For me scriptures (or any other literature) present an idealistic view of the author(s) than the realistic picture about the life of the people. At the same time, however imaginative, no scripture (literature) could remain uninfluenced by the life of the people. However presenting the life of the people based on the scriptural evidence, that too arranged in a chronological order would never present the reality of either the scripture or the people.
Chronology is important for one to arrange and understand the teaching of the scriptures. At the same time one should be aware of the impediment of developing an opinion based on the chronological presentation by any scholar. And when such view was presented by a scholar like Matilal, it really surprised me. Because the way he could present various conflicting views about Indian philosophy that too comparing with Western philosophies is remarkable one, though understanding all of them is beyond the comprehension of a student like me.
As a digression I have to point out that however helpful it might be, any comparison of philosophies of West and East will mostly remain as an intellectual entertainment of the scholars. Because for me while understanding Indian philosophy like Nyaya, 1 Vaisheshika itself is a huge burden, there is no hope for to understand such a comparative philosophy. However we cannot under estimate such hard work of scholars like Matilal.
Now coming the point, Matilal, writing in the context that ‘there is no unmixed, pure happiness,’2 say:
One may counter this charge of pessimism in another way. One may point out that the theme of universal suffering was conspicuous by its absence in the early scriptures, the Vedas and the Upanisads. The early Vedic religion, it seems, was more concerned with life in this world, and much less with a life beyond. In its lack of overwhelming concern for the after life, the early Vedic Hinduism resembled early Judaism … (p.383)
Though this might help us to understand the teachings of the Veda and Upanishads, yet it could hardly present the reality of life which people lived in pre-Vedic, Vedic and post-Vedic times. Because can we divide the life of people as Pre-Vedic, Vedic and Post-Vedic? If Matilal is presenting about the view of the Vedic religion based on the Vedas alone, we too can agree with him. However, for me, as I have said above, ‘however imaginative, no scripture (literature) could remain uninfluenced by the life of the people.’ After all scriptures (literatures) provides a narrow window (or a big door) to know about the life of the people. So can we claim that what the Veda and Upanishads say represent the overall view of people lived (even as Hindus) in those times in India as a whole? Or can we accept Matilal’s view that, ‘With the rise of the sramana school, the theme of universal suffering, whatever might have been the sociological reason for its origin, became dominant and persisted and permeated the entire spectrum of Indian philosophical thinking…’ (p.383)3 Does this mean it was absent in the lives of people because this theme of universal suffering was absence in the early scriptures—the Vedas and the Upanishads?
Systematization always reminds a scholarly burden. Systematic presentation of scriptural teachings that too based on chronological order is a must for us to understand scriptures, but they could hardly represent the real life of the people. 4 As Matilal mentioned about ‘early Judaism’ which like early Vedic Hinduism ‘was concerned with life in this world’, I would like to take the help of the Purvaveda (Old Testament) from the Muktiveda to present my view. A short study of the survey of Purvaveda (OT) will help us to understand the danger of arriving any conclusion about the life of the people based on the chronological arrangement of the scripture. Though I am not a good student of Purvaveda, yet as per my understanding the Pentateuch was orally collected and recorded after Moses time. While historical books (Judges, Kings, Chronicles,) were compiled, the wisdom literatures (Psalms, Proverbs) were also collected and recorded. At the same time the prophets were very active in giving the oracle of God and their works were also side by side came into existent. To say in other words the entire Purvaveda (OT) of Muktiveda (Bible) was within few centuries between pre-exile and post-exile period. But if anyone tries to understand the life of the Jews, as per the present arrangement of books in Purvaveda will only mislead them. For example, because all the books of the Prophets were at the end of Purvaveda, do not mean that all of them belong to later Judaism and not represents any view of early Judaism. Interestingly for me, the Prophets never mention any points from Pentateuch to substantiate their message from God to the people. This does not mean that they were not aware of the early books of Pentateuch and historical records.
The same is the case with Uttaraveda (New Testament). The epistles were first written, then the works of the apostles were collected and recorded (books of Acts) and simultaneous the gospels were written. But nearly after 300 years of the early church the present Muktiveda was finally compiled and recognized as the Word of God. But they never represent the real life of the early bhaktas of the lord and their doctrinal views. Of course from the beginning the church elders and early church Fathers were busy in confronting all kinds of heresies and were forced to spell out their doctrine in clear cut terms. But simple bhaktas lived their life without the burden of scriptures and doctrine but by faith.5
The same is true with Hinduism. While Vedic scriptures (smrtis) were composed and compiled, other branches of scriptures (smrtis =darshanas, dharma-sutras, dharma-sastras, Gita, Epics etc.) were side by side developed. Even origin of puranas could be traced back in Vedic time.6 So if we want to understand the life of Hindus or Indians of early time, we need to seek various sources which are overlapping with each other than by arranging them in chronological order.
I am not sure I understood Matilal correctly. Because pointing out that this thesis (of universal suffering) he says that it ‘must be distinguished from the psychological attitude called universal pessimism’ and continuous:
Pessimism in an individual begets a crippling mental depression which precludes rational and positive behaviour. If a whole culture is under the spell of such a universal pessimism, its crippling effect would have rendered the culture bankrupt or would have made it extinct a long time ago. Indian culture on the other hand has shown its vitality and aggressiveness punctuated by material growth for about two thousand years, assimilating new ideas, changing and adjusting to the new situation as the new challenge confronted it from time to time. It is difficult for a culture infected with overwhelming pessimism to exhibit such vitality and adjustability. (p.383)
The way Matilal could compare scriptural views (say doctrine) with philosophies of both Indian and West will enrich any student of scripture and philosophy. Even in this chapter ‘On the Universality of Suffering’ he quotes from David Hume, Spinoza, and Thomas Nagel. But my fear is that unless we could follow his entire thesis carefully, we will end up not only understanding him wrongly but also the teaching of the scriptures themselves. Because though scholars can handle the burden of philosophy and doctrine easily, a student of scripture with an interest in anthropology will stumble by carrying the burden of the scholars.
January 18, 2013.
1. …Vatsyayana attempted to define nyaya as follows: the examination of an object or a fact (artha is ambiguous enough to give us both meanings) with the help of the pramanas, ‘instruments (p.79) of knowledge’. Nyaya therefore proves an assumption to be an established fact. The etymological meaning of nyaya has, however, a better prospect. It is given as niyate praapyatee vivaksitaarthasiddhir anena: ‘It is the method by which the establishment of an intended object or a thesis is obtained.’ The siddhi or ‘establishment’ here can be read or interpreted as rational acceptability. Hence, the word nyaya (and this must be distinguished from the use of the same term as a proper name of the school or system called the Nyaya) was connected initially with the early vague but intuitively grasped conception of rationality.—p. 79
2. The Collected Essays of Bimal Krishna Matilal: Ethics and Epics, ed. Jonardon Ganeri, New Delhi, Oxford, 2002, p. 382 Further he says: Each honeycomb is contaminated with poison at the bottom. Or, in the manner of the Buddhist it will be said: happiness is so short-lasting, momentary and transient, that in effect it is more unhappiness than anything else. What causes unhappiness must be unhappiness also. The so-called happiness causes unhappiness (we lament the loss of such happiness) and hence should be only unhappiness. In other words, experiential happiness is only a variety of unhappiness….
I think this way of understanding the thesis of suffering is misleading, if not entirely wrong. Misleading because, as I have already mentioned, it then becomes a truth that is too obvious, and trivial and unphilosophical. It becomes misleading also because it is then inadvertently identified with an engulfing pessimism….(p.382)….This is a ritique which simply means that there is really no good reason for us today to believe in such a thesis, and then the relevance of such Indian philosophical doctrines collapses for us. I say again that this is misleading.—pp. 382-83
3. To understand Matilal, I am giving the entire view by him:
With the rise of the sramana school, the theme of universal suffering, whatever might have been the sociological reason for its origin, became dominant and persisted and permeated the entire spectrum of Indian philosophical thinking. It is upheld in its various ramified forms not only by Buddhism, Jainism, and Ajivikism but also by Nyaya, Samkhya and Mimamsa. We know very little today about the socio-politico-historical causes or reasons that might account for the origin of the doctrine. Besides, even if we can find out a satisfactory historical explanation about the origin, it would be of little help in understanding the full implication and thrust of the doctrine, for it would fail to explain why and how the doctrine dominated the intellectual horizon of India for about two millennia….—p. 383
4. O’ Flaherty’s warning against every chronological arrangements:
In addition to all usual problems of arbitrary periodization, the division of Indian religion into three distinct periods is complicated by the continuity of the Indian tradition; by the absence of data regarding nonreligious events (economic, social, political) which might have inspired sudden changes; by the tendency of attitudes to persist from one period, in addition to new ideas which one might have expected to replace them; and by the frequent occurrence of intentional archaism—the resurrection of old ideas in order to led an air of tradition to a late text. In designating these three periods as Vedic, post-Vedic (or orthodox), and devotional (bhakti), one is referring not to three discrete strata of texts but rather to three attitudes, each one a reaction to the one preceding it and thus “later” in an ideological sense, though not necessarily in a chronological sense.— O’ Flaherty, Wendy Doniger, The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology, Paperback Edition, University of California Press, Berkeley, (1976) 1980, pp. 78-79. And also note Thapar’s view:
…Histories of the ‘Hindu’ religion have been largely limited to placing texts and ideas in a chronological perspective with few attempts at relating these to the social history of the time. Scholarship also tended to ignore the significance of the popular manifestation of religion in contrast to the textual, a neglect which was remedied by some anthropological research, although frequently the textual imprint is more visible even in such studies.— Romila Thapar, ‘Imagined Religious Communities? Ancient History and the Modern Search for a Hindu Identity’, in David N. Lorenzen. Religious Movements in South Asia 600-1800. New Delhi, Oxford, 2004, p. 335
5. I am thankful to Dr. Hoefer for giving (through email) a precise summary about the Origin and development of the Muktiveda:
The literature of the OT was written down around the time of the Exile. Up till that time, the material had been memorized and passed on orally, as was the practice at the time. When the nation was destroyed and scattered, it became necessary to write things down in order to preserve them. Therefore, one might assume that the writings simply recorded what had been produced at the time of the incidents referred to. One can see this development, for example, in the writings of the prophets. The books are primarily in poetic verse, so obviously it is not verbatim of what they prophets said but the gist later constructed. Also, as with the Hindu tradition, it is easier to memorize verse than prose.
The theory in regard to the NT is similar. The gospels began to be written when the first eye witnesses began to die off. Luke makes this process/necessity very explicit at the beginning of his gospel. It also is generally theorized that there was a “Q” (for the German word “Quelle,” meaning “source”) document of Jesus’ sayings, which both Mark and Matthew used. The organization and choice of materials by the gospel writers was geared to the specified audience they were addressing with their gospels: Mark is a barebones action narrative, Matthew has many teachings and OT citations presumably aiming toward a Jewish audience, Luke specifically says his material was intended for a Gentile audience, and John was written much later (90-100 A.D.) with a great deal of theological expansion involved.
The best source for discerning the practical life of the early Christians is the corps of Pauline letters, as he addresses real issues facing the congregations. A few of Paul’s letters seem to have predated the first gospels, but most were somewhat contemporaneous with the first three gospels. All the NT scriptures were used for worship, reference, and study as soon as they were written. Most Christians had only a portion of these scriptures available. The process of canonization involved gathering all these scriptures into one place, analyzing them, and deciding which authoritatively and genuinely agreed with each other and with the basic Christian tradition (expressed in the Nicene Creed and later in the Apostles Creed).
6. ‘…It is difficult to say whether the Atharvaveda, the Satapatha Brahmana and the Upanisads knew several works called Purana or whether there was only a single work called (p.816) Purana known to them. But from the fact that the Taittiriya Aranyaka (II.10) speaks of Itihasas and Puranas (in the plural) it would not be unreasonable to suppose that in the later Vedic period at least some works (three or more) called Puranas existed and were studied and recited by those that were engaged in solemn sacrifices like the Asvamedha….’— P. V. Kane, History of Dharmasastra, Five volumes, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Poona, 1968-77 (1930-62) vol. V, part. II. pp. 816-17.