The Worst Sentence William James Ever Wrote

I have just concluded, in one of my classes this semester, my teaching of William James‘ classic Pragmatisma bona fide philosophical classic, one richly repaying close reading and elaboration of its central theses. My admiration for James’ writing and thought continues to grow, even as this semester, I encountered a passage that is remarkably incongruous with all I know about James’ sensitivity and appreciation of diverse religious traditions–this is after all, the man who wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience.

In Lecture IX, ‘Pragmatism and Religion,’ James says:

Suppose that the world’s author put the case to you before creation, saying: “I am going to make a world not certain to be saved…I offer you the chance of taking part in such a world. Its safety…is unwarranted. It is a real adventure….Will you join the procession? Will you trust yourself and trust the other agents enough to face the risk?”

Should you in all seriousness, if participation in such a world were proposed to you, feel bound to reject it as not safe enough? Would you say that, rather than be part and parcel of so fundamentally pluralistic and irrational a universe, you preferred to relapse into the slumber of nonentity from which you had been momentarily aroused by the tempter’s voice?

[I]f you are normally constituted, you would do nothing of the sort. There is a healthy-minded buoyancy in most of us which such a universe would exactly fit. We would therefore accept the offer…Yet perhaps some would not; for there are morbid minds in every human collection, and to them the prospect of a universe with only a fighting chance of safety would probably make no appeal. There are moments of discouragement in us all, when we are sick of self and tired of vainly striving….We want a universe where we can just give up, fall on our father’s neck, and be absorbed into the absolute life as a drop of water melts into the river or the sea.

The peace and rest, the security desiderated at such moments is security against the bewildering accidents of so much finite experience. Nirvana means safety from this everlasting round of adventures of which the world of sense consists. The hindoo and the buddhist, for this is essentially their attitude, are simply afraid, afraid of more experience, afraid of life. [emphasis added]

The total misunderstanding on display here of these two great religious and philosophical traditions is acutely disappointing. James seems to have absorbed, uncritically, the most facile and reductive view possible of the claims they make; he reduces the diversity of Indian thought to a quick caricature. ‘Nirvana’ is not nothingness; it indicates a state of living in this world that is not afflicted by the pointless suffering that is the lot of all those who do not practice the kind of ‘ironic detachment’ the Buddha preached and practiced. The ‘hindoo’ for his part does not retreat, afraid of this world; nowhere in the diverse philosophical systems that make up ‘Hindu thought’ is retreat from the world the central prescriptive claim. At best, it might be one of the practices that lead to enlightenment, one of the stages of life that we must pass through.

James betrays here a parochialism that still infects the modern academy; the misunderstanding on display still reigns supreme.

Lessons From A Vision Of A Funeral Pyre

My grandfather’s funeral was the first I attended of a significant family member. It was also the first time I witnessed a cremation, that fiery return to the ashes–and possibly eternal cycles of becoming and passing away–which signals the end of a Hindu’s life. As we prepared for it, I was aware, even through the haze of my grieving for a man who had assumed such a vivid and dominant presence in my life, that I was about to undergo a transformative experience of one kind or the other.

It was not long in forthcoming. After the preliminary prayers had been chanted, and my grandfather’s body wrapped in a white shroud and placed on top of the pyre, my uncle–my grandfather’s eldest surviving son–stepped up and brought a burning taper to it. The wooden logs caught fire quickly and long tongues of flame moved up and through their thickets, rapidly turning into a fierce blaze. I stood on the other side of the pyre; I could see my grandfather’s feet pointing toward me, suddenly exposed, sticking out from the under the sheet that covered the rest of his body.

As the flames grew, so did the radiant heat, and I took a step backward. As I did so, I noticed that my grandfather’s feet had blackened, charred by the fire that turned skin into soot. And then, abruptly, without notice, the blackened skin peeled, exposing an ivory-white flesh below, which began to melt and drip off the the now exposed bones; a bony, skeletal foot began to emerge. I instinctively winced, and started forward; I wanted to protect my grandfather from this horrible, agonizing, consignment to the flames. He was trapped and helpless; pinned under by the weight of the logs.

I didn’t, of course. There was nothing to protect. My grandfather was gone; he was beyond pain and sensation and feeling and suffering. I was staring at the remnants of his body, now lacking the appropriate relationship to the totality I had called my ‘grandfather.’ It could feel nothing, sense nothing. Old instincts died hard; standing there, in that April heat, as the Central Indian sun beat down on me, I could scarcely believe this all too evident fact.

The pyre continued to blaze; the bones in my grandfather’s feet had now started to crack and crumble under the still raging flames. All around me, a sombre group of family and friends gazed on. I had received news of my grandfather’s worsening health a mere twenty-four hours before; we had dashed to his home by overnight train in an effort to meet him, and on arriving, had learned he had passed away the previous night itself. I had spent the morning in a daze, scarcely believing this larger than life figure was gone, never to return.

But now there was no doubt about it; I had received confirmation that the time had come for my grandfather to ‘return’; this cremation had quickly and efficiently prepared his physical remains for the next stage of their transformation and further utilization in this world’s ongoing becoming.

In Praise of Alan Watts And ‘Popularizers’

I have a confession to make: I enjoy reading Alan Watts‘ books. This simple statement of one of my reading pleasures, this revelation of one of my tastes in books and intellectual pursuits, shouldn’t need to be a confession, a term that conjures up visions of sin and repentance and shame. But it is, a veritable coming out of the philosophical closet.

You see, I’m a ‘professional philosopher.’ I teach philosophy for a living; I write books on philosophy. Sometimes people refer to me as a ‘philosophy professor’, sometimes they even call me–blush!–a ‘philosopher.’  I’m supposed to be ‘doing’ serious philosophy,’ reading and writing rigorous philosophy; the works of someone most commonly described as a ‘popularizer’ do not appear to make the cut. Even worse, not only was Watts thus a panderer to the masses, but he wrote about supposedly dreamy, insubstantial, woolly headed, mystical philosophies. An analytical philosopher would be an idiot to read him. Keep it under wraps, son.

To be sure, I have read some original works in the areas that Watts is most known for popularizing: Zen Buddhism, Daoism, and Indian philosophy–especially that of the non-dualist Vedanta. I have even taught an upper-tier core class on Philosophies of India and China–my class covered the Vedas, Jainism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism. My philosophical training enables me to grapple with the substantial metaphysical, epistemological, ethical, and political issues these writings so richly engage with. But I’m not a specialized scholar in these domains, and hardly ever read modern academic writing that tackles their areas of ongoing disputation and analysis. My current areas of interest–legal theory, pragmatism, Nietzsche–and my current distractions and diversions–mainly the politics of cricket–take up most of my time and intellectual energy.

So I enjoy reading Watts when I can. I always have. He was erudite, he wrote clearly and passionately, and if you’ll indulge me just for a second, I would even describe him as ‘wise.’ He tackles issues that are at the core of philosophical questioning and inquiry and attitudes; he often offers quite lucid insights into matters that emotionally resonate with me. Perhaps I do not have the background necessary with which to evaluate his claims about Zen Buddhism and the Vedanta; those more specialized in those domains have often contested his readings and explications. (Merely being of Indian origin does not, unfortunately, make me an expert on Indian philosophy.) But from my limited perspective, and with an acknowledgment of some expressions of only partial comprehension, and sometimes even disagreement, with his writings, I would venture that I did not find him guilty of too many philosophical sins. (For instance, his ‘The Language of Metaphysical Experience’ is a very clear piece of writing; this was first published in 1953 in The Journal of Religious Thought and later reprinted in Become What You Are (Shambhala Classics.)) 

I do not know if Watts ever featured on philosophy reading lists at universities; my guess is not. He certainly is unlikely to in the future; he is dated now, I think. Perhaps only ageing hippies–dunno if I qualify as one–continue to read him. But I think it would be a shame if our fastidiousness about a certain kind of professional philosophical hygiene were to prevent us from approaching writings like his–that is, those who set themselves to expounding for the plebes–with less than an open mind.

Hot, Bothered, and Devout: The Religious Policing of Sex

Yesterday, I posted a review essay on a pair of books by SN Balagangadhara and Rajiv Malhotra that critique the field of “Indian studies.” In my essay I attempted to place into some context the recent controversy over the recall from circulation of Wendy Doniger‘s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History.

Amongst the many charges leveled at Doniger’s writing is that she has “hurt” the sensibilities of devout Hindus. This accusation is often made against many modern scholars of Hinduism; Balagangadhara and Malhotra are part of this chorus. Thus, in my essay I noted the former’s critique of Jeffrey Kripal and Paul Courtright‘s  psychoanalytical takes on the mysticism of Ramakrishna Paramahansa and the legend of Ganesha and his conclusion that Kripal and Courtright were “indulging in mischief” and doing “violence” to “the experiential world of the Hindus.” Malhotra, of course, has been vigorously accusing Doniger of a variety of sins: her treatment of sexuality and sexual themes is one of them.

So, rather unsurprisingly, a centerpiece of these critiques is the offense caused to religious sensibilities by that which is supposed remain between the sheets.

I think we are entitled to be suspicious that whenever Hindus—in India, or elsewhere— or other devout folks–all over the world–get offended by academic or cultural responses to their religion, it invariably has something to do with sex, the one business that gets everyone hot and bothered under their cassocks and lungis. Reading Balagangadhara’s language of “violence” against Hindus, one would imagine the darkest depths of anti-Hindu sentiment had been plumbed. Rather disappointingly instead, it turns out Hindus are like religious prudes everywhere: sex and their gods or their saints do not go together; they are chaste, virtuous, asexual creatures. What a letdown for the civilization that gave us Khajuraho.

By saying this, I do not mean to diminish the ascetic strains in Hinduism—like those pointed to, ironically enough, by Wendy Doniger—but rather to combat the impulses present in the responses to the scholarship of Kripal and Courtright that seek to cover up the erotic and sexual strains in Indian culture at large. Such stereotypical and clichéd outraged responses are, after all, not even in accord with Indian cultural mores. Risqué versions of tales taken from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata often make the rounds in India; there are too, among the young ‘uns, dirty ditties galore about its characters to be sung out loudly and coarsely. Those who sing them, and tell lewd jokes by the dozen about characters from the great Hindu epics, don’t seem to be hurt by their activities.

Balagangadhara and Malhotra owe us an explanation of why so many Indians do not seem perennially offended by such practices. Could it be the vaunted Hindu tolerance and syncretism—spoken so glowingly of by Malhotra—is found here in the implicit understanding that powerful cultural and mythological imaginaries are unlikely to be diminished by a few academic theses? Intolerant reactions do not sit well with the picture these two worthies paint for us of an endlessly patient and resilient tradition.

Unsurprisingly, Balagangadhara and Malhotra, and their fellow “outraged”, claim to speak for too many, and seek to control discourse. Some things never change. For all the exalted theistic conceptions that the supposedly devout seek to foist on us, they descend all too quickly from the sublime to the sordid, from lofty metaphysical conceptions to just good old scoldings about dirty talk. There is nothing new in this outrage; just a tired old policing of sex.

SN Balagangadhara and Rajiv Malhotra on Reversing the Gaze

On 12 February, Penguin India announced it was withdrawing and destroying—in India—all published copies of historian Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009). Penguin’s decision came after reaching an out-of-court settlement with Shiksha Bachao Andolan, which, in 2011, had filed a legal complaint objecting to sections of Doniger’s book. Amidst the vocal expressions of concern over the damage done to free speech and academic freedom in India were also thinly-veiled suggestions that justice had been done, that the right outcome—the suppression and quelling of an academic work that supposedly offended Hindu sensibilities—had been reached. A prominent voice in this choir was of one Rajiv Malhotra, who noted on his Twitter account that Doniger was merely the ”idol of inferiority complex Indians [sic] in awe that white person studies Hinduism,” that Penguin’s withdrawal of her work was justified in a world in which “media bias” in an “intellectual kurukshetra [sic]” had led to a “a retail channel controlled by one side.”   

This dispute over Wendy Doniger’s work is merely the latest instance of a long-running contestation of how best to study India and all things Indian.

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