When comparing a theory which is well-known in Europe and in the Anglophone world to a theory within another philosophical tradition, say, premodern Indian philosophy, one can be faced with two extremes: either the theory is easily recognisable in both traditions, or it’s completely missing in one.
Both interpretations involve risks. In the first case, one may be driven away by the easiness of the comparison and overwrite the Indian theory with one’s own, more familiar view. This is a risk one runs when, for instance, discussing theology in an Indian setting, if one does not question whether the word god could mean something different in both contexts. I’ve argued elsewhere that at least four different Sanskrit concepts (deity, Lord, brahman and God), all might be confused with one another if translated with the same word “god”. In the following, I will therefore use God with a capital G to refer to the Other one tries to get into a personal relation with and god for the metaphysical entity invoked as creator of the world and the like. The two aspects can coincide in a single word, but need not.
The case where one wants to compare a theory which appears to be missing in the other context is also risky, since it seems to lead one into what looks like an intellectual dead end. The clue to finding the answer is, in this case, to ask what is really meant by the question.
Imagine that one is investigating altruism and wishes to compare what has been written about it in Europe and in the Anglophone world to what’s said in premodern India. Altruism has been debated in thousands of books in Europe and in the Anglophone world but not a single monograph is dedicated to this topic alone in premodern India. Here, one needs to think what exactly is meant by the question, in order to approach it, so to say, from the side. Here are some of the presuppositions of what is meant by altruism in European and Anglophone philosophy:
1. generosity, lack of self-interest, self-sacrifice;
2. the possibility that another might be helped, and therefore an imbalance in the relationship;
3. the real existence of others.
Breaking it down like this makes one aware of where to look for theories comparable to altruism in Indian philosophy, while at the same time clarifying some of the presuppositions of this concept in a European context. One notices something not necessarily clear at the outset, namely that one needs to be aware of oneself as being able to help in order to think of altruism – two concepts which are not available in the Indian schools of philosophy which focus on one’s unworthiness or on the illusory nature of one’s identification with an individual self.
As another example, let us suppose that one is investigating the topic of free will and wishes to compare what has been written about it in Europe and in the Anglophone world to premodern India. Again, free will has been debated in thousands if not millions of titles in Europe and in the Anglophone world but not a single monograph is dedicated to this topic alone in premodern India. By reconstructing the context, one will notice that the question about free will arises out of a real contrast, be it between one’s will and god’s will or between one’s will and neuroscience and the process of decision making. Having taken notice of that, one will realise that the topic of free will can be found in theistic traditions (and in fact it is discussed in Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta), but not in monist ones. In this way, therefore, one understands both why a given topic is dealt with and why it is not.
This also leads me to one of the advantages of a comparative approach: it enables, at the very least, clarity and a better awareness of the complexities hidden in a given topic. Here is another example.
I currently work on a South Indian philosopher of the Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta school, called Veṅkaṭanātha, who was also an exponent of an atheist philosophical school (called Mīmāṃsā). Veṅkaṭanātha lived in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries CE – and he wrote devotional poems to God. This could prompt some reflections on intellectual schizophrenia, if it were not the case that Veṅkaṭanātha himself explains that the two perspectives can be harmonised. Even more interesting is the fact that he reconciles them in a way which makes readers aware of the complexity of the concept of god.
The Mīmāṃsā school is well known to (some) historians of philosophy because of its interesting theory of language, its fallibilistic and anti-evidentialistic epistemology, and its way of interpreting texts independently of any author. The latter enables Mīmāṃsā thinkers to develop complex exegetical strategies which do not presuppose the intention of an author, and to apply them to their sacred texts (called Vedas), which do not derive their authority from any god.
The most philosophically compelling thinker of the school, Kumārila Bhaṭṭa (thought to have lived in the seventh century CE) also authored caustic attacks against theistic beliefs, which he considered replete with contradictions. But which kind of god was he actually attacking? He attacked the idea of getting rewards out of sacrificing to a deity, in a way European readers could compare to the “do ut des” (“I give, so that you will give”) approach found in many cult forms of many if not most religions.
He also attacked the idea of god as the creator of the world and showed some contradictions inherent in the idea of an omnipotent and benevolent god, in a way which again, resonates with arguments European readers will immediately recognise. For instance, he attacked the argument from design, which he called the “potter-argument”; its equivalent in European philosophy is well-known as the “clock-maker argument”. The argument goes like this: all products require a producer – if you see a pot you infer the presence of a potter. The world is a product; therefore, it has a producer, namely god. But, as Kumārila explains, the argument rests on a claim which does not hold, since if the potter were the real maker of the pot, then god would no longer be the creator of the whole world – he’d certainly not be responsible for that pot. If, on the other hand, the potter was not the maker of the pot, then the analogy supporting the inference to god’s existence would itself not hold.
Kumārila also used more specific arguments to attack the idea of god as the creator of the world. How can a god create anything, asked Kumārila, if he does not have a body? For matter cannot be influenced just by mind, since it is unconscious. If, by contrast, god has a body, who created it? If he, a disembodied god, created it, then the question of how a bodiless agent can act upon matter occurs again.
To summarise, one could say that Kumārila attacks the notions of the accountant god (the one giving back insofar as he received something) as well as the god devised by skilled rational theologians (one is reminded of the European philosophers after Anselm using Anselm’s argument as if it could really independently establish the existence of god). At the same time, however, even Kumārila seems to leave some room for a different kind of absolute. In an extremely short remark on the topic of the hermeneutics of sacred texts, he has to defend his author-independent hermeneutics from the accusation that it precludes the possibility of speaking of the intention of the text. He answers saying that the word “intention” can still have some sense because of “the supreme self, supervising over the sacred texts as if they were his body” (Bṛhaṭṭīkā, as discussed in Kiyotaka Yoshimizu’s Kumārila’s Reevaluation of the Sacrifice and the Veda from a Vedānta Perspective).
Veṅkaṭanātha deliberately attempted to reinterpret Mīmāṃsā atheism as targeting only a given (and imperfect) understanding of god and not, quite simply, god. What is wrong with the accountant god? Possibly this conception is too naive and based on human interactions, so that one cannot then justify how god could also go beyond the human scale and, for instance, allow for supererogation. Veṅkaṭanātha does not spell it out, but I might add that the thesis that “god gives to his believers insofar as he received something from them” entails a contradiction.
If god only gives back as much as he receives, there would be no point in giving him something in order to get back the same amount. If he gives back more, and is therefore capable of supererogation, why is the initial giving on the part of human beings necessary? As for the god of rational theology, he is too similar to human beings. He is a sort of super-human, insofar as he is bound up in knowledge and action, like human beings are, just at the highest level. But human knowledge is something that can grow and change through time. How could god have that kind of knowledge, which is somehow eternally perfect and unchangeable? Not to mention that this leads to difficult problems when one thinks about free will. Readers aware of Islamic philosophy will recognise here some arguments comparable to the criticisms towards the “god of philosophers” as found in al-Ghazālī, insofar as Veṅkaṭanātha might criticise the philosophers’ god only in order to prefer a devotional approach to God.
Veṅkaṭanātha tried to understand god as at the same time the absolute brahman and a personal God. The first aspect makes it possible to imagine god in a way which is radically different from the human paradigm of god as knower and doer. God exists in the sense of the ultimate qualified of which everything else is a qualification, in a way which reminds one of Spinoza’s pantheism (according to which everything is a mode of god as the only substance). To this, Veṅkaṭanātha adds the personal aspect, so that God has a proper name and is a person with whom one can have a loving relationship. Why so? One avoids trapping God back in a deterministic cage according to which god is free only once, since he cannot wish anything to be different than it is. In this, again, his theology may recall al-Ghazālī’s.
God is in fact for Veṅkaṭanātha not identical with the laws of nature, and he keeps his personal freedom to choose to act differently. At the same time, a personal God is one to whom one can relate, who one can love and to whom one can surrender. In other words, a personal god is the one in relation to which human existence can dynamically acquire significance and humans can hope for salvation. Finally, only personal relationships make selfless, altruistic actions possible, according to Veṅkaṭanātha. In fact, he does not believe in an abstract ethical intellectualism out of which one would act morally because one is intrinsically good. One only acts morally insofar as one conceives of others as friends and is happy to please them. Similarly, one’s relationship to God is based on the possibility of this friendly feeling (which would not be possible if God were only an impersonal absolute).
What about the issue of god and his body, as attacked by Kumārila? Veṅkaṭanātha continues an idea of his forerunners Rāmānuja and Yāmuna and maintains that the totality of the world (including human beings) is god’s body. Unlike in Kumārila’s potter case, the totality of the world does not include everything in an exclusive way. Human beings are the body of god, while at the same time having a body of their own. In this way, god does not need an external body to act upon matter, since the totality of what is there (including conscious and unconscious entities) is indeed his body. There is nothing external he could act upon.
One of the fascinating aspects of Veṅkaṭanātha’s thought is that he forced me to go deeper and abandon my unreflective assumptions about god, which I discovered were a mix of Thomistic rational theology and Kierkegaardian surrender to God’s radical otherness. Is Veṅkaṭanātha mixing Spinoza with Kierkegaard in order to reject Swinburne? Not really, and we would miss a chance to escape the boxes of our preconceptions about theisms if we just juxtaposed these names without taking the opportunity to let the concepts they represent explode and lead to fewer certainties about god and new perspectives in our “learned ignorance”. After all, increasing our awareness of complexity and our ability to ask new questions is one of the main purposes of comparative philosophy.