Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Jeyamohan's Discourses on Gita and Shankara: Part Scholarship, Part Propaganda and Some Demagoguery

"There are Gita exponents who can expound on the text better than me but listening to them for 10 days will not prepare a listener to answer one simple question from a Communist". With those words Jeyamohan set the stage for his 4 day discourse on the Bhagavad Gita. His address, he said, was  not a mere expounding of an ancient text with blind worshipfulness but one which sets the text within with a socio-cultural and literary context to answer questions like "Gita encourages casteism" and "why should we learn a text that is an exhortation for killing". Jeyamohan faces down a strange triptych composed of those who venerate a text, those who vilify it for narrow partisan purposes and those who equally promote it for for narrow partisan purposes.

Locate and understand Gita within a historical context is the crux of the first lecture. In India history and folk lore jostle for attention and while both have their place in a cultural milieu one should separate the understandings derived from them. In another lecture he quotes that "there is no text, only context" (Barth / Derrida?) Krishna teaches that a person must do the duty of the varna that the person was born into. That line is the most cited one by critics to discredit Gita as the fountainhead of India's most notorious and most perpetuated iniquity. Yet, as Jeyamohan, points out that 'classification' of a populace was common place in civilizations around the world at that time. And, in the tradition of every Indian historian, Jeyamohan draws attention to a crucial distinction that varna and jati (caste) are not interchangeable terms. Drawing upon recent scholarship Jeyamohan dates the Gita circa 300 BCE.

Speaking on historicity Jeyamohan makes, in the passing, an important and rather very courageous exhortation. Not many realize that the famous 'commentaries' of Gita by Shankara, Ramanuja and Madhavacharya are not mere explanatory notes of an abstruse philosophical text. The 'commentaries' were written by each author drawing upon then existing explanations and then presenting their own philosophies in a systematic logical manner. That implies the famous and revered commentators have learned existing philosophies and created their own edifices within paradigms that were not flights of fancy but patient rational constructs. Jeyamohan underscores that the commentators wrote their commentaries based on their learning of the highest philosophies of the time especially Buddhism. Then he places, what I consider, a very courageous exhortation, by asking that a modern interpretation should likewise be based on today's philosophical peaks that including European and American philosophies. This would be sacrilege in the eyes of many and  partly explains why some of his usual friends pretended that a landmark discourse like this was a non-event.

Gita was indeed an interpolation into the Mahabharata. Given his deep understanding of India's philosophies and literary criticism acumen Jeyamohan beautifully explains that being an interpolation into an epic need not be a reason to look down on the text, then he situates the text based on linguistic styles and philosophic context. He points out importantly that Gita could be considered as written in the era after Buddhist nyaya-sastra was written. In another courageous moment he presents Krishna as not necessarily as an reincarnation but a chieftain the Platonic mould of a philosopher-king, much like Solomon of the Bible. Social historians have written about how Krishna cult was an evolution of later years. It does take a leap of imagination for most Indians to understand that Krishna could be a chieftain who was educated in the philosophical traditions and thus poised to play the teacher. It'd not be an exaggeration to say that this is not how Gita is spoken of commonly. Jeyamohan brings passionate knowledge and yet a modern understanding for an ancient text. 

The second lecture on Gita, in the lines of Richard Davis's 'Bhagavad Gita: A biography', focuses on the ebb and flow of how the text, now revered almost akin to an idol, was resurrected by Charles Wilkins's translation and achieves latter day popularity. Before Wilkins Gita has been commented upon, expounded over the centuries until it slowly faded from memory. Jeyamohan insists that Gita is not a canonical text for a religion like the Bible is and therefore open to interpretations mirroring the philosophical mores of the time and the personalities of the commentators. He explains how Gita draws upon the six systems of Indian philosophies and progresses as a philosophical text. This is an important focus. Again, this shows a society where philosophical discourses were common place and a learning society were a traffic of ideas existed. 

The third lecture delves into an outline of Samkhya Yoga, Karma Yoga and Jnana Yoga as the Gita lays them out. Of the 4 lectures this is the most dense lecture but here, from my understanding, he pretty much hews close to traditional explanations of the 3 paths. 

The fourth lectures starts meanderingly with a digression into India's ancient Gurukul system of education and then progresses on how to learn Gita with an emphasis on Guru-parampara after touching briefly on 'svadharma'. Jeyamohan places emphasis on how one 'progresses' from Karma Yogi to being a Jnana-Yogi. He opines that the converse does not happen. One can understand it simply that one progresses into wisdom and having progressed cannot regress. This does place Jnana Yoga at a higher plane compared to Karma Yoga. Listening to this I was reminded of Milton's sonnet 'On his blindness'. Milton, facing an onset of blindness, is torn apart that being blind he cannot serve the Lord with his intellect and then consoles himself in the end, with the most famous lines of any sonnet, 'they also serve who only stand and wait'. I remembered how my good English professor K.G. Seshadri, a bi-lingual scholar, would've happily discussed Milton and the author of Gita. While I was lost in those thoughts I got word that the octogenarian professor had passed away. 

The lecture on Shankara is a personal favorite of mine after the first two lectures on Gita. Those three lectures together show case Jeyamohan at his literary and philosophical best mixed with some contentious and acidic moments.

Jeyamohan brilliantly and succinctly situates Shankara in a historical context. Shankara fashions his monistic non-dualism (Advaita) even as Buddhism and Jainism were fast losing ground to Mimamsa. Buddhism had degenerated into corrupt Tantric practices. Purva Mimamsa with its emphasis on rituals and specific de-emphasis on godheads provides, in contrast to the monotheistic Buddhism and Jainism, an umbrella for various sects to unite without sacrificing their gods. This is a vital cultural development that provided a platform to unify various faiths. Mimamsa provides the scaffolding for Shankara to construct the progression into non-dualism. 

Not much is known of Shankara, circa 800CE, until Vidyaranya resurrects Advaita and along with it Shankara in the 14th century. There is, Jeyamohan underscores, a near total omission of Shankara's name for nearly 500 years in contemporary sources. In a rambling lecture Jeyamohan outlines how Hinduism responded to invasions and survived by creating diversified mutts as local entities to transmit knowledge and tradition and how Mimamsa, followed by Advaita, provided a fundamental framework for the Vijayanagara empire. Given that we know little of Shankara's life with authority the much revered mutts supposedly created by him were probably established later. Interestingly Jeyamohan omits mentioning Kanchi mutt as one established by Shankara. 

Vidyaranya, according to legend, converts two Muslim brothers back to Hinduism, Harihara and Bukka, and introduces them to Shankara's Advaita. Advaita, Jeyamohan explains, has come to us through Vidyaranya clothing it in rituals and through the mutts thus making it an easily relatable form. The price that we've paid is Advaita has degenerated into obsession over rituals. Advaita, in the hands of Vidyaranya, becomes a tool to unify disparate sects into a coherent religious entity that was translated into political entity that finally congealed into a fabled empire, the Vijayanagara empire. Like he did with Gita Jeyamohan again pleads to peel back the layers of myths and to confront Shankara as a philosopher.

When I read Davis's book on Gita and David Gordon Davis's "Patanjali's Yoga Sutra" I often checked out Jeyamohan's writings and sought clarification. While he has a well earned reputation in Tamil literature for an envious and unprecedented body of work spanning several genre what is less appreciated, especially by those who are turned off by his politics, is his knowledge of Indian philosophical traditions. A sharp literary mind and a tutelage under nationalist philosophers has uniquely prepared Jeyamohan to be an exponent of philosophy. After listening to his lecture on Shankara I bought "Shankara and Indian Philosophy" by Natalia Isayeva. The chapter on Shankara's biography is practically a transcript of Jeyamohan's lecture. It's admirable if one considers the fact that not many books are readily available on this topic and practically none threads the facts into a masterful narrative of socio-political context as Jeyamohan does. If one reads Radhakrishnan's magnum opus 2 volume 'Indian Philosophy' it is evident that Jeyamohan's lectures present a landscape that is rarely, if at all, portrayed and coherently so.

The lectures are not without some unedifying moments and questionable scholarship that are naked propaganda and some are clearly, sad to say, in the area of demagoguery. 

In an address with a specific mission to demythologize philosophy and to place it in a critical context some questionable or arguable cause and effect relationships are regrettable. Talking about how Mimamsa, with its emphasis on rituals and catholicity towards god-heads allowed various sects to come into an unifying fold all the while happily bringing along their own gods Jeyamohan contrasts it with the restrictive 'pantheon' of Buddhism and Jainism. Here Jeyamohan is straining to avoid the word 'monotheism' because in his circles that word is used to denote the parochial nature of Abrahamic religions. With a touch of jingoistic pride he opines that incoming sects were not asked to abandon their beliefs as a precondition to join the umbrella. This is questionable. The Purva Mimamsa placed an emphasis on rituals and almost atheism as a reaction to the philosophies of the time. Denial of gods and indifference to god-heads was their core philosophy which provided an unintended consequence of allowing disparate sects to unify. Unification of sects was not the aim. To present it as such is propaganda.

While Jeyamohan is welcome to explain as to why Gita has always attracted commentary writers from Shankara to Aurobindo he is wrong in presenting the Bible as a canonical text which is treated as authoritative. Also in his zeal to present Gita as a philosophical text that is open to interpretation he ties himself in knots over what is a canonical text and what is canon. Unnecessary hair splitting. He is wrong when he claims that Christianity excluded pagan beliefs. On the contrary a simple example like 'speaking in tongues', glossolalia, can be cited as continuation of pagan tradition that stretches all the way back to the Oracle of Delphi. Christianity and Islam have, more than is often recognized, taken on and assimilated local beliefs. Put simply a Tamil Christian and a Methodist in New Jersey have little in common. Anyone familiar with Biblical literature could've helped him understand the steady stream of commentaries on not just the Bible but interpretations of the commentaries themselves. Libraries can be filled with doctrinal battles over the Bible.

Amongst the critics of Indian education system are those, including my beloved author, who yearn for the idyllic era of Gurukul teaching. This is nostalgia for a utopia that is mistakenly thought of as more consonant with Indian heritage. Gurukul's were cess pools of casteism and rote learning. No gurukul could've produced Radhakrishnan or Dasgupta or Gandhi or Aurobindo. Both Dasgupta and Radhakrishnan wrote their magnum opuses under the aegis of western universities. No veda-pathsala has produced any philosopher or teacher of note. K.A.N. Sastry in his book 'Colas' says that then schools were centers of just rote learning.This is a topic for another day.

It is an article of faith amongst many, especially the stridently Hindutva crowd, that in ancient India everything was discussed and debated in a civic manner. The implied contrast is with the supposedly intolerant Abrahamic religions. "I am a jealous god" declares Yahweh. "No god but god" declares Allah. In a part that is both propaganda and demagoguery Jeyamohan blames supposed sacking of Nalanda university by Bhaktiyar Khilji as one of the water shed events that eventually caused the demise of Buddhism.

In his own earlier blog 'சங்கரப் புரட்சி' Jeyamohan ascribes the decline of Buddhism prior to the advent of Shankara to them losing their way into corrupt practices and notorious Tantric exercises thus losing their philosophical mooring.

Contrary to this sanguine imagery of gentleman debate and discussion various philosophies rose and fell by courting political patronage or losing it.The rise of Bhakti movement in the south had more to do with Jainism declining than any Islamic invasion. The conflict between Jains and the savants of Bhakti movements were anything but civil. Both sides composed verses disparaging and mocking the beliefs of the other. A Bhakti verse even called for beheading Jain worshippers. Jains, Paul Dundas narrates in detail in his book 'The Jains', had very colorful and very obscene tales of Hindu gods, particularly Siva.

A regrettable moment during the lectures is when Jeyamohan declares "but for Vijayanagara empire we would not be standing here as Hindus today". A raucous applause followed. I wondered if I was hearing one of those infamous caste rallies that are now notorious in Tamil Nadu. Dismissing what he calls the canard of Marxist historians he disputes the idea that Hinduism and Brahmin revivalism destroyed Buddhism. He contends that no religion can be so easily wiped out. But he gladly believes that Hinduism would've been wiped out but for the Vijayanagara empire. Even in North India where the Mughal empire held sway for over half a millennia Hinduism was not wiped out. In fact the Mughal empire flourished only when strategic co-option of Hindu regimes existed.

It is interesting how proudly Jeyamohan traces Vidyaranya resurrecting a philosophy to serve as a framework of political unity thus forming the ideological basis of an empire. He also adds how the Harihara-Bukka brothers and their descendants formed the empire with subsequent conquests and made it a firewall against Islamic invasions. Astute observation and magnificent summary but little does it strike him that he is essentially talking about a period of conquests that served to provide religious unity. If European kings undertook invasions at the behest of ensuring religious and political unity that is evidence of a violent era for him but not so when it is Vidyaranya and Bukka.

Much is made of how bloody the Islamic invasions were and often the implied sub-text is "our kings were not blood thirsty". Sure the Islamic and later Christian invasions were bloody and that is partly due to the fact that they were hardy desert or mountain tribes unlike the agrarian kings of India. To be sure we know too well of the blood soaked invasions because they were recent and documented far better. Writing about a Chola expedition K.A.N. Sastry says the army "set fire to considerable area" and "killing some of the Sinhalese chieftains of the locality". We know more about the Peloponnesian war and the 300 at Thermopylae than we do of the expeditions of the Chola kings or the conquests that gave rise to the Vijayanagara empire. This absence of history is often used as proof of absence of violence. Not many know that practically slavery existed in the Chola empire.

The most reprehensible moment of the lectures and one which is clearly demagoguery is when Jeyamohan confronts the canard of characterizing Gita as a text that encourages killing because the Lord tells Arjuna "therefore thou shalt kill" ('ஆகவே கொலை புரிக'). Yes, it is a canard because it takes out of context a phrase and besmirches a philosophical text. Gandhi would later assert that the Lord was merely telling Arjuna to do his duty, which in the battlefield, happened to be killing his enemies. Unfortunately Jeyamohan puts the canard as a question from a Christian and uses the opportunity to throw the kitchen sink at Christianity.

Indignantly Jeyamohan continues, he says he asked the Christian questioner, "show me how many genocides could be traced to the Gita, unlike the Bible. Cortes's expedition in Mexico unleashed a genocide and paved the way for colonization and he even let loose a plague. Hitler and Stalin killed millions". For nearly three to four centuries the European states raced across the globe in a zeal to colonize entire nations and peoples. Blood flowed freely in brutal conquests were the colonizer and the resistant populations freely indulged in blood lust. As reprehensible as Cortes or Columbus was let us not pretend they were killing pastoral communities. American historian Bernard Bailyn recently published a definitive history of America's blood origins. Both the settlers and natives had a penchant for barbarity. The conversions and the necessity of using religion as a tool to subjugate and assimilate a conquered population was not all together unlike how Raja Raja Cholan recognized the use of religion as binding forces in a far flung empire and exported Hinduism to vanquished Lanka. The worst part of the indignant reply was laying the blame for the millions killed by Hitler and Stalin at the doorstep of the Church. 'பின் தொடரும் நிழலின் குரல்' எழுதியவருக்குத் தெரியாதா ஸ்டாலினின் கொலைக்களன்களுக்கு காரணம் மார்க்சியமென்று? Hitler and Stalin espoused atheist philosophies and their factories of death had not only nothing to do with the Church but absolutely nothing to do with the Bible. It is a travesty to say otherwise.

While I completely agree that the Gita should be understood contextually and that it is interesting to note that both the teacher and the taught had freely married outside of their clans though the text calls for avoiding mixing of clans and of course for doing one's own varna defined duty half better than doing somebody else's duty better than that person. But it is undeniable that verses like that within Gita and Manu Smriti have brought about the deepest and most enduring societal divisions in all of human history.

The most famous story of Gandhi's life is how he clutched the Gita gained emotional strength after being thrown off the train and on to a cold platform in a South African train station. What is little known, until recent controversies opened it to scrutiny, is how Gandhi, that student of Gita, looked at native South Africans as infidels and believed they were inferior to Indians. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, as every school boy knows, asked for self governance as birth right. He too, like Gandhi after him, wrote a commentary on Gita but believed firmly that the low caste must not learn the vedas. European historians have cheerfully connected the Crusades to Biblical texts and rightfully so. While Jeyamohan enjoys that connection he steadfastly refuses to not only make a similar arc from Gita to what has become the most notorious fact of life in Hinduism, its persistent casteism. Gandhi's life, unlike Tilak's,  was a trajectory that eventually bent towards universal emancipation.

Ironically it is the militant Hindutva group that today shouts from the rooftops that the Gita helped steel Arjuna to kill. The implied subtext is for Hindus to do the same. Subramanian Swamy and Gurumurthy have written and spoken to that effect.

The warts not withstanding the lectures are an intellectual tour-de-force. If the addresses are published in text form, sans the demagoguery, the book would fill a very lamentable intellectual vacuum in Tamil philosophical and literary canon.

I'd like to emphasize that I've probably spent more words in debunking the questionable parts than in appreciating the scholarly parts only because it is rebuttals that are more scrutinized and only they require more elaborate reasoning. Criticisms have to be done more carefully than praises. I'd like to place on record that I've spent considerable time listening to the lectures, taking notes, referencing other books in order to write this. If all I was interested in was debunking I need not have bothered. The regrettable and deplorable state of intellectual discussions in Tamil Nadu is one has to accept blindly and praise uncritically or go to the other extreme of throwing the baby with the bathwater for the warts. It's an all or nothing approach. I don't think that that's what Jeyamohan desires.

Yet again let me reiterate that Jeyamohan's provocative line of writing has compelled me to re-evaluate Indian philosophical traditions with a more friendly approach. As I was listening to the lecture on Shankara I realized that I need to find books to read about a man who easily ranks along side Aristotle and Kant. I do have books by Radhakrishnan and Dasgupta but they did not, as I wrote earlier, provide a landscape as Jeyamohan did. The Shankara book referred earlier does provide such a backdrop.

As much as I appreciate Stephen Greenblatt's book with its contentious parts I've no problem in enjoying Jeyamohan's lectures. Now, a question to confront is, "if such mistakes exist how should we evaluate it and are we not better off to ignore it". No. And, No. Aristotle's writings on science have all now been shown to be nonsense but Will Durant teaches us that "to ask the right questions is already half knowledge". There is much that one can learn from these lectures and if curious progress to better texts. Jeyamohan, more than anybody, is well aware that the lectures are a success when listeners to go in search of deeper scholarship.

Before I conclude, I don't know why Jeyamohan underplays his oratorical skills. I've listened to Jeyakanthan in person twice and read a few of his speeches, especially the legendary speech on Annathurai. Jeyakanthan, unlike Jeyamohan, had a stage presence, a voice that often roared and a body language that was captivating. That said Jeyakanthan sometimes speaks like the typical Dravidian party speaker. I remember how Jeyakanthan spoke of Bharati. It was theatrical and replete with quotes of entire passages and a surfeit of pedestrian rhetorical flourishes. Our audiences are usually taken up by speakers who reel of lengthy quotes irrespective of whether there is an over-arching coherent theme or not. Today, having read and listened to Jeyamohan I think back to that speech on Bharati. Jeyamohan most certainly would not have roared quotes but he'd have been a cartographer of a bygone era setting Bharati within his era and sweeping back and forth to show the difference he made for the ages to come. I truly found the lectures captivating, specifically the first two Gita lectures and the one on Shankara. If only I had listened to my professors with such rapt attention I may indeed have become a true crorepathi instead of a plodding employee by day and blogger by night.


  1. Gita lectures  http://jeyamohanav.blogspot.in/2015/12/geethajemo.html
  2. Shankara lecture https://archive.org/details/SankararJeyamohan
  3. சங்கரப் புரட்சி http://www.jeyamohan.in/54775#.Vp3EeTbijoo
  4. Vidyaranya https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vidyaranya
  5. The Colas - K.A. Neelakanta Sastry
  6. The Jains - Paul Dundas. Refer to Pg 233-244 for Jain relationship with Hindus and Buddhists.
  7. Shankara and Indian Philosophy - Natalia Isayeva. Good read.
  8. Indian Philosophy - S.Radhakrishnan

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