Is there a Philosophy of ‘Joy-full-ness’? Abhinavagupta’s Reply by Mrinal Kaul

Lecture titled “Is there a Philosophy of ‘Joy-full-ness’? Abhinavagupta’s Reply” by Mrinal Kaul on January 8, 2021 at Azim Premji University, Bangalore

Abhinavagupta’s (fl.c. 975-1025 CE) tantric system holds quite a unique position within the classical South Asian philosophical discourse wherein a predominant essential presupposition is not conceived as ‘suffering’, but an idea of everlasting ‘bliss’ or ‘joy’. In fact, even what is often understood as ‘suffering’, as Abhinavagupta would say, is a kind of intense form of ‘bliss’ or ‘joy’ that one needs to cultivate a ‘taste’ for. This phenomenon that a certain taste reflects unto the tasting agent (the one who tastes it) is the experience of ‘joy-full-ness’. There is no distinction created between the transcendental and empirical states of ‘joy’. The substratum of this experience is the knowing and experiencing subject alone (not in the same sense as that of the Buddhist idealists). As one would expect, a number of potent philosophical problems of cognition, perception, imagination, error, and consciousness are involved in here, and their mapping needs further profound probing. However, I am gradually becoming convinced that the larger project of Abhinavagupta was an ‘aesthetic project’ wherein his critical epistemology had an underlying mission of achieving an aesthetic goal.

Abhinavagupta on ‘Reflection’ by Mrinal Kaul

Lecture titled “Abhinavagupta on ‘Reflection'” delivered on Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune on 27 December 2017.

There is a certain level of complexity attached to the idea of ‘reflection’ in Abhinavagupta (fl.c. 975-1025 CE) and it is discussed by him at various intellectual platforms. At one level it is a debate between the realists and the absolute idealists where Abhinavagupta is obviously seeing ‘reflection’ as an absolutely idealistic notion. However, realism is not rejected by these Śaiva non-dualists. Following the tradition of his masters Abhinavagupta is attempting to establish the ‘realism of idealism’ or as K.C.Pandey (1963) would call it ‘Realistic Idealism’. Abhinavagupta uses mirror-trope to explain away this fundamental idea. His idea of reflection should be understood as a subjective idea of self-reflexive awareness that has the autonomous potential to exist or manifest by itself. It does not need external support like, for instance, an image of face cannot exist in a mirror if there is no face in front of it. To put it in other words that even the so called illusory objects are understood to be as real as the real objects themselves.

At another level it becomes the problem of subject and object where apart from radically shifting the hermeneutic reins into the hands of ‘a’ subject there is a strong attempt to establish the absolutely autonomous and self-sufficient nature of ‘the’ subject that should be understood as beyond the binary of the realistic notion of both subject and object. From the absolute point of view it is the undifferentiated Consciousness alone that is beyond the notion of subject and object yet containing within itself the differentiated nature of both.

The question I have posed is if at all we should ignore the novelty of Abhinavagupta’s Śaiva theory of reflection in his works other than those related to the Pratyabhijñā epistemology of recognition where only the pure analytical justification for reflection is discussed. As I have argued that Abhinavagupta’s basic philosophical intuition is embedded in the Krama tradition. His vision of reality is both mystical and erotic following a deep symbolic-ritual scheme. And this depth can only be overcome when Abhinavagupta is studied across the scriptural traditions that he is a part of.

Whose Hindi is it anyway?

merā azm itnā buland hai ki parā.e sholoñ kā dar nahīñ,

mujhe ḳhauf ātish-e-gul se hai ye kahīñ chaman ko jalā na de.

(Translation: My conviction is so strong that I do not fear the blaze of others, but indeed I am dreaded by the flame of a flower (of my own garden) lest it should not ablaze the garden (itself)).

I have often been reciting the above lines of the famous poet Shakeel Badayuni in my head in past some time thinking if in our wildest imaginations there is a Bharat Mata (Mother India), this is what she must be lamenting. Her adamant and unruly children have been innocently robing her of her multifaceted glory by imposing on her a certain uninformed and ridiculous linguistic monism. A mammoth is being reduced to a mink. We never really think beyond the political maps of South Asian countries. We never really imagine or explore the linguistic or cultural maps of South Asia and we misinterpret the political as cultural. It is really hard to kill a language. The South Asian cultural maps are fading to a mono-colour and the linguistic maps are shrinking too. Just imagine a multilingual landscape as variegated as South Asia becoming monolingual one fine morning. Think if everyone can speak and understand only one language—Hindi or English or Urdu.

            I grew up speaking Kashmiri. I think in Kashmiri because that is how I grew up in my family. I have Kashmiri friends and relatives who speak better Kashmiri than I do and yet others who speak awfully terrible Kashmiri. I do not know when I picked up Urdu growing up in Kashmir valley. When I came outside the valley as a child for the first time, I realised I was speaking to people around me in Urdu that they called Hindi—it was same. However, when I came across the people from the Hindi belt, I initially kept wondering why they spoke like how those characters on the television from the Ramayana of Ramanand Sagar or the Mahabharata of B.R. Chopra spoke. I used to laugh at some of my friends and ask why they couldn’t talk in normal language not realizing probably this is what was normal for them. And they in turn kept taunting me that my language sounded like Farsi (Persian) and thus very foreign to theirs. It was all linguistic fun and we would all enjoy it.

            In a few years’ time I was to be trained as a Sanskritist, and now since I was dealing with the idea of languages professionally, it all meant business to me. I was gradually unfolding the ‘power’ dynamics and ‘identity’ issues related to languages. I do recall a couple of times I felt severely discriminated along with a few other friends while walking at Connaught Place in New Delhi at the hands of a few street vendors because we were talking in Kashmiri. I also gradually became aware about how Kashmiri language had suffered in its land of birth because it was always made to be oppressed by the dominance of Urdu (which is the state language) exactly how so many other South Asian languages are made to be oppressed by the dominance of Hindi. The problem is not Hindi or Urdu or their marvelous literary traditions or the native speakers of these languages, but the problem is that on the name of the romantic notion of ‘one nation, one language’, the power that is being exercised through the imposition of a certain language of a certain large geographic zone of South Asia on to the lengths and the breadths of this multi-linguistic landmass.

            The line between love and hate is very subtle, but rather simple as well. I love languages out of my absolute free will and according to my taste, but I would begin hating them if they are imposed upon me. I love my Urdu, but I hate the Urdu that has been made to kill my mother-tongue. One of the main reasons of partition between Western Pakistan and Eastern Pakistan was that the former was imposing Urdu on the latter. Ironically former was predominantly a Punjabi speaking area and the latter was a Bengali speaking territory and Urdu as a concocted Islamic category was made to mediate between the two completely distinct cultural zones trying to unify them under the single imaginary Islamic linguistic umbrella. It had to be a miserable failure. In other words, the idea of a national language sounds wonderful, but only on a Wikipedia page. Language is not a representational symbol like a flag, but it is a dynamic reality. Even if one fine morning a certain multilingual nation like India becoming monolingual, over a course of time it will gradually create as many completely distinct dialects of that one single imposed language. This is a linguistic reality. Funnily India will land-up having hundreds of Hindi-s, but all unique in themselves.

            India should have a robust language policy that should emphasize on the quality of language learning rather than running meaningless language departments, both classical and modern, in almost all of its public universities those are not able to offer any contribution to scholarship at large. The question is always hijacked by how many or which language. There is never a sound focus on how to do a language structurally and systematically. There can be no bigger irony than this for a multilingual landscape like South Asia. I still love linguistic jokes, but I do have problems with linguistic hegemony—my mother-tongue has succumbed to it.

Philosophy vs Theology or Liberal vs Orthodox?

A few days back when a fellow Stephanian shared an article mentioning that the St Stephen’s College in Delhi is thinking of ‘replacing’ its Philosophy course with Theology, I became immediately concerned about a number of things. Of course the first thing to create unease was how could an educational institute of the repute of St Stephen’s even think about something like this. But immediately afterwards I also concluded that these decision-makers themselves have no clarity about the stark distinction between Philosophy and Theology as two separate academic disciplines (I offer the benefit of doubt by calling ‘Theology’ an academic discipline even if not in a very strict sense). I do not see anything wrong for an educational institution to function autonomously as far as they do not turn that place into a meaningless space of redundant hegemony where rationality is not offered any room. Nor is there anything wrong in introducing the study of Theology as far as it is done within the parameters of academic (and thus rational) code of conduct and does not end up producing radical minds instead of liberal minds. But to think of doing this at the cost of Philosophy is indeed meaningless. 

It is not simply about Philosophy versus Theology, it is also about liberal versus orthodox study of a certain discipline. By no means am I suggesting that the study of Theology cannot be done liberally. In fact, this is precisely we have ‘Religious Studies’ (social scientific study of various religious traditions) constructed as an academic discipline (even if such disciplines do not generally find place in Indian universities). Here I wonder, if the torch bearers of St Stephen’s would have thought of replacing Religious studies (that does not exist in St Stephen’s anyway) with Theology or vice versa, it would still have made some logical sense. But to think of removing Philosophy and introducing Theology instead, holds no ground in rationality. 

Any rational being would know that Philosophy is the backbone discipline for all other disciplines. All disciplines work under the rubrics of a philosophy (thus we have philosophy of history, philosophy of economics or philosophy of sociology) and when Philosophy itself is discussed as a discipline, we talk about the meta-philosophical investigations, in other words—how is the philosophy of philosophy done. While philosophy as a discipline is not preoccupied with the idea of God alone, Theology falls under a very myopic domain of Philosophy that is concerned with the philosophy of God alone. The sphere of Philosophy is endless, while for Theology it is restricted to the study of God and God alone. You can literary philosophise everything. Everything can be an object of a philosophical inquiry including God, sex, food, gender so on and so forth. 

Traditionally, the study of Theology has been associated with a more orthodox approach towards the study of God (even though there is a difference between how Theology of various religious traditions like Christianity, Islam, Hinduism etc. is practised in universities and how it is done in orthodox traditional schools like seminaries, temples and mosques etc.) and everything falling within the domain of God including the ideas related to religion, spirituality etc. For Philosophy, however, everything is a problem and it tries to seek an answer to those problems. The existence of God or Absolute is also a philosophical (and not a theological) problem for them and that is precisely how they approach seeking an answer to this problem. Theology is traditionally restricted and even though it engages with the ideas of divine and sacred, it does not really problematise them and the antithesis created by the idea of profane (as opposed to sacred) is of no much concern for them. In a sense pure Philosophy begins where Theology ends. However, if Theology is to be understood as the rational analysis of the concept of God, then there is no need to distinguish between Theology and the ‘Problem of God’ as usually discussed in Philosophy at the first place. Philosophy does not focus on Philosophy of Religion alone. Like everything else, Philosophy does problematise the idea of God as well because it is not simply satisfied by the idea of the existence of the God alone.

A domain of study (a certain religion/religious ideology/religious culture) might be orthodox or absolutely unorthodox in itself, but we as academics cannot afford not to interpret it liberally. When we practice a discipline, we cannot practice it unidimensionally. We have to develop a multidimensional method to study it. It cannot be God and religion alone that I need to philosophise, I got to philosophise the social, literary, political ideas about God and religion as well. Besides, to begin with, I need to problematise these ideas in themselves outside the domain of religion. I can ignore them only if I accept that I am developing myself into an orthodox philosopher which is an oxymoron in itself. I might be religious to the core, but if I possess a sincere Will to study that religious traditional ‘critically’ (or liberally) then occasionally I should also be willing to be ready to step outside that belief system or in fact to step outside myself as a believer. If this is not acceptable to us, then we should also learn to remain content with whatever little we know without aspiring to know more about it and without claiming to be critical about it. Essentially, I should be willing to, as if, coming out of myself (again only occasionally) and looking at myself from outside me (possibly from a distance). This is what a philosopher would call a self-reflective or self-critical thought process or state of mind.

There is always a danger if one is dogmatic about Divine—it might produce radical minds, and to be philosophically critical about Divine might make the process of being undogmatic (and thus a strong believer in oneself) smoother. Unfortunately, academics all over India seems to be coming under the sway of ‘radical states of mind’ rather than ‘self-critical states of mind’. On the one hand where certain Indian academics are boasting (and rightly so) of brining revolutionary changes to Indian academic system even if so far only at a minuscule level, yet on another hand what public university systems are facing at the hands of the Power they are tied up with, is something to deeply ponder over. And to ponder about it, we need a systematic way of thinking—Philosophy.

Mrinal Kaul studied Sanskrit at St Stephen’s College, Delhi and is now Assistant Professor in Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities, Manipal.