Category Archives: Philosophy

Emperor Ashoka on free speech

Source : Rajeev Bhargava ;

Civility in public speech is a perfect antidote to the mutual estrangement between communities creeping into our society

Should members of one religious community have a right to freely criticise other religious communities? Why not? Indeed, they must. Should this right be absolute? No right is absolute, but if our speech never upsets other groups, then why have it as a right? So, does discussion on the subject end here? No, because having a right is different from exercising it. So we need to ask if there are circumstances when it is wise not to, when it is better to waive its exercise instead? And if we feel compelled to criticise others, to ask in what form we should do so?

Should there not be some informal social norms, an ethos that helps us judge when and how to exercise the right to criticise other groups?

One thinker who squarely addressed the issue of norms of free speech was Emperor Ashoka in third century B.C.E. This should not surprise us. For a start, there was great religio-philosophical diversity in his time (followers of Vedic Brahmanism, Upanishadic philosophers, Jains, Ajivikas, Buddhists, to name just a few groups).

Message for the ages

These included those who made ritual sacrifice central to their ethic and those who didn’t; those who believed in gods and goddesses and those who did not; those who thought ritual sacrifice was sufficient for a good life and those who differed; those who believed in the theory of karma and others who didn’t; those who evaluated karma negatively (to act is to acquire demerit) and those who did not; those who affirmed and those who denied radical asceticism; those who linked self-fulfilment to compassion towards others and those who did not. This deep diversity must have generated conflict, particularly because Ashoka tried to ensure that all these groups lived together, sharing the same public domain, rather than live separately in ghettoes.

What form did conflicts take? In Ashoka’s time, writing was virtually non-existent. Everyone lived in a vibrant oral culture. The entire complex of Art, Philosophy, and ‘Religion’ — poetry, our deepest metaphysical thoughts, acts honouring gods and goddesses — were spoken, composed, recited, sung, chanted and heard. Words were believed to have magical potency. They could beckon gods to help us tide over problems, create something out of nothing, empower or disempower others, turn them into stone, even kill them. They could be weapons or an elixir — soothe or cause grievous hurt, bring us together or pull us apart.

In such a strong oral culture, social conflict frequently took the form of verbal duels, speech fights, word-wars, verbal tongue-lashing of adversaries in intellectual combats. Moreover, vitriolic reciprocal name-calling existed alongside fulsome expression of self-praise and excessive bragging about one’s own prowess.

Managing the tongue

If words fall off the tongue effortlessly, tumble out inadvertently and, what is worse, carelessly, it is imperative that unguarded speech be checked, that words be enunciated with great care and thought in public.

And that is exactly what Ashoka advised — free speech must be regulated by vācāgati (the artful management of the tongue), a social norm of a specific kind of samyama (self-restraint). While coexisting religious communities might invariably find each other irksome, this negative response, Ashoka argued, must not be privatised or repressed. It may enter the public but only on meeting certain conditions.

To begin with, speech critical of others may be freely expressed only if there are good reasons to do so. Second, even when good reasons exist for criticism, one may criticise only on appropriate occasions. And finally, even on an appropriate occasion, one must never be immoderate. Critique must never belittle or humiliate others. Only moderate criticism on appropriate public occasions is justified. Thus, there is a multi-layered, ever-deepening restraint on negative speech against others — self-restraint for the sake of others.

With this, Ashoka had evolved an original norm of civility, but he did not stop here. He further asserted that one must not extol one’s religion/philosophy without good reason. Undue praise of one’s community is as morally objectionable as unmerited criticism of the other.

Moreover, even when there is good reason to praise one’s own perspective, it too should be done only on appropriate occasions, and even then, never immoderately. Excessive self-glorification is a way to make others feel small. Indeed, blaming other groups out of devotion to one’s own world view and unreflective, uncritical self-praise, argued Ashoka, damages one’s own community. By offending and thereby estranging others, such speech undermines the capacity for mutual interaction and possible influence. Thus, there must an equally be a multi-textured, ever-deepening restraint on oneself — self-restraint for the sake of one’s own self.

A shared ethos

For Ashoka, our duties towards others cannot be neatly separated from the virtues we cultivate in ourselves. Our moral concern for others can’t be hived off from our ethical regard for ourselves. So, if Ashoka were alive today, he would argue that a crucial precondition of exercising one’s right to the free criticism of other groups is a robust ethos of self-restraint. A social norm of civility in public speech is a perfect antidote to the mutual estrangement between communities now creeping into our society.

Karmanye Vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kada Chana

Pramod Universe

Karmanye Vadhikaraste, Ma phaleshou kada chana,

Ma Karma Phala Hetur Bhurmatey Sangostva Akarmani

कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन।
मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भूर्मा ते सङ्गोऽस्त्वकर्मणि॥

This verse is from the Bhagawad Gita, where Arjuna was not willing to fight the Epic war of Mahabhaarat and Krishna explains to him to perform his duties.

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KNOWLEDGE – The Legacy

Ribhu Vashishtha

The legacy called KNOWLEDGE

Recently, I saw the Hollywood movie “Lucy”. Although the main focus of the movie is on the “ten percent of brain” myth, a closer evaluation will reveal its foundation on Acharya Shankar’s philosophy. I liked the central tenet of the movie which is that you have knowledge, all of us have knowledge and that we need to pass it on so that the future generation can build on it and in turn pass it on! I recommend this movie to you if you are interested in deep philosophical questions like the origination of the universe, the purpose of existence, etc.

Our worldview is a product of the knowledge left behind by our ancestors. I believe that there should be no restrictions on propagation of beliefs, faiths, religions, sciences, philosophy or any other domain of knowledge because the present scenario of the world around us is a…

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Is Adi Sankaracharya India’s ‘national philosopher’?

Source: The Indian Express

He sure is!

Govt is considering a proposal to observe May 11, birthday of Adi Sankaracharya, as National Philosophers’ Day. Who was Sankara, what was his philosophy?

What exactly is meant by India’s “national” philosophy?

Indian philosophy is an incredibly rich, complex and diverse bouquet of thoughts and ideas that can be divided, at the most fundamental level, between the Astika and the Nastika schools. The Astikas believe in the supremacy of the Vedas (and not, significantly, in God). There are six major branches of Astika thought: Mimamsa, Sankhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisesika and Vedanta. Mimamsa and Sankhya do not believe in God as the Creator.

The three chief Nastika strands are Charvaka, Jaina and Bauddha. All of them emerged in opposition to Vedic supremacy. They do not believe in God and the Vedas.

Indian philosophy has been occupied with ontological and metaphysical questions such as ‘Who are we?’, ‘What is the relation between the body and the self?’, ‘What is this world all about?’, ‘Who is the creator?’, ‘What is knowledge and its nature?’, ‘What are the various levels of reality?, ‘How does one attain knowledge?’, etc. Unlike western systems of philosophy, in India, the various branches co-existed over centuries, and sometimes evolved after intense debates among them. There is no one ‘national’ Indian philosophy, unless the very diversity of its many streams is considered the national characteristic of the Indian system of thought.


What is Vedanta, the system with which Sankara is most closely associated?

As the nomenclature indicates, Vedanta or the Upanishads mark the ‘end of the Vedas’. Vedanta represents the culmination of the vast Vedic thought. The Vedas are polytheistic, with a belief in many gods. However, all of these gods have a supreme lord above them. Upanishadic or Vedantic thought shifts the centre from God to the Self (Atma), and the entire endevaour is to realise this Self.

There have been many commentators on Vedanta, such as Sankaracharya (early 9th century), Ramanujacharya (11th century), Madhavacharya (13th-14th centuries) and Vallabhacharya (15th-16th centuries). Each differs from others on many aspects. But Sankara is almost unanimously seen as the most prominent.

So what are Sankaracharya’s main philosophical thoughts?

It is generally accepted that Sankara was born in Kaladi, not far from today’s Kochi, in 788 AD. At the heart of his philosophy of Advaita Vedanta (non-dualism) is “Tat Twam Asi” or “Thou Art That”, the famous phrase from the Chhandogya Upanishad, which perceives the Self (Atman) as the Absolute Reality (Brahman). Brahman is the sole cause, creator and consumer of the universe.

Sankara is also famous for his theory of Maya, which, according to him, is the charismatic power that creates the world, and is inseparable (ananya, abhinna, aprithak) from Brahman. Change, according to Sankara, is an illusion — nothing that did not exist earlier will come into existence. The change of outer form is visible to some eyes due to the operation of Maya, but truth remains the same.

Still, the world does possesses a practical reality. The dream is real until we wake up. Sankara doesn’t refute the dream, only points at the Maya that creates the illusion of dream. His notion of Brahman or Absolute Reality states that there exists just one infinite existence that reveals itself in myriad forms. Brahman is beyond distinctions, qualities, descriptions or definitions. It is Parabrahman, Nirguna Brahman (formless entity). Sankara’s philosophy has evoked the admiration of a spectrum of thinkers through the centuries.

So, can Sankara be called India’s ‘National Philosopher’?

Sankara came at a time when the Sanatan Dharma was divided and battered, and Buddhism was advancing; he established four maths in four corners of the country, unified the divided Santana Dharma, and is credited with the philosophical ‘defeat’ of Bauddhas.

For many Indian and western thinkers, Sankara’s non-dualism is the acme of Indian philosophy. It is generally agreed that he established a fine but strong balance among various levels of reality, and it is difficult to find a logical flaw in the formulations of this philosopher who was only 32 at the time of his death. Even as he propagated the Nirgun (formless) Brahman, he created the epistemic space for Sagun or Sakar Isvara (God) as well.

Despite some later criticism, Sankara is almost unanimously seen as the most logical and coherent of the Vedanta masters. S Radhakrishnan termed him a “mind of very fine penetration and profound spirituality”. He wrote: “His (Sankara’s) philosophy stands forth complete, needing neither a before nor an after… whether we agree or differ, the penetrating light of his mind never leaves us where we were.”

My Personal View:

Undoubtedly, Acharya Sankara was one of the greatest philosophers ever born in the world. A detailed study of his philosophy brings out the remarkable coherence in his logic and validity with the current scientific facts.

But this is no way undermines the importance of Buddhism and Jainism in shaping the “Indianness” of the subcontinent. In fact, Acharya Sankara called his philosophical rival Buddha as “the emperor of all yogis”.

Buddha gave a practical philosophy and techniques to attain enlightenment. The Buddhist doctrines and scriptures that are found to be self-contradictory by Vedantis were framed by his disciples and later monks. Buddha never intended to give a theory about metaphysical realities. His only concern was welfare of the people and their “Nirvana”. So, he taught the practical technique to that goal. Buddha was a great yogi.

Similarly, the Jain faith has been a big contributor to “Indianness” in the sense that it promoted vegetarianism, truthfulness, non-violence and non-indulgence. The famous Jain story about “6 blind men and an elephant” matches with the essence of Indianness, also espoused in the Rig Vedic hymn “Ekam Sat Viprah Bahudha Vadanti” meaning: “Truth is one, scholars describe it in different forms.”

Only Consciousness Will I Save

Krishna's Mercy

[different conceptions of life]“The living entity in the material world carries his different conceptions of life from one body to another as the air carries aromas.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 15.8)

śarīraṁ yad avāpnoti

yac cāpy utkrāmatīśvaraḥ

gṛhītvaitāni saṁyāti

vāyur gandhān ivāśayāt

Download this episode (right click and save)

“I love my job. I get to work on something new every day. Sure, things don’t always function properly right away. Each morning I’m greeted by an email inbox full of complaints about different bugs, aspects of my programs malfunctioning. Still, these applications are mine. I build them. The job is not easy, but it’s a lot of fun. The day goes by quickly. Since I’m in the field of technology, things are always changing. I’m never bored.”

“I love my car. I’ve had it for so long. I’m one of those handy people. Unless it’s a major repair, I do the maintenance myself. If…

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