Monday, January 11, 2016

What's Unique About Jeyamohan's Discourses on Gita and Adi Shankara?

We know more, much more, about Augustine of Hippo (13th November 354 - 28th August 430 CE) than we do of Adi Shankara, easily the most outstanding philosopher from India, who supposedly lived 788 CE - 820 CE. We know more about Homer, the Homeric epics, the history of the Trojan war and travails of Odysseus than we are in any way closer to fact concerning any principal character of India's epics. That Shankara's fame as a philosopher was not just posthumous, by nearly 4 centuries, but practically a manufactured iconography by an empire builder would offend the sensibilities of many. All the above, in short, capture the backdrop of Jeyamohan's recent lectures on Bhagavad Gita and Shankara.

To appreciate the uniqueness of what Jeyamohan achieved we need to take a detour into the Western world. An understanding of how the Bible, Homer and other ancient texts, are approached within Western academia and popular publishing, will help identify what Jeyamohan accomplishes and the reasons of what I perceive as shortfalls.

Jeyamohan
'The world of Odysseus' by M.I. Finley, published in 1954, is considered a landmark study of the Homeric epic 'Odyssey'. The book sets forth the social and intellectual climate in which the Homeric epics were born. Bernard Knox, Director Emeritus of Hellenic studies in Harvard, had written an introduction for the book. Knox would go on to write a foreword for all three translations of Graeco-Roman epics by Princeton University professor Robert Fagles. That illustrates the reputation and longevity of a professor like Knox and crucially highlights a rich academic heritage that any author on the Graeco-Roman classics can make use of to write anything new.

Homer and the Greek classics are an obsession for any westerner. More than half a century after Finley Adam Nicholson turned out "Why Homer matters". Nicholson was inspired to write that book after reading Fagles's translation of 'Odyssey'. Note, Fagles himself was a latecomer to the scene of translation that is still dominated by the legendary translation by Robert Fitzgerald. Nicholson had earlier written, 'God's Secretaries', a gripping narrative of how one of the finest gems of English literature, 'The King James Version of the Bible' was written.

The November issue of New York Review of Books reviewed four, not one or two, books on St. Paul of which three were published by Columbia University Press. Publications by universities, especially the Ivy League universities and other reputed universities in US are often of very high academic caliber. The Bible and its associated history, a very rich and never ending source to plumb deep into, are studied academically both as theology and as history. Even when the Bible is approached theologically the lowest denominator is still an academic standard. Nicholson recounts in gruesome detail torture by Church authorities in his telling of how the King James Bible was written

Elaine Pagels, a much awarded and celebrated academician, is Professor of religion at Princeton University. Pagels shot to fame for her research on the Nag Hammadi library of Gnostic gospels. One of her most recent books was on the newly discovered Gospel of Judas.

The brief outline given above shows how there is a steady stream of academic output that pushes the boundaries of knowledge on subjects as hallowed and venerated as the Bible and Gospels and ancient texts.

There are surely controversies on interpretation, context and sources of history. Stephen Greenblatt's 'The Swerve' about Lucretius 2000 year old poem, 'On the nature of things', was awarded both the Pulitzer and the National Book award in 2012. Greenblatt's book drew the ire of other historians who think that he was drawing tenuous connections between sparse facts to suit his pre-determined narrative.

The Indian intellectual scene is depressing and an overview of what it lacks provides, in turn, an understanding of why Jeyamohan's discourse is a landmark event irrespective of the parts one may disagree with.

It is fair to say that until the advent of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Max Mueller's efforts not withstanding, Indian philosophy was often brushed aside as theology and worse, as mysticism. Radhakrishnan who comfortably straddled the East and West singularly put Indian philosophy on the map of the world. He was followed by S.N. Dasgupta and others. Yet, what India still misses is a Will Durant. Radhakrishnan and Dasgupta are extremely taxing to read whereas for close to a century Will Durant's 'Story of Philosophy' remains a cheerful read. Here too, in the West, it's not just Durant, there are others like Jostein Gaarder, author of 'Sophie's World', who take philosophy to the common reader adroitly balancing academic rigor and narrative ease. The output on Indian philosophy is almost nil in the past 50 years unlike popular titles like 'Zeno and the Tortoise' that continue to be published even today in US.

The common Indian has, at best, a very hazy idea of Indian philosophy. It is a travesty of Indian education that Indians have little to no idea of the famous Six systems of philosophy. While it is difficult to find an American academic who'd not stress the value of a graduate being grounded in liberal arts it is even more difficult to convince many Indian academics to accept the value of an education in liberal arts. I need to emphasize that I am discounting the vast majority of Indian academics who'd love to teach Mahabharata in the classrooms as a 'venerable text'. That is useless.

Indian academic curriculum does its best to emasculate a student's sense of wonder. Whether it is the beauty of the wave-particle duality of light or the fact that Shankara's commentaries on Gita collects pre-existing interpretations and refutes or builds on them as required the Indian student is ill equipped to be inspired by the wonder that was just laid bare. It took a Western author to teach me that 'commentaries' were not written out of thin air but patient collection of prevailing doctrines and constructing a new edifice based on that. That means Shankara needs to have been educated in prevalent doctrines, subscribe to common rules of logic and finally create his own interpretation. All of that carries deep implications for understanding the social and intellectual life of a long bygone era.

More than anything the worst problem for Jeyamohan is to navigate the treacherous shoals of religious chauvinism or jingoism and the most often patently stupid forms of atheism that are especially popular in Tamil Nadu.

December 24th, the death anniversary of E.V. Ramasamy Naicker, is easily the most irritating day for me on Facebook. Many of my Hindu relatives who love Naicker's brand of Brahmin bashing and idiotic atheism will start posting nonsensical quotes from Naicker, supposedly, upholding 'rationalism'. Last year one relative posted a question-answer quote of Naicker wherein Naicker had ridiculed the existence of God and generously said "well if God does happen to exist and appear before I shall immediately revise my opinion". Another relative, also a Hindu, cheerfully commented "super". I called the guy who posted and asked him "do you know anything of Hindu philosophy?" Of course he knew nothing. Zero. I pressed further "have you read any of the epics?" Again, zero, but now with indignation he asked "well, brother why should I waste my time reading those myths?" This kind of intellectual bankruptcy is the price Tamils have to pay when vagabonds like EVR and Annathurai have sowed the seeds of not just hatred but of crass mediocrity for over half a century.

Once EVR, presiding as chief guest at a writers meeting, angrily demanded that they should discard immoral epics like Mahabharata, which depicted polyandry amongst other salacious depictions, to the dustbin. While almost all the writers swooned in admiration of this demigod only Jeyakanthan, a young and rebellious writer, admonished such a charlatan approach and asserted his right as writer to choose his topics. Annathurai, a habitual philanderer, went from town to town decrying Tami literature's finest jewel, Kamba Ramayanam, as pornography. No wonder that Jeyakanthan considered the DMK to be a 'cultural menace'.

If anyone told a westerner that the Homeric epics or Lucretius's poem should be thrown into a dustbin because they portray an irrational world where even the Gods are a lusty, scheming and fractious lot then the Westerner would laugh at such patent idiocy. Yet, this is what has come to pass in Tamil Nadu for over 50 years.

On the other hand are the no less irritating group of Hindutva elements for whom any mention of Bhagavad Gita as anything less than a holy text open to interpretation is sacrilege. Talk of Krishna being a chieftain and becoming a god head due to possible political realignments will invite untold wrath from the Hindutva crowd.

In summary, Jeyamohan faces dearth of academic material, uniformed religious atavism and equally uninformed blind opposition to a rich heritage in the name of modernity. Amongst the three challenges the lack of academic environment to shape his views lends the lectures a quality of awe because he has plowed a lonely furrow and it is for the same reason that one finds contentious conclusions too in his lectures.

Laying out his objective in delivering the lectures Jeyamohan clearly states that anyone who sets out to read about Bhagavad Gita has only two choices. First, to read the traditional theology kind of explanations and second, vitriolic texts that claim Gita is the source of every evil in Indian society. To answer the latter a reading based on theological format is ill suited says Jeyamohan. Labeling theological explanations as looking back in time, not necessarily backward looking, Jeyamohan says his lecture will be forward looking.

How far did Jeyamohan succeed? The question will be answered in the following blog.

5 comments:

Srini Radhakrishnan said...

Excellent. I am glad you broached on this subject. I too lament the fact that either most Hindus either regard philosophy or talks on it as either absolutely wastefaul use of time (but won't do much else with their time in anything as profouund!) OR betrary childish excuse that all that had to be explored and explained has already been done so and resorting to reading them anytime prior to retirement isn't contingent upon even theists! The other extreme, as you have rightly observed is the blind, mind-numbing hatred of Brahmins in Taminadu which makes a vast brianwashed majority to throw aside all that's written in Sanskrit as hegemonistic, vile and perpetuating manu-dharma (without even knowing that there are Smritis very much in Sanskrit that came up to uproot and supplant Manusmriti). The hatred for Brahmin thus leads to hating anything that Brahmins upheld as dear to them (at some point!). They don't even realise that if Brahmins were so caste conscious they would have been worshipping Parasurama or Vaamana avatar of Vishnu and not hold warrior princes such as Rama and Krishna as poorna-avatar.

//Will Durant's 'Story of Philosophy' remains a cheerful read//
I enjoyed Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy too, and Ayn Rand's "Philosophy - who needs it"

//It is a travesty of Indian education that Indians have little to no idea of the famous Six systems of philosophy. //
Absolutely. This needs to change. Everyone wants quick fix solutions and instant gratifications. The joys of dabbling in 'thought' should be resuscitated, in our culture. People like Devdutt Pattnaik, Sanjeev Sanyal are helping revive interest, in my view.


//It took a Western author to teach me that 'commentaries' were not written out of thin air but patient collection of prevailing doctrines and constructing a new edifice based on that. That means Shankara needs to have been educated in prevalent doctrines, subscribe to common rules of logic and finally create his own interpretation. All of that carries deep implications for understanding the social and intellectual life of a long bygone era.//
Very well articulated. Yes, to an ardent Advaitin, Sankara's life would seem like perfect God-sent messenger doing his job in a short span of 32 years and vanishing to Mukti; to a staunch Vaishnavite, Ramanuja's life was that of Adisesha who was therefore, divinely ordained to do his rendering, reforming and then vanishing to sainthood. None pauses enough, to think about what an extensive rigour of study they each must have undertaken (in Ramanuja's case, it was 40 years' labour as he had to not just work hard to get manuscripts, but also flee persecution in one place with his disciples, and also the first part of his life saw him swap from one Guru to the other, in successession/progression) to produce their works of excellence. Treating them as Godly must come from deep respect than as perfunctory habit.


//On the other hand are the no less irritating group of Hindutva elements for whom any mention of Bhagavad Gita as anything less than a holy text open to interpretation is sacrilege.//
Yes, this is rampant too. Luckily, BG has already seen enourmous interpretations and commentaries long before advent of Hindutva politics. A long, healthy precedent has been set to silcence even the most rabble rousing of them all. But yes, to talk of that as a work of lietrature and not as divine text can run into rough weather.

Srini Radhakrishnan said...

//Talk of Krishna being a chieftain and becoming a god head due to possible political realignments will invite untold wrath from the Hindutva crowd.//
Here, the problem is, unlike the Greek/Roman gods of antiquity, who have no existig human believers and are thus safe to take lots of liberties with (which Hollywood does with duplicitous alarcrity - never missing an opportunity to project that era as rife in debauchery and permissiveness in sharp contrast with post-Christian morality, monogamy and piety), the exising pantheon of Hindu Gods (yes, same universal God in myriad forms than lower gods prone to moral excesses) are worshipped by close to a billion people. To unentangle any historical Krishna from mythical Krishna or for that matter Shiva or Parvati or any, is fraught with sensitivity issues. Yet, efforts must always be made to unravel them for our own good and educated appreciation. The trouble is very modern Freudian assessement (I chanced upon one book which followed the so called Pyschoanalytical approach to assess Krisha-Arjun relationship almost and felt it was just too much a case of applying western, new-found methods/prism to view a much different civilisation) disrupts other well meaning analysis too. One of my western friends was keen to know which was India's 'dark age' as if every civilisation ought to have had a period of dark age in the past 2000 years before the age of enlightenment started. A very western expectation from any civilisaiton! Another friend would ask me what my son's name would mean, quippig, "does it stand for fertility god?"; again, a very predictable extrapolation approach to equate each Greek/Roman god with any other civilisation that's extant. These approaches erodes amd undermines a new way of looking our past that's respectful as well as factual. Unlike in science/medicine where 'modern approach' (use of statistics, placebo in analysis, reserach methodology etc) isn't essentially a 'western approach', in humanities, we are yet to see modern approach that's not essentially a Judeo-Christian approach. I am sure there are many, but I am just echoing the common fear on this.


// To answer the latter a reading based on theological format is ill suited says Jeyamohan. Labeling theological explanations as looking back in time, not necessarily backward looking//
Very apt.

Inaya Subbudu said...

I have been a big fan of your writings. But in this blog, you seem to be unjustifiably too harsh on EVR and Annadurai. Agreed, they were bit crass in criticizing epics, Brahmins, etc., but when majority of the public treat these epics as holy text and believe them as non-fictional, even a shred of acceptance as philosophical value might be problematic for public figures. When in high school, my tamil teacher introduced debates between Annadurai and R.P.Sethupillai on Kamba Ramayanam. Even in those debates, Annadurai was readily accepting that Kamban was a great poet and uncomparable, but the subject of those poems were his issues with. (BTW, this is first time I am hearing about Annadurai as a philanderer. Could you please shed some light or point me to some books where I can learn more about)

AJAX said...


Till couple of years back, I was a confused soul caught between the stupid Indian Left and the
indian Right. I just couldn't accept both their views of economy, history and philosophy. I would say that both you and jeyamohan have immensely educated me on various topics.

Looking forward to your analysis!

Anonymous said...

There is enough academic material on Indian philosophy or on Indian classics or for that matter on different systems such as Advaita. Academics and scholars are adding to the literature. The question is how much you or Jeyamohan know these and how many books/theses/articles you have read. More important is that will you be able to assess them critically or engage in a dialog with a PhD student on this. Jeyamohan may be addressing those who may not have not any exposure to academic literature and hence they may accept what he has written or spoken. But will they stand a critical scrutiny .