Transcript: 17. Jessica Frazier on Hinduism and Philosophy

An interview with Jessica Frazier about philosophical ideas and arguments in the Vedas, Upanisads and later Hindu texts.
Podcast series

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.


Peter Adamson: We're going to be talking about Hinduism and how it relates to philosophy, and I thought we could focus on the obvious thing first, which is the area of the philosophy of religion, since Hinduism is a religion. What conception or maybe conceptions of God or the divine do we find in the classic Hindu texts? I mean, one obvious thought is that they operate with the notion of Brahman, something we find in the Upanishads, for example, and you might therefore say, well, Brahman is basically like the God of the Abrahamic religions. There's one all-powerful force which pervades everything. Is that a good way to start thinking about this issue?

Jessica Frazier: Yeah, that's an interesting question. I think Brahman's really unusual and distinctive way of getting at the idea of the divine that India comes up with, because it arises out of reasoning. It arises out of the kind of early philosophy we find around 500 BC in India as a concept that's trying to make sense of the world that we see around it. So I think it's really different. You see in the earliest texts personal deities like Yahweh. You see in the early text personalism coming out, but that's not really where the distinctive Hindu concept of Brahman comes from. It comes from its attempt, I think, to form something like a fundamental ontology. What's really interesting to me is if you look in some of the earliest texts that try and address the nature of the universe, one of them would be the Nāsadīya Sūkta, which is a hymn in the Rigveda. This is a very old text. And it says at the beginning of this hymn, you expect it to call to a god to help you. Instead it says in the beginning of the universe there was being and there was non-being. And notice it puts both of those in there. And then it says, but what was that framed by? Where was that located? What was it that gave the place for both being and non-being? And it goes on and it even says the gods must know, but even the gods can't know because they are merely beings. So they can't know what the framework for everything is. And I think that's a really crucial philosophical moment where they're saying we're not looking for a person who made stuff. We're not looking for any contingent particular being. We want to find out what is the frame for anything to exist or not exist at all. 

PA: Metaphysical grounding of everything, even the things that don't exist. 

JF: Even things that don't exist, right? What is it, the very principle of the possibility of being. So I think very quickly you're getting into the kind of things that really frame fundamental ontology. I always feel like the complaint that gets made in the 20th century that the West forgets about ontology, forgets the question of being. I think India kind of kept hold of it because it was central to its concept of God. And I think it's a fascinating thing. It generates such wonderful accounts of not only of the divine, but also wonderful accounts of the nature of reality, like the Upanishads, so perhaps the first philosophical discussions of the nature of the divine. Where you find classic divine attributes, you've got eternity, you've got eternal infinity, that messy one, God is infinite. You've got simplicity, God is undivided. You've got sovereignty or soleness, advatia, without a second being. So kind of getting towards the comprehensiveness of this divine idea. And you also get self existence, svayambhu, self ipseity in the classical terminology. 

PA: What I was going to ask you just now is maybe something you've just answered, but let me just ask anyway. Because I was going to say, well, the ground of all being and non-being, that might sound divine in the sense that it's transcendent, or as transcendent as anything could be, but it's not clear that it's something that you would worship, for example. But on the other hand, you just said, well, this ground of all being actually would have some of the traits that we tend to associate with God in the Abrahamic traditions. Do you think that that gives us a reason to think of this as an object of religious worship, as well as a ground of ontology, or do you think there's a pressure or tension between those two ways of thinking about it? 

JF: Well, I think the nice thing about the Indian approach is that it generates the concept of the divine out of an idea of what is most fundamental to reality. And in a way, I feel like it's turning the ontological argument on its head. It's saying that which is most perfect, ontologically speaking, that which intrinsically exists, that is what is in fact divine. So rather than saying here's a God, what is it that makes him godly, it says what are the godly attributes? What is eternal, infinite, immutable? That is the thing. Whatever it is, that is the thing that we're going to call God, in a sense. Having said that, interestingly, of course, Hindus haven't tended through history to worship, quote unquote, Brahman. You don't offer it things. You don't talk to it. It's the ground of being. You can't talk to being in that way. So it brings out the sense maybe in which the West's concept of worship as central to religion needs to be revised. And that if you have something more like the God of the philosophers, it's not worship, but perhaps awe or reflection that becomes the fountain of religious thought and experience. 

PA: Well that raises another question, I think, which is what about the entities to which they do perform ritual acts and which they talk about in religious contexts. And in fact, I guess that a lot of listeners, when they think about Hinduism or maybe even religion in India generally, they'll think about all these pictures of gods and statues of gods. And so then there's a further question here about how the ground of all things, Brahman, would relate to this polytheistic religious framework. 

JF: Yeah, it's a good question. I mean, India has kind of both models of personal beings that's coming out of the early Vedic kind of deity worship. Animism is rife in early India. And you've got spirits and deities everywhere. And at the same time, you've got this philosophical development of a concept of ultimate ground of reality. Or how are they going to relate? And the answer is that they ultimately combine as they do, just as Aristotle and the Bible finally get together and generate scholastic thought. That happens in India too. So interestingly, you do get proofs of the existence of God in the Indian tradition. And here they're thinking of a personal creator. But that's really not the focus, at least of the Vedantic tradition. They end up, whenever you get a situation where when someone looks at a text about the importance and wonder of Krishna or Shiva or Durga, these different Hindu deities, often what the text will do is jump in and immediately say, this is the deity who is the source of all. So that in a sense, the personal beings become aligned above all with the cosmological argument, with the idea that if you look deeper beyond the face, beyond the image, the anthropomorphic side, you're seeing the material cause of the universe, material and efficient cause, but that from which everything comes. So in the same way that I think for any religious tradition to develop into a philosophical culture, the divine idea has to become philosophized. So that happens in India. The idea of a deity has to become philosophically rich. And that's a really important aspect of what the gods come to signify, that they are the not only the source, but the very material of the universe. 

PA: That idea that the god or the divine is literally a kind of stuff out of which everything is made. And there are some very concrete passages on this in the Vedic literature that seems to suggest a kind of pantheistic view of the universe because presumably I and the microphone and you and the listener and the device on which they're listening to this, this is all made of God literally on this conception. And that seems to suggest that everything is a single divine entity that's pervading everything else. Is that really how we should understand this or is it more metaphorical? 

JF: It's a good question. I mean, one of the problems is that the West's idea of pantheism is actually quite a crude and undeveloped idea. If you go back to the source of that word with Raphson, who expresses the idea of pantheism, everything is God in debate with an idea of panhylism [from "hyle", Greek for "matter" - ed.]: everything is mere unconscious substance. And it leaves open a kind of a space in which to think about what ontology, what being itself is. Is there something divine about that which is the foundation of all existence? Is there something extraordinary about this eternal substance is the wrong word, but eternal strata, which is the basis of everything. So they are kind of thinking their way into that in a more sophisticated fashion. And what's exciting about the tradition is that it doesn't leave it at there's a material, it's all made of God. It gives incredible nuance to that idea. In the Upanishads, you've got some text that says the divine is the material of things like the Chandogya Upanishad, it's clay. But other texts that say that the divine is the consciousness of which all perceptions are made. The Mandukya Upanishad says God is like an ocean of consciousness that takes different forms. Or even the Kena Upanishad arguably presents a process ontology where it says that God is that by which events happen. It's the constant impeller of phenomena. So you've got different ways of thinking about that. And that really comes out later in the tradition as they try and give real subtlety and nuance to the notion that the strata of existence, the hyle, the theos, the thing of which it's made is not simply a matter. It's not simply stuff. It's not substantialism. The West, arguably, the West has gotten stuck on the idea of substance. And that doesn't actually answer the kind of subtler questions about the nature of ontology, the fabric of being that are still waiting to be asked. 

PA: I guess especially if you thought of the stuff of which everything is made as consciousness, then it sounds more like you're trying to describe the universe as a mind or a self-thinking mind or a self-aware mind. And that would obviously change our understanding of what pantheism would mean here, right? Because it would be like the universe is a single subject of awareness that's grasping itself, for example. But I don't quite see how that relates to the clay idea. Is the idea that the clay is just a metaphor or an analogy for the stuff of consciousness?

JF: I think they're trying... There's a whole tradition in which they try and understand what kinds of things can be the material of something. And you get quite a raw materialism in the Chandogya. Clay is insensate. It's unconscious. It's stuff. And the Chandogya talks about how it takes on different names and forms, nama, rupa. And that just means you can take matter, if you like, and shape it, give it different form. And that's you, it's me, it's the bookshelf and the book. But you also, I think, and this is really interesting and important about the tradition, you get something like a phenomenological turn already in the Upanishads, maybe inspired by the beginnings of the yoga tradition, a lot of people who are looking at their own thought and trying to analyze it, where they say, well, wait a second, is the material of the world really matter? Isn't this all perception? Isn't this all concept experience? So they're coming at the very notion of the nature of being already from a different angle. And then they can say, well, hold on, matter is not really a thing. It's really consciousness that we're all made of. How is consciousness shaped into different forms and conditions and ideas? And from that comes a whole separate tradition of thinking about formedness, if you will. 

PA: I see. So this is actually an example of something that's been mentioned in previous episodes, which is that we actually find a variety of views and maybe stages of thought within even the Upanishads themselves, and then certainly within the Hindu tradition more generally.

JF: Yeah, absolutely. I always think the Upanishads are a bit as if you got together all of the pre-Socratic philosophers and took their writing and turned it into one scripture, as it were. So you've got this work which mixes myth with cosmology with kind of early scientific ideas and mathematics even, and channels this into philosophical suggestions, right, multiple philosophical suggestions, because of course they're being written by different families of priests and the intelligentsia, and just lays them out there for you to explore and also to combine. And there's a wonderful way in which the Upanishads and most later Indian texts, they proceed less by treatise, by telling you what's the case, than by question, by asking what might be the case, and then sort of opening the sphere to a range of different answers to that question. So it's naturally quite a sort of proliferating open tradition that welcomes multiple possible solutions.

PA: One thing you mentioned before is that we do nonetheless find positive arguments for things in the Hindu tradition, and I'm wondering to what extent we can align these with the issues that get talked about nowadays in philosophy of religion. Things like the proofs of God's existence, the nature of God, the afterlife miracles, all these things that philosophers of religion are expected to make arguments about. Maybe we can start with this idea of the proof of God's existence, something you mentioned already. Do we actually find proofs in that sense, in the texts? 

JF: Yeah, I mean it's an interesting issue. There are a few schools that are concerned to prove the existence of the divine, and some of them particularly of a personal God. So Nyāya, which is the school of logic, and Vaisheshika, the atomist school, who are kind of going hand in hand, start, they develop in certain cases, Nyāya Mañjarī of Jayanta, the text, they say there has to be a personal God. Why? They use an argument somewhat similar to sort of Descartes' argument, I think, where they say look at all the things the world is made of. What is it that causes them to function together in a unity? Why is there coherence in the world? There must be a unity maker, a designer in a sense. And so in the same way that Descartes says, look, God must be the thing that causes mind and world to align themselves coherently, so they want to argue that the divine is the thing that gets atoms and concepts and universals and even the very metaphysical categories to generate together a coherent world. So you do find this kind of thing. I think the cosmological argument is the more common case. So throughout the Upanishads and then in all the later Vedantic tradition, people are frequently arguing in a sense that they don't even have to argue that there's a God. They can simply say that which is the source is the thing we're talking about. So you do find proofs, but in a way you have to turn it on its head. The West is always concerned with creedal ascent, whether to religious belief or whether ascent to philosophical propositions. The Upanishadic tradition by saying that thing which exists is the thing we're talking about kind of bypasses that problem. I actually think it's a different set of questions that they're most interested in. It's more the conflict of divine attributes. So where the West is worried about omnipotence and omnibenevolence conflicting, we get the problem of evil, huge big debates. India is much more interested in immutability, which they want to hold. God is one unchanging identity versus the plurality that we see in the world. Change, multiplicity, how can these two go together? And that's their big debate that generates multiple answers. You get whole schools that will argue that God only changes in his non-essential attributes; it's a change of only the contingent elements. Or schools that argue, yes, God does indeed intrinsically change, but the material stays the same. And most interestingly, as you get further in, you get schools that are looking for forms of plural identity, kinds of oneness that are intrinsically plural so that you can argue that there isn't change, there isn't a loss of integrity. Like Bhartṛhari who says, look at meaning, you can have one meaning, but it's always made of complex, subtle internal elements. It's kind of a dialectical account. Or you get, wonderfully, I think, Rāmānuja, a medieval philosopher, says, look at agency. What it is to be an agent, to act, to be and actualize multiple possibilities is to change. And yet, because that's the definition of agency, in changing, you remain an agent. It's a form of identity which incorporates an internal transformational element. So they're really interested to see what kind of thing they can come up with that will allow for plurality in unity. 

PA: I guess that goes together with something we were talking about before, which is the idea of God as the ground of consciousness. Because everything you just said sounds a lot like the developing debates about the self. Is the self this one unchanging thing over time? Or is it a plurality? Or is it an illusion, maybe? And actually, that makes me wonder whether it's, in fact, just the same debate maybe happening in two different vocabularies. Because if you think that God is the ground of consciousness, then maybe God is the self. In fact, you have this idea that Brahman is the self. So when they talk about this issue you're talking about, so for example, can God stay the same but also be plurality, is that just the same philosophical problem as whether the self can be the same underlying the plurality of awareness? 

JF: That's a good question. I think there's definitely a correlation there. I mean, it's a subtle sort of difference perhaps in that God really, you could take away the word God because it's such a Western idea and it assumes personalism. But Bachman, which literally means the foundation in a sense, that which bears up, it has to be the foundation of everything. And there's a big debate about whether or not it's going to therefore encompass the plural changing world. But I think you're right, there's a correlation where the self is certainly the foundation of the changing person, personality, thought, action, etc. So you're right, one has to look for some way of trying to account for a continuity that will underlie change and a coherence that will underlie plurality. And it's certainly true, I think, in both cases that the silent voice in this, the straw man is always the Buddhists. Because the Buddhists are present in India, they've made the ultimate critique by suggesting that there is nothing substantial, foundational, permanent, and there's no essence. And if you're using that which is permanent and essential as your definition of the divine, as what is of intrinsic value, that means they've denied that there's anything of intrinsic value in the universe. So the Buddhists who are constantly reminding people that change appears to destroy identity are the people that they're having to answer both about the self and about the divine. 

PA: They want to go far enough to explain plurality but not so far that it becomes just plurality. 

JF: Yeah, exactly. And I used to think a lot about this, you know, oh my god, are the Buddhists right, are the Hindus right, what are we going to do? And I think they make a good point somewhere down the line, the Buddhists want to argue, you have to say what stuff is made out of. And the Buddhists come up with this curious argument that everything's made of dharmas, which for them are tiny points of existence with no duration and no spatial extension. And you think, okay, interesting, now they're looking at some kind of processual transformational thing which they don't want to lend permanence to, it's pure change, but they're not. I'm not sure they've come up with any coherent concept, an extensionless, point of existence which has no intrinsic existence. I think that this notion isn't altogether coherent, it doesn't explain what these existence points are themselves made of, so that the Nāsadīya Sūkta 's early Rigvedic idea that we still have to account for that which allows both existence and non-existence to be, right, and you could extend this and say that which allows even change, even phenomena, even insubstantial phenomena happening in consciousness, even illusions, even misperception, there is something which ontologically is the basis of their existence in the first place. And in a sense that's important. India's always trying to remind us to go beyond substantialism, which we can get caught up on, and towards a bigger concept of fundamental ontology, the being which grounds beings, if you like ontology, not ontic concepts. 

PA: Just to play devil's advocate for a moment, you've been describing this, and in fact, so have we and the other podcasts, as a really philosophical debate, for example, between Buddhists and Hindus or within Hinduism, where arguments are available for, for example, an underlying ground of all things, or against an underlying ground of all things in the Buddhist case. But I think someone might say, well, hang on a second, this is a religious tradition, and this is all ultimately based on scriptural texts. So isn't there a limitation imposed on the arguments that they can develop, at least, or the positions they can develop, because ultimately, you're not allowed to contradict the Vedic texts. And in a way that creates a kind of fence around the possibility of philosophy from a Hindu point of view. Do you think that's right? 

JF: Well, in some ways, you're holding Indian philosophy to a standard that we haven't been holding Western philosophy to. I mean, let's remember that most philosophy in the West, between the rise of Christianity, and let's say, goodness I mean, when did that, the 20th century, most of it was religious in some sense. And then Kant, Descartes, Hegel, all of these figures. In the Indian case, I think, as I said, the scriptures that they're working with are already quite philosophical in their character. It's like taking Plato as your Bible, as it were. And the Bible is not full of philosophical material, cosmological maybe, but very little, ethical maybe, but not metaphysical. So they're working with material that's already quite reasoned. But I think it's also important to see that traditions flourish with text. And it's important to see the text not as a restriction, but often as an enabler, which doesn't necessarily stop people from doing new things. India very early on says, we're going to stick with these Vedic texts, with the Shruti, and then they expand that canon. They expand it again and again to epic texts like the Bhagavad Gita, to philosophical texts like the Brahma Sutras, to diverse and eclectic later texts like the Puranas. The range of what scripture is gets bigger and bigger, so that creativity is facilitated by this. And it's also important to see the way in which interpretation is central to them in reasoning. You don't necessarily do like Descartes and sit in a room by yourself and come up with fundamental postulates. You work with suggestions that are already there so that one of the pramanas, the sources of good reason in India is anumāna inference. And this very well developed notion of how to infer, how to use analogies and examples to develop new models. And the very style of philosophizing through commentary means that you're always not only taking ideas out of the text, but developing them and often even just changing them. There's plenty written on how someone uses a text that says one thing and cleverly makes it say the opposite. So the text in a sense actually ends up serving reason. 

PA: Right. Actually, at the moment, I'm also covering medieval philosophy in Europe. And if you ever want to see people who are good at taking a text that seems to say one thing and make it say the other thing, then scholastic philosophy will give you plenty of examples. What about something else though that I think is maybe more distinctive actually of the Vedantic tradition, which is ritual. I mean, obviously other religions have rituals too, but there's so much focus on the ritual act, the ritual speech, the various objects that you manipulate in ritual. Isn't there a sense in which the ritual gives you an alternative route to achieving whatever it is you're trying to achieve that maybe makes philosophy unnecessary or that at least gives you an alternative? So it gives you maybe there's two paths to getting to God, as it were, rather than just one. 

JF: Yeah, I know what you mean. And in some traditions, it functions that way. But I think it's not necessarily the case that they're aiming at the same goal. Ritual tends to be method. It tends to be the means by which you achieve certain goals. And in Hindu culture, rituals can do many things. They can be transubstantiation rituals. They can be interactive rituals where you contact the spirits or other deities. They can be actually a lot of them are about celebrating natural law. A lot of the Vedic rituals, you did rituals that were meant to concretize the laws of nature and of society that already existed. They're modes, they're means, they're tools. But reason never loses its place as the thing by which you explain the world. Ritual can't explain anything. And India wants to know. The Upanishads and later texts, they frequently show the son coming to the father, father, I can't just do the ritual, explain it to me. The king coming to the Brahmin or the priest coming to the king and saying, explain it to me. A god going to another god and saying, be my teacher, explain it to me. No matter what your place in the spiritual hierarchy or your power over reality is, you want to know what the meaning of the thing is. How it works. And really importantly from that, you want to know what the purpose is. Ritual is just the method, but it's not, it doesn't tell you what the goal of that method is. 

PA: So it's actually a false dichotomy to say, well, there's ritual on the one hand, and that's when you're just lighting fires and burning stuff in the fire. And on the other hand, there's the philosophy that you do when you're having debates at court. It's much more like the philosophy is partially there to help you understand what the ritual is for and the ritual is there to carry out the philosophical insight. 

JF: Yeah, I think that's right. And we remember that the first, the intelligentsia in India originally was the Brahmins, the priests. And that's not, it wasn't a sideline, it was part of their very nature. The people who were said to have written these scriptures, the rishis, the seers, they're not prophets telling you what God said. They're seen as seers who see the nature of reality. So the idea of a dichotomy where religion is trying to get you to a magical salvation and reason is some extraneous activity, that's wrong. Importantly, people, for instance, Jonardon Ganeri have reminded us that reason often functioned independently of religion and that it could challenge religion in many cases, that the sciences of India were very rich and widely respected. So reason has, philosophy has its own life, but it was never necessarily in any way, I think, in contrast to religion. It's part of the project. And remembering that the project of religion is not just to get to some juicy reward, it is metaphysical, it's understanding, as well as pleasure or a happy end. 

PA: Do you think that the Vedic or the Hindu tradition could be subject to criticism along these lines though, which would go something like these Brahmin's are making unique claims to knowledge and also power, like the ability to get the gods to give you things like a healthy family and wealth and political success. And so in a way, this whole complicated system of ritual and philosophy is just all built to explain why they are so important, why they are a caste that should be above the other castes and even why the royal castes or members of that caste should sometimes pay them respect. I mean, there's even stuff about kings prostrating themselves at the feet of Brahmin's. 

JF: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I mean, Brahmin's can be seen on the one hand as the intelligentsia and every culture has them. And in fact, intelligentsia is often turned out to be class based. The difficulty of the Indian case is that it's explicitly endogamous. It's explicitly by birth. So what was an informal class division in Europe, for instance, becomes a formal caste division in India. So it is true, I think what was de facto true in the West was indeed true in India as well, that the elite philosophically was always an elite. But what's important, I think, is that that I suspect this true of every tradition that can only last so long. So very quickly, the one of the classic texts for this would be The Mahābhārata. This huge epic text tells of many characters, including quite marginal characters, women, lower caste characters. That is a text that frequently has different figures, different protagonists, speaking, suddenly speaking out in philosophical language, suddenly calling upon everyone to witness the quality of their reasoning and defending themselves against higher castes. There's a wonderful example of in Mahābhārata, there's a story of a woman who is a yogi. She's an independent woman, a renouncer, an ascetic, if you like, called Sula Pa. And a king thinks it's quite unreasonable that a woman should be wandering around alone seeking your knowledge and whatever she's seeking spiritual expertise. And she decides to teach him a lesson. She has both philosophical and supernatural powers. So she's able to possess him. She enters into his mind and from within his mind, wonderful sort of parable, she gives him a lecture in which she's, one of the key points she makes is, look at how reasonable I am. Look at how I know what makes a good argument. Watch the well-grounded premises that I propose. Watch the systematic formulation of my arguments. Notice my rationality and how that grounds me as an equal to you. And at the end of the story, she, having ridiculed him, having shamed him and showed him that she's his equal in every way at the rational level, she's regained her power. She's realigned the apparent social inequality. And she kind of says his mind's terribly empty. She doesn't want to stay there anymore and she leaves. But the story is a wonderful symbol, I think, of what it's trying to show, which is the way that reason actually does overcome inequality. The idea that what reason does when it persuades you is it goes into your mind and from within your own mind, it shows you that something is in fact right or true. So that you then are changed by it. You then become someone who has to respect the mind of the other. I think that's important because what starts off as something elite, philosophical practice, becomes the underpinning for people and characters throughout Indian history to be able to assert equality in the face of inequality. 

PA: Yeah, that's a beautiful example of something that I think is really interesting about the history of philosophy, which is that philosophy and reason more generally often creates this sort of level playing field for people of different religions, classes, and even genders.


Maja on 16 July 2023

A terminological suggestion

Hello, I am not an English native speaker, but it seems to me that you should write "panhylism", not "panheilism", since what is meant is clearly the idea that everything is matter (hyle).

Thank you so much for the wonderful series of podcasts!

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