Friday, October 2, 2009

OVERVIEW: Is There An Indian Way Of Thinking? An Informal Essay

In the FIRST SECTION of this essay, A.K. RAMANUJAN puts forth some questions and tries answering them by emphasizing on specific aspects of the question.
He asks Is there an Indian way of thinking? The answer to this question is: there was an Indian way of thinking but it does not exist now. The Indian way of thinking can be located in the upper-caste, Brahmanical section of the society - in the Vedas and other religious texts, or when one goes to the 'pundits'. However, since our thinking is still largely shaped as per the Vedas, it would not be completely wrong to say that there still is an Indian way of thinking that exists.
The second question he asks is: Is there an Indian way of thinking? He says that there has always been the existence of Great Tradition and Little Tradition. In India, we celebrate diversities and highlight these differences. Therefore, a single Indian way of thinking does not exist.
The third question is: Is there an Indian way of thinking? India is nothing but a product of the influences of external cultures, languages, religions and social evolutions - therefore, one might say that what we see in India is nothing unique to India. However, India is capable of adapting to the changes and accommodating these external influences into its culture...
The last question he asks is: Is there an Indian way of thinking? Ramanujan says that it is the West that is capable of thought. The West is projected as materialistic and rational. In India, logic is rationalized with religion and superstitions. In India, actions are projected, not the thoughts behind those actions.

Thus in the 1st part of his essay, Ramanujan states how India is perceived differently at different stages by different people and from different perspectives.

In the second part of the essay, the inconsistency between tradition and modernity is depicted with an example from Ramanujan's personal experience. He gives the example of his father to show how India can be ancient yet modern at the same time. For Ramanujan, consistency means strict adherence to only one - either religion or science.
Ramanujan's father was a South Indian Brahman.
  • While he wore dhotis in traditional brahman style, he also wore English jackets over his dhotis.
  • He wore tartan-patterned socks and leather shoes when he went to the university but removed them before entering the inner quarters of the house.
  • He was a mathematician and an astronomer + a Sanskrit scholar and an expert astrologer.
  • He had American and English mathematicians visiting him along with the local pundits and astrologers.
  • While he read the Bhagvad Gita religiously every morning after taking a bath, he would talk about Russell and Ingersoll also with the same amount of passion.
Ramanujan could not figure out such an inconsistency - his father appeared to neither think nor care about any sort of consistency.

In the third part of the essay, Ramanujan interrogates the concept of inconsistency in a larger context - and does not just limit it to his father. He talks of the concept of 'karma' and that of 'talaividi'. Karma implies the self's past as determining the present and future - it is an 'iron chain' of cause and effect. Karmic philosophy is written. Talaividi or 'head writing' focuses on destiny and it is a part of oral tradition.
The Western construction of the Orient (India) is that we are yet to develop the notion of 'data' or 'objective facts'. According to Sudhir Kakar, in the oriental world, there is no clear difference between self and non-self - this brings about inconsistency. India is not influenced by Newstonian thoughts according to Kissinger. In India, there is no concept of the universal. The Indian way of thinking lacks universality; it is a traditional society constituting of inconsistency and hypocrisy. Since the society is tradition in nature, the approach towards the entire society is not secular. According to Zimmer, Indians can imagine a time in history without man. West cannot do that as it is egoistic in nature.
While the west has universality, in India there are subjective positions. The understanding of reality in India is always context-sensitive and not context-free. In India, even the perception of truth is not a universal concept. In the West 'man shall not kill' is a universal statement but in India, punishments are meted out owing to a person's social status. Even in the Manusmriti, we find that moral codes need not be adhered to under all circumstances.

In the fourth part of the essay, Ramanujan examines how context-sensitivity is an important part of Indian culture.
In India, all additions are in fact a subtraction from any universal law. Stories get their context with reference to the frame in which they have been placed. Indian texts are historically dateless, but their contexts, uses and efficacies are explicit Even when we look at Ramayana and Mahabharata, we find that there are several episodes - each story is encased in a meta-story. And within the text, one story is the context for another within it - the outer-frame story as well as the inner sub-story provide relevant contexts for the other's existence. Aristotle's theory of unity of time, place and action cannot be applied to our narratives.
The way we divide time in India is also very different from the way it is done in the West. We have times that are auspicious, inauspicious (rahu kala), and the past and present seem to merge together. Even our houses have moods (vastu shastra).
Indians are prone to blame their wrong-doings on fate, vaastu and it is not possible for us to remove this context-sensitivity. It is latent in our society.
With modernity, we are widening our context in the way we want to rather than doing away with all the traditional practises. It is as a result of this that the original context seems to be lost.

Ramanujan says that all societies have context-sensitive behaviour and rules but the dominant idea is always context-free. In the fifth part of the essay, he observes that socieities that are context-free have movements which are context-specific in nature whereas in societies like India, which are context-sensitive, there is a dream to be free of context - this gives rise to the concept of 'rasa' in aesthetics, 'moksha' in the aims of life and 'sanyasa' in the end of life-stages.

In the last part of the essay, Ramanujan states how we have moved towards context-free situations in India. He says that with modernization, there has been a movement from context-sensitive to context-free at least in principle. Today, people can listen to any raga at any time rather than strictly sticking to the time prescribed. The new thoughts and behaviours borrowed from the West do not replace the old religious ideas. They get incorporated with the existing tradition. In 'Ayudhapuja', even computers and type-writers are worshiped instead of weapons. Therefore, no matter how hard we try to move to become a context-free society, the result is that the context-free nature ends up becoming yet another context i.e. the 'modern' context.

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