Shraddha and Tarka: Harmonising Bharat’s Ancient Yet Timeless Meta-Values

Faith is an indispensable ingredient for community-building efforts. All hitherto existing communities are, in reality, communities of devotees who place their devotion in one deity or another. This deity, this object of devotion in the devotee’s experience, need not necessarily be some god, or the God, in relation to faith. It can also be a material item, or an idea, a familiar image, a tradition, a book, or a goal.

By Sreejit Datta, Director of Rashtram’s Centre for Civilisational Studies, Assistant Professor & Resident Mentor

Faith binds – the devotee to the deity, the deity to the devotee, and one devotee to another. Thus, faith is an indispensable ingredient for community-building efforts. All hitherto existing communities are, in reality, communities of devotees who place their devotion in one deity or another. This deity, this object of devotion in the devotee’s experience, need not necessarily be some god, or the God, in relation to faith. It can also be a material item, or an idea, a familiar image, a tradition, a book, or a goal. The only criterion that needs to be met by these otherwise secular or unsanctified objects, before they can be elevated to the status of a ‘deity’, is this: one way or another, the material item/ image/ idea/ tradition/ book/ goal must contain within itself the seeds of an aspiration which has the ability to grow inside the individual devotee to such an extent that it can eventually outgrow the boundaries of the individual’s individuality. And then we have a community around that object.   

Consecration is the name of this process of elevating a commonplace object or idea from the level of the mundane to the level of the transcendental. As a formal process, it is often accompanied by religious sanctification. But it need not always be a religious affair (using ‘religion’ in the usual narrow sense of the term). For example, a mere goal is not enough for a bunch of motley individuals to naturally come together and amalgamate into a cricket team. The goal in question must be infused with a transcendent quality – some sort of a higher aspiration which is able to move each individual, one which grows within him to become so great that he cannot contain it anymore within just himself. It overflows and starts inhabiting another individual, and then another and so on. Finally, it transcends a generation (and thus transcends time in a certain sense). And now this goal, made potent with the infusion of a transcendent quality, can exist independently of any individual. And so, this inspired goal transcends each disparate individual in the group and engulfs the others, so to speak, and eventually sways all the individuals in the group to a definite direction. 

In doing so, the transcendental element in the goal reveals two aspects of its functions: a) commonality and b) intentionality. Commonality ensures that the goal is a shared one, that is to say, it is owned by everyone in the group (and not just by the aspiring leader); and intentionality brings a definite purpose to the thought, speech, and action of the individuals that the group comprises. Thus, with the infusion of the magic potion of transcendentality, the motley group becomes a team – it thinks, speaks, and acts in perfect harmony, it behaves like a complex organism, like the living human body. It is this elusive thing – often dubbed the ‘team spirit’ – that does the work of alloying contrasting elements in a group. But this inspiration to bind together – where does it come from, if not from the divine? Sportspersons playing for the glory of the nation, for the love of country; men and women protecting or conserving something or someone dearly loved and valued, nationalism, republicanism – these are some of those ‘non-religious’ transcendental categories. But even these, upon closer analysis, turn out to be spiritual ideas in their core.          

Therefore, one way or the other, faith is necessary for the construction, survival and prosperity of the community. A community, in turn, is necessary for the survival and prosperity of the individual, for her liberty, for shielding the individual from the uncertainties (like droughts or floods) and inevitabilities (like senescence and death) of Nature, and for all things and values that make life meaningful. Liberty, individuality, prosperity, decency, goodness, reason, faith, community – none of these holds any meaning in isolation from one another, none of these can exist in silos, none of these can sustain as an island in itself. This might sound exaggerated or puzzling at first, but take the debate around any of these ideas to its logical conclusion – you will end up discovering deep inter-dependencies. 

This brings us to the questions of dharma and samāja in our own Bhāratīya civilisational context, and of religion in the proper western (or classical western) civilisational context. Let us first take up the case of the West. The word Religion derives from the Latin ‘Religare’ – which means ‘to bind’ – and true to its etymology, the ‘pagan’ religion of the Ancient Romans had indeed performed the task of binding their society together through the years of its rising prosperity and the expansion of its civilisational territory (and not merely its political territory). There was of course a collapse of the value-system which was rooted in the pagan religion of the Roman society in the decades of its decline. It precipitated the eventual extinction of that society, of its distinct and sophisticated way of life, which was once the life-force of that civilisation. 

This decline is comparable with what is happening in the West right now with the rapid erosion of Christian values. Despite all the dogmatism with which Christianity had choked the very fount of Classical European creativity during the Dark ages (marked by the absence of the Roman Empire) and in the centuries prior to the Renaissance (a rebirth of the ‘classical spirit’ in Europe), the Christian religion had managed to impose upon Europe’s society an alternative value-system, a foundation for a reworked sociocultural order, which held that society together in its new, reorganised avatar and acted as a bulwark against the other forms of foreign political and cultural invasions. But now, as the grand Christian façade of Europa stands eroded, and in her mind and heart her ancient pagan vitality remains all but drained, practically extinct, forgotten, mostly allotted to the museums and history texts – she stays supremely vulnerable to the enemy who she had once successfully resisted and had thrown to the other side of the Bosporus in the Middle Ages. In today’s Europe, and in America – her transatlantic outpost, an all-round decadence reigns supreme, and chaos is the order of the day. This creates a void at the core of human life in the western world; and the lack of order in the inner life reflects as growing entropy in the outer life, in the economy and politics of Western Europe and North America. The human being may revel in chaos for a time; but it is bound to get bored of the disorder soon, and its basic yearning for order, for submission and discipline, eventually leads it to a system that can replace anarchy in the material as well as spiritual spheres of human existence. This makes way for another faith-based value system, however barbaric in nature or oppressive in quality, to take over the western continents. At this point, it might be interesting to note that the pagan elites of Rome have described the early Christians as “barbarous”.

Based on such historical experiences across time and space, some jump to the conclusion that it is faith, and not rationality or dialectics, that binds a nation and keeps it afloat, when all is said and done. This view is too reductionist, for it does not take into account the finer workings of historical forces. At its core, any religion is inspired by speculations on the Unknown – Nature’s unpredictability, the surprises that the future holds in its belly, the mysteries of the vast space above, and, most of all, the end of life – a sensemaking of the final things, what is termed eschatology in the broader field of theology, is the starting point of constructive metaphysics and thus of philosophy itself. It is that stage of human evolution wherein Man has found the first taste of his great freedom in speech – in expressing the sheer joy of having discovered his place in the grand scheme of the universe. From the very birth of his species, Man has seen all the other creatures affirming their existence in joyous cries, in hearty calls, and in thunderous roars. And so, having discovered the power of his greatest gift and the essence of his being in speech, as also his distinct tendency of finding joy in the awareness of things, of recognition in representation, and in putting into practice much of that cognition in easing the labour of surviving, Man at this stage is brimming with confidence in giving expression to the song of his life – a pure affirmation, his own self-sufficient ‘call’ – boldly declaring that “I, too, exist!” And in doing so, Man remained unabashed in giving form, in language and music and art, to what he has come to discover of the Universe’s Great Mystery through a heightened and sharpened instinct in his inspired meditations, sitting in the lap of a generous Nature. We can call this stage of human evolution, the stage of Self-confidence. 

At a later stage of their development, such exercises gave rise to a deeper exploration of the Self. The Self-confidence, with which Man had started his journey at the Dawn of Civilisation, provided him with an honest and fearless outlook characteristic of the Yogi. With this essential fearless character as his shield, Man started wielding the weapons of questioning and reasoning. He started asking some basic questions about the origin and justification of his existence. He was no longer satisfied with mere symbols and rituals (nor even with symbolic rituals); he now desired to analyse the meaning of the very symbols and rituals that he had joyfully stumbled upon at an earlier stage, at the stage of Self-confidence, when in the depths of his meditations his instinct was struck by a sudden flash of Divine Inspiration, giving him access to a heightened state of consciousness which he called Swarga, Paradise, Svaḥ. With these weapons of the Ᾱnvīkṣikī – the argumentative mind – as his tools, and donning the shield of Abhīḥ, fearlessness, he plunged into the depth of his own consciousness. The result of such fearless explorations of the Self and the human consciousness is the deconstructive metaphysics of the netineti (not this, not this), as can be found in the Upanishads. By this time, Man has come to recognise the power of argumentative rigour, but he has not yet been given to disregarding the purity and joy of his earlier stage of Self-confidence. Here we see philosophy and dialectics at work, analysing and refining Man’s endeavours in spirituality, arts, and even polity. At this stage Religion flourished and pervaded all human activities, giving these a definite meaning by situating such activities within a common frame of reference. Morality, which thus far was merely an instinctive mass of abstraction, starts getting codified in the form of epics, Dharmaśāstra-s, Commandments, in the lives of living men and women who walked the earth. At this new stage, philosophy – encompassing argumentation, reasoning, and speculations – is sanctified by religion (in the sublime sense of the term), and it takes a holistic view of its own scope that can sustain complex systems like a large polity. But neither faith nor philosophy alone has the strength to sustain and support polities, nations, or civilisations. We have already seen how the classical western civilisation declined despite her excellence in philosophy. On the other hand, faith minus philosophy is dogmatism, a dangerous concoction of the kind which gives rise to fanatic cults/states (such as Islamism/Nazism), and, consequently, destruction followed by nihilism.

But then, what is meant by philosophy? By philosophy I mean a systematic, step-by-step, gradual expounding of one’s experiences and inherited worldviews. Every civilisation moves from instinct to reason. India has been no exception. The Vedas are a compilation of spontaneous spiritual inspiration expressed in joyful, grateful, awestruck language – it is the expression of the śraddhāvān devotee’s newfound Self-confidence, but minus her Self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is injected into this system by the constant questioning of the kings, warriors and sceptics who are the givers of the Upanishads including the Gita. The first of these is the Rishi tradition, marked by its emphasis on Śraddhā; and the second is the Muni tradition with its focus on Oha/Uha, which later came to be known as Tarka / Ᾱnvīkṣikī.

In the Bhāratīya civilisational context, A happy marriage of Self-confidence with Self-consciousness is achieved only in the Age of the ItihāsaPurāṇa with the geniuses of Maharshi Valmiki and Maharshi Vyasa. Rama and Krishna embody, in the Rāmāyaṇa and in the MahābhārataBhāgavata Purāṇa respectively, the best exemplifiers of the Indian civilisation, by representing simultaneously Self-confidence and Self-consciousness in their persons, in their utterances, and in the polities they presided over, viz. Ayodhya and Yudhishthira’s pre-war reign in Indraprastha and his post-war reign in Hastinapur, respectively.  

It is significant that the Vedas are divided into their current fourfold avatar by Maharshi Vyasa in that same age of simultaneous embodiment of Self-confidence and Self-consciousness. And right after the disappearance of Rama and Krishna from the scene, with the ascendancy of the Age of Kali, Veda Vidyā or Parā Vidyā goes through a historical stage of involution, only to be resurrected at a later era by Bhagavatpāda Śaṅkarācārya for those who are the Adhikarī-s. For the rest, and even for the Adhikarī who preserves the Veda, action in the spirit of Bhakti – which is facilitated by the instrumentality of faith in the Name of God – became the key to material prosperity, survival, as well as the portal to the Infinite in this New Age.

So, we find material prosperity (the cream of Self-confidence) and transcendental liberation (the cream of Self-consciousness) simultaneously either in Rama Rajya or in Yudhishthira’s reign inaugurated by Krishna, but not beyond these. In all other instances, across time and space, we encounter these two elements explicitly, separately, exclusively. Herein lies the key to achieving the perfect harmony between Self-confidence and Self-consciousness, between the Rishi and the Muni, between Śraddhā and Tarka. Hare Krishna, Hare Rama! 

This article was originally published in the Swatantra Mag.