Sunday, March 4, 2012

Belief, knowledge and faith in classical India

Do classical Indian thinkers distinguish between faith and knowledge? Is there a precinct for knowledge only and one for faith? Or are religious notions just like any other notions, and hence liable to be true or false?
The question has been raised by a comment of Aśvamitra to this post, where he upholds the view that "Hindus" do not distinguish between these two approaches and rather believe in the Mahābhārata war, in the earthly life of Kṛṣṇa, in Hanuman's army, etc., in the same way in which they believe in the existence of Napoleon, in the World War 2, in C. Julius Caesar's campaigns against the Germans, etc. (the inverted commas and all examples are mine). The opposite (i.e., the distinction between knowledge and faith) depends on a Christian approach (Tertullian's Credo quia absurdum) and is alien to the Indian thought.

I tend not to agree, but I must admit that the "Hindus" and Christians I know are chiefly Indian and Christian philosophers and might, therefore, not represent the majority of believers.
For instance, Mīmāṃsā authors seem to be quite clear about the fact that the Veda only applies where sense-perception cannot apply. In other words, the Veda cannot say anything regarding whatever is knowable. By contrast, the Veda is an absolute authority in the precinct of what ought to be done, since in that regard nothing can be known through the human instruments of knowledge, which are all ultimately based on sense-perception.

Buddhist Theravādin authors also seem to stress the importance of śraddhā (see Giustarini 2005, AION) as an element of one's religious path. And so do Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas, who discuss śraddhā.

What do readers think about this topic? I would be glad to read other opinions. Hindu readers are especially welcomed!


Jayarava said...

Some people do seem to mix up religious and historical narratives (judging by my mother as an example of a Christian).

In Buddhism śraddhā is what arises in the mind of a person on hearing the Dharma - usually from the Tathāgata, and usually in terms of why we suffer and what to do about it. I.e. in psychological rather than historical narratives. When one has some confirmation in experience the term is aveccappasāda 'certain clarity' (or confirmed confidence) - the Buddhist Sanskrit equivalent is avetyaprasāda.

Interestingly śraddhā is cognate with credo.

At least some Buddhists do take the legends and myths of Buddhism as historical fact (particular where it concerns Gautama). Whereas in fact the Buddha's name is far from clear from the Pāli Suttas - except that his gotra seems to be Gautama, and how can he have a gotra?

Were the Iron Age authors clear about the difference between religious and historical narratives? I tend to think that least some of them were - religious stories are often self-consciously allegorical (it seems to me). However some were not, and this persisted in, for instance, the idea that all Buddhist texts were composed by the Buddha - even the Tantras.

This seems to be one of the areas of tension between traditional Buddhism and the iconoclastic secular Buddhism presently emerging as a strand in the West.

The shame is that a story need not be literally, factually true to have the power to move us, or to inform our thinking. Novels and novelists have been crucial to the shaping of the modern mind for example. However for some people: fiction = a lie. And they throw the religious baby out with the holy bath water.

S said...

The short answer, which should not be surprising to anyone familiar with Hinduism, is the views of "Hindus" are truly diverse. Offhand I can think of at least six different attitudes towards the Mahabharata war etc., which are all common: in the sense that if you sample (say) 30 random Hindus you're likely to encounter all six attitudes.

Hopefully when I have time I'll come back and elaborate, but the crux is that there's not a single view. [But the comment that the distinction between knowledge and faith is alien to Indian thought has a ring of truth in it: certainly whatever you learn through faith is also thought of as "knowledge", and not as something false that must be believed in, in the face of knowledge to the contrary. But... I don't think the way I've put it exists in Christian thought either, so I'm not sure. :-)]

Ruy D'Aleixo said...

In think in Dignaga's theory of perception is clear that he is not dealing with faith. jñâna implies no faith. There is no need for him to draw the distinction, as there is no need for a scientist today to clarify that his research is not faith.

elisa freschi said...

Dear all, first of all thank you very much for your immediate replies.

@Aleix: let us not mix philosophy (especially logic) and religion. Of course, Dignāga did not expect his readers to have faith while he was discussing the former. But what about Dharmakīrti's analysis of the Buddha as pramāṇabhūta? (I have myself no definite answer).

@S, yes, you are right, "Hinduism" is plural. As for your last claim, well the idea that you can believe in something that you know to be false is logically untenable (although it might be psychologically possible) and as such it has never be philosophically supported. The precinct of faith is that of uncertainty, in the sense that when you know that X, you do not need faith to believe that X nor can you have faith in X once you you have known that non-X. Last, what are the 6 attitudes towards the Mahābhārata war?

@Jayarava, thanks, you go directly to the point. There are tons of texts which are not "factually" true but may be said to be true in a different sense, for instance insofar as they are significant for one. Suppose that one changes one's life after having read a spurious Tantra… does the fact that it was spurious change anything in the result it has accomplished?

Vidya said...

I would agree with the commenter S in that there is a spectrum of opinions on historicity, faith and knowledge. By way of personal example: For someone like my grandmother there is no distinction between faith and knowledge so much so that she actually defined śabda pramāṇa as āptavachana to means the words of elders - which are by default accepted as reliable sources of knowledge as handed down by tradition. So I suspect what was once verbal testimony and words in the veda-s was widened and enlarged to incorporate such belief systems. Then there are others like my own grandfather who despite a samskrta scholarship and expertise in the dharma śāstra-s made and admitted of some if not all of these distinctions. Then there are others contemporaneous believers who envelope this discussion in a fluid / agnostic argument of "How do we know which is true when history is such a fragmented and essentially reconstructed notion". And all of these and other variants are Hindus! But on the whole, I do think when faith is extended to be a means of knowledge the question of distinction does not really mean much.

elisa freschi said...

Vidya, thanks for your answer. What do you mean by "But on the whole, I do think when faith is extended to be a means of knowledge the question of distinction does not really mean much"? I am not sure I understand your first point ("when faith is extended…").

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