CHENNAI: Last Easter Sunday,s suicide bombings in Sri Lanka, apart from its ghastly and senseless violence, have most shockingly stirred up the coil of ,nothingness in the heart of being,, as the existentialists would say. They raise concerns of ,religious radicalization, among youth, which no faith can ignore.
The conscious or unconscious ,distortions, in religious faiths in a different readings of a religious creed, or fanatical, fundamentalist assertions by religious groups on the presumed ,superiority, of their respective faith is today a direct call to the demands of comparative philosophy, which is hardly the buzz in academic circles now as it used to be even till the early 1970s,.
There are any number of Departments of Religious Studies in various Universities which provide a platform for Inter-religious peeps and understanding; but they are still within the stonewalls of their respective dogmas or traditions, without really contesting the famed hypothesis of ,the clash of civilizations, propounded by Samuel P Huntington that sees a play of “cultural and religious identities” driving conflict in a post-Cold War World. This, ironically, despite the economic globalization, which has brought far more convergence in the post-1990s, and the consequences of climate change reminding us of our collective vulnerability.
If there is still one hopefully enduring interface that allows for the possibility of a mutual dialogue, which is open-ended, takes care of pluralistic concerns, not “out there to establish the Truth for all times to come”, sensitive to the methods of science and yet appreciative of its limitations, and acknowledges the roles of reason, reflection and creative intuition, it is only ,Comparative Philosophy,.
While radical strains among youth in particular across faiths can be curbed or blunted by the practice of ,comparative philosophizing,, it has no specific domain. It is an activity of the human mind that draws from diverse disciplines including philosophy, literature, sociology, social anthropology, linguistics, economics, the natural sciences and now the frontier areas of knowledge, like biotechnology, neurology, the brain and the machine and so on. In essence it is the spirit of ,Creative Philosophizing, itself, to use an expression from one of post-Independent India,s greatest thinkers, late Prof Daya Krishna.
It is a noble play of ,Freedom and Reason,, to draw on a pregnant metaphor of another Oxford Philosopher Prof R M Hare, wherein all argued out positions are at best provisional, the basis of a further critique and no ultimate ,truth claims, are made. It is at once man,s thirst for knowledge, as much an acknowledgement of man,s limitations in this adventurous pursuit, and a sense of awe before the ,unknowable Absolute,, whatever name particular religious faiths may have for it.
Three great Indian thinkers of the 20th century come to one,s mind in the context of active practice of ,Comparative Philosophy, though the list has several more. All three- Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Prof Daya Krishna and Prof Ramchandra Gandhi- are no more but their thoughts continue to cast a ,profound, magical web, around those who seek this enterprise of ,Comparative Philosophy,. Sri Aurobindo was another genius in comparative
perspectives, but he was largely a symbol of powerful silence, as a ,Yogic recluse, at his Ashram in Pondicherry. The late B K Matilal, who went on to occupy ,The Spalding Chair of Eastern Religions and Ethics, at Oxford, the honour first given to Dr Radhakrishnan, was another.
However, the gains of this comparative study of religions are not purely academic. It helps shape the minds of the young. In a trickle-down effect, through forums at the UG level in every Arts and Science college, it is the youth who should be encouraged take to this activity voluntarily, with no costs. ,Creative Philosophy, is not for passing any exam, or for scoring brownie points in a televised debate.
In a highly materialistic world, it is an auxiliary way of being and thinking that strikes at the root of any theoretic dogmatism or ,radicalization, of any religious faith. Even in the face of a ,Tsunami,, comparative philosophy is like the gentle Tennyson,s Brook that goes on forever, a moderate template, a bulwark against cultural fascism and any form of extremism. It points to the possibility of a blend of best of all faiths, a future universal religion of harmony, as Sarvepalli would say.
That brings us to Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan,s philosophical interests in the late 1920s, and 1930s. His preoccupation with ,comparative religions, in a big way began with his first visit to England in 1926 when “Calcutta University nominated Radhakrishnan as its representative at the Congress of Universities of the British Empire which was to meet in London,” as his son and eminent historian , Dr Sarvepalli Gopal writes in his remarkably candid book, “Radhakrishnan- A Biography,.
First, the ,Upton Lectures,, which he was invited to deliver at the Manchester College at Oxford, introduces him to the West as a delectable thinker and expounder of Indian Philosophy, with his enchanting turn of phrases and richness of expression, many years after a Swami Vivekananda or a Tagore appeared on the world stage. Gopal writes: “For Radhakrishnan, this was an opportunity to present to a non-Hindu audience the fundamentals of the Hindu religion.” The four lectures, “so fluently delivered” on the ,Hindu View of Life, was to later become a book, “easy to read, sold widely, running quickly into several impressions”, recalls Gopal.
Dr Radhakrishnan,s subsequent ,Hibbert Lectures, at Oxford during 1929-30, again equally popular, was more representative of his then evolving philosophical
position that later was published as ,An Idealist View of Life,. It was a work rated highly by leading thinkers globally, even if they did not agree with the way Radhakrishnan sought to synthesize the subtlety of the Upanishadic ,Brahman, with the Hegelian ,Spirit, that acts in and through history, here and now.
It was in that phase, Gopal says that Radhakrishnan gave a “new slant” to the study of comparative religions, shifting its emphasis from an apologetic exercise of ,defending the superiority of one,s own religious faith, to the idea of being open to multiple faiths; alternate metaphysics seen as a need between inter-war years when the world was tearing apart, traditional notions of God in tumult, yet people were “terrified” of skepticism.Radhakrishnan,s ,transcendental idealism,, as a swing away from revelatory religions with a mystical outlook, came as a whiff of fresh air, opening up a new way of an Imperialist West looking at the East. Vitally, it put all major religions in a dialogue mode as ,Fellowship of the Spirit,.
Gopal, quoting from Radhakrishnan,s work, says: “The new science of psycho-analysis suggested that religion was an illusion and the disciplines of
comparative religion and social anthropology showed all religions to be man-made. On the other hand, all proofs for the existence of God were deficient in one way or the other; and what made this worse was the practical inefficiency ….and the disastrous political consequences of all established religious faiths.” The last turn of phrase was revealing, an implied critique of futility of theocratic states.
It is such sensibilities that comparative thought perspectives deactivates religious fundamentalism. In the post-1960s,, the art of comparative philosophizing was undeniably taken to greater heights by thinkers like late Daya Krishna and late Ramchandra Gandhi, a grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and Rajaji.
Prof Daya Krishna was such a brilliant scholar, a fertile mind and an astounding thinker that he could, in the language of Carnatic music, do a ,Thaniavardhanam, with Kant, deconstruct his categories so thoroughly, to deduce it is similar to Jainism,s ,many-sidedness of Truth (Anekantha Vaad),. But that was not to trumpet the superiority of any one discourse, only to underscore the unknown!
Prof Ramchandra Gandhi,s ,Availability of Religious Ideas, (OUP), is still a vibrant, unmatched masterpiece, where he would show us how the notion of the ,soul, gets a foothold in a basic communicative act that is primary to all humanity, and nothing exclusive to any particular religious faith, leave alone ,Hindutva, of today.
These Indian thinkers were such amazing trail-blazers in,Comparative Philosophy, that it is their spirit that the youth need to get a feel today, across religions, cultures, to keep any bizarre ,radicalization, of thought processes at bay.