The Gita, Occassionalism and Deontology
Occasionalism, in philosophy, is the doctrine that God alone causes everything. If I shoot an arrow at you and it pierces your heart and you die, I am not the cause of your death. On the contrary, what actually happened was, God transported the arrow to your heart and then caused it to stop beating and then caused you to die.
In Islam, the school of Ghazzali is occasionalist while, in the West, from Descartes onwards, occasionalism has been one solution to the Mind-Body problem (i.e. the puzzle that mental and physical processes seem so different that it seems impossible that they interact.) In Ethics, too, if we consider the disjunction between deontics (values) and alethics (facts), occassionalism of some sort or another is bound to crop up. Indeed, Game theoretic approaches to Evolutionary Biology, in conformity with the extended phenotype principle, are currently attempting precisely such a re-foundation of Ethics so as to ‘de-Kant’ (as Prof. Binmore puts it) the subject.
Buddhism and Vedanta, in India, had no need for a full blown occasionalist doctrine. In the former, the doctrine of kshanika-vada (momentariness) meant that, since the Universe only exists for a moment, causation and identity are delusions simply. For the latter, the doctrine of Maya-vada- irreality of all phenomenal appearance- once again made causation and identity and so on utterly meaningless.
This is not to say that Theistic Vishnavism, from Ramanjua, through Madhava, to Vallabhacharya, did not develop a full fledged occasionalist doctrine such that the Lord alone had agency, nor that there were not some very heated (and hilarious) polemics exchanged between the Sagunas (Dualists) and Nirgunas (Monists) which polarised along sectarian- i.e. Vaishnav vs. Saivite- lines. However, the great poet-Saints had no difficulty reconciling the differences of the doctrinaire by simply instrumentalizing the doctrine of re-birth. Indeed, the variant epistemologies and ontologies of Jainism, Buddhism and so-called Hindu schools were reconciled by an appeal to re-birth. Once Umasvati, the Jain Scholar-Saint, clarifies that all beings become perfect upon the path of re-birth, and once it is seen that the liberated soul in Jaina ‘kevalya’ is indistinguishable from the ‘extinguished’ soul of the Buddhist Pratyeka or the ‘United to the Lord’ soul or the Hindu jivana-mukta, then, Nagarjuna, Sankara and Umasvati become complementary rather than competing. Contra Max Weber, reincarnation is not the Indian theodicy (i.e. the explanation for why God lets bad things happen to good people), because, quite simply, for Buddhism and Vedanta, the notion that something transmigrates is pure illusion and nescience. As for Jainism, the very second you decide to be self-reliant and work to perfect yourself, immediately, you are absolutely assured that for infinite Time you will be in the blissful Kevalya state. What does it matter if it takes ten births or ten million to get there? Eternity is infinitely longer than even ten billion years. An Auditor would tell you, the sum is not material. It’s like saying to Bill Gates- my dear man, I have found out that you owe ten dollars to the Dry Cleaner- you are not as wealthy as you thought!
Tulisdas, for example, puts ‘casteist’ arguments into the mouth of the crow, Kakabhushandi, who had incurred the curse of his Guru in a previous life because he was so bigoted an upholder of the Saguna position. The greatness of Tulsidas is that his ‘maryada bhakti’ (respectful Theism) involves obeisance to all equally. Clearly, this is the opposite of an endorsement of a feudal, hierarchical, view of society. Ultimately, Tulsidas declares the name ‘Ram’ to be higher than any merely ontic truth or deontological method. In other words, Tulsi tells us that Ram’s name is higher than both whatever exists and anything we can imagine or predicate of ‘Ram’. This is better than Western Christianity’s slow weaning itself away, even with Islamic tutelage, from Platonic ‘reals’ to Aristotelian ‘nominalism’. However, this was not a thorough going nominalism, like Tulsi’s, and bequeathed Western Logic all sorts of ontological problems which it struggles with to this day. Briefly, as the works of Quine make clear, any system of logic makes ontological claims. In other words, any rigorous, non defeasible, system of reasoning is based upon a picture not just of the world but how and why the world can change or transform itself. But, from the view point of what Collingwood calls ‘second order discourse’, Philosophy as concerning itself not with facts about the World but a discussion of the world-views those facts might give rise to, this is quite foolish. Why have logic, why have a non-defeasible system of reasoning, if it can generate no truth value at all by its operations but can only reiterate the stupidity of its own axioms, the idiocy of its pauper’s picture of a world? Wittgenstein, who scandalized Vienna’s Logical Positivists by reading Tagore to them- incidentally, Hitler would soon put a stop to the scandal of a ‘dirty Jew’ reading out the works of a ‘pure Aryan’, like Tagore- tells us, repenting his own early work, that ‘ a picture held us captive, and we could not get outside the picture because language repeats it to us inexorably’. Whose language? Not that of Tulsi certainly. Not that of the bauls- Muslim, Hindu or European, like Anthony Firanghee- who lay behind Tagore’s own oeuvre.
For Sufi Islam, as for Hindu Theism, Occassionalism changed the relationship of poetry with the World. It was no longer constrained to be mimetic, a mere imitation of Nature, nor diegetic, i.e. narrate a story, but, instead, it could explore Man’s capacity to receive and generate meaning. In other words, both for Islam and the indigenous Indian tradition, poesis was its own hermeneutics- in other words, the poet, tasking himself with finding new meanings, even if the World pictures they referred to were very far from the common sense perspective, was doing so by showing how more could be read into what had already been handed down. The result is that the Bhagvad Gita, like Ghalib’s Divan, is a book which can never fall open on the same page twice. ‘So fresh and strange it each moment appears/ True beauty’s homage is e’er in arrears’.
Unfortunately, Nineteenth Century European Scholars- and their often even more provincial latter day successors- were wedded to a Romantic and historicist hermeneutic according to which there was once some Golden Age when people behaved ‘naturally’ and sang about things like how Mountains are real high and the Wind blows a lot and Forests have a lot of trees and can be scary at night, and the Sea sure does have a lot of water- and that, for some reason, such songs were actually really good and represented something genuinely worthwhile but, alas!, everything gradually became more and more corrupt and decadent and artificial and deeply freighted with thought. Thus the ornamental aspect of Sufi or Hindu theistic poetry was dismissed as ‘decadence’. But, to be fair, stupid elderly pedants are always obsessed with decadence. They see it all over the place. Don’t talk to me about the young men nowadays. They’re all homosexuals. Result is that girls are running wild. I tell you our Society has become completely rotten and decadent. We are sleep-walking towards disaster. What we need is a War to wake up the young men and get them to quit mounting each other and have a go at the enemy for a change.
Another great fault of the European scholars- who, speaking generally, were good linguists and laborious scholars- but of low general intellectual calibre and deeply Provincial outlook- was that they believed everything they’d been told at Grammar School. Greek tragedy is the highest form of poetry. It isn’t. That’s why the Greeks switched to Musicals. A great man laid low by a character flaw, or the malice of Fate, is the most noble subject for the poet. This isn’t true. It’s an ignoble subject for a Scandal mongering, gutter Press, journalist. There is nothing particularly elevating about the contemplation of some random rich dude’s misfortunes. As for beating one’s breast at the malice of Fate- why bother? What good does it achieve? Thomas Hardy’s turn to poetry, or Housman’s well-turned lyrics, may sound okay and be on the best Classical models but they are a mere melodious absence of thought, a turning away from the vast new vistas and lifted horizons offered by technological progress and social development.
Both Indian and Islamic philology- in contrast to that of the Europeans- owe their origin and gain traction by being very much part and parcel of economic , technological and social change. For the Greeks, there was no poet like Homer- but Homer described a purely Thymotic and tribal society- whereas, for the Indians, there was the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, which describe the transition from Thymotic, tribal, societies to contract-based, mercantile, Universalist regimes in which the Just King sets an example by controlling his own thymotic impulses and emerges from the ethical heteronomy of the Homeric heroes to the ethical autonomy and rationality of Chief Magistrates of urbane, mercantile, communities founded upon not tribal but Universal- or at least metic fostering- values.
For the West, the eclipse of the ‘glories of Greece and the grandeur of Rome,’ and the prolonged nightmare of the Dark Ages, coincided with the triumph of Christianity. Jerusalem stood absolutely opposed to Athens. Classical Philology takes its belated revenge on Religion in the Nineteenth Century by casting doubt on the seamlessness of Scripture. At the time, this might have seemed a victory for rationality. Perhaps the new historicist hermeneutics, founded in Classical philology, really had a role to play. It didn’t. Scripture can always defend itself because it is ‘insha’ (deontic) rather than ‘khabar’ (alethic). The Philologists gradually made bigger and bigger fools of themselves. Max Mueller was a standing joke with his ‘solar myth’ obsession. Nietzche tries to establish a humanist hermeneutics but was chased out of the Academy. Since the fellow was quite mad, he was eventually assimilated to a particularly foolish sort of ‘phenomenological’ philology- incidentally, I may point out that Occassionalism saves from the idiocy of Phenomenology- associated with Heidegger, a bad philologist who used phoney etymologies to read his own nonsense into ancient texts.
Western Philologists are too stupid to understand Western Philosophy- too stupid even to understand that all systematic Philosophy based on indefeasible reasoning is a priori silly- and so, naturally, the establishment of Western hegemony over Indian and Islamic knowledge systems, had the effect of rendering virtually everything being recovered by laborious scholarship radically unreadable as falling well below the standard of intelligence set by a drivelling idiot. Why? Well, important stuff in the text, or the cultural background, like the occassionalism in the Gita or in Ghazzali or whatever, is either ignored or explained away- it’s an interpolation!- or it is taken as evidence of ethical heteronomy and fatalism and evidence of a decadent literary milieu and so on.
Can you imagine a person saying, after reading Valmiki’s Ramayana, ‘you know, I get the impression that Ram didn’t actually have any real feelings for Seeta or for his Dad or anybody else. In fact, I don’t really know what Ram actually felt when Sita was abducted. It’s like the guy was a robot, just going through the motions.’
Prof. Sheldon Pollock has said this- and he hasn’t just read Valmiki but also translated a volume of the Ramayana- these are his actual, published, words ‘Rama's 'true feelings' will remain secret, properly so, for they are quite irrelevant to the poem's purposes.' Indeed, Pollock’s theory is that Rama, like all the other characters in the Ramayana, is ethically heteronomous, he has no freedom of choice and no inner source of values other than blind obedience. Pollock arrives at this conclusion by taking note of the Occassionalist metaphysics propounded in the Ramayana. He believes this fact to be sufficient grounds to conclude that all the characters subscribe to this doctrine and that their every intentional act is conditioned by it. In other words, when a character in the Ramayana eats some food he does not do so because he is hungry or because the food is appetizing but because he believes God wants him to eat the food. However, Occassionalism, as a philosophical doctrine, makes no such claim or demand. One way of looking at Occassionalism is to think of it as a ‘hidden variable’ theory. Intentionality is preserved, free choice remains operational, though some relevant information is not available to the agents involved.
Indeed, in this sense, Occassionalism is of the greatest utility to the Sciences- as well as to second order discourse- because it constantly alerts us to the inadequacy of our explanans- not fire burns wood but energy in the form of heat brings about a chemical change which itself can be more closely analysed and so on.
An oddity of Western thought- the source of its perpetual infantilism- is its cognitive dissonance in the face of propositions cast in logical form but which contain deontic rather than alethic variables. Work on defeasible systems of reasoning are a relative novelty in their tradition. Dialethia and ‘Fuzzy Logic’ are still generally considered beyond the pale. The problem of Meinongian objects (i.e. imaginary objects) or Moore’s paradox (can I believe something I know to be untrue?) continued to puzzle philosophers at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. The Ghazal poet, as much as the reader of the Gita, on the other hand, have always had behind them sensible answers to these pseudo-problems.
However, in India, the rise of a careerist ‘Revolutionary’ ideology and socially complacent ‘Politically Correct’ agit prop, meant that Western Philosophical hermeneutics, of the most witless sort, had to be systematically substituted for the home-grown product. Since the Government had decided to adopt a historicist judicial hermeneutics, according to which evil upper castes had committed some terrible crime thousands of years ago and hence had to be made to make reparation through all eternity, there was a natural synergy between the agitators and the administrators. Both agreed that all Indian people were stupid ignorant rascals incapable of ever adopting any socially beneficial ideology or morality on their own.
In this context, Hegel and that old racist, Kant, suddenly became relevant again.
Hegel writing on the Gita said ‘ there is no distinction between religion and philosophy here. No concept of the individual as a moral agent ... their whole thought is preoccupied with the dominance of the One Absolute, entirely unqualified, indeterminate, substance, […] its abstractness (its renunciation of the external world) and the lack of the concept of the autonomous, free individual and its self-consciousness.
‘Knowledge is achieved only by means of abstraction from the sensible and through reflection […] wherein thought remains equally motionless
and inactive as the senses and feelings should be forced to inactivity. […]The Indian isolation of the soul into emptiness is rather a stupefaction
which perhaps does not at all deserve the name mysticism and which cannot lead to the discovery of true insights, because it is devoid of any
Hegel, being an ignorant pedant with no knowledge of what we would now call Science, Maths, Logic, General Knowledge, Economics, Politics and so on, not unnaturally had invented some Mumbo Jumbo doctrine according to which Negation was somehow illicit. His complaint against the Indians was that ‘“Too often, they think of Nothing as a necessity”. For this sin, the World Spirit got angry with them and cursed them with backwardness. Since Hegel, clever boy!, had rejected Negation and the ‘Bad Infinite’ and so on, the World Spirit became very happy with Prussia and blessed it and turned it into the bestest place ever which was convenient because Hegel lived there.
In this context, I am reminded of a ‘thought experiment’ from Kaushik Basu’s play ‘Crossings at Benares Junction’- the hero, a somewhat stupid lecturer, wonders what would happen if the world came to a stop for an instant and then, an instant later, everything resumed again. Would that instantaneous occurrence of Nothingness not somehow cancel the whole series and purge it from existence? This is an example of a Hegelian thought. It is utterly foolish. Cellular automaton theory takes such situations in its stride as a matter of routine.
Recently, Prof. Amartya Sen has had a crack at the Gita. Carrying on a glorious tradition of Indians writing nonsense in English about the Geeta, he thinks Lord Krishna is propounding deontological (rule based) ethics. He thinks Arjuna is a consequentialist (i.e. judging an action by its results). Now deontology is only a good strategy when there is imperfect information. No idiot follows a rule if he has all the information. Let me give an example. If I don’t know who is knocking on the door, I look through the peep-hole. The rule ‘always look through the peep-hole before opening the door’ is a good rule because I have imperfect information. It is a stupid rule, which no one but an idiot would observe, if perfect information is available. Now, one may say deontology isn’t about rules like ‘always look through the peep-hole’ but maxims such as ‘always do your duty without fear or favour’. Clearly the word duty here must mean what you understand to be your duty (i.e. it must have an intensional rather than an extensional definition otherwise it cashes out as a consequentialism because you have to go to every possible being and inquire what your duty to them is and then decide how to reconcile all these different duties and so on). But if you already consider something to be your duty you’d be doing it anyway. The maxim is redundant- like saying ‘be sure to exhale after you inhale’ or ‘be sure to obey the law of gravity’. Duty is a ‘revealed preference’. The maxim ‘do your duty’ is only meaningful if a person is having a doubt about what he should do. Such doubts are of 2 types, those arising out of first order (i.e. informational or computational) constraints- here the doubt is resolved by the acquisition of information or a computational technique- and those expressing existential doubts regarding ‘meta-duties’- i.e. what duty it is one’s duty to have- which is a second order, purely philosophical, question. Here, Sens’s characteristic method of making distinctions without a difference should lead to some philosophical result. It doesn’t. Why? In the Gita, Krishna drops all deontological arguments in favour of a full blown occassionalist metaphysics. Sen knows this. Yet he writes what he writes. Personally, I blame Nathkat Nandlal. He likes to make fools of us grey-beards.
What to do? Lord Krishna is like that only.