Vedanta sees clash of Values; not Civilisations - I
by N S Rajaram on 03 Feb 2017 2 Comments

Vedanta sees no conflict between material needs and spirituality but a balance between the two. What it sees is a clash of values rather than a clash of civilisations. This can be useful for understanding the turbulent world today.


A striking feature of European and now American society is the conflict between new knowledge and old beliefs. This is often the case when scientific advances are seen to threaten long held beliefs. Galileo’s persecution by the Church and the hostility to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution are only two examples. This is not just a thing of the past is clear from the fact that there are fundamentalist groups in the U.S. that want to stop the teaching of evolution in school. Several states have passed laws requiring the so-called ‘Creation Science’ based on the Bible to be taught along with Darwin’s theory.


Rational and spiritual thought


Such a conflict between the rational and the spiritual (or belief) never arose in India, except as part of debate. This is because Hinduism and its offshoots like Buddhism are not based on dogmas but exploration of the mind and spirit. “Accept nothing on my authority,” said the Buddha. “Think, and be a lamp unto yourself.” The Gayatri mantra, the greatest of all Vedic prayers says: dhiyo yo nah pracodayat, meaning “Inspire our intellect.”


There is no appeal to blind faith in any of this. In fact it is a rejection of blind faith. Further, the Vedas are apaurusheya, meaning they do not rest on the authority of any human like a prophet. In fact the great Vedantic thinker Acharya Madhva (1238 – 1317) cautioned: “Never accept any human as authority. Humans are subject to error and deception. One deludes oneself in believing that such a human - free of error and deception ever existed and he alone was the author.”


Sri Aurobindo in 1916


In fact Madhva’s skepticism went so far as to question the authenticity of many passages in the Mahabharata. He went on to compose a celebrated work known as Mahabharata Tatparya Nirnaya dedicated to setting guidelines for distinguishing between authentic passages and interpolated passages. It was only in the 19th century, 500 years later, that Indian and Western scholars came up with the same idea.


Shankara also in his commentary on the Brahmasutras cautioned against taking any scripture (Shastra) as infallible. He noted that they are human creations based on knowledge and experience (gnana and karma), that should not be taken as the word of God. In other words it is human creation or paurusheya.


This principle of truth independent of human authority is what is followed in science. We honour Newton and Einstein as great scientific sages because of their discoveries and not the other way. It is the same with great spiritual figures like Krishna. Krishna is seen as great because his teachings are great. At the same time, a Hindu is free to reject or modify any teachings if new knowledge comes to light.


This means, as in science, Indian tradition, including spiritual tradition, attaches the greatest importance to critical thinking. That is the meaning of the Gayatri mantra. Further, where natural science looks at the material world, the scope of Vedanta includes the human and the spiritual worlds - or Man’s place in the Cosmos. (No gender intended in the word ‘Man’). Because of this open approach we can study human conflicts that are beyond the reach of science and also Western humanities, most of which derive from Christian theology. I can illustrate this by contrasting Western and Vedantic approaches to human conflicts, like the one the world is faced with today.


Clash of values: Daivic and the Asuric


Samuel Huntington in his influential thesis of Clash of Civilizations envisions a world in which future conflicts occur between civilisations. His analysis is geopolitical and does not take into account human tendencies or gunas. Vedanta, however, sees the world differently. Different ages are dominated by different gunas - sattva, rajas and tamas. All humans are a combination of these gunas and this in turn creates Daivic (divine) and Asuric (demonic) personalities.


In the Hindu cosmic theory, since the beginning of the present historical cycle, the world has seen ages or yugas, dominated by these, with sattva declining from Krita Yuga to Kali Yuga. According to this theory, we are now poised at the end of a yuga cycle, passing through a yuga sandhi as we enter a new cycle of yugas. (The idea was later borrowed by Arnold Toynbee.)


A Yuga Sandhi is a time of turbulence. It is a period of transition that brings out a conflict between light and darkness: between enlightenment and ignorance, between spirituality and materialism. Of course no one can live without basic material comforts; the problem arises when the desire for material needs overwhelms people and leads to the despoliation of the world around us. What is needed is balance. When the balance is upset we land in a different yuga. For that we need to go through a Yuga Sandhi. This is what seems to happening in the world today.


Samuel Huntington of “Clash of Civilisations”


Seen from this Vedantic perspective, what we are seeing around us is no clash of civilisations, but a clash of values or dharmas. This is an age-old conflict, between the material and the spiritual. Most evil in the world is due to excessive desire for the material. This tendency is called Asuric by the ancients. The spiritual or the trait that seeks harmony is called Daivic. We may call Daivic as divine and the Asuric as demonic. Krishna in the Bhagavadgita describes the Asuric traits as follows:


“The Asuric (demonic) traits are ignorance, deceitfulness, excessive pride, ego, harshness, and rough speech. Such people know not when to act and when to desist from action. They believe in nothing, have neither truth nor purity. They live only by desire. Driven by desire and unsupported by beliefs these souls without enlightenment, with their terrible acts can destroy the world. With their insatiable greed, drunk with vanity and ego and sunk in ignorance they hold on to doctrines of falsehood bringing misery to life.


“Immersed in endless worries that only death can end, they know nothing beyond self-indulgence without limit. They think only of accumulating wealth through wrongful means. In the folly of their ignorance they think: ‘I got this today, I have that more to get. I have so much now but I’ll get more. I have killed that enemy, but I have more to kill. I am the lord of all I survey. I am fruitful, strong and happy. I am rich and grand. I have no equal.’”


It is not hard to see that the world today is in thrall to Asuric forces, but it was not always so. There were ages when Daivic tendencies ruled the planet. Krishna describes Daivic as:

“Fearlessness, purity, courage in seeking knowledge, generosity, restraint, learning, uprightness, gentleness, honesty, loyalty, compassion for the living, humility, fortitude and absence of excess pride - these are the virtues of the Daivic. The Daivic leads to freedom and the Asuric to bondage.”


(To be concluded…)

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