Is India Civilized?
Some Personal Reflections On Prevailing Views Of Indian Culture
by Don Salmon, PhD
The Infinity Foundation has as one of its primary aims the promotion
of a deeper and more accurate understanding of Indian culture and spirituality.
During the past two years, through my association with the Infinity Foundation,
I've learned a great deal about Indian cultural and philosophic traditions.
I've also learned much about the numerous ways in which these traditions
have been misrepresented. I'm grateful for what I've learned, as the varied
and often contradictory portrayals of Indian culture have puzzled me for
many years. In this personal essay, I reflect on some of the major mistaken
and misleading stereotypes of Indian culture.
In the early 20th century, Sir John Woodroffe, a scholar and writer on
Indian philosophy, published a book entitled, Is India Civilized?
He wrote it in answer to negative criticism of Indian culture by the English
drama critic William Archer. Indian philosopher-yogi Sri Aurobindo, in
harmony with Woodroffe's point of view, used that book as the starting
point for a series of inspiring reflections on Indian art, architecture,
history, literature, and philosophy, which have been published under the
title, The Foundations of Indian Culture. I recently looked again
at Sri Aurobindo's essays, and was struck by the persistence, to this
day, of many of the negative ideas and images of Indian culture which
he addressed over 80 years ago. In this article, I will describe my efforts
to discover the underlying reasons for the endurance of these negative
I offer the following medley of quotations as my starting point since,
collectively, they contain the major themes around which my own reflections
"[Archer believed that Indian] emphasis on the Self, the eternal,
the infinite, discouraged life [and] action and led to a false and life-killing
asceticism. [According to Archer] India achieved nothing of importance,
produced no great personalities, was impotent in will and endeavour,
her literature and art are a barbaric and monstrous nullity not equal
even to the third-rate work of Europe, her life story a long and dismal
record of incompetence and failure." Sri Aurobindo, A Defense
of Indian Culture1
"Ramakrishna's relationship with his young followers appears
to have all the characteristics of what Freud called a polymorphous
sexuality, a pregenital sexuality in which the whole body is sexually
sensitive and alive
. A full dialectic of the sacred in which the
pure is synthesized with the impure in which infantile sexuality
is replaced (but not lost) in genital sexuality is not present
Ramakrishna .. is emphatic about the fact that
the purity [of his disciples]
should never be sullied by the impurities
of the world; and insisting that this is the ultimate unspiritual practice,
he precludes the full operation of the dialectic of the sacred. In Normal
O. Brown's neo-Freudian vision, "love's body" is not possible
without full immersion in the world. The mature lover rediscovers the
polymorphous sexual body in a process of returning to Eliot's garden
and 'knowing it for the first time.' Eliot's development may be seen
as fulfilling the threefold dialectic of premodern>modern>constructive
postmodern, while Ramakrishna' position may be interpreted as one stuck
in premodern notions of innocence and totality." Nicholas
Gier, Spiritual Titanism2
"Indian philosophy does in fact elevate power, control or freedom
to a supereminent position.. the ultimate value.. is not morality but
complete control over one's environment something
which includes self-control but also includes control of others and
even control of the physical sources of power in the universe
Karl Potter, Presuppositions of India's Philosophies3
"[Karl]Potter concludes that Euro-Americans have a better
understanding of their limitations than their Indian counterparts. The
scientific view of nature as 'impersonal neither in our control nor
controlling us' is alien to the Indian mind, which has no doubt about
'the power of the yogi to control not only his body but the bodies of
others indeed, the whole universe'. Nicholas Gier, Titanism4
"It's not an accident if America [has today undertaken] military
actions in numerous countries where generations of colonial British
soldiers have campaigned (...) in zones where Western armies had to
intervene in order to quell disorder
Afghanistan and other troubled
countries are today imploring [the West] to impose an enlightened foreign
administration like that once offered by those confident Englishmen
wearing jodhpurs and their colonial helmets." Max Boot,
The Case for American Empire5
Before entering high school, I had not read much serious literature,
much less philosophy. I'm not sure what moved me one day to pick up an
encyclopedia of philosophy at my high school library. I do remember quite
vividly, however, the effect of two of the articles I read. The first
statement which caught my attention was a comment from Immanuel Kant,
asserting (more or less) that space and time are basically constructs
of the human mind by means of which it attempts to understand the universe.
Upon reading this, I felt dizzy, and reached out to a nearby shelf to
steady myself. I then took the book to a nearby table where I sat down
and continued browsing. At Plato's parable of the cave, I paused. In reading
of the prisoner who broke free of his chains and ascended to the light
above, I had a dim feeling of recognition, as if I had somehow heard this
Having no background in philosophy, I turned to the commentary by eminent
philosopher Bertrand Russell with the hope of gaining some greater understanding
of this inspiring story. Russell presented what I later discovered was
the standard interpretation of Plato's "Ideas" essentially
that all earthly forms are imperfect replicas of highly abstract intellectual
forms known as "archetypes". As an example, Russell described
the hypothetical existence of a perfect triangle that serves as an archetype
and source for all the triangles with which we are familiar.
I had a feeling of discomfort as I read this as I felt Plato was trying
to convey something quite at odds with Russell's interpretation. But who
was I, I thought, to question one of the great philosophers of the 20th
century. Over the next seven years, I read quite a bit of philosophy
at first Western, later Indian. From time to time, I would look at other
commentaries on Plato's parable. All presented Plato as developing his
"theory" of archetypes by a process of pure intellectual speculation.
Each time I had the same reaction: that they had somehow failed to see
what I sensed Plato was pointing to, in spite of being "expert commentators."
When I was 21, I happened upon a commentary on Plato's allegory by a
Swami of the Ramakrishna order. To my surprise and delight, the Swami's
comments were perfectly in tune with what I had dimly felt seven years
before. By that time, I had been reading extensively a wide range of original
works and commentaries on Indian philosophy. Again, I was struck by the
difference between what I understood of the original texts and the interpretation
of the commentators. Again, I assumed that this was a result of my ignorance
and lack of philosophic training.
Since my late teens I'd had the sense that one day I would be engaged
in developing an integration of psychology and spirituality, and by age
20, I had come to believe that Indian spirituality provided the best foundation
for this integration. I considered many options for further study along
those lines, none seemed appealing at the time. Behaviorism was still
the dominant outlook in psychology. Psychiatry was moving away from psychoanalysis
a good thing, I thought but seemed bent on finding a biological
basis for all mental phenomena, leaving little or no room for spirituality.
I briefly considered doing graduate work in Indian philosophy, but realized
that would require spending an inordinate amount of time studying the
works of the same western commentators whose interpretations I found so
contrary to my own intuitions.
Some 35 years after having first encountered Russell's interpretation
of Plato's allegory of the cave, I had completed my doctoral degree in
psychology, was working as a psychologist, and had begun my association
with the Infinity Foundation. By then many years had elapsed since I'd
looked at academic portrayals of Indian culture and philosophy. I was
pleasantly surprised to discover that, to some extent, times had changed.
Through my association with the foundation, I discovered an increasing
number of highly qualified scholars writing with a deep intuitive understanding
of Indian philosophic and spiritual texts, some of who were long-time
practitioners of the contemplative arts.
However, I also learned that some things had not changed. As I continued
to explore the writings of some leading scholars in the field of South
Asian studies, I found echoes of previous criticisms still resounding
in the halls of the academy. The same pejorative portrayals of India seemed
to emerge over and over: her thought and culture as naïve, primitive,
obsessed with the return to a narcissistic infantile state; her spiritual
philosophies as pessimistic and world-negating; her ethics as seriously
lacking; her religion a confusing mixture of high culture and barbaric
superstition, whose universalist tendencies lead to the devaluation of
religious diversity and a "pallid universalism".
Here I explore some of these critical themes.
I. India as a backward, primitive culture
The typical scholarly perspective on India's most ancient scriptures
the Vedas is here nicely encapsulated by Nolini Kanta Gupta,
a disciple of Sri Aurobindo:
"The Vedas [according to this view] are the first attempt of
man at literature. They are a mere collection of pastoral songs comparable
to the lispings of a baby. Man in his uncultured and innocent state
used to feel every object infused with life and imagined spirits behind
the forces of Nature. Therefore he prayed to Indra and Varuna for rain,
to the Sun for its rays of light. Frightened by the hurricane and storm
he would implore the Maruts for safety, and charmed by the soothing
beauty of Dawn he would sing her eulogy." Nolini Kanta Gupta,
An Introduction to the Vedas6
Sri Aurobindo, in stark contrast to this typical scholarly construal,
sees the Vedic texts as presenting, in a symbolic manner, profound psychological
and spiritual truths. For example, he sees "Nature" in the Vedic
sense as referring to more than that which we perceive with our physical
senses. Rather, it is the expression of the infinite Spirit, something
which imbues every flower, rock and stream with the glory of the Divine.
I find it not surprising that a yogi whose consciousness is united with
the Infinite, would see inner truths expressed through symbolic language
in the pages of a sacred text such as the Vedas. Nor should I be surprised
to find scholars who are trained to actively ignore intuitive promptings
from within seeing in those same pages the musings of "man
in his uncultured and innocent state". But this inability (or unwillingness)
of modern thinkers to enter into the worldview of a sacred text has unfortunately
also biased many who look to these thinkers to shed light on such texts
people who might otherwise be sympathetic to the subtler aspects
of Indian spiritual writing and are thus deprived of its deeper significance
I remember reading the comments of historian William Irwin Thompson on
Sri Aurobindo's interpretation of the Vedas. So convinced was he of Sri
Aurobindo's stance as a mere 'apologist" for Indian texts, that he
didn't even think it necessary to support his contention that there was
no basis for a psycho-spiritual interpretation of the Vedas. They were,
he said, exactly what conventional scholars had portrayed them to be
interesting, perhaps sometimes inspired, poetry conveying the ritual practices
of a primitive nature-worshipping people. I've also come across numerous
Jungian writings which, while granting some degree of wisdom to India's
sacred texts, assert that they nevertheless reflect a basically pre-modern,
naïve understanding on the part of yogis whose primary aim was to
escape from a painful world they couldn't comprehend.
What is the fundamental dynamic underlying this persistent interpretation
of ancient Indian texts as "naïve" and "primitive"
on the part of contemporary scholars and western thinkers in general?
Another passage from Nolini Kanta Gupta on the subject of Indian unity
illustrates a different approach:
"The unity of India lies in her soul-power. The unity that
we see in the education, culture, behavior, conduct and the mold of
her character are the outer manifestation of an inalienable unity which
is derived from a still profounder living being. Behind India stands
the 'One being', purusam ekam
It is the descent of the soul-power
of India that is pressing to fuse India into a single nation. The political
unity of India is not only possible but inevitable, and the secret of
that consummation is to be found in this mystic fact." Nolini
Kanta Gupta, The Unity of India7
What a far cry from the usual cautious academic style. Gupta does not
intend this "living being" to be taken as some poetic fancy;
he is speaking of a "soul-power" that he considers to be as
real or more real than the physical chairs and tables whose
"reality" we take for granted.
What is at stake in beginning to question this common-sense "reality"
that we have assumed to be the one and true reality? How would our world
change, how would our view of ourselves change? Psychologist Charles Tart
suggests that there is a great deal of fear involved in letting go of
the attachment to what we ordinarily take to be real.
In the next passage, Sri Aurobindo describes the attitude of the rationalist
when faced with a spiritual teaching rooted in the fearsome vastness of
"[To the rationalist, spirituality should be] directed towards
the finite, not towards the infinite, towards things temporary, not
towards the eternal
. The thought and suffering which seam and
furrow the ideal head of Homer, there, we are told, is the sane and
virile spirituality. The calm and compassion of Buddha victorious over
ignorance and suffering, the meditation of the thinker tranced in communion
with the Eternal, lifted above the seekings of thought into identity
with a supreme light, the rapture of the saint made one by love in the
pure heart with the transcendent and universal Love, the will of the
Karmayogin raised above egoistic desire and passion into the impersonality
of the divine and universal will, these things on which India has set
the highest value and which have been the supreme endeavour of her greatest
spirits, are not sane, not virile. This, one may be allowed to say,
is a very occidental and up to date idea of spirituality. Homer, Shakespeare,
Raphael, Spinoza, Kant, Charlemagne, Abraham Lincoln, Lenin, Mussolini,
these, shall we suggest, are to figure henceforth not only as great
poets and artists or heroes of thought and action, but as our typical
heroes and exemplars of spirituality. Not Buddha, not Christ, Chaitanya,
St. Francis, Ramakrishna; these are either semi-barbaric Orientals or
touched by the feminine insanity of an oriental religion. The impression
made on an Indian mind resembles the reaction that a cultured intellectual
might feel if he were told that good cooking, good dressing, good engineering,
good schoolmastering are the true beauty and their pursuit the right,
sane, virile aesthetic cult; and literature, architecture, sculpture
and painting are only a useless scribbling on paper, an insane hacking
of stone and an effeminate daubing of canvas; Vauban, Pestalozzi, Dr.
Parr, Vatel and Beau Brummell are then the true heroes of artistic creation
and not Da Vinci, Angelo, Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare or Rodin. [Here]
we see the opposition of the standpoints and begin to understand the
inwardness of the difference between the West and India."
Sri Aurobindo, A Defense of Indian Culture8
Sri Aurobindo here identifies several of the attitudes which underlie
the difficulties of Western scholars in attempting to understand Indian
texts. He notes several times that the focus on egolessness, transcendent
love, infinite calm, etc. appears somehow "effeminate." I would
suggest that the term "effeminate" here stands not only for
the quality of being inappropriately feminine, but carries with it as
well the sense of being primitive, infantile and naïve. We've seen
above how Gier characterized Ramakrishna as being stuck in a state of
premodern innocence, still bound to a kind of "infantile sexuality".
But lack of virility is not the worst accusation thrown at the Indian
yogi apparently lost to the world in his meditative trance. Sri Aurobindo
suggests that anyone who takes the Spirit to be a reality particularly
one more real than the banks and shopping malls which sprout like weeds
across the American landscape must have taken leave of his senses,
perhaps suffered a full-blown psychotic break.
At the end of the passage, Sri Aurobindo refers to the "inwardness
of the difference between the West and India". Now we start to see
some of the reason for the incapacity of so many scholars to understand
the point of view of the Vedas, to grasp the meaning of the "soul-power"
which inspires Indian civilization. It is an inner, psychological difficulty
having its roots in the disparity between intellectual and intuitive ways
of knowing. For one attached to the rigid boundaries of the intellect,
the experiences of the yogi might well seem indicative of a loss of sanity.
In the next passage, Gupta portrays the difference between a philosophy
based on intuition and one that takes its stand on reason:
"The Indian standpoint
is first to contact the truth
by a direct realization through meditation, concentration, an
uplifting and a deepening of the consciousness, through yoga, spiritual
discipline, and then endeavor to express the truth thus realized, directly
intuited or revealed, through mental terms, to make it familiar and
communicable to the normal intelligence
. One sees the truth or
reality and describes it as it is seen, its limbs and gestures, its
constituents and functions. Philosophy here is fundamentally a recording
of one's vision and a translation or presentation of it in mental terms.
The procedure of European philosophy is different. There the reason
or the mental light is the starting-point. That light is cast about:
one collects facts, one observes things and happenings and then proceeds
to find out a general truth a law, a hypothesis justified
by such observations." Nolini Kanta Gupta, Darshana and
One of the defining characteristics of modernity is a belief in the supremacy
of rationality. Truth is sought by philosophers and scientists
alike by means of the intellect. All other ways of knowing
intuition, imagination, inspiration, revelation are lumped together
and seen as essentially inferior.
I recently observed an exchange of letters between a materialist and
someone interested in Indian philosophy. The materialist a computer
scientist working in the field of artificial intelligence was obviously
exasperated by the audacity of the other to even suggest that physical
science could not account for everything in the universe. At the conclusion
of his final letter, he delivered what amounted to a mini-lecture saying
in effect: "Anybody who believes that consciousness has a status
greater or more all-embracing than matter is obviously a child ruled by
wish-fulfillment rather than an adult who has come to terms with the real
nature of the universe".
This sometimes seems to be the predominant position of some of the scholars
who study Indian philosophy and religion as well: "Ramakrishna's
position may be interpreted as one stuck in pre-modern notions of innocence
In the next passage, Sri Aurobindo challenges the belief that reason
should be the rightful basis of a truly mature civilization:
"Does the future of humanity lie in a culture founded solely
upon reason and science? Is the progress of human life the effort of
a mind, a continuous collective mind constituted by an ever changing
sum of transient individuals, that has emerged from the darkness of
the inconscient material universe and is stumbling about in it in search
of some clear light and some sure support amid its difficulties and
problems? And does civilization consist in man's endeavor to find that
in a rationalized knowledge and a rationalized way of life?
An ordered knowledge of the powers, forces, possibilities of physical
Nature and of the psychology of man as a mental and physical being is
then the only true science. An ordered use of that knowledge for a progressive
social efficiency and well-being, which will make his brief existence
more efficient, more tolerable, more comfortable, happier, better appointed,
more luxuriously enriched with the pleasures of the mind, life and body,
is the only true art of life. All our philosophy, all our religion
supposing religion has not been outgrown and rejected all our
science, thought, art, social structure, law and institution must found
itself upon this idea of existence and must serve this one aim and endeavor.
This is the formula which European civilization has accepted and is
still laboring to bring into some kind of realization. It is the formula
of an intelligently mechanized civilization supporting a rational and
utilitarian culture." Sri Aurobindo, A Defense of Indian
Is Indian thought and culture essentially pre-modern? Was Freud right
when he suggested to the French writer Romain Rolland that Ramakrishna's
spiritual experiences represented a desire to return to the womb? If this
view is accurate, then by all means, we need to grow up, face the cold,
hard facts of reality and accept reason as the highest means of gaining
knowledge of the universe. Was Max Boot correct when he stated that the
civilizations of the Non-Western world need the modern-day equivalents
of "confident Englishmen wearing jodhpurs and their colonial helmets"
to save them from their primitive heritage? The problem is that these
questions have no final answer within the purview of the rational intellect.
II. The Pessimistic, World-Negating Spirituality Of India
Equally is it a misrepresentation to say that Indian culture denies
all value to life, detaches from terrestrial interests and insists on
the unimportance of the life of the moment. To read these European comments
one would imagine that in all Indian thought there was nothing but the
nihilistic school of Buddhism and the monistic illusionism of Shankara
and that all Indian art, literature and social thinking were nothing
but the statement of their recoil from the falsehood and vanity of things.
It does not follow that because these things are what the average European
has heard about India or what most interests or strikes the European
scholar in her thought, therefore they are, however great may have been
their influence, the whole of Indian thinking.
The ancient civilisation of India founded itself very expressly
upon four human interests; first, desire and enjoyment, next, material,
economic and other aims and needs of the mind and body, thirdly, ethical
conduct and the right law of individual and social life, and, lastly
spiritual liberation; kama, artha, dharma, moksa. The business of culture
and social organisation was to lead, to satisfy, to support these things
in man and to build some harmony of their forms and motives. Except
in very rare cases the satisfaction of the three mundane objects must
run before the other; fullness of life must precede the surpassing of
life. The debt to the family, the community and the gods could not be
scamped; earth must have her due and the relative its play, even if
beyond it there was the glory of heaven or the peace of the Absolute.
There was no preaching of a general rush to the cave and the hermitage."
Sri Aurobindo, A Defense of Indian Culture12
Over the years, I've encountered many critics who believe that Indian
spirituality is essentially pessimistic and world-negating. While, as
Sri Aurobindo acknowledges, there are certain schools of Indian philosophy
that might be characterized as such, they represent only a small portion
of the vast spiritual tradition of India. Some of these criticisms seem
based more on ignorance of the facts than an aversion to mystical experience.
In the next passage, Sri Aurobindo counters the criticism that the best
India has to offer is in the more "effete" realm of literature,
art and philosophy, but nothing of any practical consequence.
"[William Archer grudgingly acknowledges that India has at
least some forms of literature, art, philosophy, etc to its credit]
But these things are, it may be said, the things of the mind, and the
intellect, imagination and aesthetic mind of India may have been creatively
active, but yet her outward life depressed, dull, poor, gloomy with
the hues of asceticism, void of will-power and personality, ineffective,
null. That would be a hard proposition to swallow; for literature, art
and science do not flourish in a void of life. [But] India has not only
had the long roll of her great saints, sages, thinkers, religious founders,
poets, creators, scientists, scholars, legists; she has had her great
rulers, administrators, soldiers, conquerors, heroes, men with the strong
active will, the mind that plans and the seeing force that builds. She
has warred and ruled, traded and colonised and spread her civilisation,
built polities and organized communities and societies, done all that
makes the outward activity of great peoples." Sri Aurobindo,
A Defense of Indian Culture13
Among the many possible reasons why critics of Indian philosophy persist
in this characterization, once again what stands out to me as most significant
is the inability of the reasoning mind to grasp the outlook of the intuitive
mind. For the academic who believes that scholarship requires a purely
objective, analytic stance, the inner, subjective outlook of Indian philosophy
may appear not only impractical and "effete", but threatening
to the solidity of his own worldview.
One well-known description of mysticism characterizes it as "beginning
in 'mist' and ending in 'schism'." To the logical mind, comfortable
with neatly defined boundaries, the inner-directed attention of the mystic
may well seem 'misty'. Such inner-directedness may also seem to negate
in some way the hard, solid reality of earth, rocks, trees, of "banks
and shopping malls." One often hears, in the West, the word "introspection"
accompanied by the adjective "morbid." For someone attached
to objective forms, the inward turn required by spiritual endeavor may
look like a kind of "death." It can in fact be said that in
a certain sense, all spirituality is "world-negating"
however, the "world" which it negates is not the real one, but
the model constructed by the mind.
"[There is an unwillingness of] objective, scholarly and analytical
thinkers to deal adequately with the subjective, the intuitive and the
more humanistic and cultural forces at work in the world. This is precisely
the challenge that Sri Aurobindo is offering as he reflects upon the
destinies of India and the destinies of man in the twentieth century
when basic decisions must be made in India on whether to conform to
the more objective and rational approach of the West or to maintain
the spiritual approach of traditional India in order to sustain a more
meaningful vision and to release the abundant psychic energies needed
for building the future" Thomas Berry, "'The Foundations
of Indian Culture': Its Contemporary Significance14
To the modern mind, which takes reason applied to action as the foundation
of a healthy life, religion is a thing best confined to Sunday mornings.
Religion is understood to have no practical bearing on the way life is
conducted on the other days of the week. If by "religion" is
meant a blind acceptance of a dogmatic creed, concerned mostly with the
afterlife, this modernist attitude of rationality certainly represents
an improvement over the pre-modern attitude of blind superstitious belief.
But "religion," in the European sense of an organized set of
beliefs to which adherents must subscribe, never really existed in India.
Sri Aurobindo, in the next passage, makes clear the distinction between
this conventional notion of "religion" and true spirituality
a spirituality which he says offers the most practical means of
attaining the goals of world peace, economic justice and international
unity, deemed worthwhile in the modern era.
"Religion has been a central preoccupation of the Indian mind;
some have told us that too much religion ruined India, precisely because
we made the whole of life religion or religion the whole of life, we
have failed in life and gone under. If we give rather to religion the
sense of the following of the spiritual impulse in its fullness and
define spirituality as the attempt to know and live in the highest self,
the divine, the all-embracing unity and to raise life in all its parts
to the divinest possible values, then it is evident that there was not
too much of religion, but rather too little of it and in what
there was, a too one sided and therefore an insufficiently ample
The right remedy is, not to belittle still farther the agelong ideal
of India, but to return to its old amplitude and give it a still wider
scope, to make in very truth all the life of the nation a religion in
this high spiritual sense. This is the direction in which the philosophy,
poetry, art of the West is, still more or less obscurely, but with an
increasing light, beginning to turn, and even some faint glints of the
truth are beginning now to fall across political and sociological ideals.
India has the key to the knowledge and conscious application of the
ideal; what was dark to her before in its application, she can now,
with a new light, illumine; what was wrong and wry in her old methods
she can now rectify; the fences which she created to protect the outer
growth of the spiritual ideal and which afterwards became barriers to
its expansion and farther application, she can now break down and give
her spirit a freer field and an ampler flight: she can, if she will,
give a new and decisive turn to the problems over which all mankind
is labouring and stumbling, for the clue to their solutions is there
in her ancient knowledge. Whether she will rise or not to the height
of her opportunity in the renaissance which is coming upon her, is the
question of her destiny." Sri Aurobindo, A Defense of Indian
III. The Absence Of Ethics In Indian Culture
"To many Westerners, all Hindu thinkers tend to treat the problem
of evil too cavalierly and nonchalantly. [who are these 'many westerners;
certainly not the materialists who find no basis in a world of meaningless
matter for any kind of values] The Hindu nondualistic perspective and
the concomitant belief that good and evil (together with all the other
sets of polar oppositions) are nothing but complementary facets of a
single reality, must appear to those who have been nursed by the milk
of Moses and the Hebrew prophets, of Jesus, Augustine an Aquinas, to
meld the polarities together and to pass over the dilemma posed by their
contrariety without actually confronting the problem of conflict seriously."
J. Bruce Long, A New Yoga for a New Age16
I have never understood the "problem of evil" which seems to
plague so many philosophers. If you're a materialist, the question of
the ultimate meaning of "good" or "evil" can't arise,
because neither good nor evil is an inherently existing reality in a strictly
material universe. If nothing in the world exists but the Brahman (the
Divine, God, Ultimate Reality or whatever term you wish to use) then good
and evil have only a relative, not an absolute meaning. It seems to me
that evil only presents a philosophical "problem" if you believe
in an extra-cosmic God who in a matter I can't comprehend
created a world entirely separate from himself over which he has complete
control. If this were the case, evil would be an overwhelming and ultimately
But did Jesus really teach the existence of such a God? Did any spiritually
awakened individual ever teach the existence of such a monstrous being
who would create a world separate from himself and subject it to all the
horrors born of evil? If not, then is it possible that the whole "problem
of evil" has its roots in the misunderstanding of what the great
religious founders actually taught that they never taught the existence
of a God separate from his creation?
J. Bruce Long, author of the passage quoted at the beginning of this
section, goes on to acknowledge that Indian spirituality might hold a
legitimate answer to the problem of evil:
"[ A Hindu might] respond to this contention with the observation
that Westerners are too preoccupied with the problems of sin and evil
and that, were they to view the world through the spectacles of nondualistic
Truth, they would perceive that good and evil are but two sides of the
same reality, are nothing but chimeras in the passing scene of life,
and therefore do not deserve the excessive dotage which Western thinkers
have bestowed upon the topic." J. Bruce Long, A New Yoga
for a New Age17
If we grant Long his point, would there then be any basis for the accusation
that Indian civilization lacks an ethical sense? Is nondualist awareness
perhaps only for the yogi elite, leaving the rest of the population bereft
of a moral compass? Once again, I believe the difficulty lies in the difference
between two different ways of knowing and understanding reality. The European
ethical sense derives from a rather rigid intellectual categorization
of behaviors seen from an outer perspective; the Indian sense derives
from an inner intuitive discernment of relative good and evil within an
Infinite Divine Reality beyond mental comprehension.
"In Europe they want to regulate life through codes, moral
and legal; forced by circumstances and for the sake of mutual interest
they have set up a mode of moral standard, and this they want to impose
on all peoples and countries. The utmost contribution of European religion
has been a kind of temporizing and understanding with the lower propensities
of men and somehow presenting a smooth and decorous surface of life.
No doubt, the East has moral codes and in profusion, but they are not
considered to be the last word on spirituality; they all fall under
the category of the 'Lesser Knowledge" (Apara Vidya) and therefore
the East has not confined itself within the play of the lower
the three gunas of nature. Its gaze is fixed on a still higher region."
Nolini Kanta Gupta, East and West18
A large number of contemporary individuals have rebelled against the
rigidity of European civilization's longstanding moral and ethical codes.
However, with nothing greater or truer to replace the old constraints,
the result seems to have been an increase in the reign of desire and ambition,
rather than a growth into a more fluid understanding based in a consciousness
beyond the mind. Perhaps it is precisely its understanding of what lies
beyond the mind and beyond ethics that has allowed India to sustain its
rich tradition of ethical culture for so many centuries.
In a conversation with some of his disciples, Sri Aurobindo said,"Indian
culture knew the value of morality, and also its limitations. The Upanishads
and the Gita are loud with and full of the idea of going beyond morality.
For instance, the Upanishad says, 'he does not need to think whether what
he is doing is good or bad' Sadhu, Asadhu. Such a man attains a
consciousness in which there is no need to think about morality because
the action proceeds from the Truth."19
Glimmers of such an understanding can be found in European culture as
well. In light of speculations about Indian influence on the development
of early Christianity, is it possible that when St. Augustine declared,
"Love and do what you will" as the basis of ethical behavior,
he had the Upanishads in mind?
IV. The "Pallid Univeralism" Of Indian Spirituality
"The initial difficulty that militates against an understanding
of Hinduism is that it seems to be many things to many people. Has it
a single scripture like the Bible or the Koran? A single founder like
the Buddha, Christ or Mahomet?
No wonder[someone] once said, stung
by exasperation, that Hinduism is not a religion, but a contagious disease!"
K.R.S. Iyengar, Sri Aurobindo: A Biography and History20
I'm perhaps biased toward a universalist perspective, having been raised
in the Unitarian (now "Unitarian-Universalist") church. I find
it difficult to understand the need many seem to have for establishing
a rigid boundary between one religion and the other. Perhaps in a previous
birth I was one of those Chinese people whom Buddhist practitioner John
Blofeld spoke of as feeling perfectly at ease in calling himself a Taoist,
Confucianist and Buddhist.
From a largely Jewish background, at age 7, I decided I was an atheist.
When at age 15, my friend Joshua explained that not all religious people
believed in a God who was an old man with a long white beard living somewhere
up in the sky, I revised my status to "agnostic." Over the next
30 years, I went on to study with an Indian meditation teacher for ten
years, a Sufi teacher for two years, and a Tibetan Buddhist teacher for
one year. During that same period, as choir director at a Catholic Church
for ten years, I had many conversations with a mystically-oriented priest
who taught me a number of medieval Christian contemplative practices.
I also attended a Pentecostal Church in Brooklyn for one year, and have
practiced Buddhist meditation for more than 25 years. So as a Jewish,
Unitarian, atheistic, Pentecostal, Sufi, Tibetan Buddhist agnostic who
believes with Sri Aurobindo that "there is nothing in the universe
but the Divine", why is it that I don't feel the least bit confused?
Here is someone who appears to be confused by the "universalist"
perspective of Indian philosophy:
"The question that must arise inevitably when confronting a
highly eclectic and synthetic system of thought is this: despite the
obvious gains in incorporating a great diversity of ideas and perspectives
within a single philosophical orientation, does not one face a far greater
danger than sterile scholasticism and intellectual parochialism? Namely,
does one not run the risk of identifying entities which are clearly
distinct and arise from quite different existential bases and thereby
bypass or ignore intellectual distinctions which are crucial in defining
one's intellectual position and style of life? From the viewpoint of
religious theism, nothing is more devoid of religious meaning than a
pallid universalism, just as in the eyes of a historicist, nothing is
more destructive of the integrity of historical facts than a philosophical
Idealism." J. Bruce Long, A New Yoga for a New Age21
To me, this statement exemplifies the typical misunderstanding of the
universalist perspective of Indian spirituality. It is true that virtually
all major philosophic and theological ideas and attitudes can be found
in one or another school of Indian thought: theism, non-theism and atheism;
non-dualism, qualified non-dualism, and dualism; ascetic purity, hedonistic
indulgence, etc. Looking at this apparent diversity which some
would call a "cacophony" many scholars have difficulty
understanding how all its elements could possibly be reconciled. However,
the vision of a unifying Absolute reality has existed in India for millennia.
"That which is known by Shaivas as Shiva, as Brahman by the
Vedantins, as Buddha by the Buddhists, as Arhat by the Jainas, and as
all-ruling Karma by the Mimamsakas. May that Hari, Lord of the Triple
world grant us the Fruit we desire". Commenting on this
verse, Sri Krishna Prem writes, "Such expressions as this can be
found throughout the Indian tradition, which from the far away Vedic
times, has ever proclaimed that 'the Real is One; [though] the learned
call It by many names". Sri Krishna Prem, The Yoga of the
I recently spent several months living in a spiritual community. The
core of the community's mission involved the development of what was termed
a "universal" form of spiritual life. The nature of this "universalism"
ultimately became the source of much controversy. One member of the community
grew to feel that a universalist approach somehow made his individual
spiritual path less valuable, and that it ignored meaningful distinctions
between various spiritual traditions.
As I understand the term, a true "universalism" does not ignore
differences or foolishly fuse together distinct entities. What is the
difficulty so many scholars and lay people alike seem to have in understanding
the nature of the Indian universalist perspective? How can we make sense
of this confusion?
Steven Hagen, a research scientist and Zen Buddhist teacher, has a clever
way of illustrating what seems to me to be the source of this difficulty.
And, yet again, we find ourselves face to face with the limitations of
the mind's way of knowing.
The mind, Hagen explains, works by means of a process of conceptualization
which splits the world into opposites good vs. evil, simplicity
vs. complexity, tradition vs. progress. As an example, he gives the typical
opposition of good vs. evil embodied in old western movies in which the
"good" guys wore white hats and the "bad" guys wore
black ones. This made the story easy to follow you always knew
whom to root for, and you could rest assured that the good guys would
always win in the end. The problem Hagen points out, is that life is not
so neatly divided up according to our mental categories. If we wish to
arrive at a reconciliation of good and evil, we need to transcend both
without ignoring the distinctions between them (which would mean a regression
to a state of ignorance prior to the emergence of these distinctions).
So what is the position which transcends the opposites of "white
hat" and "black hat"? According to Hagan, it is "no
hat". One simply "sees" (in the Indian sense of "darshana"
literally, seeing the Divine) that Absolute reality which contains
all 'hats' (or perspectives) in itself.
But let's suppose that in a brief flash of insight, we were able to gain
a glimpse of this transcendent reality which holds all opposites. In the
next moment, the mind leaps on this insight, saying "Now I've got
it", and, before we know what's happened, the new insight becomes
one side of a new opposition black and white hats vs. no hats,
or "good and evil" vs "transcendent insight". The
"transcendent insight" thus loses its absoluteness, its reconciling
power, and becomes relativized.
Curiously, so-called "simple" people those lacking much
formal education are often better able to grasp the essence of
this than are many highly educated scholars. Perhaps it is because with
increasing years of education, it becomes increasingly difficult to let
go of conceptualization long enough to allow a ray of insight into the
What are the consequences of being able to hold such a transcendent view?
Perhaps the most important one from a social perspective is that it allows
for an embrace of differences, because one's being is rooted in a larger
"[The Indian spiritual tradition] is
catholic and synthetic,
a cosmos of creeds and experiences
the Indian view and way of
life are responsible for the utter lack of religious intolerance we
observe in Indian history." K. D. Sethna, The Indian Spirit
and the World's Future.23
The universalism of the Indian tradition does not, in fact, ignore differences.
It is an all-embracing, comprehensive view based not on reason but on
a direct perception of Unity a Unity that cannot be conceived by
the intellect, but can be seen by the intuition.
"It is essential to go beyond the more-or-less typical Western
points of view in practially all areas of philosophy in
order to reach a comprehensive and therefore adequate philosophy
The greatest contribution.. of Indian traditional philosophy, especially
in the Upanisads and Indian philosophy derived therefrom is the
need to advance beyond even the highest reaches of traditional western
philosophy so as to attain a higher and more comprehensive, truer view
which will not only include the partial points of view of the West but
also bring to light the highest truth, the highest reality, spiritual
perfection. In this sense, the West is not wrong but is merely inadequate
in its search for truth." Charles Moore: Sri Aurobindo on
East and West24
Sri Ramakrishna, the great Indian saint whom Gier characterized as "stuck
in premodern notions of innocence and totality," was perhaps one
of the greatest postmodern geniuses in regard to a profound understanding
of this universalist vision. According to Gupta:
"When spirituality had almost disappeared from the world and
even in India it existed, as it were, merely in name, there was the
advent of Sri Ramakrishna bringing with him spirituality in its sheer
plenitude and investing it with eternal certitude and infallibility.
Sri Ramakrishna sowed the seed of a future creation. He seems to have
assimilated the essence of all the different spiritual practices of
the past and discarded
all the non-essentials. Nolini Kanta
Gupta, Sri Ramakrishna25
Rather than a "pallid unviersalism" which collapses differences,
the universalist view which has prevailed in India for thousands of years
is a vibrant and dynamic one, embracing distinctions within an infinite
unity. At a time when there are so many conflicting forces in the world,
it may be that only such an integral and universalist vision can provide
lasting resolution to our many problems.
"The religion which embraces science and faith, theism, Christianity,
Islam and Buddhism and yet is none of these, is that to which the World-Spirit
This sanatana dharma [Eternal Truth] has many scriptures..
but its real most authoritative scripture is in the heart in which the
Eternal has His dwelling26
A spiritual religion
of humanity is the hope of the future. By this is not meant what is
ordinarily called a universal religion, a system, a thing of creed and
intellectual belief and outward rite. Mankind has tried unity by that
means; it has failed and deserved to fail, because there can be no universal
religious system, one in mental creed and vital form. The inner spirit
is indeed one, but the spiritual life insists on freedom and variation
in its self-expression. A religion of humanity means the growing realization
that there is a divine Reality in which we are all one... It implies
a growing attempt to live out this knowledge and bring about a kingdom
of this divine Spirit upon earth." Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal
of Human Unity27
I don't know if I've grown any wiser since that day some 35 years ago
when I first read Bertrand Russell's commentary on Plato's parable of
the cave. Perhaps the Western scholars are right and my reading of Plato
as describing a suprarational reality is incorrect. Perhaps there is no
suprarational reality, and Indian culture and spirituality is truly primitive,
irrational, without ethical foundation and a confused hodge-podge of conflicting
and contradictory beliefs.
But suppose that the rational understanding of life held by the modern
world to be the supreme achievement of 'man' is not the ultimate form
of knowledge. What if there is a way of knowing which is superior to reason?
If the attainment of "jnana" a Sanskrit word meaning
"direct unmediated knowledge of Reality" is a real possibility,
then the Indian tradition has something to offer that modern interpreters
are missing. Having attained jnana, giving up the limits of the intellect
may be seen to be the means of gaining access to a greater reality; what
looks like a loss of identity may actually be the finding of a greater
identity; what seems to be a meaningless dissolution of ethical standards
may be actually lead to the development of a greater love.
1. Sri Aurobindo, 1997. The Renaissance in India: with a Defence of Indian
Culture, p. 241. Volume 20, The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo. Pondicherry,
India: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department.
2. Gier, N. (2000). Spiritual Titanism, pp. 143-145. Albany, NY: State
University of New York Press.
3. Potter, Karl H., 1963. Presuppositions of India's Philosophies, p.
153, cited in Gier. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
4. Gier, N. (2000). ibid, pp. 8-9. Quoted passage from Potter,
ibid, p. 95.
5. Boot, Max, (2001). The Case for American Empire, The Weekly
Standard, October 15.
6. Gupta, N., (1970). An Introduction to the Vedas, p. 66, in
"The Collected Works of Nolini Kanta Gupta", Volume 8. Pondicherry,
India: Nolini Kanta Gupta Birth Centenary Celebrations Committee.
7. Gupta, N., (1970). The Unity of India, p. 243, in "The
Collected Works of Nolini Kanta Gupta", Volume 7. Pondicherry, India:
Nolini Kanta Gupta Birth Centenary Celebrations Committee.
8. Sri Aurobindo, ibid, p. 121.
9. Gupta, N., (1970). Darshana and Philosophy, p. 343-344, in
"The Collected Works of Nolini Kanta Gupta", Volume 1. Pondicherry,
India: Nolini Kanta Gupta Birth Centenary Celebrations Committee.
10. Gier, N., ibid, p. 144.
11. Sri Aurobindo, ibid, p. 67.
12. Sri Aurobindo, ibid, p. 125.
13. Sri Aurobindo, ibid, p 245.
14. Berry, T. (1974). The Foundations of Indian Culture: Its Contemporary
Significance, p. 46. In "Six Pillars: Introductions to the Major
Works of Sri Aurobindo". Editor, Robert A. McDermott. Chambersberg,
PN: Wilson Books:
15. Sri Aurobindo, ibid, p. 37.
16. Long, J. Bruce, (1974). "A New Yoga for a New Age: A Critical
Introduction to 'The Synthesis of Yoga', p. 125. In "Six Pillars:
Introductions to the Major Works of Sri Aurobindo." Editor, Robert
A. McDermott. Chambersberg, PN: Wilson Books:
17. Long, J. Bruce, (1974). "A New Yoga for a New Age: A Critical
Introduction to 'The Synthesis of Yoga', p. 125. In "Six Pillars:
Introductions to the Major Works of Sri Aurobindo." Editor, Robert
A. McDermott. Chambersberg, PN: Wilson Books:
18. Gupta, N., (1970). Ast and West, p. 257. In The Collected
Works of Nolini Kanta Gupta, Volume 7. Pondicherry, India: Nolini Kanta
Gupta Birth Centenary Celebrations Committee.
19. Purani, A. ed, (1959). Evening Talks with Sri Aurobindo, p. 66. Pondicherry,
India: Sri Aurobindo Society.
20. Iyengar, K.R.S, (1945). Sri Aurobindo: A Biography and a History,
p. 477. Pondicherry, India: Sri Aurobindo International Center of Education.
21. Long, J. Bruce, (1974). "A New Yoga for a New Age: A Critical
Introduction to 'The Synthesis of Yoga', p. 126. In "Six Pillars:
Introductions to the Major Works of Sri Aurobindo." Editor, Robert
A. McDermott. Chambersberg, PN: Wilson Books.
22. Sri Krishna Prem, (1955). The Yoga of the Kathopanishad, p. 64. London:
John M. Watkins.
23. Sethna, K.D., The Indian Spirit and the World's Future; cited
in "Essentials of Sri Aurobindo's Thought: Essays in Honor of Madhusudan
Reddy", p. 285. Hyderabad, India: Institute of Human Study.
24. Moore, C., Sri Aurobindo on East and West, in "The Integral
Philosophy of Sri Aurobindo", ed. Chaudhuri, H. and Speigelberg,
F., p. 110. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.
25. Gupta, N., (1970). "Darshana and Philosophy", p. 223, in
The Collected Works of Nolini Kanta Gupta, Volume 7. Pondicherry, India:
Nolini Kanta Gupta Birth Centenary Celebrations Committee.
26. Sri Aurobindo, (1999). The Ideal of the Karmayogin, p. 6.
In "Essays in Philosophy and Yoga, Volume 13. The Complete Works
of Sri Aurobindo. Pondicherry, India: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication
27. Sri Aurobindo, (1999). The Ideal of Human Unity; p. 577. Volume
25, The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo. Pondicherry, India: Sri Aurobindo
Ashram Publication Department.