Wednesday, 13 October 2021

Upinder Singh's 'Ancient India'

Upinder Singh, daughter of Manmohan, has published a book titled 'Ancient India: Culture of Contradictions'.
It is shit. 
Consider the following-
How a diversity of ethical paths, rather than a singular dharma, runs through The Mahabharata
Dharma was translated by the ancient Greeks as Eusebia which term was translated by the Romans as pietas. In English, Dharma means piety. Since people of diverse occupation, age, gender, geographical location etc. can be pious it is obvious that many 'ethical paths'- e.g being a pious housewife, a pious soldier, a pious ascetic etc- are included under the rubric of Dharma.

Since there is no text in the world which says otherwise, Upinder has not highlighted anything significant about the Mahabharata. She may as well have said 'a diversity of characters, rather than just one person, are depicted in the Mahabharata'. 

Scroll.In has published this

 excerpt from ‘Ancient India: Culture of Contradictions’, Upinder Singh.

Either all cultures contain contradictions or none do. The title is meaningless.

While most debates end with a winner and a loser,
This may be so in School. It isn't true in the real world.

 those in the Mahabharata often end inconclusively or on a note of doubt.
This is false. Every episode of the Mahabharata presents a 'siddhanta'- an accepted view or 'eudoxa'.

 The Mahabharata abounds in debates, the most important of which are about the subtlety and mysteriousness of dharma. 

The Mahabharata is a highly symmetric, non-dissipative, system which by Noether's theorem conserves karma and dharma. The former shows how actions are related over time from the perspective of the doer. The latter shows how actions are related over space from the perspective of society. 

The overall emphasis of the narrative is that one must understand one’s dharma – essentially that of the varna one is born into – and strive to follow it, no matter how unpleasant it may be and how much unhappiness it may bring.

Nonsense! One may chose another path for oneself. What is important is to understand the consequences.

Nevertheless, characters in the epic are frequently tormented about what exactly their dharma is, none more so than Yudhishthira, the eldest Pandava brother, who (ironically) has the epithet Dharmaraja (king of dharma).

But that torment or 'vishada' comes to an end when he hears the Vyadha Gita- which shows that a principal (as opposed to an agent) can ignore the strictures of pundits or politicians and just pursue rational self-interest while gaining the honeyed wisdom of the Chandogya- and the Nalophkyanam- which shows that a King should apply statistical game theory to overcome delusion or akrasia. This is perfectly sensible. It is the same conclusion that modern decision theory comes to.

Although at one level, dharma is spoken of as eternal and universal, the Mahabharata in fact suggests the existence of several dharmas.

Rubbish! Piety is piety. Different people may express piety in different ways. You and I may share the same pizza. It is not the case that there are two pizzas.

The dharmas of the four ages (Krita, Treta, Dvapara, and Kali) vary.

No. The expression of piety will be different at different times. Essentially the Mahabharata is about the transition from an Iron Age 'Thymotic' culture to one more favorable to market forces and an impersonal rule of law. 

 Dharma is frequently associated with the varnas and the ashramas, but there is also a dharma of sages, of forest people, even of mlechchhas.

Because different people display piety in different ways. Upinder confuses customary morality with Piety. 

 In times of acute distress or emergency, apad-dharma (dharma in time of emergency) kicks in, and certain departures from the norm are justified. We have noted the Mahabharata example of the Brahmana sage Vishvamitra,

Who started off as a Kshatriya but then decided to become a Brahman. 

 starving in a time of famine, stealing some forbidden meat from the house of a Chandala and defending his action as being in accordance with apad-dharma.

Justifying your actions is itself apad-dharma- don't do it unless you have to. 

Reference has been made in earlier chapters to the dharma that applies to all, known as samanya dharma or sadharana dharma, which consists of various virtues such as truthfulness, generosity, and non-violence, but this is not as important as the dharma of the varnas.

This is misleading. Everybody understands that one must restrain oneself (yama) in various ways- e.g. not shitting all over the place or constantly telling stupid lies or beating everybody you meet- before one can start following 'niyamas'- positive injunctions which in turn depend on your duties and mode of life. 

 On several occasions, the Mahabharata asserts non-violence or non-cruelty to be the highest dharma.
Why? Because we are talking about warriors and Kings. If they became wantonly cruel and maniacally violent, the prosperity of the country would crumble. 

Towards the end of the Shanti Parva, the unchha vow is described as the highest dharma. This consists of a frugal life based on food acquired through gleaning, that is, gathering leftover grain from fields.

This was descriptive, not prescriptive. Such people existed at that time and were known for being the most pious. 

 The Mahabharata accepts a life of engagement with the world and also talks about the dharma of liberation from the cycle of rebirth (moksha-dharma) which requires true knowledge, control of the senses, and complete detachment.

The Mahabharata reflects the Society of its day. 

The epic composers often included contradictory statements about dharma within a dialogic frame and did not always try to reconcile the many different points of view.

This again reflected the actual thinking of the time. However, apparent contradictions were resolvable in the Sutra literature accompanying the Upanishads.

One of the many exciting debates in the Mahabharata is between the philosopher king Janaka and the wandering female ascetic Sulabha, who had attained moksha. Sulabha hears that Janaka had attained moksha while remaining king. Using her yogic powers, she assumes the body of a beautiful woman and appears in his court to check for herself whether this is true.

She challenges Janaka to a debate

No. Her shtick is that intellectual sparring is itself a sign of nescience. Janaka, foolishly, initiates the conversation- dwelling on his own merits (which Krishna says is equal to committing suicide) and upbraiding the lady for entering his mind. She shows her mastery of Samkhya and logical semantics and then says that as an ascetic, she will tenant his body for a night before leaving it because, from the point of view of gnosis, it is but an empty shell. Theists consider this a victory over an atheistic interpretation of Samkhya and Nyaya-Vaisesika. The problem is that we have no personal experience of ravishing female ascetics performing such Yogic feats. Still, Theism is a matter of Faith- which will always have its mysteries- not empirical evidence.

 and uses her yogic powers to enter into the king’s being. Janaka questions her credentials to debate with him, especially on the grounds that she is a beautiful woman, and mocks and insults her. But debate they do, and their topic is whether it is possible to attain moksha while leading a worldly life or whether renunciation is an essential prerequisite.

It is an extremely unusual debate as the beings of both debaters inhabit one body during its entire duration. At some point of time, Janaka falls silent, a sign that he has lost.

This is the conventional interpretation. However, by not answering back, Janaka may be showing evidence of having become a jivanmukta. In other words, the flaw of egotism has been removed from him. 

A powerful philosophical response to a whole range of issues related to dharma, violence, war, and renunciation in the Mahabharata occurs in the Bhagavad Gita, which has already been mentioned in earlier chapters. 

Upinder does not notice that the Mahbharata is highly symmetric. The Bhagvad Gita deals with the vishada of the agent just as its dual- the Vyadha Gita- deals with the akrasia of the principal. 

The Bhagavad Gita weaves together strands from the philosophies of Samkhya, Yoga, and Vedanta with the ideas of duty and religious devotion.

It is Theistic and Occassionalist- ie. God is the sole efficient cause. 

It absorbs certain Buddhist ideas such as impermanence and suffering,

Such ideas are universal. Which Sage ever said youth and happiness will endure forever?

 and rejects certain others (for instance, the denial of the soul). 

Which is considered strategic by some Buddhist traditions.

It reconciles dharma and moksha. Its idea of karma-yoga emphasises the eternal nature of the atman and the importance of following one’s varna-dharma;

only if one freely chooses to do so.

 it is the fruits of actions and not actions themselves that are to be renounced.
Including 'Moksha' or Liberation. 

The text contains different ideas of god – an impersonal cosmic god who is the creator, preserver, and destroyer of the world, as well as a god who is immediate and worthy of devotion.

No. This is the univocal idea of the God of Theism wherever Theism prevails. 

The latter idea is best described as monolatry – the worship of a god as a supreme god without denying the existence of other gods.

Rubbish! We don't say an Evangelical Christian who accepts Lord Jesus Christ as her personal God and Savior is a 'monolatrist' who concedes that Jupiter and Mars too are gods. 

 Such a unique synthesis could only have emerged from a creative engagement with a variety of philosophical ideas.

There is nothing unique about a univocal conception of Theistic piety. The Mahabharata does depict some of the prevailing philosophical/soteriological schools of the period. Some characters who appear in the Upanishads reappear within this text. 

Along with the Bhagavad Gita, the Mahabharata also contains the Anugita. After the end of the great battle at Kurukshetra, Arjuna tells Krishna that he has forgotten everything that the latter had told him earlier and asks him to repeat it. Krishna tells him that this is not possible as he had delivered his Bhagavad Gita teaching while in a deep meditative state and cannot redo the act.

But he tells Arjuna that he can give him another teaching that is essentially the same as the previous one. He proceeds to deliver the Anugita, which emphasises knowledge and renunciation as the paths to liberation – a teaching that is rather different from the Bhagavad Gita’s thrust on desireless action and bhakti!

The Gita is about Arjuna desiring the gratuitous gift of theophany. The 'teaching' is irrelevant. There is no contradiction between saying 'do your duty now the time of reckoning has come' and saying 'now that there is no occasion for you to discharge any customary obligation, pursue Knowledge and Ascesis like others pursuing the same goal.'

The inconclusive nature of the dialogues and debates in the Mahabharata 

are a figment of Upinder's imagination. She may believe that the 'dialogue and debate' about whether the Ram Janmabhoomi site was originally a place of Hindu worship was 'inconclusive'. This is not the case. Lefty Historians lost all down the line. They were shown to be stupid, ignorant and deeply bigoted. 

and the presence of diverse, contradictory ideas within the text have a great deal to do with its compositional history, which may have stretched over as many as eight centuries and involved numerous composers and redactors. It also indicates the pragmatic approach adopted by the composers, who juxtaposed many different views without trying to make them all fall in a single line.

What is important about the Mahabharata is that every episode and character has a dual such that symmetry is maintained. Since the system is non-dissipative, there are no 'contradictions'. Karma and Dharma are conserved and gain a game theoretic representation. 

Compared to other texts, the Mahabharata dialogues actually explore different facets of complex issues and do not shirk from admitting confusion, dilemmas, and grey areas.

No. This is a non-dissipative system so only 'organized complexity' can be depicted. However, these are not real-world issues of the type discussed in manuals on economic statecraft. 

 At the same time, there are limits to the flexibility, and this is indicated in the text’s hostile attitude towards the nastikas.

Obviously, a book where God plays a big role is going to be hostile to atheists who say no such being exists. On the other hand, the Vyadha- butcher- of the Vyadha Gita, chooses to worship and serve his own parents as his Gods. He lives an affluent life with his beloved family. Yet he has attained gnosis.

Indian Historians refuse to accept rational self-interest and 'oikeiosis' as motivating factors. They prefer to babble bigoted, paranoid, nonsense. Upinder Singh was much less guilty of this than some of her peers. But she didn't speak out against them. This book of hers is not egregiously wrong or deliberately insulting to Hindus. But it is bland and empty of ideas. History may judge Manmohan more kindly than his contemporaries. But historians like Upinder have no faculty for sound judgment. They have wasted their lives.

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