Saturday, June 30, 2012

Have Indian authors believed in their god?

Until a certain moment of time, possibly around the 800 AD, Indian philosophers seem not to display very much religious feelings in their works. They might be atheists (like early Mīmāṃsakas), or generally theists (like Uddyotakara, who has a creator Īśvara in his system) or transtheist (like the Jainas in this definition, since their Jinas go beyond the "common" gods) or just not speak a lot about the issue.

The situation seems to change a lot if we look at the cultural landscape of, e.g., 13th c. India. There, most if not all philosophers seem to have been genuine believers. They adored a God and wrote about their religious experiences. Why this change?

(I know, "religious feelings" is an ambiguous definition. But please bear with me; after all we all notice the difference between Rāmānuja and Vātsyāyana.)

  1. 1. Because the etiquette in the previous period was to keep one's religious experiences private. After all, even in the subsequent period, authors often tended to distinguish their religious works and their rational-argumentative ones.
  2. 2. Because the philosophical milieu of India before 800 AD (as a conventional date) was much more secular. Religion was wide-spread on a popular niveu (as can be seen by devotional texts such as the Purāṇas, and artistic manifestations), but much less so among philosophers. 
  3. 3. Because later philosophers had to admit religion in their texts due to the influence of the increased political or social (or economical) significance of religious groups.
  4. 4. Because the "religious feelings" of earlier authors were less "personalised". Earlier authors worshipped impersonal entities, like the pursuit of epistemic validity, or dharma (either in the Vedic or in the Buddhist or Jaina sense). The difference is only in the fact that these bear no personal names etc.
  5. 5. Because the opposition between these two periods is just ill-funded. I am biased by my education, etc. Just like one can be "religious" without worhipping a god (as in most Buddhist groups), it does not make sense to speak of a religious or not-religious attitude. But, if so, how to rephrase the contrast?

Any other proposal to interpret this phenomenon?

On different concepts of deities, see also this post.


Ramakrishnan Suryanarayanan said...

The 8th century onwards, in the face of relentless violence and compulsion by Islam (in the form of Turkic, Arab and Persian invasions), Hindus and Buddhists had to spell-out their 'beliefs' and show which side they belonged - theism or atheism. If they were atheistic or non-theistc, they had a very slim chance of survival.

The buddhists were not theist in a semitic sense so they either had to give up their life or their religion. Either meant Buddhism had to disappear within the span of a century or two thus sparking a Hindu revival of sorts. But I think most buddhists converted to Islam and became sufi mystics.

In this environment, to salvage the Buddha and his dharma, he had to be co-opted as a 'God' into the wider hindu pantheon, and what better way to do this than by claiming he was an avatara?

elisa freschi said...

If I understand you correctly, you mean that theism was the result of the Islamic invasion… this might be, although I do not know of precise evidence in this sense (for instance, Islamic chronicles seem to entail disgust for the Hindu Pantheon unless in the case of enlightened authors, who are open to an inclusivist approach, which would have anyway included also the Buddha). And how would you explain that many Buddhists chose a third way, i.e., they made Buddhism into some sort of theistic religion as well, even in Tibet or in places where no Islamic ruler was threatening them?

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