(Following is an attempt to summarize the essence of a candid conversation that I had recently, to the best of my ability. Given the extempore nature of the discussion, this is not a transcript and statements have been paraphrased, in keeping with their substance and spirit)
It’s hard to think of more than a dozen public figures on the planet right now, who I’d want to talk to in person, if I were to run into them. Contrary to what most people tend to wish, there are no movie stars, TV celebrities or sport icons in my list. Instead they are all philosophers, scientists and writers or some combination of the above three. Yesterday was a very interesting day for me in this regard, since not only did I happen to talk to one of them in person, but given the unique circumstance, I was able to do so for over an hour exclusively. Standing candidly near a parking space, I was able to converse with Mr J Sai Deepak over a wide range of topics. We touched upon a lot of things, including –
- The existence of objective truths and if they can be the sole preserve of a certain culture or tradition.
- The prospect of sourcing foreign ideas into the indigenous ontology, epistemology and theology to correct for certain less than ideal native practices.
- The limitations of rationality and the scientific method, and the claims of going beyond the 5 senses.
- The basis that I could’ve used, if I were a lawyer, to console a woman who felt like going to the Sabrimala shrine, given that I am an atheist.
- Whether Sai has ever tried meditating.
- The rationale behind Pashubali (ceremonial animal sacrifice) and why he supports it.
- Tantric practices and the notion that specific deities have to be appeased in order to avoid their wrath.
- The ethical philosophy of Veganism and the Name the Trait (NTT) argument.
- And some truly interesting hypotheticals that he posed to me, including if there was anything immoral in principle with cannibalism.
Now I knew well in advance that in spite of being in agreement with many of his ideas, be it the project of de-coloniality, the implications of imposing a concept of nation state on a civilization, the rampant deracination of the Indic ways of living, the mindless imitation of the west in every sphere of development and the derangement that’s made to visit upon institutions by the ‘outrage connoisseurs’ of the far left, among others; I have some some fundamental epistemic disagreements with him. It was a very enjoyable and enriching discussion however, and in spite of the disagreements I am grateful that I was able to talk to him one on one for so long.
Before we jump into what we discussed, I’d like to point at what feels to me to be the very core of our disagreement. While JSD is a man who’s spearheading the project of bringing about an Indic renaissance, as a practicing Hindu, his first and foremost priority seems to be to ensure the survival, sustenance and flourishing of the Indic ways of life, including every domain of art, architecture, language, music, clothing, systems of knowledge, festivals and religious rituals, imbuing the very depths of ontology and epistemology with a fundamentally Indic glare. In doing so he has essentially become both the vessel and custodian of Bharatiya consciousness, something that his presence exudes if you were to talk to him in person. It therefore seems reasonable to me to conclude that for him, it’s the pursuit of ‘Dharma’ that takes precedence over everything else. ‘Dharma’ being the observance of customs and laws, fulfillment of duties, and cultivation of the right virtues within the fold of a manifestly Indic OET (ontology, epistemology and theology).
The crucial point where I part ways is in my giving precedence to ‘reality’ above all else. The perpetual and existential pursuit of not merely staying in close register with reality as much as possible, but to track it ever more finely, with our growing understanding of the universe and our place in it. Some clarification about what I mean by ‘reality’ seems due at this point. ‘Reality’ is what one tends towards, the moment one begins to check their reliance on fallible intuitions, cultural conditioning, ideological differences, intellectual biases, logical fallacies and linguistic limitations among other things. As one becomes increasingly more sensitive to how is it that they’ve come to know of anything; the process that they’ve employed to stake claim to knowledge i.e. ‘epistemology’, the more apparent it becomes that the level of sophistication and rigor that the process of science brings to the table, remains a powerful force to reckon with.
I could for instance understand the movement of the Moon and the Sun using the Norse epistemology by speaking of the wolves Sköll and Hati or use the Vaishishika school of Indian philosophy to conclude that the smallest indivisible and indestructible part of the world is ‘anu’ (atom). Or, I could see these descriptions, in part, as complimenting a much higher resolution understanding of what’s actually going on, brought to us by the scientific method. These descriptions add more texture and romance to our understanding, but they need not be taken as literal and solemn truths. We now know that there are no giant cosmic wolves chasing the Sun and the Moon, and that atoms are in fact divisible through a process called nuclear fission and that the smallest dimensions are at the Planck scale. This is the triumph of science, but it need not be some sort of a defeat of folklore, myths and our Itihaas. While science allows us to track reality as closely as possible with incredible precision and resolution, our rituals and culture can answer to our innate longing for meaning, kinship and a sense of belonging.
POINTS 1 AND 2
The discussion on points 1 and 2 made it clear that JSD has no qualms with sourcing new ideas from elsewhere. At no point is he prescribing cultural isolation, but he emphatically added that while bringing in new ideas, we must not step into the shoes of the westerner/ European to view our own OET. But we must see to it that these ideas are accordingly absorbed into the native culture with due alteration, so as to not reduce the whole project to sheer imitation. Bring in new ideas but do not lose your roots, identity and originality in the process he said.
Given what’s often the case with international organizations that pass value judgements on Bharat, be it the policy decisions in Kashmir or the handling of COVID-19, he also talked of Bharat getting an equal say on matters of the west. As an example JSD mentioned a Californian law that allows for a husband to bring in a man to have sex with his wife (I haven’t looked into the details of this law). He assertively said that Bharat should be able to pass a value judgement in a similar fashion, on such laws on being completely corrosive to the institution of marriage. There was also a brief discussion on the UN security council no longer representing a multi-polar world. Moving on JSD accepted that there are ‘objective’ truths in the world, and I am assuming that by definition, he’d also agree that they therefore cannot be the sole preserve of a certain culture or tradition.
I had brought up the practice of ceremonial human sacrifice among the Aztecs in this discussion. There was an incredible sense of indebtedness among the Aztecs and many Meso-american cultures since they believed that the Gods had sacrificed themselves in order to sustain the world. Both the one who sacrificed and the one who got sacrificed did so in an act of devotion to appease the Gods. It was considered a payment of one’s debt in a sense. When I asked JSD if he agreed that it was not the right thing to do, such was his commitment to not instinctively take up the outsider’s viewpoint, that he said that in order to pass judgement on their normative standards I’d have to step into the shoes of the Aztecs to know why they were doing it, and since I do not know enough about the Aztecs I cannot comment on that. And here in comes my first disagreement, for if one were to stay put in their professed OET, the need to change something shall never arise. From the point of view of the devotee/ subscriber there will never be anything wrong about their world view. How could a practicing Aztec priest come to introspect, and perhaps think of changing something, were he not to stand outside of his culture, which is to say outside his OET?
Discussion on point 3 was quite interesting, though for paucity of time and it being a candid format, much was left to be desired. To elaborate on the shortcomings of the scientific method, JSD alluded to the possibility of going beyond the 5 senses, which he seemed to take as a limitation of rationality and the scientific method in general. As a rebuttal to this often raised point, I pointed to the fact that with the use of technology mankind has at the very least enhanced these senses by incredible orders of magnitude (telescopes,microscopes). My other point was one that is truly an example of us having gone beyond the 5 senses- from our use of Mathematics. A.C. Grayling in ‘The Frontiers of Knowledge’ wrote-
“The entities of mathematics are abstract structures. Since nature itself has many emergent patterns and symmetries (leaves, drops, snow flakes, shells etc) and mathematics is the investigation and manipulation of patterns; it can therefore serve as a powerful instrument to go beyond perception and imagination. It can serve as a language or an eye that represents and uncovers the symmetries and patterns in and underlying nature.”
That is how the precise mass and diameter of Uranus was predicted before it was discovered in 1846. Take a simpler example that I didn’t use with JSD. There are only 2 senses with which you can experience the Sun- sight and touch. You obviously can’t touch the Sun but it’s light and heat certainly touches you. Now, using just your senses, 2 in this case, try to come to the truth that it’s the Earth that revolves around the Sun and not the other way round. You won’t be. But now add ‘reason’, ‘logic’ and ‘experimentation’ and you just might- elements of the scientific method. Much like mathematics these are devices that take us past our direct perceptions in a way. Therefore to say that one’s limited to their 5 senses when using the scientific epistemology wouldn’t be quite right. There was also a very brief discussion about the conception of time not being linear in the Vedic system. To which I could only mention the book ‘The order of time’ by the Italian Physicist Carlo Rovelli, but the discussion took a different turn by then.
POINTS 4 AND 5
The discussion on points 4 and 5 was a consequence of me revealing myself to be an atheist to JSD, that made him laugh and nod his head, as though everything made sense to him now. He smiled and said- that is why none of my arguments would sound convincing to you and why I won’t be convinced by yours. He then asked me what rationale could I possibly use, if I were a lawyer, to convince an inconsolable lady who wished to visit Lord Ayappa’s shrine in Sabrimala, that she shouldn’t go there? To this I had to concede that as a lawyer I would have no choice but to get into the metaphysics of it and to talk about the religious nature of that deity. This was when I asked him if he had ever tried meditating, to which he responded that he has never been able to, because he feels he’s too aggressive for that. Having had a meditation practice for many years now, my only way to comfort that lady I said (not as a lawyer), would’ve been to convince her that there are much deeper ways of experiencing the profundity that life has to offer, without having to go to any Temple, Gurudwara or Mosque. I said I know how loaded the term meditation sounds, but I wish I had more time to tell you more about what non dualistic meditation feels like.
POINTS 6, 7, 8 AND 9
The discussion on points 6,7,8 and 9 were linked to me asking JSD what his opinion was on the ethical philosophy of Veganism. Having been a vegan for over 5 years now, I’ve always wanted to see how sharp minds respond to the idea, every chance I get. For those who wish to familiarize themselves with Veganism can read the 3 part series that I’ve written on it here. Now I must say this from the very outset, that I’ve been debating for Veganism for a long time and that I know pretty much all the standard arguments that are used against it. And all of those arguments are fairly easy for me to rebut. But in defense of JSD, he was formulating his arguments on the spot, not to mention after having given a long lecture in the morning. For those who’re unfamiliar with the philosophy, here’s how it’s defined-
Veganism is an ethical philosophy that tries to minimise the suffering, exploitation and death of sentient beings, as much as reasonably and practically possible.
Sentience is the ability to have a subjective first person experience. It’s when phenomenologically one feels to be a distinct ‘subject’ who’s in relation to objects in the world.
Here is what the Name the Trait (NTT) argument looks like-
Name a (or multiple) morally substantive trait(s) that is/are present in humans but absent in animals, that seems to accord sanctity of life to humans but not to the animals.
For a more detailed elaboration of this argument, you can read what I’ve written in Veganism part 3 here. When I posed the NTT question to him, JSD went straight to the responses that I was already expecting. If memory serves, he went to plants first. I pointed out that plants though living are not sentient, since sentience is an emergent phenomena of complex neurophysiology that requires a complex enough brain and a central nervous system. Plants also do not have pain receptors of any kind I said and can therefore simply not suffer as they can neither feel pain, nor experience that pain being subjected to any subjectivity.
He answered the NTT with the trait ‘Vivek’ that is intellect or the ability to discriminate. This is the most common answer to the NTT question. The reason why intellect cannot be that distinguishing trait is because if it were the case that we were according life its moral worth based on intelligence, then it would’ve felt intuitively right to kill and eat mentally retarded humans or those in a vegetative state. For greater elaboration I’d direct you to my earlier post on veganism.
There was also a brief mention of insects that I might be killing callously by just walking around. I again pointed out that the definition of Veganism itself mentions the caveat- ‘…as much as reasonably and practically possible’. Which is to say that though I won’t go out of my way to step on ants (since insects are sentient), in case of a cockroach infestation, I am well within my right to kill them (though I personally still sweep them away or carry them out of the house without killing them, to my mother’s displeasure).
When I inquired why JSD supports Pashubali, he threw his head down and said, for that I would have no choice but to go into the metaphysics of it. He proceeded to mention certain tantric practices and energies and that he genuinely believes that there exist certain forms of deities who must be appeased with ritual sacrifice in order to avoid their wrath. I can’t offer them a cabbage instead he said. This was when I went back to the Aztecs, inquiring how this was any different from a devout Aztec doing the same sacrifice in order to appease his Gods, only that he was killing humans instead. When JSD mentioned things like energies and tantras I knew that he had created an epistemic gap so wide that I couldn’t have closed it, even if I wanted to, in just an hour. The discussion would inevitably have gone into whether God and the supernatural exist or not.
It was at this point I believe that he smacked me with a hypothetical of cannibalism or eating dead bodies. I was prepared for that too, given how long I’ve debated in support of veganism. I categorically stated that since there was no suffering of a conscious mind involved, there was in principle nothing wrong with eating dead bodies, if such a thing was seen in vacuum. But given the social context, if this leads to some sort of a societal depravity, which it likely would, then I’d be against cannibalism for this reason alone, not because life per say has some magical sanctity. JSD smiled at this, perhaps because he wasn’t expecting me to state something so freakishly eerie, that most would either hesitate to say out loud or at the very least take a lot longer to state.
There was also a brief discussion on the deterrence value of law, as opposed to the talk of morality that only a small percentage of people can have the privilege to afford. He said that in the domestic violence cases that he deals with, what stops men from beating their wives for the most part is the fact of illegality and the likelihood of the punishment that would be made to visit upon them by law. To which my response was that this says a lot about the person concerned. After all, not hitting your wife because it’s illegal is a lot different from not hitting her because you don’t feel it to be the right thing to do.
This pretty much unravels and sums up everything that we discussed candidly in over an hour, and I must say it was a pleasure doing so given how sharp he is. In closing I would say that I’ve come to better understand much, because of his writings and I would highly recommend reading both his books- ‘India that is Bharat’ and ‘India, Bharat and Pakistan’. And faithful or otherwise, there is much to learn and unlearn because of these books. After all being an atheist doesn’t prevent one to have an intelligent and informed discussion about some of the truly toxic ideas in the Abrahamic faiths or of the entrenchment of Christian OET in our daily discourse that subtly influences our psyche, the civilizational challenges associated with a change in demography, illegal immigration or how skewed our history textbooks have been.
I might not be a man of faith Sir, but I too can enjoy a greeting of Jai Shri Ram. It was a pleasure conversing with you.