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Indian Philosophy and Renaissance Humanism: A Fair and Beneficial Exchange of Concepts

Indian Tradition And Renaissance Humanism:

A Fair Beneficial Exchange Of Concepts



Paper presented at National Seminar on ‘Humanistic Trends in Indian Thought’ organized by the Indian Council of Philosophical Research, March 24 to 26, 2000, Lucknow, India



Shakuntala A. Singh







I-1    The Classical period in India, as well as in the Greco-Roman times, will continue to hold an eternal fascination for man (1). The West derived its sustenance from the Classicism of Greco-Roman times which was best exemplified by the Renaissance Humanist Movement of the 15th and 16th Century. This movement helped re-establish man’s belief in himself as a worthwhile, achieving individual, having immense potentialities waiting to be actualized. (2)(3)


I-2    It is generally accepted in contemporary Indian circles that the Classical Indian Tradition has a number of worthwhile concepts to offer which, while similarly energizing man, also give him a firm and clear ethical directedness. (4)


I-3    I shall present here five concepts from the Indian Tradition that are such, and five concepts from Renaissance Humanism that clearly espouse action. All concepts are non-life negating, capable of secular interpretation, and therefore Humanist in orientation.



                               Concepts From Renaissance Humanism:


1)    Humanitas and studia humanitatis

II-1   Humanitas means the development of human virtue in all its forms, to the fullest possible extent.(5) This implies that human virtue can manifest in different forms and there can be gradations of human virtue as well. Humanitas of course includes qualities such as understanding, benevolence, compassion, mercy etc. qualities we usually associate with the concept humanity. But humanitas goes beyond this and also includes more aggressive and action-oriented qualities like fortitude, judgement, prudence, eloquence and even love of honour. Hence, a person who had the qualities of humanitas could not be an isolated and sedentary philosopher or man of letters. He necessarily had to be a participant in active life.(6)


II-2            Humanitas meant a delicate balance between action and contemplation. This balance arose from the realization that action and contemplation complemented each other. This meant a complete human being was a balance between action and contemplation, a brilliant product of their alchemy, not a compromise between their disparateness. Humanitas further stressed that just as action without insight was aimless and barbaric, insight without action was barren and imperfect. It was in realizing the complementary nature of action and insight that the ideal of humanitas would be achieved. 


II-3            Recovering the Classics was equivalent to recovering reality.(7) For this a course of classical studies called studia humanitatis was introduced in the early 15th Century during the Renaissance period. This was the equivalent of the Greek paideia, a course meant to achieve the ideal of humanitas. It consisted of five branches, grammar, poetry, rhetoric, history and moral philosophy. (8)


II-4      Thus the ideal of humanitas and a course of study studia humanitatis meant to achieve it, were two of the most significant concepts that Renaissance Humanists bequeathed future generations. This ideal would be realized by a fine balance between action and contemplation on the one hand, and an intimate study of the Classical literature of Greco-Roman times on the other.(9)


2)         Active Virtue:


III-1     In achieving the ideal of humanitas, just as studia humanitatis was important as a course of learning, active virtue was important as a quality to be cultivated. It meant that the goal of all learning was virtuous action. Having virtue was empty unless it manifested in human actions. For example, asceticism was virtuous but it was passive. Hence it was unacceptable to Renaissance Humanists. (10)(11)(12)(13)


III-2            Fundamental to the Renaissance Humanist Movement was a sense of social responsibility, the instinctive association of learning (virtue) with politics and morality (activity). If learning led to virtue, politics and morality led to action that manifested this virtue. Virtue without activity was lame just as activity with virtue was blind. Learning, therefore, must combine with politics and morality to give rise to active virtue and socal responsibility. As Coluccio Salutati remarked, “We must stand in the line of battle, engage in close combat, struggle for justice, for truth, for honour”. (14)


III-3     In the Indian context, the concept of active virtue is very well exemplified in the dialogue between Krsna and Arjuna on the battlefield of Kuruksetra. While Arjuna’s talk is full of virtuous arguments, they lead to passive virtue. For example he says something to this effect: How can I attack my own relatives, kill people like my pitamaha, my guru, my cousins? Even if I win such a war, I would not be able to enjoy the fruits of such a victory because of shame and guilt. And if I die, what answer would I give to the Gods for my actions? All virtuous talk, no doubt, but leading to passivity. Krsna, on the other hand, reminds Arjuna of the fact that on the battle field there is no pitamaha, no guru and no cousins. There are only enemies. Arjuna was born a Ksatriya and it was a Ksatriya’s dharma to fight. All his life he had undergone training as an expert warrior, and for a warrior, war was a place to engage in battle, not in arguments. All these, again, were virtuous statements. But the difference between Arjuna and Krsna’s arguments was that while Arjuna’s arguments were perfect example of passive virtue, Krsna’s were equally a perfect example of active virtue. Rather that inhibit action, Krsna’s arguments clarified doubt and cleared the way for action.


3) Rational Autonomy:


IV-1            Autonomy means the freedom to think, to express and to act. Rational autonomy is the independence to base one’s thinking, expressions and action on reason and to continue to claim this autonomy as long as one remains rational.


This implies:


a)      I have the autonomy to be rational i.e. I have the right to think, express and act on my thoughts as long as I am rational.

b)      You cannot take away my autonomy as long as I continue to remain rational.


What does this imply? It means, first of all, I have the choice not to be irrational. This means, you cannot force me to have blind belief in dogma or religion. You cannot force me to unquestioningly accept a king, ruler or dictator.


Secondly, my freedom of thought, expression and action cannot be taken away unless and until you prove that I am irrational. This means, you cannot censor me for questioning religious or political authority, calling it blasphemy or sedition.(15)


III-2     It goes without saying that it imposes an obligation on me to base my actions on rationality. I cannot, therefore, claim autonomy if I find my actions becoming irrational, or interfering with another person’s autonomy. For example, I have the autonomy to move about freely, on the roads, throughout my country. But I do not have autonomy to move freely into my neighbour’s house. That is an irrational autonomy, for it impinges on someone else’s autonomy.


4) Return to Antiquity and Historical Restoration:


IV-1     By return to antiquity, the Renaissance Humanists did not want to encourage awe or reverence for the old just because it was old. They meant a return to the Classics, a dialogue’ with the old masters, developing a familiarity and intimacy with what they wrote,(16) and a defense of Classical eloquence.(17)


IV-2     The Renaissance Humanists also emphasized on the need for historical restoration which they hoped to achieve by stressing the following:


i)                    Need to discover the ancient texts and revive them in an authentic form

ii)                   Discovery of documentary falsification and false attributions

iii)                 Collating codices

iv)                 Defense of classical eloquence and its revival

v)                  Understand philosophers and literary men of the past in their own worlds, which means in their own historical time, place and perspective, rather than transplanting them into another world.


IV-3            Historical restoration was initiated by the Renaissance Humanists and it has been handed over as a legacy to the generations which came after it, including the present. This includes the historical restoration being carried out by a number of contemporary Indian philosophers, which includes Karl Potter, Daya Krishna, J. N. Mohanty etc, as well as the late Profs. Das Gupta, Radhakrishnan, Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, Matilal and K. J. Shah. If we study their works carefully, we find attempts to carry out one or more of the five steps of historical restoration mentioned earlier. Controversies like the Karl Potter-Daya Krishna controversy are a direct off-shoot of differences of opinion about the methods of historical restoration.(18) 


5) Fundamental Unity of all Religions:


V-1      The Renaissance Humanists had an antipathy for asceticism and theology without being anti-religious.(19) They gave importance to the civil functions of religion(20) and stressed on the correspondence between the heavenly and earthly city.(21)


V-2      The concept of religious tolerance of the Renaissance Humanists has great significance for the modern man.


Religious tolerance springs for two sources:


1)                  The concept of religious tolerance as peaceful co-existence. This was a result of the religious wars in the 16th and 17th Century. It is the modern concept, meant to end strife and bring about peaceful co-existence between the different warring religions. I may not like your religion, but because both have to survive, let us agree to live peacefully. This concept springs from the fundamental understanding that these religions are different from each other and cannot be reduced to a simple religious order. It is a practical way of reducing strife.


2)                  But this is not the religious tolerance of the Renaissance Humanists. For them religious tolerance sprang from their conviction in the fundamental unity of all religions. This means that, at the fundamental level, all religions were one, though they may mean and say different things to different people at different times. Different religions were but different pathways to reach the same goal.


V-3      In this connection the statement made by a modern humanist like Gandhi may be relevant.(22) When C.F. Andrews asked him what would he say to a man who, after considerable thought and prayer, felt that he could attain peace and salvation only by becoming a Christian, he said, “ I would say that if a non-Christian (say a Hindu) came to a Christian and made that statement, he should ask him to become a good Hindu rather than find goodness in change of faith.”(23) Further, to a statement that one should not stand in a person’s way if he really needed a change of faith, he said, “Supposing a Christian came to me and said he was captivated by a reading of the Bhagwat and so wanted to declare himself a Hindu, I would say to him. ‘No what the Bhagwat offers the Bible also offers. You have not yet made the attempt to find out. Make the attempt and be a good Christian.”(24)


In other words, if there is a fundamental unity of religions, there cannot be superiority or interiority of faiths. There cannot be justification for religious wars or strifes, there cannot be concerted attempts at conversion e.g. proselytization. Such a conviction, and the possibility of universal religious peace, springs from belief in the fundamental unity of all religious faiths.


Indian Tradition and Renaissance Humanism


V-4      The Renaissance Humanists’ concept of religious tolerance has great significance for a multi-religious society like India, as also for the world of today, which is equally multi-religious. It is as important at the ideological level as the concept of peaceful co-existence is at the practical level.



             Concepts from the Indian Tradition Relevant To Humanism


Since a number of Humanist schools are, justifiably averse to accepting the supernatural, let us try and find out those concepts from the Indian tradition which are clearly secular in their emphasis and approach.(25)


Having thought over a number of concepts in the Indian tradition, one can present here five of them which are clearly humanistic and secular and may therefore acceptable to all types and inclinations of Humanism.(26)


(1)            Concept of Purusartha


VI-1     The concept of purusatha comprises of four interlinked and progressive goals for man. First is artha, which is material prosperity, second is kama which is sensual enjoyment, third is dharma which is moral conduct or regulation and fourth is moksa which means eventual freedom or liberation.


VI-2     It will become instantly clear to the practical man of today that such a concept of the aims of life (Purusa-artha, that is, meaning of man’s life) does not reject either artha or kama, both of which, how-so-ever much the idealist-spiritualist may say, the man living in society is not prepared to renounce. But he may be amenable to suggestions as to how this artha and kama can be enjoyed without causing himself and others more than the least amount of distress. So, to every pursuit of artha and kama must be applied the yardstick of dharma. Artha without dharma is unethical just as dharma without artha is vacuous. Similarly, kama without dharma is blind just as dharma without kama is lame. The propelling force of artha and kama need the steering wheel of dharma to keep them on course. And in this journey the final destination is moksa or liberation, having reached which neither the vehicle not the steering wheel is any longer required. Moksa, then, is the end result of a dharma regulated artha and kama. Moksa does not reject any of the other three purusarthas, but is a natural culmination of the proper utilization of human efforts that the trivargas (artha, kama and dharma) represent.


VI-3     Thus we realize that this interpretation of the theory of purusartha accepts the active pursuits of pleasure in man, whether material (artha) or sensual (kama), but stresses on making it virtuous by regulating it with dharma.(27) It neither rejects human effort nor stops human progress. It in fact wants these to be robustly furthered, but under a governing authority (dharma) and an ultimate vision (moksa) (27)


2)         Asrama-Dharma


VII-1 The four asramas namely – brahmacharya, grahastha, vanaprastha and sanyasa lay down clear-cut legitimate boundaries for human effort and social organization.(29) They are practical down-to-earth categorizations of how a human-being first perfects (brahmacharya), then advances (grahastha), then severs ties with (vanaprastha), and finally renounces (sanyasa) those activities which can and must be pursued for human welfare and social advancement. It may be noted that at no state is one asrama to be considered greater than the other. Neither is any of the asramas to be bypassed except under exceptional circumstances. This helps preserve the total social fabric, along with the progress of man, and gives him a practical guideline as to when and how to retire (vanaprastha) and exit (sanyasa).(30)


3)                  Niskama karma


VIII-1  One must first of all realize that niskama karma is a concept of karma, that is, action. At no stage does it preach non-action, or make man inactive.(32)


VIII-2  I think the concept of niskama karma needs to be properly interpreted in the modern parlance and for the modern times. What Krsna was telling Arjuna on the battle-field of Kuruksetra was not to perform desireless action but to do his duty regardless of the consequences of performing his act on people who apparently seem to matter in his life.(33)


VIII-3  This means without being unnecessarily pre-occupied by the results of his action, he should go ahead and perform that which is according to his svadharma. Which means, he should forget every thing else and fight the enemy. What is worth understanding here is that Krsna exhorts Arjuna to action without being unduly pre-occupied with the results of that action. This implies, whenever any pre-occupation with the results of one’s actions inhibits one in performing one’s duty, there the concept of niskama karma must be applied, so that, all doubts are cleared, the mind is free, and such action as one has the ability to perform can be effectively and vigorously carried out.


VIII-4            Niskama is karmaphalatyaga. Niskama is not desireless. Niskama is without being unduly pre-occupied with the fruits of one’s action. The key words are unduly and pre-occupied, not desire and action. The very fact there is action, there has to be desire. The very fact Krsna tells Arjuna to lift his gandiva and fights means he desires Arjuna to fight and the very fact Arjuna picks up his gandiva and fights means he desires to fight and he desires to slay his opponents and win in the battlefield. Without this desire to fight and win, why should Arjuna stand in the battle-field, and why should Krsna exhort him to fight?


VIII-5  It is not the desire that is the culprit. It is not the fruits of one’s labour which is the culprit. It is the excessive pre-occupation with desire of the fruits of one’s actions which is the culprit. (34-35)


4) The Concept of Rna


IX-1     There are three Rnas or debts a man has to repay, pitr-rna, rsi-rna and deva-rna.(36)


IX-2     Pitr-rna (debt to ancestors) obliges one to settle down in life, to promote the family lineage and propagate the family name. It is robustly non-renunciatory in character, for it actively exhorts man to lead a dynamic house-holder’s life, achieving and prospering to keep up the family name without allowing it to be sullied.(37)


IX-3     The concept of rsi-rna or guru-rna involves repayment of debt to one’s preceptor.(38) This is by passing on one’s knowledge or expertise to a worthy disciple or successor, so that the benefits gained by one does not stagnate and cannot be hoarded by an individual. It must necessarily be passed on to others if one wants to get rid of this debt.(39)


IX-3     The third is deva-rna (debt to God). How does one repay one’s debt to one’s God?(40) For this one must understand how does one incur this debt. Anything that man achieves is made possible by society and his fellowmen. For the believer, God helps man through His creation (that is, the world around him). Any repayment of debt that he does, he must do to the same creation. This means God does not give man anything directly. He gives it to him through His creation. Similarly, man cannot repay anything to God directly. He repays it to him through His creation.


IX-4     What will become immediately obvious is that accepting the first ensures the second. Which means man must repay his debt to God, but he can do this only by doing something useful and constructive for the creations of God. This essentially involves giving back to society at least a proportion of what it has given man. This encourages man to engage himself in a number of benevolent-philanthropic activities, which serve an important role in helping mankind, specially its more disadvantaged sections.  This also ensures human welfare and social advancement.(41)


IX-5     In other words, all these concepts of Rna ensure that man remains active, society is perpetuated, and social equity and egalitarianism furthered.


5)      The Astanga-Yoga of Patanjali


X-I            Patanjali gives a very clear cut eight-fold path to be followed to achieve citta vritti nirodha, that is Yoga, which is the cessation (nirodha) of the movements (fluctuations in mind, that is vrtti) of the consciousness (citta). This is to be achieved by following the eight fold path of yama (42) (control of body, mind and speech), niyama 43 (following rules of good conduct), asana (Posture),(44) pranayama,(45) (breath control), pratyahara(46) (introversion), dhyana (concentration), (47) dharana (meditation) (48) and samadhi (absolute identity).(49)


X-2      This, and the note(42-49) attached, is a necessarily encapsulated and sketchy presentation of Patanjali Yoga, because space does not permit a more detailed treatment here. I am sure experts of yoga may flinch at such a representation. But it still serves our limited purpose here, which is to make it crystal clear how Yoga as a way of life, if seriously and sincerely followed, can promise its adherents a complete sense of physical, mental and social well-being with the absence of disease and infirmity.(50) And that is possible only if a certain way of life is adhered to. Yoga, as propounded by Patanjali, presents to the modern man such a promise. If proof of this be needed, those who are active practitioners of Patanjali Yoga are the best examples. A number of them continue to enjoy positive health, well into old age.(51).


X-3      Even piece-meal adaptations of yogic practices have been tried to bring about freedom from afflictions with encouraging results. Doctors at Delhi’s AIIMS use pranayama, the science of breath control, to help patients on chemotherapy for cancer. Psychiatrists think Yoga can help in the treatment of Clinical Depression. At Bangalore’s NIMHANS, they have delved into Patanjali’s Yoga sutras to treat the condition.(52)


X-4      In the present social scenario where infectious diseases are getting controlled but life-style and stress induced diseases are on the increase, where man has become active and progressive but equally stress prone, Yoga as a way of life (along with Ayurveda and other alternative systems of medicine) offer a serious alterative to achieve positive health and well-being to the modern man, which he should not be averse to accepting.


X-5      This does not of course detract from everything worthwhile that the mainstream allopathic systems of medicine have bequeathed mankind. But with changing needs and changing times, newer models of health-care delivery must develop. Yoga, without a shade of doubt, must be one of the fore-runners in such a quest.





XI-1     The Renaissance Humanists got rid of the despondency and asceticism imposed by priesthood by an active pursuit of life. They did this by an abiding belief in human endeavour which was represented by their ideal of Humanitas. They pursued Active Virtue, espoused Rational Autonomy, adopted Return to Antiquity and Historical Restoration as their methods. They believed in the Fundamental Unity of all religious as means to rid society of religious strife that sapped away human energy.


XI-2     They have bequeathed these five concepts to all future generations who wish to carry out their own Renaissance is their our societies. These five the contemporary Indian must seriously ponder over if he wants the much sought after Renaissance of Indian thought.


XI-3     The Indian Tradition, on the other hand, has a number of concepts where action is exhalted but within the continuous governing principle of morality. The Purusarthas give the aims of life, the Asramas give the stages of-life, the Rnas give the duties of life, Niskama Karma and Karmaphalatyaga give the attitude to action, and Patanjali Yoga gives the way of life and positive health.(53) All these five concepts can be discussed from the secular point of view.


XI-4     In their whole action-oriented propulsion, the Renaissance Humanist somehow neglected a governing principle which had necessarily to be a moral are, but which did not reject or hamper the need for action. The five concepts from the Indian tradition can help satisfy this need.


XI-5     In their ethical moral directedness the Indians somehow lost the vigour and dynamism for action and change, leading to fossilization and empty glorification of the past. The robust action orientation of the five concepts of the Renaissance Humanists dealt with here may supply that propulsion to the contemporary Indian which will bring about a Renaissance of Indian thought and society.(54)


XI-6     Such an exchange would be fair and benefical to both sides. The Westerner, who is supposedly more active, would also become more moral; the Indian, who is supposedly more moral, would also become more active.


XI-7     What the Renaissance Humanist achieved for himself by return to Greco-Roman antiquity, the Indian thinker must today attempt to establish with his own Classical Tradition, even if he is half a millennium behind the Renaissance Humanist in this matter.(55)


XI-8     If we desire a Renaissance of Indian thought and society, we have something to learn from them about how action-oriented goals have to be set up and vigorously pursued.(56)


XI-9     But there cannot be only a one-way traffic. If we take from them what is our need, we should also give them what is there’s. If we take from them the vigorous pursuit of an active life, we must give them such principles that keep this vigorous pursuit on an even keel.


XI-10   What they can give us is action. What we can give them is order. If an exchange of this type takes place, it will be a fair and beneficial exchange for both.(57)


Thus, actualized human beings and societies would result and some of the goals of humanism well and truly furthered.


Hence this paper.


References And Notes


1.                  This fascination is not just the product of the idle romanticism of a non-achiever. It is robust re-linking with the past that any living tradition must nurture in its proponents and followers.


2.                  Its whole thrust was to quicken man’s latent energies to achieve, to act, to perfect and to excel. This, the Western Man, have been thus energized by the Renaissance Humanist, Movement, has actively pursued till today which has made him reach the pinnacle of material and scientific advancement.


3.                  However, it is also well known that in the Renaissance Humanists’ search for individualism and personal glory, a lot of the mind was opened to every sort of antique non-sense. (Bertrand Russell, 1985, A History of Western Philosophy, Counterpoint, London, Unwin Paperbacks, p489). Most “retained such superstitious beliefs as had found support in antiquity. Magic and witchcraft might be wicked, but were not thought impossible. Innocent VIII, in 1484, issued a bull against witchcraft, which led to an appalling persecution of witches in Germany and elsewhere. Astrology was prized especially by free thinkers”. (Russell op. cit., p489). The Renaissance was not a popular movement but a movement of a small number of artists, scholars and freethinkers, encouraged by patrons. Most of them were impressed by the wickedness of contemporary popes, but were nevertheless glad to be employed by them. (Russell, op. ct. p488) The Renaissance man, then, was typified as one who had a versatile intelligence, extraordinary energy, boundless ambition, but was also completely unscrupulous. (G .R. Potter [ed] 1981). The New Cambridge Modern history, Vol. 1, The Renaissance 1493-1520, Cambridge Uni. Press, p78, he describes Don Rodrigo de Borgia thus) As Russell (op cit, p489) says, I cannot think of any crime except the destruction of ancient manuscripts, of which the men of the Renaissance were not frequently guilty”. A society encouraging such values could not be stable and thus the Italian Renaissance was brought to an end by the Reformation and Counter—Reformation combined with the subjection of Italy to Spain. (See also Ajai R. Singh and Shakuntala A. Singh, [1990], A peep into man’s histority, the lessons for Today, JICPR, Vol.VII;3, p23-46, see especially p25-34)

4.                  The Indian, in fact, has tilted so far towards ethical/moral principles that he has often been found wanting in action. In this, no doubt, the centuries of foreign rule have played their significant part. A subjugate culture has perchance to turn inward for self-preservation, if for nothing else. This it may no doubt justify by high-sounding rationalisations. One suspects the preoccupation with liberation and Moksa which has reached almost an obsession with Indian thought is a product of such a historical state of affairs. But if one establishes authentic linkages with the tradition, one is forced to admire both their robust pursuit of an active life, their endless vigorous debates between conflicting schools of thought, and yet their continuing pre-occupation with ethical-moral principles and final liberation. What we need today is to vigorously pursue the establishment of such authentic linkages with the tradition.


5.                  The intellectual basis of the entire Renaissance Humanist Movement was the educational and political ideal represented by the term humanitas. All forms of Renaissance Humanism were focussed towards achieving this deal. Hence, it is important to understand what it implied.

6.                  Note that this does not reject the philosopher, but only his isolation and sedentary disposition, both of which he will probably have to shed to make himself relevant for the third millennium.

7.                  With a proper understanding of the Classical literature, the passive and ignorant society of the dark ages would be transformed into a new order that would reflect and encourage the grandest human potentialities.


8.                  Why grammar? Because a perfect understanding of grammar avoids mistakes of language. Why poetry? Because the creative-imaginative faculties of man must be allowed to blossom. Why rhetoric? Because it is not enough to be wise. This wisdom must be armed with powerful rhetoric, so that it could affect and change the thoughts of others and the policies of leaders. Hence rhetoric was the arm of wisdom. Why history? Because a peep into history gave the Renaissance Humanists the confidence that man could achieve the grandest human potentialities, as he did in the Greco-Roman times, which was totally contrary to the dark pitiable picture of man created by orthodoxy in the middle ages. Why moral philosophy? Because moral philosophy gave the rules of proper conduct, made man pursue action (but that which was virtuous). It gave concepts like, ‘Virtue is the calculus of pleasure’. This means, in a nut-shell, although man cannot abandon the pursuit of pleasure, he must be guided by the over-arching principle that it must he virtuous. (See Shakuntala A. Singh, 1999, Relevance of Renaissance Humanism for Man in the Third  Millennium, Endowment Lecture, 74th Session of IPC, Magadh Uni., 28-30 Dec. 1999, p4-5).


9.                  The implications of this thought for us today are obvious. We need individuals who can carry out this fine balance between action and contemplation in their lives and we need also to carry out an intimate study of our own Classical literature to bring about the much hoped for Renaissance in Indian thought. Mark the word intimate for that involves tremendous hard-work. But then we know that one cannot get something that is precious by paying a price that is inadequate.



10.              As we saw earlier, they stressed on the superiority of the active over the contemplative life. Hence they considered moral philosophy (which dealt with active life) superior to abstract branches like metaphysics and physics (which dealt mainly with the contemplative life).


11.              Metteo Palmieri wrote: The true merit of virtue lies in effective action, and effective action is impossible without the faculties necessary for it.  He who has nothing to give cannot be generous. And he who loves solitude can be neither just nor strong, nor experienced in those things, that are of importance in government and in the affairs of the majority”. (The New Encyclopedia Britannica, 1990, Vol. 20, Encyclo. Brit. Inc., 15th  Edn., p667).
He further developed the idea that the world was divinely ordained to test human virtue in action. Machiavelli saw action nor only as the goal of virtue but also as the basis of wisdom (Ibid).


12.              Francois Rabelais, in his work Gargantua, described a monastery which was subjected to enemy attack. While the monks sat uselessly in the church choir chanting meaningless Latin syllables, his active hero Frair John saved the monastery from enemy attack. Frair John further states that if he had been present, he would have used his manly strength to save Jesus from crucifixion. (Ibid).


13.               Alberti in Della Famig1ia (On the family) wrote, “Happiness cannot be gained without good works and just and righteous deeds…. The best work are those that benefit many people. We must give ourselves to manly efforts, then, and follow the noblest pursuits. (Ibid)


14.               Ibid.


15.               In this there is a direct message to all the orthodox schools of Indian Philosophy at the way they have treated the heterodox schools, The Carvaka-Lokayata-Materalists have been at the receiving end the most, which unfortunate development needs to be undone, specially in a pluralistic cultural milieu that the Indian tradition otherwise justifiably boasts of. The discriminatory and heretical treatment given to all those who questioned scriptural authority of the Vedas is not unlike the treatment given to the questioners of Biblical authority in the middle ages, including Bruno, Galileo, Copernicus etc. Lest some be offended, let it be made clear here, that I do not oppose the richness and profundity of the orthodox tradition which is without a shade of doubt Indian’s priceless heritage. But I definitely do feel that the blot to its fair name needs to be erased. Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya’s efforts in this direction must be appreciated and furthered, even if one may not accept its compulsions.


16.              A shining example of this is the letters of Petrarch, who is considered the founder of the Humanist movement. He dramatised his feelings of intimacy with the Classics by writing “letters” to Cicero and Livy. Another writer Coluccio Salurati believed that it was possible to have a dialogue with Cicero by going through his letters. Niccolo Machiavelli has expressed this intimacy with the old masters in a moving manner:  “Evenings 1 return home and enter my study; and at its entrance I take off my everyday clothes, full of mud and dust, and don royal and courtly garments. Decorously reattired, I enter into the ancient sessions of ancient men. Received amicably by them, I partake of such food as is mine only and for which I was born. There, without shame, I speak with them and ask them about the reasons for their actions; and they, in their humanity, respond to me.” (Nicola Abbagnano, 1967, Humanism, In The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vo.4, Macmillan and Freepress, Ed, Paul Edwards, Tr.by Nino Lnguilli, Reprint Edn 1972, p70-71).


17.               The defense of Classical Eloquence was a defense of the genuine language of the Classical Age, without the deformation it had undergone in the middle Ages. This was an attempt to revive Classical Eloquence in its original form. A shining example of Classical Eloquence is the classical tone in which William Shakespeare (1564-1616) has written about the heroes of the Classical times in his works like Julius Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra, etc. The moving eloquence of Mark Anthony’s speech at the death of Caesar cannot but be recalled at this stage.


18.              Daya Krishna, 1984, Indian Philosophy and Moksa: revisiting an old controversy, JICPR, Vol. II, 1, p 97-126; Karl H. Potter, 1985, Are all Indian Philosophers Indian Philosophers ? JICPR, Vol. II, 2, p.l45-49, See also Shakuntala Singh, 1996, A Perspectival Sketch of Indian Philosophical Thought, Post Doctoral Research, ICPR, pp186, 204, 239, 371, 377).


19.              Without being antireligious does not necessarily mean they were religious e.g. if I am not against Christianity does not mean I am a Christian. Their main concern was to understand and justify human initiative not only in worldly matters but also in the religious sphere. They did this by: i) giving importance to the civil functions of religion; ii) basing their concept of religious tolerance on the fundamental unity of all religions.


20.              Manetti, Lorenzo Valla and many others stressed the civil function of religion by pointing out that the fundamental function of religion was to support man in the work of civil life, including in political work and activity. (Abbagnano, Op. Cit, p 71). According to Manetti, religion meant: I) Confidence in the value and success of man’s work in this world; and II) for his good work, man would find a reward in his future life (Ibid).


21.              The Rennaissance Humanists stressed on the correspondence between the heavenly and earthly city. The heavenly city could become the ideal for man’s civil life. Man, by his initiative and enterprise, should try to achieve some of the characteristics of the heavenly city in the earthly city. Gianozzo Manetti in fact interprets the  Bible as talking not only of heavenly happiness but of earthly happiness.


22.              Gandhi has been studied as a Humanist. See Mohit Chakrabarti’s Gandhian Humanism, Gandhian Studies and Peace Research Series, 5, Concept Pub, New Delhi.


23.              Harijan, 28.11.36 See also Ajai and Shakuntala Singh, (1990), Gandhi on Religion. Faith and Conversion, Secular Blue print Relevant Today, New Quest, 80, pp 103-7.


24.              Ibid.


25.              It will not do to say here that Indians have a number of atheistic schools like the Jainas and the Buddhists, because although there may be no concept of God, there are a number of super-natural concepts which are integral to their thought movement. If at all we would have to extract such concepts from these traditions which are clearly secular, which means utilised in the welfare of man and Society without recourse to the acceptance of a supernatural entity.


26.              With all these concepts one will not fail to understand their pre-dominant concern with human welfare and social advancement, their concern with regulating and helping an active life, their emphasis on making man active but within realistic parameters and within an ethical domain. This is specially important for the man of today who is materialistically inclined, scientifically advanced but ethically confused and spiritually deficient.


27.              Once can compare this with Renaissance Humanist’s concept, ‘Virtue is the calculus of pleasure’, See Shakuntala Singh, 1999, op. cit, p4.                                              


28.              Such an understanding of Purusarthas can have something significant to give to the modern man struggling with the power that science and individualism have unleashed for him, but which he finds difficult to control. One will immediately realise that in this formulation it is not necessary to accept either God or any other super-natural concept.


29.              In the brahmacharya asrama, the student is supposed to lead a life of continence and master such knowledge and skills as helps him to successfully lead to the second stage of his life. The grahastha, or house-holder, is the pivot of society. He initiates and sustains social progress and human advancement. This is the most active stage of a person’s life and from the Humanist stand-point probably the most important. However, both these stages must eventually end as intellectual maturity and physical infirmity characterise the middle age. Here comes the stage of Vanaprstha, in which Man renounces his hold on the nitty gritty of the house-holder’s existence and becomes more contemplative/introspective. Note that he is not becoming inactive. He is rather becoming more active in those spheres of activity wherein he now has greater mastery. The final stage of sanyasa, in which he renounces or abandons all ties and becomes inaccessible to human contact, serves its own notable purpose. Firstly, it removes the burden of caring for the infirm, which can bog down his active dynamic house-holder progeny.  Secondly, it makes the person concerned renounce all hold on physical and earthly needs so as to mentally prepare himself for a dignified exit, which every human being must be recognised to have a right to (and which modern Thanatology, that is the science of death, considers of great importance)


30.              Here too as one realises, neither the concept God nor the concept supernatural needs to be brought in, although we must accept that in the vast majority of cases, man is likely to be more spiritually inclined when he reaches the contempative phases of life namely vanaprastha and sanyasa. Worthy of note is the fact that the tradition does not encourage people to jump from brahmacharys to sanyasa, bypassing grahastha. In fact, extolling the virtues of the house-holder and giving him a pre-eminent place in society should be obvious from the way in which the actively life pursuing image of man is created even in the Vedic time. (T.N. Madan’s work on Non-Renunciation which exalts the house-holder’s position in the Indian Tradition cannot but be quoted in this connection. (See T.N. Madan, 1987, Non-Renunciation, Themes and interpretations of Hindu Culture, Oxford N. Y, p1-3)


31.              Although the concept of Niskama Karma originates from the Bhagwad-gita, which is considered a religious treatise, in which Lord Krsna advises the confused and bewildered Arjuna to action, a secular interpretation of this concept is not only possible but also beneficial.


32.              Now, this should be sweet music to the Humanist’s ears. But, the second part of the concept, that is Niskama, which literally means without any desire, would alert any practical man today to the impracticality of its acceptance. How can there be action without any desire? How can man be motivated to perform without being interested in the result of that action? This goes contrary to all established canons of practical life. One of the best ways man is prompted to action is by offering him desirable incentives. This is how most

actions in society are performed anyway. And they are worthwhile too. How can, then, this concept of desireless action be practically useful to the man of today?


33.              So, when Arjuna, raises the point how could be kill his cousins, his guru, his pitamaha etc. Krsna reminds him of two fundamental facts: i) One, that he was a ksatriya and he had the training and expertise to fight; ii) Second, this was a battle-field in which there were no cousins, gurus or pitamahas, there were only enemies.


34.              And examples of this one finds in practical life again and again. If the Indian cricketer is unduly pre-occupied with the huge total his opponent team has made, he tries to play beyond his capacity, loses his equanimity and thus gifts away his wicket to his opponents. But on the other hand, if he remembers that cricket is a game which is played one ball at a time, and that each has the potentiality of a score, that if his opponents could make the runs, there is no reason, why he cannot as well do it, he gets rid of the excessive pre-occupation with results, performs his svadharma, gives off his best and hopefully wins the match for his team. This is niskama-karma (How much better it would be if there would be a modern krsna who would guide the bewildered Arjunas of today who are the members of the Indian cricket team, easily intimidated by the tall-scores of their opponents or the aggressive posturings of their speedsters.)


35.              One would immediately realise that there is no reason here to exhalt Krsna to the status of a God but rather accept him as a practical counsellor who helped a strong but confused Arjuna to find a goal and purpose. Something that is very well applicable to all of us Arjunas of today, including the Humanists.


36.              Rna means debt. In the Indian tradition a human being is supposed to incur three rnas or debts, which he is enjoined to repay. One is pitra-rna, that is debt to his father/ancestors. The second is rsi-rna or debt to his preceptor / guide. Third is Deva—rna that is debt to his God. Let us take us each of them one by one and find their social ramifications.

37.              This means grahasthasrama, the house-holder’s life, is extolled, virtue is to be sought in an active pursuit of artha and kama, of course with the governing principle of dharma, as understood and laid down by the pitras. One is supposed to have progeny. Therefore marriage as an institution is encouraged and celibacy discouraged. The debt to the ancestors can be best repayed by forwarding both their lineage as well as the enterprise (professiona1 or otherwise) they may have setup. This ensures social progress.


38.               This is not to be understood as guru daksina, in which one pays back in cash or kind to the guru, for the knowledge he has given man.


39.               In the least, it ensures dissemination f knowledge, which is the foundation of any successful future enterprise. By laying this down as an obligation on man, one ensures the successive percolation of knowledge and expertise down the generations. This also ensures human welfare and social progress.


40.               Up till now all the concepts that have been utilised have not needed the concept God or any other super-natural entity. This is one where in the concept God does get an entry. But before one jumps to the conclusion that this is a religious concept and therefore need not be given any weightage here, we must remember that humanism has not neglected those secular concepts from religion which can be beneficial to mankind. (See for example Note 21 where the heavenly city becomes the ideal for the earthly city according to the Renaissance Humanists).


41.               A more interesting secular interpretation of deva-rna comes to mind here. This concept remains equally valid if the word deva is replaced by the word Samaja or society. Such an interpretation may be easier to digest for the secularly inclined Humanists. Let us see how. I am what I am, I achieve what I achieve, I enjoy what I enjoy, because of the benefits that my fellow human-beings and the society around me confers on me. Therefore I have a debt to repay to this society. When I rise above the fulfilment of my personal needs and think of carrying out social welfare as a debt, that it is obligatory on me to repay (and at a generous rate of interest), then one realises that the concept of Deva-rna, here understood as Samaja-rna becomes a strong propelling force, which almost compels those, amongst the advantaged sections of society, to share their profits and prosperity with the less advantaged. Replace the concept God by the concept Samaja or society, wherever the concept has been discussed up till now, and one will find that the validity of the concept still holds. Here one may say that the Samaja itself is God, or God is Samaja, depending on whether you have the secular or the religious orientation.

42.              Yama which is control of the body, mind and speech. This includes Ahimsa or non-violence, satya or truth, astheya or non-stealing, brahmacharya or celibacy and aparigraha or non- covetousness.


43.              Niyama which means following the rules of good-conduct. This includes i) Sauch, or cleanliness, both external and internal - external through bath and pure diet and internal through friendliness, happiness, sympathy, detachment etc.); ii) Santos, or contentment iii) Tapa or Penance iv) Svadhyaya or the study of reiligious scriptures v) Iswara-pranidhana that is to remember God and surrender oneself to him.


44.               Asana or posture, which helps in the concentration of Citta.


45.              Pranãyama or the control of breath, which also helps in the control of citta, which has three steps a) Puraka or inhaling (take in as much air as is possible); b) Kumbhaka or retaining (retain for at least half the time used for inhaling); c) Rechaka or exhaling (in almost the same time as for inhaling).

46.               Pratyahara : Or introversion of the different sense organs by restraining them so that the aspirant can keep has mind undisturbed by worldly objects even while he lives in the world. These five are the external means, preparatory, to the latter three which  follow.


47.              Dharana or concentration of the Citta on some object, external or internal. It is the beginning of Samadhi.


48.               Dhyâna or meditation in which the knowledge of an object or concentration is continued as a process.


49.               Samadhi or the stage of absolute identity, when the process of concentration and the object became one and identical. It is the cessation of the modifications of the Citta. Samadhi can be of two types. I. Samprajnat or Sabeej (attributed) Smádhi: some type of substratum of concentration remains and the aspirant has awareness of this substratum. It can be a) Savitaraka Samadhi - the Citta becomes identified with some object outside and assumes its form. b) Savicar-Samadhi- the Citta is identified with some subtle object and assumes its form; c) Sananda Samadhi: Here the Citta is concentrated on some sattvika subtle object, which increases sattiva guna which results in the attainment of bliss; d) Sasmit-Samadhi - in this asmita itself become the object of concentration (Asmita is intellect reflected in Citta.) II. Asmprajnat  or nirbijit (attributeless) Samadhi: This is the highest form of Samadhi, in which distinction between knower, knowledge and known disappears. It is of two sub-types: a) Bhava Pratyaya Samadhi - In this form of Samadhi only the samskaras of the passions remain. Ignorance is not absolutely destroyed at this stage and therefore the being has to return to the world. b) Upaya-pratyaya Samadhi- In this stately’, ignorance is absolutely destroyed due to the arousal of prajna. All klesas are annihilated and the Citta becomes established in true knowledge. This is the Samadhi of the yogis.



50.              Here one is reminded of the WHO definition of health given way back in 1948, which can serve as an ideal for, health-care delivery systems, and a challenge to be approximated, if not actually achieved.


“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely an absence of disease or infirmity. (Emphasis added. See also Ajai Singh and Shakuntala Singh (1996), Health for All, All for I ‘Health, Cliché, Dream or Commitment, New Quest, 115, p19—25.)

51.              The octogenarian yoga exponent B.K.S. lyengar is one who swears by Yoga and is a shining illustration of this fact. His illustrious disciples include Yehudi Menuhin, Aldous Huxley, Jayaprakash Narayan, Achyut Patwardhan, J. Krishnamurti etc. See his Light on the Yoga sutras of Patanjali, 1998, Harper Collins, India.  See especially the short foreword  by Yehudi Menuhin: “There are not many practical arts, sciences and visions of human perfection of body, mind and soul which have been in practice over so long a period without attachment to a particular religious creed or catechism. Anyone can practice yoga, and this important contribution to the history of yoga and its validity today is for everyone.” (Foreword).


52.              Related use of Ayurveda and other alternative systems of medicine also hold promise. For example: i AIDS. Doctors at ARCON have found ayurvedic formulations which boosted the immune system though there is no evidence yet that they can they cure AIDS. Allopathic drugs attempt to destroy the virus but don’t strengthen immunity. ii Heart Disease :  The use of aromatherapy in reversing heart disease is being studied at Indraprastha Apollo Hospital in Delhi. Essential herbal oils can penetrate bodily tissues and alter mental or emotional states of patients. (See Farah Baria, 2000, Cures from the past, India Today. March 20, 2000, p62-3)

53.              Thus, the concept of Purusartha does not negate the importance of artha and Kama but says that it should be regulated by dharma and must ultimately lead to moksa. The asramas similarly, emphasis the active pursuit of knowledge in brahmachaiya, the active pursuit of prosperity in grahastha, the retirement in vanaprastha and the ultimate total renunciation in sanyasa. The Rna theory, again, stresses actions to be performed to rid oneself of the debt to one’s ancestors, to the rsis or guru and to God and society. The concept of niskama-karma and the karmaphalatyaga, again, do not deny the importance of action but tell the highest type of man (that is, the sattvika type) to do action for the sake of action without bothering about “what is in it for me.” That is, to carry out selfless actions. Also, if one is not unduly preoccupied with the fruits of one’s actions even the rajasika man can achieve his potential. While actively pursuing these various actions, even if guided by ethical-moral principles; the human system, liable to afflictions as it is and already full of imperfections as it may be, it needs a set of principles which, if followed as a way of life, allow him to remain it active pursuit of life with a positive state of health. This is the eight fold path of Patanjali Yoga.


54.              However ideal this may seem, the fact must be granted that India has not undergone the Renaissance that the West has experienced. It is both the right and duty or India to experience this phase of development. This is possible only if we take the dynamism and propulsion that concepts like humanitas, active virtue, rational autonomy, return to antiquity, historical restoration and fundamental unity of all religions represent. This we must without shame or guilt take from Renaissance Humanists.


55.              Lest this he considered a drawback, let us understand that it has its major plus points. One of them is to avoid their mistakes. Other is that we can learn from the lessons of medieval European history, how the action orientated thinking of the Renaissance Humanists brought about the Renaissance in the first place.


56.              But the exchange must be fair and beneficial to both sides. Therefore, we must give them in return that which they desperately seek. This is, such ethical-moral principles which govern life but are not life-negating, or other–worldly or tilting towards asceticism. That is why they rejected medieval religion and asceticism. That is why they will continue to reject all liberation theologies, whether of the east or the West. The challenge is to present such ethical—moral concepts which are secular in orientation and universal in application. The five concepts of Purusartha, asramas, niskama karma and karmaphalatyaga, rna and ashtanga-yoga can be those five which we can present from the Indian tradition as a gift in return for what they have given as a distillate of their struggle and turmoil.


57.              The balance sheet is now well and truly balanced; the profit and loss account is squared up. A new year, century, millennium can begin without any obsession with past losses and with a clear direction of abundant profits to be reaped both by the East and the West. This is one joint enterprise where both sides cannot but reap rich dividends.






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