Western Culture – A Concise Religio-Philosophical History for the Non Westerner

Western Culture – A Concise Religio-Philosophical History for the Non Westerner

The following are excerpts from the Book Neo-Vedanta and Modernity: Toward an Understanding Of The Ontology of Bliss in the Context of modernity by Prof. Bithika Mukerji. (Full book at http://www.advaita.org.uk/reading/free_other.htm please beware that the document on this site, apparently transcribed from the original printed book, is riddled with Typos. My version below has been cleaned of typos, as far as possible. )

Among the many reasons to read this entire book, the most important one is that it puts in context the path of Vedanta as experienced/discoursed in the intellectual atmosphere of today’s Westernised post-technological age. The focus of this particular piece much smaller, it is just the part in Chapter 1, Section B.: Formative Factors Influencing Western Civilization.

This excerpt gives a highly condensed presentation of the Religio-Philosophical History of Western Culture. This is especially appropriate for the Non Westerner who is used to reading writings where all this is implied somehow in the background, but only serves as heavy baggage to be lifted before the Non-Westerner can get to the real ideas being discussed.

In my opinion, Prof. Bithika Mukherjee does a masterful job, as a Non-Westerner (a practicing Vedantin from the parampara of Ma Anandamayee, before she collected her Western laurels & achievements); in laying bare the overt & covert currents of dominant mainstream Western thought that form the structure of Western intellectual discourse today.

She connects the dots from Green Heroic/Natural ideas, to Plato, to Hebraic (Judeo Christian) assimilation of ideas of God creating Man, to Modern Enlightenment transpositions of the place of Man God & World by key philosophers like Kant & Hegel.

Here are the Excerpts. First with the preliminaries, then to the main body, the Section B which stands by itself as a ‘Mega-sutra’ for those interested in critical analysis of Western thought from a non-Western perspective.

Over to the Text:



From the Introduction: Prof. Bithika Mukerji taught philosophy at the Banaras Hindu University. She wrote the present book as a research work at McMaster University in Canada in 1973-77. She insists in it on the need not to reduce Vedanta to a rationalistic and intellectual ontology, but to see it fully as connected to Bliss and the spiritual experience per se. This is also the difference between the western philosophical approach and the Indian one. In fact, herself a Bengali, she was disciple of the great Bengali woman sage, Ma Anandamayi whom she met as far back as in the thirties. This name “Anandamayi” means “permeated with bliss”, so it is not so astonishing that Bithika develops this subject in the present book. Her reflections on modernity are well documented and deep, they will stimulate a renewed point of view with the readers, both Westerners and Indians.


Introduction (More Excerpts)

It is said very often that Advaita philosophy reflects the general mood of the Indian people. Even when they do not intellectually subscribe to this school of thought, they are drawn into using its terminology as most expressive of all understanding regarding life in the world is formulated in the light of a dichotomy obtaining between what is merely pleasing (preyas) and what is good (śreyas).


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.


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. NeoVedanta 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 demands for active participation in the ongoing concerns of the world.


The influence of Western education on Indian scholars has been profound.


the neo-Vedantins have traversed a different path altogether in staying away from the central teaching of Advaita regarding the non-dual Brahman. 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.



CHAPTER ONE The Framework for modernity: The Western Tradition

A. Modernisation and Westernisation…………

In this chapter, an attempt is made to enter into the concerns of Western philosophers who seek to bring home to us the implication of being obliged to live in the age of technology. In order to do so, we need to familiarize ourselves with the formative influences within the Western tradition which has culminated in the age of technology; only thus can we hope to realize what it means to be modern, or what Rene Guenon means when he writes:

…however far away the state of mind which has been specifically designed as ‘Modern’ may have spread,especially in recent years, and however strong may be the hold which it has taken and which it exercises ever more completely at least externally, over the whole world, this state of mind remains nevertheless purely Western in origin: in the West it had its birth, and the West was for a long time its exclusive domain.In the East its influence will never be any thingbut a Westernization.{Réné Guénon, Writings tr. and ed, by Lord Northbourne (London: Luzac and Company, Ltd., 1952), p. 15}.

It is necessary for us to understand the Western tradition in order to begin to see how integral science and technology are to its culture, and may be also understand the reason why the East remained untouched by this form of quest for knowledge. This survey of the Western tradition is necessarily brief and therefore very partial. However, it is hoped that the simplified nature of the presentation highlights the point of departure which should be studied carefully by those thinkers in the East, who are interested in comparative studies.



B. Formative Factors Influencing Western Civilization:

The cradle of Western tradition is ancient Greece {Frederick s. j. Copleston, A History of philosophy, Vol. I, part I (New York: Doubleday & Co. Inc., 1962), p. 29.} which brought forth great men of noble deeds and brilliant thought. The understanding this ancient society had of itself cannot be recorded as part of the history of the times. {Karl Loewith Meaning in History (The University Chicago Press, 1949), pp. 4-5.}

The ancient world had its own way of understanding the occurrences which commanded attention, such as events of great significance in the lives of heroic men. Their achievements were landmarks which served to inspire and encourage other men to emulation. Celebration of those deeds by recounting them in poetry and drama made them moral imponderables; imponderable, because nobility was closely allied to tragedy.

The mystique of ‘man’’s relationship with nature’’s inscrutable way’ was perpetuated in the recounting of the tales of antiquity. This ‘history’ is almost a re-living of the past and a continuation of the order of nature in human affairs. Nature, according to tradition, was good, and man, as the measure of all things, was a natural event, albeit the most exalted one. The inheritors of the Greek heritage agree that: Through and through, the ideal is unity. To make the individual at one with the state, thereal with the ideal, the inner with the outer, art with moral, finally to bring all phases of life under the empire of a single idea, which with Goethe, we may call, and we will, the good, the beautiful, or the whole -this was the aim, and, to a great extent, the achievement{ G. Lowes Dickinson The Greek View of life (New York: Collier Books, 1961), p. 155. }

The West has experienced many exhilarating moments of emancipation from its past, not the least among them is the overcoming of the religious mythology which had combined nature and man in a harmonious whole. Nature, as we now understand the word was ‘discovered’ by philosophers in ancient Greece. Nature was found not to be full of spirits and thus mysterious and inscrutable but rather, obedient to knowable and predictable laws. {The phrase ‘”discovery of nature”’ was used by F. M. Cornford, who explains it thus: “


The Ionian cosmogonists assume… that the whole universe is natural and potentially within the reach of knowledge as ordinary and rational as our knowledge that fire burns and water drowns. That is what I meant by the discovery of Nature….The Supernatural, as fashioned by mythology, simply disappears; all that really exists is naturalBefore and After Socrates (Cambridge: The University Press, 1964), p. 15.}


This was the beginning of that separation of man and nature which subsequently divided them completely into the two orders of the knower and the known and later of the maker and the made.

The spirit of scientific inquiry did not develop unimpeded; the quest for the ever-fading region of transcendence sometimes eclipsed it. The Platonic separation of the regions of appearance and reality, inaugurated a new line of enquiry which continues to parallel the tradition of questioning nature to its furthest limits. In other words, Plato’s line of separation was drawn differently from that of the nature cosmogonists preceding him. Man, for Plato, was possessed of that reason which could lead him to the vision of the Real and the Good. Nature, therefore, was not exhausted in discovering causes for events, it remained grounded in the eternal order of Forms. The soul of man was activated by the same principle which activated nature. Nature was not merely a neutral object of enquiry but necessarily related to the well-being of man. By focusing on the unchanging ground behind the changing order of existence, the Platonic tradition had acted as a brake on the process of alienation between man and nature. {Benjamin Jowett writes: “nature in the aspect which she presented to a Greek philosopher of the fourth century before Christ is not easily reproduced to modern eyes. The associations of mythology and poetry have to be added and the unconscious influence of science has to be subtracted, before we can behold the heavens or the earth as they appeared to the Greek Introduction: Timaeus, The Dialogues of Plato, Vol. I ii (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1924), p. 38}.


The other source of Western civilization is held to be Hebraism, specifically in the form of Christianity. According to Mathew Arnold, in some ways Hellenism and Hebraism were rival forces, ‘dividing the empire of the world between them.’ He writes that ‘between these two points of influence moves our world. {Mathew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, ed. J. Doyer Wilson (Cambridge: The University Press, 1935), p. 12}.They remained rivals because reason and faith were never quite reconciled in the history of succeeding generations. The advent of Christianity in the West changed the understanding of nature in relation to man. The dimension of historical consciousness replaced the idea of the manifestations of the natural order in recurring cycles. The ‘Christian reversal,’ as Hannah Arendt calls it, introduced a new quality of self-centeredness. ……….

in Christianity neither the world nor the recurring cycle of life is immortal, only the single living individual. It is the world which will pass away; men will live forever. {Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future (New York: The Viking Press, 1961), p. 52}.

Inevitably, perhaps, the eschatological dimension of life minimized the importance of nature. The emphasis was now on man, not only as the measure of all things but as one to whom in effect, is given the world to enjoy and also to inherit the Kingdom of God, {E. Troeltsh, Protestantism and progress (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966), pp. 160-163}. The fast rise and spread of Western power strengthened the sense of destiny and an unquestioning faith in the goodness of Providence.

This new quality of self-centredness introduced by Christianity created a suitable atmosphere for questioning the workings of nature. Answers could be wrested from nature for the betterment of mankind. Quite paradoxically, therefore, it was Christianity which created a milieu for the conquest of nature although apparently it was opposed to the scientific spirit of inquiry into the working of nature.

The paradox may be explained if we consider, opposition came from reverence for dogma rather than for nature. The ancient philosophers who had asked the first questions and who had remained eclipsed by the Platonic tradition, now stood vindicated. It can be said further that the opposition between science and religion was resolved in a strange way by philosophy. It may be a simplification, but not entirely farfetched, to say that the two great philosophers, Kant and Hegel, mediated between science and religion in a fashion which has definitively affected the course of Western thought science their time.

The first major step in the coming of the Age of Reason could be said to be the refutation of the traditional proofs of God’s existence by Kant and the establishment of the supremacy of the moral law as the only object of reverence. According to Kant, man alone, amongst all other creatures, prescribes for himself a law of conduct which is good; it is good not only because it is obeyed out to reverence for the law itself, but because it is the only law which can act as a safeguard against the evil propensities inherent in the nature of man.

If man were devoid of reason, he would not be in conflict regarding the “ought”. If on the other hand he were purely a rational being, them the “ought” would resolve itself into the “must” of natural laws. Virtue lies in becoming so attuned to the command of moral law that obedience becomes akin to an upholding of the law in one’s behaviour. In other words, man’s disposition is to be changed by the moral law. This alone can make men worthy of happiness.

This law, it is true, commands without promise of reward, but it is unthinkable, indeed irrational, to suppose that virtue will not bring out a state of happiness, the union of virtue and happiness is the highest good envisaged by reason and the demand for this comes from the moral law itself. Nature is indifferent to this concomitance; therefore, the sole source of this happiness is God. In the worlds of Kant “…….It is morally necessary to assume the existence of God” {The Critique of practical Reason, Book ii Chapter ii, tr. by L. Beck (The Library of Liberal Arts, 1956), p. 130}.

Kant has here reversed the traditional relation between morality and religion. The result of this re-orientation of the argument for God’s existence has been far reaching in Western tradition. {“After Kant, the proud name of an ontology which presumed to give in a systematic doctrine, synthetic knowledge a priori of things in general, must give place to the modest name of a mere analysis of pure understanding.” Ernst Cassirer, Roussean, Kant and Goethe (New York: Harper Torch books. 1963), p. 95}.

E. L. Fackenheim writes that the peaceful co-existence of Reason and Revelation was upset by Kant’’s revolutionary theory. Moral autonomy is brought at a price. “This same act which appropriates the God-given moral law reduces its God-givenness to irrelevance”. {E. L. Fackenheim, “The Revealed Morality of Judaism and Modern Thought: A Confrontation with Kant.” Quest for past and future (London and Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968), p. 215}.

In other words, in a world made vulnerable to secularity by scientific discoveries, Kant provided the clue to moral independence. By granting him a self-legislating will, he made possible the phenomenon of man, master of his own destiny and standing alone at the crossroads of history. Kant had upset the balance between Reason and Revelation. Hegel by combining them, in an unprecedented way finally ushered in that age of secularity, which has come to stay in Western tradition.

In the wonderful architectonic of Hegelian philosophy, the eschatological fulfillment of Christianity is transformed into the dialectical movement of the world-spirit, moving inevitably toward self-realization in the future. History itself is divinised and made to lead up to the historical situation in which Hegel found himself, and which, for him was the peak of cultural advancement.{Karl Loewith, from Hegel to Nietzsche, tr. David E. Green (New York: Doubleday &Co., Inc., 1967), pp.32-33}. “In this last stage of the history of the European spirit pure free will, is finally produced, which itself both wills, and knows what it wills,” writes Karl Loewith.{Ibid., p. 32}.

Hegel’s understanding of history is of the greatest importance because for almost one century it was he who set the tone for European philosophy either through his followers or his critics. In him was completed the substitution of Christianity by an overriding faith in the historical destiny of European man. History, therefore, was not entirely what has happened but what could be made to happen. This secularization of the religious vision of salvation, brought into vogue the many philosophies of history which supplanted Biblical faith.

Western civilization for centuries had been sustained by faith in the past; the message of charity towards all fellow man as we hope for mercy from God; and a hope for the future in which was promised salvation. For religion to be meaningful, a teleological setting was necessary. By conferring fluidity to the dimension of truth {H. H. Berger, Progressive and Conservative Man (Pittsburgh, Duquesne University Press, 1971), p. 34}, Hegel guaranteed that a quality of religiosity would pervade all theories of progress which became current since his time.

{Quoting Prof. Bury, Carl Becker writes: ‘…… however formulated, and with whatever apparatus of philosophic or scientific terminology defended, the doctrine (of progress) was in essence an emotional conviction, a species of religion-a religion which according to Prof. Bury, served as a substitute for the declining faith in the Christian doctrine of SalvationProgress and Power (New York: Random House, 1965), p.7}.

The nineteenth century saw the dislodgement of religion from its pivotal role in human life, and an upsurge of confidence in progressive involvement in the life of the world. Man, for the first time, knew himself to be the creator and maker of the future. The material well being made possible by scientific discoveries and actualized by the Industrial Revolution was not unwelcome to the men of an age of expanding horizons. This manner of good life could be easily aligned to a life of obedience to the Divine Will because men saw themselves as the chosen liberators of the entire world.

According to Carl Becker: The long treasured vision of a Golden Age once identified with the creation of the world by capricious, inscrutable gods, and then transferred to the beatific life after death in the Heavenly City, is at last identified with the progressive amelioration of man’s earthly state by the application of his intelligence to the mastery of the outer world of things and to the conscious and rational direction of social activities. { Carl Becker, The Heavenly City (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1947), p. 85}.

The nineteenth century flew by on the wings of a great enthusiasm in the various fields of human enterprise. It is recognized as the Age of Progress; {The idea of Progress, first explicitly stated by Condorcet in the eighteenth century, viewed material well-being as essential to individual liberty and peace. “In the course of the nineteenth century, when men could see about them concrete evidence of advance in liberty and material goods, the idea of Progress became an accepted part of our value system.” {Melvin Kranzberg, “Technology and Human Values,” Virginia Quarterly Review, XL, No.4, 1964, p. 589}.

As the age when Utopia was felt to be within grasp; Herbert J. Mueller writes: “In our civilization the idea of progress led to a novel utopianism, the conviction that the ideal society was positively going to be established on earth {The Children of Frankenstein Bloomington and London, Indiana University Press, 1971), p. 369.} as the age of reason which set man free from the tyranny of religious dogma; and as the age of humanism, when for the first time man knew himself to be the measure of all things, not because he was given this position by nature or God but because he had discovered it for himself and had accepted the full responsibility of such an exalted state.

The dissipation of this self-reliance marks the advent of the present century.

The crucial fact of contemporary Western world is a loss of faith in the ideals which had guided previous generations. Christopher Dawson writes: Of all the changes that the twentieth century has brought, none goes deeper than the disappearance of that unquestioning faith in the future and the absolute value of our civilization which had been the dominant note of the nineteenth century. {Christopher Dawson, The Dynamics of World History (London: Sheed and Ward, 1957), p. 54.}

Those who seek to understand Nietzsche are not puzzled by the quick dissipation of the euphoric optimism of the nineteenth century. The inherent contradiction in holding together a belief in God as the supreme dispenser of Grace and an overriding confidence in one’’s will to conquer, had been foreseen clearly by Nietzsche. He knew that in due course the will to create would replace a ‘waiting upon’; that the divinising of history as the progressive destiny of mankind would lead to the jettisoning of God as irrelevant to this process. Just as the spreading wasteland swallows up definitive paths, so must the human will overcome that region of knowing which forms a part of receiving from the ‘Other’.

The philosopher who had given this power to human will, was of course, Immanuel Kant.

{Contrasting the placid outward life of Kant with “his world destroying thought”, the poet Heine wrote: “Of a truth, if the citizens of Konigsberg had had any inkling of the meaning of that thought, they would have shuddered before him as before an executioner.” {Quoted by E. W. F. Tomlin. The Western Philosophers (London: Hutchinson & Co., (Publishers) Ltd., 1968) p. 202.}

How recognizable, how familiar to us, is the man so beautifully portrayed in the Grundlegung, who confronted even with Christ, turns away to consider the judgment of his own conscience and to hear the voice of his own reason… this man is with us still, free, independent, lonely, powerful, Rational, responsible, brave, the hero of so many novels and books of moral philosophy. {Iris Murdoch. The Sovereignity of Good (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979), p. 80.}.

The question which demands attention here is why should living in the twentieth century be an experience of alienation for Western man when paradoxically, he has all the means for increasing affluence and power, as well as a strongly institutionalized religion which can act as a unifying force for the entire Christian World?

As stated earlier, it is important for us to understand this question because we now are a part of Western civilization. An attempt to answer this question is made in the next Chapter.

[End Excerpt]

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