would be illusory in the sense of being unreal only if reality had to be permanent and eternal, as Plato and theists assume. That’s not the most useful concept of reality; instead, we should distinguish reality from fiction. Thus, the (mortal) personal self and the sun are real, and what’s illusory or unreal is precisely the fiction corresponding to the theistic dogma that the human soul is immaterial and eternal. We’re misled into conceiving of the self as immortal, because consciousness is strange and we can’t perceive ourselves the way we perceive the outer world.

In any case, once we realize that the mind, ego, or personal self is as real as anything that naturally comes to exist, we’re faced with a terrifying choice of what to ignore and what to value, given that there’s no objectively correct decision. Should we ignore the burdensome part of our all-too real self? Should we denounce manipulative social expectations? Or should we even turn our back on natural reality and retreat to a collective daydream, assuming we want to end our suffering like Cypher from The Matrix? There’s no guarantee that a Buddhist is happier than a sheep or than a blissfully ignorant ideologue trapped in an echo chamber. So this is the horror that Buddhism entails, regardless of how Buddhists prefer to interpret their way of life: the choice of what to do with naturalistic philosophy is largely arbitrary, not to mention properly amoral and thus potentially hazardous to society. For the most part, Buddhists do renunciation credit by living peacefully with their enlightened outlook, but their naturalistic assumptions could lead just as easily to pseudo-Nietzschean rule of the ultra-egotist, of the maniac who doubles down on egocentricity and even on suffering, because she happens to prefer the reality of egotism to the possibility of selflessness. Again, what the Buddhist shows is that the theistic concept of the self is false and thus that there are no universal, prehuman (or pre-organic), God-given values or commandments. None of that entails that we should prefer inner peace (via shutting down part of our mind) to selfish craving (via building up mental constructs and inner walls, which are as real as the sun, albeit not eternal).

The False Synthesis

Let’s posit only the generic voluntary or involuntary omega (whom urban society would call a loser). This ascetic renouncer could have been repulsed by Vedic culture for numerous reasons besides those that distinguish Jainism or Buddhism. However the renouncer would have arrived at her lowly position, that position would have forced him or her to adopt an outsider’s perspective on Indian society, akin to the one shared by today’s artists and stand-up comedians. The Vedic rituals and sacrifices should have seemed absurd, therefore, just as the rules of any game whatsoever are strange to an outsider who’s prevented from playing it, and just as the whole world seems ridiculous from the outsider’s (loser’s) modest vantage point. That’s why the renouncer wants to be released from the world in moksha, to be rid of the foolishness. Alas, there’s nowhere to go, no heavenly realm where everything happens for the best and makes perfect sense. So the outsider is caught in limbo as she looks on at society’s games, including at the abuses of priestly power and the vanity of pretending that some scripture is infallible, that it captures the essence of how anyone can live well in the real world. There is no good life in reality; on the contrary, the honourable way of life is lived in opposition to the impersonal, amoral wilderness, to the “desert of the real,” as the postmodern philosopher Baudrillard put it. The natural way of life, as the Daoist would have it, is the animal’s life, and animals are playthings of monstrous forces, hapless victims of circumstance, although they’re adapted to struggle to defend themselves. We godlike creatures know just enough to free ourselves from much of our biological life cycle and to create our self-serving artificial oases or to fester in the philosophical outsider’s limbo, high up on Mount Nowhere.

This, then, is what troubles me about Hinduism, however philosophically respectable this ancient religion may be compared to the effrontery of the monotheistic faithsThe Hindu synthesis is impressive as an historical development, but the synthesis falsifies our existential condition. Here we have a systematic, centuries-long cooptation of the social outsider’s radical message. The condemnation of social normality, of conventional sanity and orthodox lifestylesincluding the pursuits of wealth, sex, and religious proprietyas being absurd in light of the horror of inhuman reality, in view of the terrifying existence of a world that permits creatures to wither away, to be ostracized or to resort to renouncing worldly goods as the only noble course—the Hindu adopts this existential revolt as merely another stage in her cycle, another item in her grand theological system. In line with Kierkegaard’s repudiation of Hegel’s attempt to devise a systematic analysis of the Absolute (of the complete essence of reality), there can be no smooth transition from mass delusion to enlightenment, no mediation between conventional modes of life lived in ignorance of our existential homelessness, and the renouncer’s cosmicist, awe-driven revolt against nature’s monstrosity.


  1. I'm not even through a quarter of this article. I am inclined to continue reading it but I nevertheless need write something about it.
    In some places, it is unnecessarily vague and lacks clarity.
    See one of the early paragraphs mentioning "subtext":
    "Thus, the Sanskrit concept of rita conflates objective with evaluated regularities."
    You may understand yourself but if you want your output to be enjoyable and entice users to think deeper, you do have some serious work to do, starting perhaps with, at the very least, providing more or less detailed footnotes of specific terms and concepts thrown into the text.
    A bunch of non-sequiturs doesn't help either and other weird claims, such as "But the self and the sun would be illusory in the sense of being unreal only if reality had to be eternal"; an eternal reality does not make impossible finite real elements to live and die within said reality.

    The whole point of the article is hardly made clear either, barely hinted to in the small early paragraph in italics.

    As a hot reaction to what I read, I think I could have liked what is written, if only a serious effort had been made on the form and if some claims and ideas had either be clarified to rejected with a few more minutes spent thinking about them.

    1. Thanks for your suggestions. I've added a few clarifications to the text. The articles I've written for my blog aren't polished or academic, in that I don't devote much time to editing them, so there are bound to be parts that could be made clearer. Instead of footnotes, I include links to other articles that go into more detail or that explain some technical terms I use.

      Still, if you're looking for "enjoyable" reading, I'm not sure you should be reading philosophy.

      The point about "objective and evaluated regularities" alludes to animism and the naturalistic fallacy, which I talk about elsewhere in the article. The point is that nature in the Vedic religion is teleological, as it was for Aristotle. They didn't view natural processes objectively, but projected value and purpose onto them.

      The point about reality and illusion is that the Buddhist mistakes impermanence for illusion or unreality. Something can be real but lack an independent, permanent inner essence. Reality should be distinguished from explicit fiction, not from temporary or dependent natural constructs such as the self or the sun.

      The point of the article should become clear by the end (see, for example, the last paragraph). The Hindu synthesis is false in that the ascetic's anti-social and anti-natural (implicitly cosmicist) message contradicts Vedic teleology and acceptance of natural and social norms.

      Not sure how crucial "a few more minutes" of thinking would be, considering the decade I spent writing this blog and the other decade I spent studying philosophy in university.

  2. Long wandering rant! Why can you not say whatever you want to say in plain English? Why do you have to construct complex sentence structure to seemingly show yourself to be knowledgeable, to only obfuscate your message? I have myself studied the ancient texts of India, and lost patience reading a third through.

    1. Are you sure you shouldn't be working to improve your abilities rather than deeming yourself already elite enough to try to tear things down? If the English is too complex for you, maybe you should improve your reading comprehension in English, before telling a highly-educated, native English-speaker how to write?

      But all you have to do to get the gist of the article is focus on the sentences I emphasize with italics and the bold font. So here's a quotation of the main point: "In so far as it follows Vedic principles (and the initial animistic compulsion), Hinduism commits the naturalistic fallacy of taking factual regularities to be automatically proper. Meanwhile, being victimized by nature and society, ascetic outsiders are more likely to demonize those regularities or to regard them as amoral, as in a cosmicist vision of life’s absurdity. In short, Hinduism isn’t anti-natural, whereas the sramanic traditions are so."

      Here's another: "Ascetics want to be released from the collective daydream that binds conventional society, and they achieve that goal not by balancing various concerns in the inclusive Hindu manner, getting around to every option in turn, but by abandoning social commitments altogether."

      In short, I'm saying Hindu eclecticism and inclusiveness went a bridge too far in trying to incorporate the ideas of the anti-worldly ascetics.