Our understanding of the nature of a thing wholly determines the way we think we should act with it. When it comes to dealing with people in a general sense, the process is accordingly governed by what is understood to be the human essence. Quite simply, ignoring any cosmic perspective and restricting ourselves to the purely worldly, we have two choices: is the human self inherently empty like a tabula rasa or is it substantive, endowed with a svabhāva – bearing innate qualities and dispositions of its own?
It appears to me that, for the most part, Western thinkers have preferred the former conception; Hindus, the latter. And much of the subsequent reflection on human beings in the two cultures is predicated on these radically different assumptions. Now when we reflect upon them we can see that assumptions are all that they are for the nature of the human self is ultimately the greatest mystery that characterises the human condition, for nothing could be closer to us and yet beyond grasp, the ground for all knowledge and yet shrouded in its own ignorance.
But actionable knowledge cannot proceed from what become apparent as assumptions, and so they tend to fade into the background as axioms on which subsequent reflection on human nature can proceed. And thus it appears to have come to pass in both Hindu and Western cultures. However, the domination of Western thought in the field of humanities today means that the contemplation of Hindu intellectuals on the proper ways of going about in the world, gets judged by the Western assumption of the human self as tabula rasa.
In order to understand the fundamental difference between tabula rasa and svabhāva, and the divergent forms of thinking they produce, let us consider the common metaphor of life as an empty page on which you write your story. This is a classic tabula rasa view which invites you to ask yourself what you would like to do with your life. It is as if out of nowhere you were given a life and asked how would you like to live it. Essays are penned about a “second edition” explaining how one would have lived it differently if offered a second time. What is implicit in all this kind of thinking is that each life is an independent term that begins at birth and ends at death. There is no existence prior to birth and after death there is only judgment of the life that was lived. As such, life is an opportunity where ideally you can do anything that you want. To return to our paper metaphor, you might write a scientific treatise, sketch a beautiful picture, draw pointless doodles or make rough scratches on it.
Now I don’t want to get into the metaphysics of svabhāva and its relations to the self because if we do I am sure we will never get out of it. So we will begin at the point where this metaphysics impinges on vyavahāra (practical life), which is our concern here anyway. And that is, it postulates human beings as being born already equipped with an agenda of their own. Life is not an empty page but a fresh page in a book and what gets written on it can never be right or wrong in itself but can be so only to the extent that it agrees with the pages of the book that have already been written before.
If it is a book on science, then a picture no matter how beautiful will not be appropriate. And if doodles are all that have been drawn before, then writing even a letter of the alphabet would be a remarkable achievement. This, of course, does not mean that you cannot be anything that you want to be, as tabula rasa would have it, but that you can only be happy doing what is in accordance with your svabhāva. Other activities might gratify you for a while but will leave you miserable in the end. Not only are you constrained by your svabhāva but your dealings with others also become constrained by their svabhāva.
While as Hindus we may routinely use the concept of svabhāva in private, as a modern people our public space is being increasingly shaped by the concept of tabula rasa. And, if at all we are going to keep things that way we better learn to context switch between the contradictory realms that are entailed by the two notions. There is nothing absolutely right or absolutely wrong about them. They both have their advantages and disadvantages. We just need to figure out what is possible in each case and what is suitable for us.
The first thing to note about tabula rasa is the freedom it offers – to both you and others – which can be nectar if used properly and poison otherwise. At its one end lies individualism, at the other collectivism. In case of the former, you can do well if you choose what is truly right for you. But not only is that difficult to know, even if you do figure it out, there are myriad pressures to distract you into doing something that will eventually harm you. And in a free society, such ‘oppression’ becomes your own fault if you willingly signed up for it in full knowledge of the facts. Since you are given every opportunity to do what you think will make you happy, if you end up unhappy it is entirely your fault.
The fear that people do not know what is in their own best interests and do not act on it leads to one or another form of collectivism. It is often missed that the assumption of tabula rasa that permits individualism, equally justifies its opposite. Since you begin as a blank slate, you can make yourself into anything that you want. But so can others think that they can make you into anything they want. And if they think that they know what is right for you better than yourself, then that is exactly what they will do.
Collectivism takes a variety of forms – religion, fascism, communism, etc. Some have flourished under these regimes, others have suffered. These regimes have always blamed the sufferers for their own sufferings and spared their particular deity – God, the state, the proletariat. But the sufferers knew that it was the deity who was responsible and the people who ran the show in its name. And so these regimes were eventually toppled. Individualism has survived not because it established the utopia which the collectivist regimes promised and failed to deliver, but because it teaches individuals to blame themselves for their own failures rather than someone else.
When it comes to svabhāva, what is likely to frighten the modern person is the absence of freedom to mould oneself into whatever one wants to be. The flip-side is that neither do others believe that they can or should mould you into what they think is appropriate but rather everyone must try to align themselves with each other’s svabhāva knowing that altering it is beyond everyone’s control. Basically, more than a concept, svabhāva is an orientation towards the world that everything in it is alive with its own agenda and is seeking to fulfil itself. One is struck by the manner in which everything is constrained by everything else and that there is no choice but to learn to live with these constraints not because things cannot be changed but fixing one thing here breaks something else there. So there is neither individualism nor collectivism. You cannot control yourself or the world anymore than this world can control itself or you. This may sound a very romantic sentiment but how do you actually live in a world this way? Here is where, from the modern perspective, it appears to turns nasty – it proposes separate social spaces.
People who share a common svabhāva are better off living together and apart from those who find it reprehensible. Since svabhāva is intimately connected with birth and shaped by family upbringing through appropriate saṃskāras, it is best that people of a jāti live together, work together, flourish together and take care of each other. It is semi-individualist in that a jāti forms an autonomous group and semi-collectivist in that individuals are at the mercy of their particular jāti.
In my view, this model of society, which centred on a notion of svabhāva, is what was typically followed by the Hindus down the centuries. Ironically, the concept of Hinduism itself appears to be based on tabula rasa and represents our aspiration to shift to a model of society based on that assumption and accordingly, it has brought to fore questions and priorities that are typical of it. The problem of building a strong and stable Hindu society which dominates so much of Hindu intellectualism is a specific instance of the general problem of social formation that tabula rasa stimulates.
The question of how to socialise people into being responsible members of a society arises only when there exists, in the first place, the presumption that human beings are malleable enough to be socialised in this way. On the other hand, if it is presumed that human beings are constrained by their respective svabhāvas, then there is little motivation to produce a normative discourse that is universally applicable. Even the jāti-based society described above, does not appear to have emerged or flourished by a fiat – but as a logical corollary of seeking alignment with the svabhāva of human groups. It would be self-contradictory to volitionally attempt to build a society based on svabhāva. One can only surrender to svabhāva and let a society emerge as a consequence.
The foregoing should not be construed as suggesting that there is something wrong with Hinduism or that we are betraying our heritage in shifting the priority of our thinking to tabula rasa. After all, there is nothing Western about tabula rasa, nor anything Indian about svabhāva. Our experience shows us that at times we have the power to overcome our nature and exert our freedom. And there are times when we are constrained by our nature in a way that even if we think we could overcome it, life would become meaningless if we did so. It appears that in the West the former sentiment has dominated human thought – the development of human will to assert dominance over nature for the sake of some external authority – whether oneself, or God, or the state, or the people. Indian thinkers, on the other hand, appear to have prioritised the latter. Human actions are only the interactions between the guṇas of prakṛti. Why should one seek control here? Ideally, one should participate in this as the mere witness of it all because out of ignorance one has entangled oneself in it.
Now both freedom and bondage are equally human experiences but given their mutual contradiction the question arises which of them represents the human self. This is the fundamental conundrum that it sees itself as both but logically it can only be one and not the other. So, the only difference between the two foregoing views is that the Westerner identifies the self with freedom and sees bondage as problem to be solved while the Indians identifies the self with bondage and sees freedom as a distraction to be averted.
What can get confusing is that sometimes bondage appears prioritised in Western thought as well, as in servitude to God’s word, Allah ke bande, etc. but that is always bondage to an external principle and not to one’s nature which is always a target of subjugation. That is why the West has always held such extreme disdain for Hindu thought because its apathy towards asserting dominance over one’s inner nature aka the Devil, is misinterpreted as an affirmation of submission to it.
But I have digressed from the point which I was trying to make which is that the self can be logically identified with equal justification with either freedom or bondage (though not with both at the same time given the mutual contradiction). And to uphold tabula rasa is to say ‘I am the one who is free to assert dominance’ and to uphold svabhāva is to say ‘I am the one who is constrained by an inner nature.’ Since the self partakes of both these roles, there is no reason why any human being cannot uphold one or the other. It has just so happened that the West has opted for the former, ancient Hindus for the latter. However, that is only the point of departure. You then need to show how you can work with these assumptions to achieve a decent society. This the Western scholars – Christian or secular – can do based on the assumption of tabula rasa. But the modern Hindu intellectuals are not able to do so, based on the assumption of svabhāva. I think it is due to this reason – and not on account of the colonial situation – that the Hindus switched to reinterpreting their heritage based on the assumption of tabula rasa. It is this switch that has given us Hinduism as a world-religion.
Now again, I am not at all suggesting that there is anything wrong with what is going on. If we are no longer able to apply our svabhāva-oriented heritage in the sustenance of a decent society for ourselves then we are better off continuing with our 200-years old project of Hinduism. I think it is very inconsiderate of people who are not Hindus themselves to cast aspersions on its authenticity and so on. We should really be able to salvage what we can of our traditions in a way that is appropriate for our times without being harassed by outsiders. However, there are some important caveats that I think we should note.
First of all, the whole of our tradition considers svabhāva to be the human essence and proceeds from there and counsels how to work within its constraint and ultimately to seek liberation from it. This is how it has been understood by our intellectual predecessors and spiritual ancestors and we need to appreciate that even if we choose to interpret it differently. For example, consider this typical modern understanding of the Gītā:
Arjuna was fighting a holy war for the victory of righteousness but was overcome by the ego-centric grief of murdering his kith and kin for that sake. Kṛṣṇa commanded him that he must fulfil his duty unselfishly without the expectation of a reward.
Based on Śaṅkarācārya’s commentary, however, the following interpretation emerges:
Arjuna had come to war impelled by his natural predispositions as a warrior but desisted because of the slaughter it would involve and the sins he would beget on account of it. He thought the path of a monk would be preferable. Kṛṣṇa did not command him but simply removed the ignorance that was holding him back. He advised Arjuna that he would not beget any sin or merit if he acted without attachment. To act in the world this way was equivalent to renunciation. On the other hand, he would incur sin if he abandoned the actions born of his nature and took to some other path.
In my view, the former interpretation reeks of Christian ethics and is avoidable. However, on account of its deep resonance with the tabula rasa mentality, it is what dominates the public discourse. It suggests that Arjuna had a choice and he opted for the wrong path; Kṛṣṇa corrected him and set him on the right path. Śaṅkarācārya’s commentary suggests, on the other hand, that there are no right or wrong paths but each being, according to its nature, is set on a path appropriate for itself. Kṛṣṇa only prevented Arjuna from straying. In the last two hundred many Hindu intellectuals have ignored the traditional commentaries and hit the “original” scriptures with a Protestant fervour. But we are not Protestants. We have a rich commentarial tradition and we should go through that to understand what sense our own ancestors made of the root texts and then try to build from that point onwards.
Secondly, when Western scholars read our ancient texts I think they misunderstand them because their own tabula rasa based cultural upbringing occludes their access to them and all they can find there is caste and gender oppression. But they can understand enough to realise that what is in those texts is radically different from the ‘yoga of peace and light’ that modern Hindus preach and that can only heighten their suspicions. This means that even if we choose to employ the ancient texts in modern Hinduism differently or not employ them at all, we need to understand them enough to offer an interpretation that does not endorse social oppression. But this should consist not of stretching their meaning to fit a liberal discourse but rather of understanding how they contribute towards the establishment of a decent society.
Thirdly, if there is anything intellectually unique that we can offer to the world it is the alternate manner in which the human essence was conceived in India and how it attains fulfilment in all the diverse forms of our art. We would be doing ourselves and the world a great favour if we can recover that form of understanding instead of trying to heal the split-soul of the West, to bridge the divide between religion and science, to offer Hinduism as a superior alternative to Christianity, and so on.
Finally, I am reminded of a comment by Kapil Kapoor to the effect (I may be wrong about the exact wording) that the Western god is a carpenter and the Indian god is a potter. Viṭṭhala, the famous deity in Maharashtra, as we know is famously a potter. There is disagreement among Christians whether Jesus was a carpenter but these are just metaphors and the meaning becomes clear when you consider the difference between the two professions. A carpenter subjects a piece of wood to all sorts of violence to produce an object whose form is not inherent in the material itself but in the mind of the agent. On the other hand, when the potter moulds the clay into the pot, he only makes manifest the form of the pot which was always inherent in the clay. We switch our allegiance from the potter-god to the carpenter-god when we shift our understanding of human essence from svabhāva to tabula rasa.