(This dialogue between a western philosopher and an Indian sage is an attempt to bring out the true spirit of Indian philosophy. In this dialogue, the western philosopher is an open-minded seeker of truth who has a certain admiration for Indian philosophy, but also has some legitimate doubts.)
Philosopher: I am intrigued by the ancient Hindu philosophers’ obsession with Vedas. Why every Hindu philosopher was so much obsessed with showing his faithfulness to the Vedas?
Sage: That is because Vedas are considered by Hindus thinkers as the highest revelation of Truth. But this is not something unique to Hinduism; it is more or less the stand point of all religions — that scripture contains the highest truth.
Philosopher: But in western and Semitic religions, there was no genuine philosophical enquiry. They have only dogmatic thinking. But Hindus had a great philosophical system and at the same time total acceptance of the Vedic authority. It is this which is perplexing to me. For in the west we believe that philosophy, if it has to serve its true purpose, should not subordinate itself to any religious authority.
Sage: You must understand the difference between the motives of ancient Indian thought and your modern western thought. Modern western thought is dominated by the values of science, reason, secularism, knowledge of the outer world, and the urge for originality, novelty and scientific objectivity. But the driving motives of ancient Indian thought proceeds from a different set of values. They are, first, an inner quest for the highest truth of self and world; second a persistent intuition of a supreme Spirit beyond Mind as the ultimate Reality; and third faith in this spiritual truth as the highest aim of thought and life. The Indian position is that this highest spiritual reality can be discovered only by a suprarational spiritual intuition. Reason cannot reach that Truth. So Reason has to be subordinated to this spiritual intuition. And the Hindu believes that Vedas are the expression of the highest spiritual intuition, not of a single prophet, but of a community of seers.
Philosopher: What then is the aim of philosophy?
Sage: The aim of philosophy is to express rationally and intellectually the discoveries of spiritual intuition or in other words to express intellectually my perception, faith, intuition vision or realisation of the spiritual truth. But this Truth or intuition need not be my original discovery. I may not yet have this spiritual intuition; it may be some other’s discovery or intuition. But when I feel or perceive this highest Truth in the intuition or realisation of other I humbly recognise and revere that Truth in them and try to express that Truth in my thought and life. Until I have this intuition or able to realise that Truth in my consciousness, I have to hold that Truth in faith. This faith is not irrational. For example, when a school student reads or hears about Einstein’s theory or an electron in his text book or through the teacher he may not have the scientific or mathematical ability to verify or prove the theory or the existence of the electron. And until he acquires the scientific capability to verify the theory it is only a faith, faith in the testimony of the community of scientists who have verified the truth of the theory or an electron. But even when I have the intuition or realisation of the Truth, I recognise and respect those who had a similar intuition or realisation in the past or present, who have inspired me in my quest for truth.
Philosopher: But still, Indian philosophy begins with a blind faith in a religious authority.
Sage: Not entirely blind. This faith itself may be an intuition of our deeper self which has hot yet become conscious experience or knowledge in the surface level of our being. Sometimes even a submissive faith in the spiritual power of a scripture may open the consciousness to intuition. And in the spiritual path qualities like faith, humility, respect and reverence towards all manifestation of truth and obedience to a higher wisdom, have a much greater power than the urge for independence, individualism and originality. Originality was never a motive of Indian philosophy. In fact this desire for personal originality was considered in the ancient Indian tradition as a form of egoism and ambition harmful to the spiritual development of the individual. The Indian attitude is to recognise and revere Truth wherever it is manifest. This is the reason why in ancient India no great philosopher claimed or desired to be original. Even the most original spiritual thinkers like the Upanishadic sages or later Shankara owed their allegiance to the Vedas. And even Buddha, who rejected the authority of the Vedas, nevertheless said that he was not preaching anything new, but only restating the old Aryan path tread by many past Buddhas. So most of the great spiritual thinkers of India viewed themselves not as originators but as humble instruments of an impersonal and universal Truth. In fact in the Hindu tradition, the Rishis who composed the Vedas are regarded not as creators of the Vedas but as receivers and transmitters of an eternal and uncreated Truth or Vibration which they were able to see and hear with their higher spiritual faculties of vision and inspiration.
Philosopher: But in philosophy, don’t you think that this sort of dependence on an authority discourages creative, original and independent thinking?
Sage: But you yourself admitted that Hindus had a great philosophical system. —which means that faith in the Vedic authority had not in any way diminished the creative vigour of the ancient Hindu mind. In fact, Hindu philosophy, literature and religions are one of the most creative among religious cultures of the world with a diversity and innovation you won’t find in any other religious cultures.
Philosopher: Yes, I agree with you. In my own studies on Indian philosophy and religion, I can perceive the creative vigour of the Hindu mind. Somehow Hindus are able to reconcile faith in Vedas with intellectual vigour in philosophical thinking. They are able to do what the western religions are not able to do. But how they are able to manage this?
Sage: I think there are two factors which make the difference. First factor is that Indian religion does not demand a credal adherence to the letter of the scripture but a faith in the spirit of the scripture. which means faith in the central intuitions and experiences of the Veda. But this faith in the spirit of the Vedas was not allowed to infringe on the freedom to innovate and experiment with new forms of the Vedic spirit. This innovation and experimentation in new forms went on without break in Indian religions – in the Upanishad, Gita, Tantra, Vaishnavism, and continues even in our present age in the teaching and realisation of modern Indian sages like Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Ramana Maharishi and Sri Aurobindo.
Thus the faith in the Vedas is in essence not a blind adherence to the letters of Veda but the faith in an authentic and verifiable source of spiritual experience contained in the Vedas. One intellectual advantage of such a faith is that it anchors the thinking mind to an authentic source of Truth and prevents it from straying into reckless, vagabond and wasteful speculations in the name of “free-thinking”. But the Hindu religion did not simply say ‘believe in the Vedas’; it also asked the believer, with a much greater insistence, to understand, live and realise the truth revealed in the Vedas and verify the truth in his own experience.
The second factor is that the ancient Indian approach made a conscious attempt to harmonise religion with philosophy and reason with spiritual intuition. The difficult task attempted here is to at once subordinate and harmonise the legitimate needs and aspirations of the intellect with the higher spiritual needs and aspiration of the soul. The legitimate needs, activities and aspiration of the intellect for thought, reason and logic should not be unduly suppressed but at the same time the intellect should not be allowed to interfere, dictate, dominate or obstruct the spiritual needs, intuitions, aspiration and development of the soul. In the individual level of sadhana or personal discipline, this was done by imposing a submissive and receptive silence and surrender on the intellect to the spiritual intuitions and inspiration of the soul. But at the same time the intellect was given the freedom to express the higher intuitions in its own rational or logical terms. In the collective level also a similar attempt was made by subordinating the thinking mind of the community to the spiritual authority of the Vedas and at the same time giving it sufficient freedom to think-out the Vedic intuition in a variety of philosophical systems.
Philosopher: Can you say Indian system of thought has attained the highest ideal of perfection?
Sage: No human system can be perfect because no man-made system is immune to the defects and limitations of the human mind. The original idea and vision behind the Indian system was great. But in actual practice and in the entropic downward pull of time, the vision gets progressively veiled. The Indian system did not escape from these inherent limitation of time and human consciousness. And when this happened Indian system also succumbed to all the defects and pitfalls to which human religious system is prone.
When a religious community begins to respect and revere a spiritual authority as the highest and infallible revelation of Truth, then every one in that community tries to show its allegiance to the authority. This leads to much scripture-twisting; every religious thinker tries to prove that his idea conforms to Vedas and force his own views on the scripture. This type of twisting of the meaning of the verses in the scriptures in order to force one’s own ideas into them is a very frequent aberration among ancient Indian commentators of scriptures. And when the intellectual and spiritual vigour of Indian civilisation started waning, the second deliberating defect crept into the system; a slavish, stagnant and uncreative dependence on the literal meaning of the Vedas or in other words literalism. As a result, the “letter that killeth” had gained the upper hand over the “spirit that saveth.”
Here comes another unique feature of the Indian religion. Whenever there was a steep decline in the intellectual and spiritual vigour of the Nation, a great spiritual figure appears on the scene and infuses new life into the system. When Vedic religion degenerated, into literalism and ritualism, Buddha appeared and brought a new life to Indian religion. When the impetus of Buddhism started waning, Shankara came and gave a new form and life to the Vedic spirit. Again when the movement initiated by Shankara weakened, came Chaitanya who pioneered the Bhakti movement. When the devotional cults degenerated came Nanak and Kabirdas who taught a calmer, wider and a more impersonal path of devotion. This continual regeneration of religion through repeated influxes of the life of the spirit continues even up to this day in modern India. But this unique strength of the Indian system is part of a divine providence rather than due to any inherent strength of the system. Some higher Power is at work to preserve the spiritual genius of India for the wellbeing of the world. For Indian spirituality contains and preserves the knowledge that can lead humanity to its evolutionary destiny.