How superficial is Pollock! How deep is Indian Civilization!

We are dividing this article in to two parts.

The first part deals with the ideas/  ideology/ philosophy of Sheldon Pollock, which is penned by Divya Jhingran.

The second part deals with the exposition of Indian Civilization, which is in the words of Sri Aurobindo.

PART ONE:         By: Divya Jhingran

Sheldon Pollock proclaims that “the characters of the ‘Ramayana’  believe themselves to be denied all freedom of choice; … and consequently can exercise no control.” He laments the dire consequences our epics have had on our civilization and wants to set things right by liberating us Hindus from our fatalistic beliefs. If only we could see things through his lens we too would understand that we have free will and can exercise our agency. This attitude betrays a dismal lack of understanding about the very essence of our culture and traditions. As we would say back home, “after listening to the entire Ramayana, he doesn’t even know who Rama is!”

Before we get into how badly wrong Pollock is, it would be helpful to know a brief history of the idea of “free will”. Free will as a concept did not feature in the rich intellectual traditions of the pagan philosophers of Greece and Rome. Similarly, the idea of “free will” is completely alien to the Indian traditions which have always held a decidedly deterministic stance. Of course the western world uses the derogatory term “fatalistic” instead of “deterministic” when speaking of the Indians, but let’s overlook that for now. One thing we do know is that the Indian philosophers excelled in their understanding of human psychology and spoke at length about a variety of mental states. They broadly categorized manas, buddhi, and chitta along with other more nuanced mental states and mental processes. Nowhere did they identify anything such as “free will”. Instead they came to the conclusion that we are not the agents of our actions and that the idea of agency is an illusion.

So why is Pollock so confident that free will exists? Whatever his secular pretensions may be, “free will” is actually a very Christian idea. It turned up in the literature around the 4th century after the birth of Christianity. Christian doctrine tells us that God created the world and that everything that happens in this world happens in accordance with His will. This claim, and every other claim made by Christianity, is presented as a truth claim. In other words, just as it is true that water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen, it is true that the Christian God created the world and governs it. Naturally this “truth” had its consequences and soon enough gave rise to what is commonly referred to as the “problem of evil”. If God is perfect and good and if everything happens according to his will, then how can we explain the fact that there is so much evil in this world? Enter, free will. The problem of evil was conveniently explained by the fact that God gave human beings the freedom to choose between good and evil. Because human beings are sinners they often choose to do evil. Therefore, even though God is perfect, there is evil in the world because of our God-given free choice. This explanation about the world is absolutely crucial to Christianity otherwise their doctrine of a perfect God falls apart. This Christian idea of free will has now become so deeply entrenched in the western psyche that it is taken for granted. “Freedom” and “choice” are words frequently used in the West as if it is the most natural thing in the world to be free and to be able to choose.

However, with developments in science, with the understanding that matter and energy are interchangeable, as a challenge to the notion of mind-body duality, and with developments in cognitive science and neuro-science, some western scientists and philosophers began to question the existence of free will. The debate has been raging ever since. In the overarching folk psychology of the West and among the religious believers, the concept of free will is very much alive. However, among the scientific community it is strongly disputed, if not outright rejected.

The question to consider is this: what exactly are we free from? We are subject to the laws of physics in the same way that rocks and water and mice and dolphins are. Yes we have a subjective experience of ourselves but this “self” of ours exists only because life exists. Otherwise, we are just what the universe happens to be doing in a place called the here and now that we localize for ourselves with the pronoun “I”. We split up the world into different parts and give different names to different things. We consider our “self” as being separate from the world and believe we go around doing things independently of the “world”. But as our sages have pointed out, this split of “doer-action-deed” is just our human perspective and is our way of making sense of the world. They try and show us that this is only a superficial understanding and that the separate feeling of “I” is only an appearance but is not actually real.

The same laws that govern the world govern our bodies as well as the thoughts and feelings that we believe to be inside of us. But there is no “inside”; there is no dividing line between us and the world. So in a way we are just like puppets, without any agency, but from another perspective, these laws of the universe constitute our very selves and determine how we act and react. We have the illusion of making choices and of being agents, but our wants, preferences, and needs are determined by the way the universe is. In reality there is no individual agency that is separate from the flow of the entire universe.

This idea that “I” am not the thinker of my thoughts and that “I” am not the doer of my deeds lies at the heart and soul of Indian civilization and forms its very foundation. It permeates our folk traditions as well as our intellectual traditions and our artistic traditions, and is woven into the fabric of all the metaphors all over the place. Our sages repeatedly tell us that the idea of subject-object-verb is an illusion and that the only way to lasting happiness is to understand this fact. Our traditions provide us with many ways and means to help us come to this realization. One of these ways is through the stories told in our itihasa and puranas.  Our stories of Arjun and Rama, of monkeys and jackals, of sages and fools, convey these same ideas and have the same power to lead to enlightenment as does the chanting of Vedic mantras or the pursuit of logic.

However, this does not mean that once the sages had this realization they expected everyone in the world to stop in their tracks and give up on the world because we had no agency anyway, so why bother. They understood that such knowledge dawns at its own pace and that it is the human condition to live with some illusions about the nature of the self. So our traditions also teach us how to live in the world, in society and in communities and within families. The very same stories and rituals that help us in overcoming worldly illusions also teach us about living in the world since we are an integral part of the leela. What Sheldon Pollock fails to notice is that Rama was educated to live in the world, he was educated to govern, and he was trained for battle. He was taught the right manners and nurtured with the right attitudes towards the world and towards his family. And when the time came to go to war he did not just sit back and let the universe take its course. He consulted with his ministers, he strategized and planned, coaxed and pleaded, connived and cajoled and did everything it took, and in the end, after all this effort, he won the war.

Not only does Pollock suffer from a severe disconnect with the Indian traditions that he has been superficially immersed in for decades, he also betrays a lack of understanding of modern science. He seems not to have the capacity to distinguish a Christian idea from a scientific one. His beliefs about agency and free will belong somewhere in seventeenth century Europe. Oblivious of this, and armed with his “theories” he is trying to force-fit the presuppositions and prejudices of his own religion and culture on to our traditions, while claiming all the while how secular he is. There would be no problem if Pollock named his project “The Biblical Interpretation of the Ramayana”. But that is not what he is doing. The Indian intellectual traditions have a lot to offer to the world. If all Pollock can do is reproduce Biblical themes or Marxian theories it simply defeats the purpose.

PART TWO:                By: Shreepal Singh

Sri Aurobindo, the great sage, writing in the dominant materialist age, says with a strikingly penetrating depth of mental inquiry:  “By that hunger mysticism profits and new religions arise to replace the old that have been destroyed or stripped of significance by skepticism which itself could not satisfy because, although its business was inquiry, it was unwilling sufficiently to inquire. In the corollary of things we are dealing here, the most profound question that has ever been asked and will ever be asked is who, why and when initiated this universal evolution? And, mind’s Inquisitiveness logically further asks how the universe stood before this initiation?

  “Answers to these questions are the most sacred secrets of Nature.

  “We speak of the evolution of Life in Matter, the evolution of Mind in Matter; but evolution is a word, which merely states the phenomenon without explaining it. For there seems to be no reason why Life should evolve out of material elements or Mind out of living form, unless we accept the Vedantic solution that Life is already involved in Matter and Mind in Life because in essence Matter is a form of veiled Life, Life a form of veiled Consciousness.

  “And then there seems to be little objection to a farther step in the series and the admission that mental consciousness may itself be only a form and a veil of higher states which are beyond Mind. In that case, the unconquerable impulse of man towards God, Light, Bliss, Freedom, Immortality presents itself in its right place in the chain as simply the imperative impulse by which Nature is seeking to evolve beyond Mind, and appears to be as natural, true and just as the impulse towards Life which she has planted in certain forms of Matter or the impulse towards Mind which she has planted in certain forms of Life. As there, so here, the impulse exists more or less obscurely in her different vessels with an ever-ascending series in the power of its will-to-be; as there, so here, it is gradually evolving and bound fully to evolve the necessary organs and faculties.”

Sri Aurobindo says: “The average human being even now is in his inward existence as crude and undeveloped as was the bygone primitive man in his outward life. But as soon as we go deep within ourselves, – and Yoga means a plunge into all the multiple profundities of the soul. – we find ourselves subjectively… surrounded by a whole complex world which we have to know and to conquer.

  “The most disconcerting discovery is to find that every part of us – intellect, will, sense-mind, nervous or desire-self, the heart, the body – has each, as it were, its own complex individuality and natural formation independent of the rest; it neither agrees with itself nor with the others nor with the representative ego which is the shadow cast by some central and centralizing self on our superficial ignorance.

  “We find that we are composed not of one but many personalities and each has its own demands and differing nature. … We find that inwardly too, no less than outwardly, we are not alone in the world; the sharp separateness of our ego was no more than a strong imposition and delusion; we do not exist in ourselves, we do not really live apart in an inner privacy or solitude. Our mind is a receiving, developing and modifying machine into which there is being constantly passed from moment to moment a ceaseless foreign flux, a streaming mass of disparate materials from above, from below, from outside.

  “Much more than half our thoughts and feelings are not our own in the sense that they take form out of ourselves; of hardly anything can it be said this is truly original to our nature. A large part comes to us from others or from the environment, whether as raw material or as manufactured imports; but still more largely they come from universal Nature here or from other worlds and planes and their beings and powers and influences; for we are overtopped and environed by other planes of consciousness, mind planes, life planes, subtle matter planes, from which our life and action here are fed, or fed on, pressed, dominated, made use of for the manifestation of their forms and forces.”

In one of his numerous letters to his disciples written in answer to their queries, Sri Aurobindo says:   “I mean by the psychic the inmost soul-being and the soul-nature. This is not the sense in which the word is used in ordinary parlance, or rather, if it is so used, it is with great vagueness and much-misprision of the true nature of this soul and it is given a wide extension of meaning which carries it far beyond that province. All phenomena of an abnormal or supernormal psychological or an occult character are dubbed psychic…  though these things have nothing whatever to do with the psychic….. There is a constant confusion between the mentalised desire-soul which is a creation of the vital urge in man, of his life-force seeking for its fulfillment and the true soul which is a spark of the Divine Fire, a portion of the Divine. Because the soul, the psychic being uses the mind and the vital as well as the body as instruments for growth and experience, it is itself looked at as if it were some amalgam or some subtle substratum of mind and life. But in Yoga if we accept all this chaotic mass as soul-stuff or soul-movement we shall enter into confusion without an issue.”

  He says in another of his letters:   “What is meant in the terminology of the yoga by the psychic is the soul element in the nature, the pure psyche or divine nucleus which stands behind mind, life and body (it is not the ego) but of which we are only dimly aware. It is a portion of the divine and permanent from life to life, taking the experience of life through its outer instruments (i.e. mind, vital and physical body).

  “People do not understand what I mean by the psychic being, because the word psychic has been used in English to mean anything of the inner mental, inner vital or inner physical or anything abnormal or occult or even the more subtle movements of the outer being, all in a jumble; also occult phenomena are often called psychic.

  “The distinction between these parts of the being is unknown. Even in India the old knowledge of the Upanishads in which they are distinguished has been lost. The Jivatman, the psychic being (Purusha Antaratman), the Manomaya Purusha, the Pranmaya Purusha are all confused together.

  “The psychic part of us is something that comes direct from the Divine and is in touch with the Divine. In its origin it is the nucleus pregnant with the divine possibilities that supports this lower triple manifestation of mind, life and body.

  “There is this divine element in all living beings, but it stands hidden behind the ordinary consciousness, is not at first developed and, even when developed, is not always or often in the front; it expresses itself, so far as the imperfection of the instruments allows, by their mean and under their limitations. It grows in the consciousness by Godward experience, gaining strength every time there is a higher movement in us, and, finally, by the accumulation of these deeper and higher movements, there is developed a psychic individuality, – that which we call usually the psychic being. It is always this psychic being that is the real, though often the secret cause of man’s turning to the spiritual life and his greatest help in it. It is therefore that which we have to bring from behind to the front in the Yoga…..

  “The psychic being may be described in Indian language as the Purusha in the heart or the Chaitya Purusha, but the inner or secret heart must be understood, hrdaye  guhayam, not the outer vital-emotional centre.”

  The Mother in answer to the question:   “Are the soul and the psychic being one and the same thing” says thus: “This depends on the definition you give to the words. In most religions, and perhaps in most philosophies also, it is the vital being which is called “soul”, for it is said that “the soul leaves the body”, while it is the vital being which leaves the body. One speaks of “saving the soul”… but all that applies to the vital being, for the psychic being has no need to be saved! It does not share the faults of the external person; it is free from all reaction.”

  Sri Aurobindo says:   “At a certain stage in the Yoga when the mind is sufficiently quieted and no longer supports itself at every step on the sufficiency of its mental certitude, when the vital has been steadied and subdued and is no longer constantly insistent on its own rash will, demand and desire, when the physical has been sufficiently altered not to bury altogether the inner flame under the mass of its outward ness, obscurity or inertia, an inmost being hidden within and felt only in its rare influences is able to come forward and illumine the rest and take up the lead of the Sadhana Its action is like a searchlight showing up all that has to be changed in the nature; it has in it a flame of will insistent on perfection, on an alchemic transmutation of all the inner and outer existence. It sees the divine essence everywhere but rejects the mere mask and the disguising figure.”

  He further says: “What is meant by (the psychic’s) coming to the front is simply this. The psychic ordinarily is deep within. Very few people are aware of their souls – when they speak of their soul, they usually mean the vital + mental being or else the (false) soul of desire.

  “The psychic remains behind and acts only through the mind, vital and physical wherever it can. For this reason the psychic being except where it is very much developed has only a small and partial, concealed and mixed or diluted influence on the life of most men. By coming forward is meant that it comes from behind the veil, its presence is felt already in the waking daily consciousness, its influence fills, dominates, transforms the mind and vital and their movements, even the physical. One is aware of one’s soul, feels the psychic to be one’s true being, the mind and the rest begin to be only instruments of the inmost within us.”

  The Mother says:  “In the ordinary life there’s not one person in a million who has a conscious contact with his psychic being, even momentarily. The psychic being may work within, but so invisibly and unconsciously for the outer being that it is as though it did not exist. And in most cases, the immense majority, almost the totality of cases, it is as though it were asleep. Not at all active, (it is) in a kind of torpor.

  “It is only with the sadhana and a very persistent effort that one succeeds in having a conscious contact with his psychic being. Naturally, it is possible that there are exceptional cases – but this is truly exceptional, and they are so few that they could be counted – where the psychic being is an entirely formed, liberated being, master of itself, which has chosen to return to earth in a human body in order to do its work. …

  “In almost, almost all cases, a very sustained effort is needed to become aware of one’s psychic being. Usually it is considered that if one can do it in thirty years one is very lucky – thirty years of sustained effort, I say. It may happen that it’s quicker. But this is so rare that immediately one says, “This is not an ordinary human being”. That is the case of people who have been considered more or less divine beings and who were great yogis, great initiates.”

  Says Sri Aurobindo:“All Yoga is in its nature a new birth; it is a birth out of the ordinary, the mentalised material life of man a higher spiritual consciousness and a greater and diviner being.

  “No Yoga can be successfully undertaken and followed unless there is a strong awakening to the necessity of that larger spiritual existence….(T) here must be a decision of the mind and the will and, as its result, a complete and effective self-consecration.

 “The mere idea or intellectual seeking of something higher beyond, however strongly grasped by the mind’s interest, is ineffective unless it is seized on by the heart as the one thing desirable and by the will as the one thing to be done.

  “He who seeks the Divine must consecrate himself to God and to God only. The secret Teacher, the inner guide is already at work, though he may not yet manifest himself or may not yet appear in the person of his human representative…. (I)f we desire to make the most of the opportunity that this life gives us, if we wish to respond adequately to the call we have received and to attain to the goal we have glimpsed, not merely advance a little towards it, it is essential that there should be an entire self-giving. The secret of success in Yoga is to regard it not as one of the aims to be perused in life, but as the whole of life.”

  He further says:   “The first necessity is to dissolve that central faith and vision in the mind which concentrate it on its development and satisfaction and interests in the old externalized order of things. … The next need is to compel all our lower being to pay homage to this new faith and greater vision. All our nature must make an integral surrender. Our whole being – soul, mind, sense, heart, will, life, body – must consecrate all its energies so entirely and in such a way that it shall become a fit vehicle for the Divine.

  “Everything in us has constantly to be called back to the central faith and will and vision. Every thought and impulse has to be reminded… that ‘That is the divine Brahman and not this which men here adore’.

  “Every vital fiber has to be persuaded to accept an entire renunciation of all that hitherto represented to it its own existence.

  “(A seeker of spirit) has to harmonize deliberate knowledge with unquestioning faith… the passivity of the soul… has to be fused with the activity of the divine helper and the divine warrior. To him as to all seekers of the spirit there are offered for solution the oppositions of the reason, the clinging hold of the senses, the perturbations of the heart, the ambush of the desires, the clog of the physical body, but he has to deal in another fashion with their mutual and internal conflicts and their hindrance to his aim… “

  Sri Aurobindo says: “There must be a flaming concentration of the heart on the All and Eternal and, when once we have found him, a deep plunging and immersion in the possession and ecstasy of the All-Beautiful.

  “But on that which as yet we know not how shall we concentrate? And yet we cannot know the Divine unless we have achieved this concentration of our being upon him. It is not enough to devote ourselves by the reading of Scriptures or by the stress of philosophical reasoning to an intellectual understanding of the Divine; for at the end of our long mental labor we might know all that has been said of the Eternal, possess all that can be thought about the Infinite and yet we might not know him at all. . . All that the Light from above asks of us that it may begin its work is a call from the soul and a sufficient point of support in the mind. .. The idea may be and must in the beginning be inadequate; the aspiration may be narrow and imperfect, the faith poorly illumined or  even, as not surely founded on the rock of knowledge, fluctuating, uncertain, diminished; often even it may be extinguished and need to be lit again with difficulty like a torch in a windy pass. But if once there is a resolute self consecration from deep within, if there is an awakening to the soul’s call, these inadequate things can be a sufficient instrument for the divine purpose.

  “Therefore the wise have always been unwilling to limit man’s avenues towards God; they would not shut against his entry even the narrowest portal, the lowest and darkest postern, the humblest wicket-gate. Any name, any form, any symbol, any offering has been held to be sufficient if there is the consecration along with it; for the Divine knows himself in the heart of the seeker and accepts the sacrifice.”


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  1. Trackback: How superficial is Pollock! How deep is Indian Civilization! | Indian People's Congress

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