A reappraisal of the book, ‘Neo-Vedanta and Modernity’

This is a reappraisal of the book, 'Neo-Vedanta and Modernity' by Prof Bithika Mukherji (BM). Previously I had criticized her book assuming that she means Sri Ramakrishna when she talks of neo-vedanta. I have now been e-mailed a copy of the internet version of the book by my esteemed Medhajournal colleague Karigar.

It turns out that BM uses the term neo-vedanta to mean academic scholarship in India. So I decided in fairness to BM and Karigar to post a brief review of the book. I will first give a synopsis of the book and then make a few comments on the book.

A brief synopsis of Neo-Vedanta and Modernity

I will start off by substantially quoting her introduction where she does a good job of laying out the case against the neo-vedanta of the academic philosophers of India. She starts of in the Introduction by talking about the ideal of renunciation as a form of knowledge being thematized only in the Advaita philosophy of Sankaracharya. I am now quoting her here:

'All other Vedantic schools of thought subscribe to renunciation as a high ideal, but it is not integral to their philosophy. Sankaracharya has placed the idea of renunciation at the very heart of his writings on the unity of Self (atman) with Ultimate Reality (Brahman). The sphere of the world, together with its knowing subject, the I-consciousness is, as if superimposed on this unity and needs to be 'cancelled ' before Brahman as bliss may be realized as an existential experience.

This supreme discrimination between that which is the area of the not-self and that which leads towards true knowledge or self-realization, is called renunciation. It should not be an act of physical withdrawal from the world, which any way, is not perhaps the best mode of denying the world. The very demand of the world to be considered real and final is called maya in Advaita philosophy; this dimension of non-reality or maya can be offset only by an equally powerful process of meta-physical cancellation, a renouncing of layers of false identification, so that the veil may be set at naught. The inspiration for this trans-natural way of understanding the human condition comes from the Upanishads which speak of the language of poetry to recall man's attention dispersed in the world in search of happiness, and to focus it on the quest for the very source of bliss itself.

In neo-Vedanta, that is, contemporary interpretations of Sankaracharya's thought, we meet with a very different understanding of 'maya' as well as of the philosophical grounding of the Texts of the Upanishads…….

According to Sankaracharay, then the self or atman is the foundational self-luminous reality as opposed to such relational categories [like] knowing, enjoying, etc. superimposing in the false attribution of the relational categories which are applicable only in the sphere of not-self.  Nescience or avidya is primarily this principle of relationality which upholds the superstructure of superimposition created by maya. Brahman, the non-relational ground of all relations is revealed only when the relational structure ceases to be operative. … Brahman is to be known through knowledge only, because knowledge reveals that which is already there as Reality, by simply cancelling veil as veil. The dissipation of duality is simultaneous with the realization of the true nature of atman as the Real, the Conscious, Infinite and Bliss Supreme.

Samkaracarya's Preamble to the Vedanta Sutra Bhasya sets the stage for demonstrating the non-reality of anything other than Brahman. Maya, therefore, is integral to the Advaita of Samkaracarya because the concept of maya holds together the ideals of renunciation and Bliss…….

In the nineteenth century, India was brought very close to the Western world through the medium of English education which was welcomed by the leaders of society, Indian scholars were much influenced by the metaphysical speculations of the West, especially by Kant who seemed close to the philosophic position of Vedanta regarding Noumenon which lay behind the categories of thought.

Contemporary philosophical orientations in India show a resurgence of Advaita philosophy. The Advaita of Samkaracarya was presented to the world as the best philosophical achievement of India. The 'modernisation' of Indian thought lies in its being presented in terms of Western Philosophy. Many Indian scholars undertook to define Advaita philosophy in such language as could render it intelligible from the perspective of the Western world. The most popular method of doing this was to write on comparative philosophy. The idea behind this brand of writing seems to be that a familiarity with one dimension of thought would open up possibilities of understanding problems inhering in other modes of thinking. Comparative philosophy as methodology for neo-vedanta has come to stay in India.

The point of the present study is that the acceptance of comparative philosophy as a valid methodology is based on a disregard for the crucial and irreducible difference between two traditions, as shaped by philosophers in these traditions. There is yet another aspect which is still more crucial for an understanding of an ancient philosophical tradition such as Advaita Vedanta. Indian scholars in seeking to make their heritage commensurable with the Western outlook on life are already placed in a position of losing hold over it, because they have not first examined the ground on which such changes in their traditions could take place if at all.

This book is devoted to the problem of the westernization of Advaita Vedanta which as neo-Vedanta prevails as the philosophy of our own times in India. Neo-Vedanta seeks to give a realistic interpretation of Advaita and also to make it self-sufficient as a philosophy, without recourse to Scriptural texts.  According to contemporary Indian thinkers, modernity can be appropriated easily to the universalism of Advaita. Without jettisoning the hard core of the tradition, Advaita could very well be re-stated in terms of modern demandsfor active participation in the ongoing concerns of the world.

Without calling into question the right of any philosopher to interpret Advaita according to his own understanding of it, this study seeks to establish that the process of Westernization has obscured the core of this school of thought. The basic correlation of renunciation and Bliss has been lost sight of in the attempts to underscore the cognitive structure and the realistic structure which according to Samkaracarya should both belong to, and indeed constitute the realm of maya.

An analysis of this process of obscuration forms the subject matter of this book. The first three chapters are devoted to the study of modernism as it is understood as such by Indian thinkers who seeks to revitalize their heritage in the light of 'modernity'. Consequently, all attempts at approximating to the west are riddled by this basic confounding of fundamental values. We can see this very clearly in the fact that the concept of renunciation plays no part in the writings of neo-Vedantins: and also that there is no awareness of the advent of secularism as an inevitable corollary to the movement of thought from Kant to Nietzsche in the West. Neo-Vedantins have emphasized concepts of Brahman as Real (sat) and Brahman as Consciousness (cit), but not Brahman as bliss (ananda) although the three terms together from the common definition of Brahman, that is: Saccidananda.

The influence of Western education on Indian scholars has been profound. An attempt has been made to put this impact in perspective in Chapters Four and Five. In the next three Chapters the writings of two eminent scholars are taken up for detailed study to validate my point that added emphasis has been laid by neo-Vedantins on the concept of Brahman as Reality and consciousness to the exclusion of bliss. Both men, A.C. Mukerji and Kokileshvar Bhattacharya were recognized in their own times as accredited spokesmen for Advaita. Both were well-versed in western Philosophy as teachers of it in the Universities of Allahabad and Calcutta respectively. Both fellow in general the guidelines of traditional exegesis but individually develop their own particular points of view. A.C. Mukerji favoured a rationalistic approach to Advaita and Kokilesvar Bhattacharya a realistic approach. Their relevance for this study
lies in the fact that according to their own understanding of Advaita it is quite commensurable with concepts to be found in western thought. It is not that they thematized their exegeses as such but they did attempt to relate Advaita ontology to modern thought.

The point I wish to develop is that the entire intellectual movement, was for contemporary Indian thought, a process of alienation rather than the recovery of an ancient heritage. The Ninth and Tenth Chapters take up the study of this process of transformation of Indian philosophy towards an integration of its understanding of reality with all the new values of our times. Renunciation is nowadays understood by Indian scholars to mean a physical withdrawal from the world, a turning away from involvement and thus leading to moral apathy. Their evaluation of a traditional Indian value can in no way be distinguished from the charge leveled against Indian thought by the indologists of the nineteenth century.

To demonstrate my point that a total reversal has taken place of the fundamental standpoint of Advaita Vedanta, I have undertaken a study of the Taittiriya Upanishad in the last Chapter of the book. In this text, we meet with an understanding of man and his world. The text also brings out the uniqueness of man as seeker of the supreme knowledge of Brahman as Bliss. I have followed the Commentary of Samkaracarya on this Text so that it mat be seen clearly how the neo-Vedantins have traversed a different pathaltogether in staying away from the central teaching of Advaita regarding the non-dual Brahman.

I have sought to reinforce my point by adding as Part ii of this book the translation of a small text on Advaita written in the fourteenth century by a well-known author in this field. I have write an introduction and commentary on this work, which so far has not been translated into English or into any of the Indian languages. This text, called the Taittiriyaka-vidya-prakash, is a commentary on the Taittiriyake-Upanishad. The Text examined in the last two chapters of part I. A study of author's time reveals the fact that the main streams of exegeses were continuing to uphold the tradition as enunciated by Samkaracarya. This may be seen to be in direct contrast to the modern interpreters of Vedanta who seemed to have uncritically envisaged the possibility of revitalizing their tradition by incorporating new ideas in order to be in tune with the demands of the times.

It is a well known fact that attempts at re-interpreting the Upanishadic tradition in the light of modern Western thought have not resulted in any major contribution towards meaningful living in our contemporary world. In the following pages an assessment of these attempts is given with a view to clarifying the process of 'modernization' of Indian thought. The study of these exegeses suggests that the emerging scene is of Westernized thought rather than either modern or Indian. This would also explain the reason behind the dearth of new philosophical schools in our country. This book, in effect, seeks to highlight the question, namely, is it right to say that renunciation has been central to the teaching of the Upanishads; and if so, in what way, orif at all, this teaching can be related to the contemporary way of life in India?'

Summary of the Charges against neo-Vedanta

I felt that it would be useful to lay out point by point the charges against neo-Vedanta. These charges are:

(1) Neo-Vedantin academic philosophers have recklessly compared their version of Advaita Vedanta with western philosophy. The acceptance of comparative philosophy as a valid methodology is based on a disregard for the crucial and irreducible difference between the Advaita Vedanta and western philosophical traditions;

(2) Neo-Vedantin philosophers have made changes to the traditional understanding of Advaita Vedanta tradition (by making it realistic for example and ignoring scriptural texts) in order to make their heritage commensurable with the western outlook on life. Neo-Vedantin scholars have emphasized concepts of Brahman as Real (sat) and Consciousness (chid) but not Ananda (Bliss);

(3) As a result neo-Vedantin scholars claim that modernity can be appropriated easily to the universalism of realistic Advaita;

(4) As a result of the previous stance, neo_vedantin scholars have ignored renunciation and lost sight of the connection between renunication and bliss in their attempt to underscore the cognitive structure and the realistic structure of Advaita Vedanta which according to Sankaracharya should both belong to and indeed constitute the realm of maya;

(5) neo_vedantin scholars have shown no sign of awareness of the 'the advent of secularism as an inevitable corollary to the movement of thought from Kant to Nietzsche in the west';

(6) These attempts at re-interpreting the Upanishadic tradition in the light of modern Western thought have not resulted in any major contribution towards meaningful living in our contemporary world. Neo-Vedantic philosophy is westernized thought and represents alienation from Indian thought.

Finally it is suggested that this blistering attack on neo-Vedantin scholars is not an attack on Sri Ramakrishna and Vivekananda.

My Reply to these charges

Charge 1:

There is some merit in the first charge that neo-Vedantin philosophers have ignored basic and irreconcilable differences between Indian and Western systems. One could argue, for example, that atman is not the same thing as the soul. This is a problem not so much of a philosophical system as the use of a language alien to Vedantic thought and the colonial political mileu. One could accuse BM also of similar charge. For example, BM is translating darsana as philosophy here. I have some reservation whether Advaita Vedanta is a philosophy or darsana. The solution to this problem is to change the medium of instruction in India to an appropriate Indian language where exact terminologies are available.

Charge 2:

It is entirely possible that neo_vedantin scholars have not agreed with everything Shankara wrote. That is not a weakness but strength. Various other scholars like Bhaskara, Ramanuja, Madhva, Jiva have also rejected Shankara's exegesis. BM has actually herself agreed to this stance when she wrote, 'Without calling into question the right of any philosopher to interpret Advaita according to his own understanding of it'.

Charge 3:

I see no reason to be worried about the claim by neo-Vedantin scholars that modernity can be easily appropriated to the universalism of Advaita. I in fact agree with this claim. Modernity with its science and technology is a product of the study of the material world while Advaita Vedanta darsana is for the spiritual world. There is no problem of co-existence between the two.

Charge 4:

I found BM's definition of renunciation very strange. She defines renunciation as the 'supreme discrimination between that which is the area of the not-self and that which leads towards true knowledge or self-realization'. What she is describing is not renunciation but viveka or discrimination.  Gita 18.2 defines renunciation as follows:

kamayanam karmanah nyasam samnyasam kavayo viduh sarva-karma-phala-tyagam prahus tyagam vicaksanah

Abandonment of all desire-prompted actions is Samnyasa (renunciation) according to the wise. Men of discernment speak of the abundonment of the fruits of all actions as Tyaga (renunciation). It seems that BM after accusing neo-Vedantin scholars of changing systems has herself changed definition.

Any way, it is the not the job of academic scholars to worry about renunication and bliss. That is the job of spiritual aspirants. I do not find anything in this charge. Academic philosophers will write what they think the scriptural text is saying. It is entirely possible that others will not accept such interpretations.

Charge 5:

I do not see why the advent of secularism as a corollary to the movement of thought from Kant to Nietzsche in the west is inevitable. India is not the same as the west. BM seems to be accepting uncritically the idea that since such a thing happened in the west, it must also happen in India. BM has also stressed that technology it self will affect Vedanta. I agree with neo-Vedantin scholars like Swami Ranganathananda that technology will not have any impact on Vedanta. It is my contention that it is the shortcomings of western religious thought and not techonology that has led to the decline of Christianity.

There is, in Hinduism, a distinction between 'higher knowledge' and 'lower knowledge' according to the Mundaka Upanishad I.i.4.

The lower knowledge includes all knowledge that endows a man with the knowledge of the manifested universe and enables him to enjoy material prosperity on earth. The higher knowledge enables a man to realize the Self or God. The lower knowledge is knowledge of the empirical world and there is no bar to pursuing it. The lower knowledge is obtained by the use of reason. This is not the case with higher knowledge. The higher knowledge, knowledge of God, is beyond the realm of logic since God is beyond our senses. Nobody has ever been able to prove or disprove the existence of God using logic. If you can do that then God will come under the purview of science. Thus God can only be "known" in a supersensuous experience (Aporakhsanubhuti). Thus higher knowledge, obtained by meditation, is supersensuous knowledge. There is no conflict between these two types of knowledge since they operate in two
distinctly different realms. The higher knowledge does not contradict logic but introduces us to an alogical realm.

Charge 6:

I do not agree with BM that neo-Vedantic thought is an interpretation of Advaita Vedanta in the light of modern Western thought. Ramakrishna has also proposed a realistic Advaita Vedanta in the light of his spiritual experience.

The statement, Neo-Vedantic philosophy is westernized thought and represents alienation from Indian thought, is without any merit. Indian thought is not a static system that we should be afraid of any change. There are in fact numerous versions of Vedanta. That is only natural. Gifted men will indeed find new ways of interpreting past thoughts. Indian thought in fact accepts that change is the way of the world. That is why the term jagat (movement) is used to describe the world.

I do not fully agree with the claim that BM is only attacking neo-Vedantin academic philosophers and not Sri Ramakrishna's Vedanta. Of course, she has the right to disagree with Ramakrishna Vedanta.

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