Thursday, January 2, 2014

Buddhist Thought in India: Three Phases of Buddhist Philosophy / Edward Conze -- Ann Arbor, Mich: University of Michigan Press, 1970

Edward Conze is among the most important Western commentators on Buddhism.  He is particularly important for his translation of the Prājñapāramitā-sūtra or The Perfect of Wisdom which exists in three versions of 18,000, 25,000, and 100,000 lines.  The Prājñapāramitā-sūtra is important to the Mahāyāna tradition and especially the Mādhyamaka school.  T.R.V. Murti has called the Mādhyamaka the "central" philosophy of Buddhism, and no doubt it played a very important role in the advance of Buddhism from its early Abhidharma period to the more inclusive Mahāyāna phase; but Conze's career and understanding of Buddhism is not limited to this particular tradition and he demonstrates his broad understanding in Buddhist Thought in India.

Early on, Conze virtually apologizes for writing Buddhist Thought in India citing Theodore Stcherbatsky's monumental work Buddhist Logic.  According to Conze, Stcherbatsky has already covered Conze's topic in much greater detail and at much greater length than Conze can provide, but Conze is being overly modest here.  While Stcherbatsky's work is brilliant and covers much of what is ing Buddhist Thought in India, the latter work provides a clear and concise explanation of topics that Stcherbatsky struggles to communicate.  Stcherbatsky's work focuses mainly on the philosophy of three late period philosophers:  Dignāga, Dharmakīrti, and Dharmottara.  In contrast, Conze covers the entire sweep of Indian Buddhism.

Buddhist Thought in India is divided into three large parts covering Archaic Buddhism, Sthavira Buddhism, and Mahāyāna Buddhism.  His treatments are evenhanded and respectful of each tradition.  He describes both the historical developments that lead to each of these successive periods and explains the critical concepts that characterized them.  According to Conze, Archaic Buddhism, i.e, the Buddhism of Buddha and his immediate successors, can be recognized by what is accepted by all (or most all) subsequent traditions, e.g., the impermanence of all things, the ubiquity of suffering, and the doctrine of no-self.  His treatment of these and other important Buddhist concepts provide the reader with an excellent summary of the main tenets of Buddhism.

In the Sthavira phase of Buddhism, a number of disagreements arose over the interpretation of the main tenets.  This led to a period of highly sophisticated philosophical debate in which the "abhidharma" or higher learning animated numerous Buddhists schools.  Conze's treatment of these debates is good.  Among them is the challenge by the heterodox Pudgalavādan school that asserted the existence of persons, virtually rejecting the doctrine of no-self.  Conze also explores various views of impermanence and especially causation, but also the nature of space, nirvana, enlightened beings, and path to salvation.

It is in the section on Mahāyāna Buddhism that Conze really shows his expertise.  He treats Mahāyāna's three main schools with clarity and precision:  Mādhyamaka, Yogācāra, and the School of Logic.  The first of these schools presents a stark break from the Sthavira tradition, leveling powerful criticisms of its philosophical positions and opening up Buddhism to a more popular following.  In a more positive vein, the Yogācāra school advanced clear alternatives to the Sthavira tradition, sometimes disregarding the arguments of the Mādhyamikas.  Finally, the School of Logic applied extraordinary scrutiny to the basic Buddhist concepts to bring Buddhism to its highest philosophical pitch.  The work of the Logicians is far more completely explained by Stcherbatsky in his Buddhist Logic.

Among the larger arguments presented by Conze in this work is that when trying to understand Buddhism, one should not be fooled into thinking it is a purely rational philosophy that is compatible with modern science.  According to Conze, Buddhism is unquestionably a religion with the goal of saving the world from suffering.  It's empirical and metaphysical positions reach beyond the narrow scope of modern science and to leave out these elements misses its most important contribution to the world.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction / Richard H. Robinson -- Belmont, Cal.: Dickenson Publishing Co., 1970

Richard Robinson's short history The Buddhist Religion is a mixture of facts about the rise and fall of various schools of Buddhism and some of the main tenets of their faiths.  It is, unfortunately, not as detailed as one might like on the latter score.   Two short chapters -- one introductory and one concluding -- describe the current state and potential future of Buddhism, but the bulk of the book examines Buddhism from its origin with the Buddha to roughly the second millennium C.E.  Twenty-six pages are devoted to Buddhism during the life of the Buddha, forty-three are devoted to Buddhism in India, and thirty-five are devoted to Buddhism outside of India.  What we know of the life of the Buddha is, of course, colored by myth and legend.  Robinson is not shy to recount many of these.  Of the later two topics, much of the work describes various religious beliefs, including celestial bodhisattvas, celestial buddhas, and the magical beliefs, particularly of Tantric Buddhism.  Consequently, his title, The Buddhist Religion is appropriate. Anyone looking for a history of Buddhist philosophy should go elsewhere.

His treatment of the rise and fall of various schools is worthwhile, though.  The reader gets a fairly clear outline of Buddhism's genealogy, but again, there is scant  treatment (not to say no treatment) of the details of the doctrinal disagreements that led to various schisms.  His treatment of the ideas characteristic of Buddhism outside of India is especially weak.  One is presented instead with brief descriptions (in the style of biographical reference book entries) of important Buddhists in China and Japan.  More print is devoted to the political fortunes of these figures than their doctrines.  The treatment of Buddhism in Southeast Asia is even more cursory.

Robinson provides no bibliographic footnotes to his work, and only a few textual notes.  The reader must be content with a list of "selected readings."  No doubt, the selection is good and the list is not short, but anyone looking to confirm some bit of information or expand one's understanding of a topic is not well served by it.  Robinson does provide a clearly organized list of Buddhist scriptures for the Pali, Chinese, and Tibetan canons.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A History of Indian Philosophy, Vol. I / Surendranath Dasgupta -- Chapter V: Buddhist Philosophy -- Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1922

In 1922, the young Indian scholar Surendranath Dasgupta published the first volume of what would become a five volume history of Indian philosophy.  It is a magisterial, encyclopedic work.  Chapter Five is a noteworthy summary of Buddhist philosophy in India, substantial in both length and depth.

Dasgupta begins the work as one might expect, describing the state of philosophy in India just before the time of the Buddha, recounting the legends associated with the life of the Buddha, and outlining the literature of the early period of the Buddhist tradition, but he quickly moves on to a more substantive treatment of Buddhist philosophy, detailing a wide variety of doctrines held by numerous schools.  At first he provides a general account of a number of concepts that are central to the early schools of Buddhism, e.g., causation, consciousness, rebirth, the khandas (Sk: skandhas), theories of matter and sense contact, morality, meditation, kamma (Sk: kharma), and nibbana (Sk: nirvana), providing rather mainstream interpretations.  He goes on, though, to indicate how various schools have reinterpreted these ideas.  Later, Dasgupta takes up the contributions of the Mahayana schools -- Madhyamaka and Yogacara -- and ultimately takes up the views of the Sautrantikas.

The work is an excellent overview of Buddhist philosophy; however, the reader might be somewhat puzzled by its organization.  It is not always clear which views are being attributed to which schools and which views are taken to be shared by numerous schools.  It is notable that his treatment of Madhyamaka was written before the work of Fyodor Stcherbatsky and T.V.R. Murti.  Consequently, he takes the Madhyamikas to be nihilists and does not provide the more sophisticated account of sunyata (emptiness) that characterizes later works on Buddhism. 

Regardless of its shortcomings, Chapter Five of A History of Indian Philosophy is an extremely valuable treatment of Buddhist philosophy which can serve both as an encyclopedic reference source and a valuable continuous text.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Comparative Philosophy and the Philosophy of Scholarship: On the Western Interpretation of Nagarjuna / Andrew P. Tuck -- N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1990

Understanding an alien tradition poses enormous obstacles. Many concepts that one takes for granted from one's own tradition turn out to be culturally specific, even ones that seem so fundamental to one's understanding of a subject that we think that they surely must be universal. Nonetheless, if we are to gain a cosmopolitan understanding, we must do what we can to understand what falls outside of our established world views. Success is always partial and it requires long and arduous study or total immersion in the alien culture.

In Comparative Philosophy and the Philosophy of Scholarship Andrew Tuck illustrates the changing fashions among Western scholars in their attempts to understand Indian Buddhist philosophy, particularly the views of Nagarjuna and the Madyamaka school that Nagarjuna is said to have founded. Tuck distinguishes three phases in the Western interpretation of Nagarjuna and the Madyamaka school: German idealism, Anglo-American analysis, and post-Wittgensteinian linguistic functionalism. Previously understood as little more than nihilism, serious study of the Madyamaka school did not begin until the 20th century. A landmark in this development was Fyodor Stcherbatsky's book Buddhist Logic which agreed on the illusory nature of the empirical world, but did not reject the reality of a transcendent world of the thing-in-itself. By this, Stcherbatsky advanced a distinctly Kantian conception of Buddhism which recognized the apparent duality of the phenomenal and the noumenal. The approach is further developed by T.R.V. Murti's The Central Philosophy of Buddhism.

As the idealist view of Nagarjuna was coming to maturity, Western philosophers were beginning to abandon idealism and speculative philosophy in general. Instead, the techniques of logical analysis of Anglo-American philosophy were gaining prominence and a number of Nagarjuna's Western interpreters were employing these techniques to understanding his work. According to Tuck, Richard Robinson is foremost in this movement. Given Nagarjuna's criticism of competing philosophical views and the nearly syllogistic passages in his works, it is no wonder that the techniques of the logician would be applied. During this period of interpretation, Nagarjuna's tetralemma [neither A, ~A, A&~A, nor ~(A&~A)] became the focus of study. Nagarjuna's primary project was taken to be refuting all competing philosophical positions, thus rendering all conceptions of "own being" meaningless. According to Robinson, Nagarjuna failed in this project, but in any case, the approach to Nagarjuna's work was analytic, not speculative.

The final phase of interpretation came after the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. According to the post-Wittgensteinian philosophers, Nagarjuna's task was pursued via a careful examination of the function of language, not its mere logical relations. Here a pragmatic, soteriological enterprise was afoot. Nagarjuna was showing his contemproaries how the fly might escape the fly bottle.

Tuck does not endorse any of these readings of (or approaches to reading) Nagarjuna. He merely seeks to show how the philosophical dispositions of Western philosophers have influenced the understanding of Nagarjuna. His work is in its detail interesting, but the larger point seems trivial. He does, however, seem to imply a more significant point.  Beyond merely observing that interpretations of alien traditions necessarily are shaped by the assumptions of the interpreting culture, Tuck seems to suggest that while no prior cultural assumptions are better or worse than another, each can generate a new and interesting mixture of ideas that will illuminate and advance human understanding.

Wei Shih Er Shih Lun or The Treatise in Twenty Stanzas on Representation-Only / Vasubandhu -- Clarence H. Hamilton, trans. -- New Haven, Conn: American Oriental Society, 1938

Over the long history of Buddhism, many schools of thought developed.  Precisely when one school or another appeared is usually controversial. So it should come as no surprise that establishing the date of the foundation of the Yogacara school is controversial.  It is believed that the school was founded by two brothers, Asanga and Vasubandhu.  According to Louis de La Vallee Poussin, the brothers lived during the early 4th century.  Other scholars place them in the latter half of the 5th century.  In either case, their school of thought is among the last to develop in India.

Vasubandhu is deemed responsible for two treatises that present the central ideas of the Yogacara school:  the Viṃśatikā-vijñaptimātratāsiddhi and the Triṃśikā-vijñaptimātratāsiddhi.  These Sanskrit texts are now lost to  us, but both were translated into Chinese numerous times.  From these translations we now have English versions:  The Treatise in Twenty Stanzas on Representation-Only and The Treatise in Thirty Stanzas on Representation-Only respectively.  The edition of the Viṃśatikā reviewed here contains both the Chinese translation by Hsuan Tsang and the English version by Clarance Hamilton.

The Treatise in Twenty Stanzas defends Yogacara doctrines primarily by addressing critiques advanced by other Buddhist schools, thus clearing the way for the acceptance of the Yogacara doctrines.  It is in The Treatise in Thirty Stanzas that Vasubandhu presents a fuller, positive treatment of his thinking.  The central doctrine which Vasubandhu seeks to make tenable is that all that exists is, according to Hamilton's translation, is "representation."  Others translate "representation" as "thought," "mind," "consciousness," or "discernment."  The Yogacara view has often been described as a form of idealism. 

Most broadly speaking, Vasubandhu frames his arguments by considering the relationship between objects of representation, representations, and the ego to which objects are represented.  Of these, only representations are real.  Vasubandhu argues against the Sarvastivadin view that both objects and representations are real, against the Madyamikan view that both objects and representations are equally unreal, and against the Sautrantikan view that representations are merely modes of mental functioning. 

The main target of his arguments are the objections of realists, i.e., those who posit an objective world, independent of thought.  As nearly all Buddhists deny the existence of the self, a refutation of the ego to which objects are represented isn't necessary.  To refute the objections of the realist's, Vasubandhu attempts to show that his idealism can explain adequately that (1) sense objects (representations) can be fixed in space and time, (2) they can be shared in a publicly among numerous steams of consciousness, and (3) they can have a practical function. 

In a more positive attack on realism, Vasubandhu argues that the elements that might make up an objective world are insubstantial.  Of course this view could be extended to the representations that Vasubandhu asserts are real.  His defense against the insubstantiality of objects and representations relies upon the distinction between ordinary cognition and the cognition of an enlightened being.  Ordinary cognizers might easily reject the substantiality of representations and adopt a kind of nihilism; however, a fully enlightened cognizer will recognize a supramundane realm of elements.  By availing himself of this supramundane reality that is intuited only by the enlightened, Vasubandhu comes down squarely in the camp of mysticism.  This is not meant as a refutation of his views, but merely that the methods of ordinary perception and reason are not sufficient to reveal absolute truth.  To discover this, one must adopt the yogic practice that leads to transcendent knowledge; hence, his school of thought is called "Yogacara."

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Vedanta Philosohy: Self-Knowledge (Atma-Jnana) / Swami Abhedananda -- N.Y.: Vedanta Society, 1905

Perhaps the central concern of Hindu philosophy is attaining a spiritual union with the divine.  This is sometimes understood theistically and other times not.  What is common in both traditions is the idea that we ourselves must find a path to union with the divine.  To do this, we must first understand who (or what) we are.  In the West, we often seek self-understanding through introspection and psychoanalysis to uncover an authentic identity as opposed to one that has been created for us by our family and social conditions.  "Finding one's self" is about understanding our true values, true passions, or true life projects.  One should contrast this self knowledge with the self knowledge that Swami Abhedananda calls upon us to discover in his book Vedanta Philosophy: Self-Knowledge (Atma-Jnana)

The self knowledge at issue here is less a question of "who am I" and more a question of "what am I."  It is a more fundamental inquiry.  Abhedananda begins this inquiry by examining the concepts of mind and matter (especially matter).  He asserts that three relationships have been posited between these ideas:  (1) that mind exists only as a product of matter (materialism), (2) that matter exists only as a product of mind (idealism), and (3) that each is dependent upon the other as two poles of a magnet (monism).  Abhedananda presents a number of arguments against materialism.  He goes on to simply assert that idealism is "as erroneous as the materialistic theory."  His preference is for monism. 

The true self or "atman" is then equated with God.  This is Advaita Vedantism.  By understanding that the true self is neither the ephemeral material self nor the individual mind, one comes to know that one's true self is an eternal, cosmic, universal "Soul of our souls" and that "those who do not realize this true Self, dwell in the darkness of ignorance and go through the misery and sufferings which exist in that darkness."  Critical to understanding one's true self is to recognize that at the base of all experience is "prana" or the life-force which animates the world and makes all experience possible. It is "inseparable from intelligence and self consciousness."  Later, Abhedananda employs the traditional analogy for the true self saying that it is like the sun, creating the possibility that all things can be visible.

Perhaps the most critical idea here is that the question that vexes the materialist and the idealist is that the relationship between the self and the world, the subject and the object, Atman and Brahman, is obscure.  Abhedananda, in line with the Advaita Vedanta tradition draws the conclusion that Atman is Brahman and that recognizing this allows us to escape our suffering and become fully actualized.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Fall of Arthur / J.R.R. Tolkien -- Christopher Tolkien, ed., Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013

When most of us think of Britain's mythopoeic tradition, the legends of King Arthur and his knights come quickly to mind.  According to J.R.R. Tolkien's biographer Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien found them "too lavish, and fantastical, incoherent and repetitive," but Tolkien did enjoy them as a child.  His appreciation for them as an adult was great enough to move him to edit (with E.V. Gordon) a Middle English version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and later to translate the poem into modern English, retaining its alliterative verse form.  It is not clear exactly when, but roughly around this stage of his career, Tolkien also began writing an alliterative poem "in the Beowulf meter" (according to his friend R.W. Chambers)  entitled The Fall of Arthur.

The poem was never completed by Tolkien, but numerous manuscripts survived.  Much to our benefit, Tolkien's son Christopher has assembled the best of these verses into a striking version of the story of the death of Arthur.  Tolkien is a master of Britain's traditional poetic meter and "Norther" alliterative verse, having composed numerous works in this style, so it is a pleasure to read Christopher's edition of his father's work, and to see how Tolkien chose to tell a story often told, but often told out of the context of the time.  Tolkien's knowledge of the literature and history of medieval England makes him especially equipped to give us what seems to be an authentic version of legend.

Along with the poem itself, Christopher Tolkien provides us with three essays of his own.  The first is the most interesting.  It recounts various tellings of the events that are included in Tolkien's The Fall of Arthur, including those by Geoffrey of Monmouth and Sir Thomas Mallory.  Christopher Tolkien ably puts his father's imaginative treatment of the story into the context of this tradition, allowing us to see what Tolkien retained from that tradition and what is new in his narrative.  Perhaps the most interesting addition that Tolkien brings to the legend is his treatment of Guinevere (or "Guinever" as Tolkien chooses to spell her name.)  While modern treatments of her character make her out to be a beautiful, but star-crossed, heroine, Tolkien's Guinever seems more akin to Lady MacBeth.  Possibly less sympathetic, Guinever seems a good deal more autonomous and powerful than the more popular Guinevere.

Christopher Tolkien's second essay seeks to draw connections between The Fall of Arthur and Tolkien's larger legendarium, The Silmarillion.  While this essay includes a good deal of interesting paragraphs and valuable insights, it is largely disconnected and confused.  One is never sure if there are any broader points to be made by the essay.  The third essay amounts to little more than a record of various alternative drafts of the version that Christopher Tolkien chose to make "canonical" as The Fall of Arthur.  We are provided with page upon page of alternate passages that serve little purpose than to let the reader know that Christopher Tolkien needed to make numerous editorial decision in creating the canonical version.  Given these alternate passages, one could, in principle, re-do the work of the editor and create a number of very different versions of Tolkien's work, but it is hard to imagine who would want to bother.

In all, The Fall of Arthur is a welcome addition to the compiled work of J.R.R. Tolkien, it illustrates Tolkien's poetic genius, and tempts one to further explore both Tolkien's other alliterative poems and the treatments by other authors of the Arthurian legends.    

Yoga and the Quest for the True Self / Stephen Cope -- N.Y.: Bantam Books, 1999

Stephen Cope's book Yoga and the Quest for the True Self is a combination of memoir and an account of Cope's understanding of the essence of yoga, particularly the form of yoga that he experienced in his ten-year residence at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health.  The result is an idiosyncratic interpretation of yoga, shaped by Cope's history as a psychotherapist.  On the whole, the work is well-written, presenting composites of characters from his years as a therapist and yoga practitioner. 

Cope decided to take up residence at the Kripalu Center for a one year "sabbatical" shortly after his partner of fifteen years left him for a very much younger man.  It appears his own motivation was less spiritual and more psychotherapeutic.  Consequently, it is no surprise that he interprets yogic practice (his own and others) as a means to deal with personal psychological turmoil.  It is only at the end of the book that he gives any indication that the "true self" for which he is searching is without the empirical characteristics that are the objects of psychotherapy.

Much of the book describes various residents and visitors at the Kripalu Center and the psychological motives behind their yogic practice.  Cope at least initially presents yoga to be the effort to recall the self from exile and create a "royal road home."  Search for the "true self" often means coming to terms with unconscious motivations and psychic states that make one's life painful, unfulfilling, inauthentic, or simply lacking in some respect.  Among the insights that Cope finds helpful is that one's mind and body are importantly connected.  The practice of yoga allowed Cope to understand that his false constructions of his identity were reflected in how he experienced his body.  He often makes much of how yoga practitioners will find a pain or tension in some specific part of the body and draw the conclusion that it is there because of some mental or psychological unease.  Undoubtedly, there are connections between ones mental states and physical states, but the connections that Cope often asserts seem highly speculative.

Cope admirably recognizes that one should approach claims made by yogis with not only an open mind, but also with a skeptical mind, and true to a pragmatic approach to psychotherapy (and spiritual liberation), whatever succeeds for the practitioner/patient should not be denigrated; however, for anyone steeped in 20th century scientific realism or pretty much any moderately exacting criterion for the justification of beliefs, much of what is "successful" seems a bit like so much snake oil.  It's great if a placebo works, but if it involves accepting unfalsifiable claims about the empirical world, it's hard not to listen to one's skeptic mind.

Toward the end of the book, Cope provides an account of a crisis within the Kripalu Center, when the Center's spiritual leader is discovered to have been having sexual relations with some of its residents.  Cope's account of the explosive anger among the residents indicates that the submissive guru-follower relationship that often characterizes spiritual seekers could not contain the individualist, egalitarian, and free-thinking attitudes among the Center's residents and visitors.

By the end of the book, Cope comes to resolve for himself a question that he raises throughout the book.  In the face of the trials and tribulation of the world, how can the assertion by his guru that "everything is OK" be correct.  The answer comes from Cope's realization that his true self is not the empirical self that experiences trials and tribulations. It is an eternal self that embraces all the universe, or at least all consciousness.  He writes, "For several sublime moments, the boundaries that separated us [Cohen and his friends], our complicated personalities, our struggles, our tragedies, all receded into the stillness of Lake Mahkeenac.  We were together on the ladder, in the meditation hall, on the mountaintop.  We were young.  We were old.  We were successful.  We were failures.  We were at the end of our lives.  We were at the beginning of our lives. And everything was absolutely OK....In the shimmering stillness, the world of space and time became transparent, revealing a hidden world in which we were all parts of one another."  It is this identification with a transcendental self that is different from, or at least indifferent to, the self that suffers the trials and tribulation of the empirical world that offers spiritual liberation and one is pleased that Cope appears to have reached beyond his fixation with psychotherapy to understand this.

Yoga and Quest for the True Self concludes with an informative appendix on the "metaphysics of yoga" which describes a number of important ideas in various schools of the Indian philosophical tradition.  Many of these ideas are divergent, even contradictory.  Consequently, Cohen calls it a "stew."  According to Cohen, the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health synthesizes many of the elements of the stew.  He notes, however, that it is heavily influenced by the nondualism of the Vedanta and Tantric traditions, the eight-limbed path of Patanjali, and hatha yoga techniques, a raja yoga context.  Most of all, Cohen is impressed with the idea of the "sacredness of the moment."

In all, Yoga and Quest for the Ture Self is a worthwhile account of one man's experience with yoga, but the reader will need to have a high tolerance for reading about the psychological trials of Cohen's characters, not all of whom are well enough drawn to earn one's sympathy and sustain one's interest.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Vaisnavism, Saivism and Minor Religious Systems / Sir R.G. Bhandarkar -- Strassburg: Verlag von Karl J. Trubner, 1913

Religion in India is significantly different from Christianity.  By the fourth century, Christianity had established a fairly stable canon of sacred literature.  Not long after that, two institutional churches, the Catholic and Orthodox churches, came to dominate all Christian doctrine.  There were, of course, heterodoxies that arose and variations within these churches, but they were, by and large, insignificant variations that never took hold.  The Protestant Reformation did manage to create new, lasting theological doctrines, but again, the differences were slight, at least in comparison to the differences that one finds in the religious experience of India.

In Vaisnavism, Saivism and Minor Religious Systems, Ramakrishna Gopal Bhandarkar gives a dense account of a huge number of religious systems that arose in the course of India's long history.  Indian religion has its roots in the ancient Vedas and came to a philosophical apex with the Upanishads.  These texts were filled with numerous and contradictory theological and cosmological doctrines.  They simultaneously portray a pantheon of countless gods along with views of God as both transcendent and immanent in the world.  The concept of incarnations and avatars helped to make sense of these contradictions, but one must see the Vedas and the Upanishads as a collection of contradictory religious and spiritual insights written by numerous authors over many centuries.  They are early drafts of the religious and spiritual insights that India has been interpreting and revising to this day.  Two strands of thinking have, however, gained prominence:  Vaisnavism and Saivism.

Bhandarkar's account of the history of Vaisnavism begins in the latter half of the first millennium B.C.E.  During this time, Buddhism and Jainism arose in the east, while in the west theistic systems became popular, particularly one devoted to the worship of Vasudeva.  Bhandarkar highlights references to Vasudeva in the Vedas, Upanishads, and the Bhagavadgita.  In time, Vasudeva became identified with a Narayana, a supreme being that evolved from the early concept of Nadayana, the "resting place or goal of men."  Vasudeva also came to identified with Vishnu, a rather minor god in the Vedas that appears supreme in later literature.  Thus Vaisnavism came about as a combination of "streams of religious thought, namely the one flowing from Vishnu, the Vedic god at its source, another from Narayana, the cosmic and philosophic god, and the third from Vasudeva, the historical god."  From that time, a wide variety of systems have emerged, among the most important is the worship of the Cowherd God, Gopala-Krishna. 

In the eighth century, Samkaracarya and his followers began promoting a doctrine of spiritual monism and world-illusion.  This was seen to be in conflict with Bhakti, or the love of God, which Vaisnavism required.  In succeeding centuries, more pronounced and fanatic version of Bhakti evolved in which a "single-minded and devoted love of God" became necessary for attaining eternal bliss.

Bhandarkar observes that Vaisnavism celebrated God in his beneficent form, "The lovableness of the works of God, his greatness and majesty and his mysterious nature are...matters that strike the mind of man; and these appear to have operated in bringing Vishnu into prominence.  What contributed to the formation of Vaisnavism were the appearances and occurrences which excited love, admiration and a spirit of worship," but these are not the only sources for the theological inspiration. Bhandarkar also writes, "Many are the occasions in the life of man, which excite fear; there are epidemics and other diseases, poisons, serpents, storms, thunderbolts and wild and awful scenes, and consequently the god who brings on these occasions and protects when appeased will be thought of oftener then other gods."  Fear is the sentiment behind this theology and it is the god Rudra-Shiva and Saivism that evolved from it.

Rudra makes appearances in the earliest of the Vedas, the Rig Veda, and unlike Vishnu, is a relatively important god.  There and in subsequent literature, he is given  additional names including Shiva.  According to Bhandarkar, the Saiva system has three principles and four parts.  The principles are the lord (Pati), the individual soul (Pasu), and fetters (Pasa).  The parts knowledge (Vidya), action (Kriya), meditation (Yoga), and conduct (Carya).  Vidya provides an account of the three principles and amounts to a set of theological and metaphysical doctrines, along with a description of the fetters which inhibit us from salvation.  The actual spiritual path of Saivism involves the religious ritual and yogic practices, and moral discipline outlined in the last three parts.  Much of the section on Saivism includes descriptions of the practices of various Saiva sects.

In the final pages of Vaisnavism, Saivism and Minor Religious Systems, Bhandarkar revisits the debate over the immanence or transcendence of God.  His conclusion is that the distinction is not relevant to Indian religions.  For both Vaisnavism and Saivism, God is understood to be both immanent and transcendent.  His explanation as to how both can be true is cryptic; however, one might begin to understand this by thinking of the individual self as a deluded and alienated fragment of the Godhead.  Our delusion and alienation is what makes God transcendent relative to our earthly circumstance. Our task in life is to overcome the fetters that separate us from the Godhead and realize its immanence.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age / Sven Birkerts -- Boston: Faber and Faber, 1994

In 1994, the Internet was mainly a text-based medium.  "GUIs" or graphic user interfaces were relatively uncommon.  The first major web browser "Mosaic Netscape 0.9" was not released until October of that year.  Still, the prospect of the ubiquitous use of the Internet to browse linked documents was being discussed with great excitement, at least within academic circles.  Luddites were hard to find.  For that reason alone, Sven Birkerts's The Gutenberg Elegies now appears to be a remarkably prescient warning of the downside of our new device-obsessed society.   At the same time, many of his observations seem quaint.  Birkerts got the main picture right, but he can hardly be faulted for mistaking the details or not seeing just how far down the road to digital hypnosis we would traveled.

The first half of the book tells the back story.  Birkerts, in an early chapter, recounts how he became attracted to books and writing, including his attempts to become a novelist and how he ultimately discovered his aptitude for writing essays.  In any case, we learn early on that Beikerts is devoted to print books, reading, and writing.  He goes on to describe the phenomenology of deep reading or reading in which we become thoroughly immersed in the text.  He provides an account of how reading can be instrumental in "self-formation," how reading and interpreting texts is related to our life activities apart from reading, and how the activities of reading and writing are not so very different.

In the second part of the book, Birkerts explores the coming new world of digital reading and as you might guess, he greets it with apprehension.  Birkerts fears that the beneficial habits and frame of mind created by deep reading will be undermined by the new electronic media.  He predicts the erosion of language.  He writes that "the complex discourse patterns of the nineteenth century" are becoming "flattened by the requirements of communication over distances.  That tendency runs riot as the layers of mediation thicken.  Simple linguistic prefab is now the norm, while ambiguity, paradox, irony, subtlety, and wit are fast disappearing....Verbal intelligence, which has long been viewed as suspect as the act of reading, will come to seem positively conspiratorial.  The greater part of any articulate person's energy will be deployed in dumbing-down her discourse."  It's hard to deny that his prediction has come to pass.  The 140 character twitter message has joined the 30 second sound byte to dominate much of our communication.  Worse yet, the cell phone text has returned us to the age of brief telegraphic wire messages, except everyone is able to send these messages hundreds of time a day. 

Birkerts fears that with the loss of physical books will undermine our sense of the past.  No longer will the past be represented to us in surviving artifacts, but it will be stored in databases "flattening" our historical perspective.  The extent to which university students are turning their backs on physical books is, indeed, striking.  Their work relies very significantly on texts that can be viewed online.  This is, perhaps, a product of the ready availability of electronic journal literature.  Not long ago, libraries had access only to a limited number of journals and student research relied significantly on books.  Now, back issues of journals are sold to libraries in extremely cost effective packages.  Money is made mostly on expensive access to recent issues.  This is a boon to humanities research, but Birkerts's point that our historical perspective is flattened seems credible, particularly when one views a pdf of an 80 year old journal article in contrast to an original paper version of it. 

Perhaps Birkerts's most worrying prediction is of "the waning of the private self."  He detects "a process of social collectivization that will over time all but vanquish the ideal of the isolated individual."  He writes, "for some decades now we have been edging away from the perception of private life as something opaque, closed off to the world; we increasingly accept the transparency of a life lived within a set of systems, electronic or otherwise....One day we will conduct our public and private lives within networks so dense, among so many channels of instantaneous information, that it will make almost no sense to speak of the differentiations of subjective individualism."  I'm not entirely convinced that we are losing the notion of subjective individualism.  Much of our social networks are designed to create at least an image of ourselves as individuals, but at the same time we are becoming conduits for memes that waft through the electronic social space; and if Birkerts's concern about "the waining of the private self" was really a concern about the waning of privacy itself, he could not have been more prescient.

The more quaint aspects of Birkerts's work appear in this latter half, where he describes Perseus 1.0 as the "hot new thing in the classics world." Perseus 1.0 was an early an interactive multimedia database for the Classics.  The "Perseus Project" is still going, but it has been overtaken by so many new and more sophisticated databases.  Still, Birkerts's "curmudgeonly" remarks about the use of such tools in education, particularly humanities education remain worth considering and continue to be discussed among teachers and researchers.  Birkerts also has chapters on hyperlinks and audio books.  The observations about how hyperlinks change the character of writing and reading are worthwhile; however, his prediction that audio books would supplant print books is obviously mistaken.

The third part of The Gutenberg Elegies laments the demise of literature and the educated reader.  My knowledge of literature is far too shallow to comment on his points, though they seem a tad overstated.  Regarding the disappearance of the educated reader, I suspect he has a point.  In decades past, reading had far less competition.  Now, finding an avid reader is rather difficult.  This is surely a function of the time we spend looking at text messages, screen-shots, and Youtube video clips, not to mention downloadable movies, audio files, and much more.  The ubiquity of cell phones means that people seldom find themselves separated from people with whom they would like to converse and so carrying around a pocket sized paperback to fill the odd empty 20 minutes isn't something we do.

All in all, The Gutenberg Elegies is becoming (or has become) a classic, early work in the expanding debate over the social and personal consequences of our new digital culture.  Any one interested in this debate would do well to read it.