Since my childhood I have traveled extensively, visiting more than fifty countries. I have enjoyed observing the superficial differences of national outlook and temperament, while at the same time recognizing underneath them a shared humanity. It was in India, however, where I lived for four years, that I met my greatest challenges.
India’s is the oldest civilization in the world. Despite its enormous antiquity, the way the ancient Sanskrit texts describe the universe around us seems amazingly contemporary.
An acceptance of contradictions
The ancient texts tell of a universe billions of years old, and at the same time infinitely vast. They speak of our earth as only one among countless millions of planets. They measure the history of mankind in the millions of years. How different, their view, from the narrow vistas of time and space that were accepted in the West until only decades ago!
The discovery in our times that light is both a particle and a wave is bewildering to the Western mind. Reason tells us that light ought to be clearly either one thing or the other. For the Indian, however, no such bewilderment exists. He accepts the fact that contradictions inhere in the universe, the very foundation of which is the law of duality: that everything has its opposite, and that in everything its opposite is already implied.
Science has proved that all physical objects, in appearance so infinitely diverse, are in fact only varied manifestations of formless energy. A new thought? Long ago, the rishis, or sages, of India wrote of this truth in their Vedas, the source books of Indian civilization.
The brain: a “tool” of the higher self
Similarly, the Indian has no difficulty in dealing with a modern discovery that has many Westerners questioning the very nature of consciousness. Science has discovered that when a person reasons, he is simply manipulating memory traces in the brain — a discovery which negates the position of well-known Western theologians, St. Thomas Aquinas, for one, who have defined man’s spiritual nature in terms of his ability to reason.
To the Indian this discovery is not morally or spiritually shattering. The Indian has always considered the brain to be but a tool for his higher Self, much as the brain itself uses the eyes and the muscles of the body.
Armed with this concept, the Indian finds it natural to point out that no “thinking machine” can run itself; it needs an operator. Similarly, the brain needs the “operator” of the higher Self, which works through the brain rather than as an aspect of the brain’s own functioning.
Direct experience as the final arbiter of truth
Especially apposite to my subject is another basic attitude I encountered during my years in India: an acceptance of experience over reason as the final arbiter in the search for truth. This practical attitude also anticipates, on a level of human values, the methodology of modern science with its constant emphasis on experimentation.
In India’s expansive view of reality, and in her insistence on direct experience over logical syllogisms, she appears to have been at home for many centuries on plateaus of thought to which only a few advance scouts from the West have climbed, and that only in this past century.
So far, the challenge of Indian thought is an exciting voyage of discovery. Somewhere about now in that voyage, however, the Western student of Indian thought suddenly runs into what looks to him like a stone wall of illogic.
An absence of “either/or” thinking
In the West, raised as we are in the long shadow of Aristotelian logic, the rational principles of “either/or” have been so basic to our way of thinking that we take them completely for granted as simple necessities of thought.
To us, then, ultimate agreement in any discussion is almost a point of honor: “Either we agree to this idea, or we agree to reject it. There can be no in-betweens.” In India I discovered (at first, to my dismay) that for Indians the universe need not be reasonable at all — not, at least, in the Aristotelian sense — for it to be deeply meaningful.
The Indians I met — highly intelligent, well-educated men and women — seemed perfectly contented to differ with me in any discussion without, at the same time, calling my position wrong. I found them baffled, moreover, by my insistence that some sort of agreement had always to be reached, as if absolutes were at stake.
I was not alone in my perplexity before this alien view of things.
I remember a conversation I had with a missionary priest in India. In his homeland, Belgium, he had been carefully trained in the “either/or” syllogisms of Aristotelian logic. In India, he had been given the assignment of teaching Hindu philosophy at a Jesuit college in the town of Ranchi.
“It’s incredible!” he exclaimed heatedly. “These Indians will tell you in all earnestness that they find inspiration in the Bible, that they love Jesus Christ, that they agree completely with everything he said, and with everything you say, and yet — they remain Hindus!” (I was often told during my four years in India that very few Hindu students at the mission schools and colleges — perhaps even none of them — ever became converted to Christianity.)
This Belgian priest was convinced that there was some basic flaw in the character of Indians that prevented them from calling anything absolutely one thing or another. “They just can’t seem to make up their minds!” he cried exasperatedly, waving his arms above his head.
Many Western religious writers have, similarly, accused the Indian teachings of being inconsistent: unformed by any coherent discipline, and universal to the point of creedlessness.
To the Indian, on the other hand, the Western approach seems naive, unrealistic, and narrowly dogmatic. The Indian admires the West for its achievements in the physical sciences, but he considers the rigidity of the Western view of life — the patterns of which are so obviously more flexible than the axioms of geometry — to be a sign of philosophical immaturity.
Which view is correct? Each, unquestionably, has its own special merits; it is probably not a simple case of “either/or.” One notes with interest, however, that it is the Indian view, far more than the Western, that is geared to the fluid realities perceived by modern science.
Relativity forms the basis of a major portion of Indian philosophy. Time, space, the seemingly solid “reality” of matter: None of these is considered absolute.
A deeply moral people
Despite India’s calm acceptance of values as relative, the Indian people as a whole are recognized the world over as being among the most deeply moral of all peoples. A number of them (Mahatma Gandhi was but one example) have inspired millions by the firmness of their moral vigor.
Indians do not see relativism as diminishing the reality of right and wrong. They merely explain right and wrong differently from the way we’ve been accustomed to do. While the Indian outlook is in many ways well adapted, on a level of human values, to the findings of modern science, it in no way joins Jean-Paul Sartre in heralding meaninglessness as the Final Answer.
Nor does its acknowledgment of relativity, whether in physics or on a level of values, signify a denial that moral values are real and binding on human behavior.
Quite the contrary, their philosophy covers a range of some of the loftiest themes ever conceived by man, broad enough to have inspired some of the greatest thinkers in the West, including Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his writings, Emerson described Vedic thought as containing “every religious sentiment, all the grand ethics which visit in turn each noble poetic mind.”
Sanaatan Dharma: a term that embraces all religions
As previously noted, the informed Indian attitude toward religion is not sectarian. India hasn’t even have a name for its own indigenous religion.
Many centuries ago, foreign invaders gave to the religion they found in that country the name, “Hinduism.” Indians themselves, however, have always called their religion, Sanaatan Dharma, “The Eternal Religion”—a term which, properly understood, embraces equally all the religions of the world.
India has never considered Sanaatan Dharma as exclusively the property of India’s religion and culture. In the broad-mindedness of this attitude we find similarities, once again, to the open-mindedness of modern science.
The waves of many cultures
India’s approach to the question of values is of inestimable value to the present-day search for meaning. For it complements Western thought, rather than pursuing completely unrelated lines of inquiry.
Today, with the advances of modern science, and with the common access to rapid transport and communication, the nations of the world are being drawn together as if in a single room. The worldwide trend is toward cultural synthesis. It is as though Destiny herself had ordained the mélange, to give peoples everywhere a chance to learn from one another, and, in the exchange, to achieve levels of greatness hitherto not seen on earth.
The waves of many cultures are rolling toward our shores. And we, like surfers, can decide which of these many waves to catch. Some of them will no doubt carry us farther than others. Many countries and many cultures have already shown that they have something to teach us.
Among these, the genius of India, particularly, offers insights into human values and consciousness which presently concern the very future of our civilization.