I AM THOU: Meditations on the Truth of Indiaby Ramchandra Gandhi. AFAL India, 2011 (second edition).
‘Sell your cleverness, buy bewilderment.’
– Jalal uddin Rumi
CONTEMPORARY English and American usage has achieved a silent revolution in its meta-aesthetics of evaluative terms. The ‘beautiful’ or ‘exquisite’ or ‘fine’ of an earlier era has been all replaced by ‘amazing’ and ‘awesome’. Invariably, though, the most contemporary would find its echo in the most ancient. The Vedic Sanskrit for ‘awesome’ is ‘âúcarya’. The Katha Upanishad (1.2.7) – Ramchandra Gandhi’s life-long favourite, witness chapter 33 of I am Thou (IaT) titled Isaac, Naciketa, Christ, Ramana – describes one who can speak of the deepest Truth, and one who can attain it as ‘âúcarya’. Awe is what the finite feels when it encounters the infinite face to face. Two things filled Kant’s mind with awe – a kind of wonder that at once humbles and elevates the feeler’s intellectual ego (see Kant’s ‘Analytic of the Sublime’ in the Critique of Judgement) – the starry heavens and the voice of conscience within. For me, some of the essays of I and Thou appear to be those two awesome things rolled into one.
Quite independently of this personal reaction to that book, I have started developing a line of thought that wonder – vismaya – the permanent sentiment which forms the emotional basis of the aesthetic relish called adbhuta rasa – may be the dominating rasa of the Mahabharata. Abhinavagupta has famously judged Mahabharata to be a poem of Sânta rasa. We could give that theory a contemporary – hence Upanishadic – twist by calling the dominating aesthetic essence of that epic adbhuta rasa merging into sânta rasa. For the contemplative reader of this narrative of total ruin, the emergent affective flavour should feel like a cognitively self-effacing awe: ‘I cannot fathom this mystery… I give up’ – attitude at the sublime hovering over the underlying tragic tranquility at the transitoriness of mortal existence. After all, the crystallized essence of the Mahabharata is the Bhagavadgita which reaches its crescendo in the eleventh chapter undoubtedly permeated with the sentiment of jaw-dropping amazement. Arjuna’s bewilderment in not weighing and balancing between work and wisdom, karma and jnana, drowns into the sheer flood of wowing at Krishna’s cosmic form.
My second reading of Ramchandra Gandhi’s I am Thou:Meditations on the Truth of India, on the occasion of the recent release of its second edition (AFAL, India 2011), has yielded this deep sense of amazement, awe, and bewilderment. I read the first edition off and on for the last 25 years, and have also written and spoken about it. Unlike many other professional philosophers who thought that RCG’s three earlier books – on Whitehead (IIAS 1973), on Presuppositions of Human Communication (Oxford1974), and The Availability of Religious Ideas (McMillan1976), were his best philosophy work, and that this one was the beginning of the end of his rigorous philosophy, I have always believed that this is his most carefully argued, most authentic, substantial, densely sustained and by far the most staggeringly original work. It was definitely the book in the production and get-up of which he invested the maximum amount of personal energy. Many of us found the physical look of the book and the choice of paper, size, binding and especially the somewhat tacky drawings and photos he insisted on including, less than elegant. But Ramchandra had an unwavering defence for the low-budget look, the drawing of a standing up mouse on the last page, and so I would like to explain the metaphysical significance of each of those images.
The reason I have started with a disquisition on Awe is that my second reading is, at every stage, showing me that I did not understand many of the intricate arguments and the grand scheme of the overall network of themes and propositions in my first reading. And what is most surprising for me is that this sense of past – sometimes even present – incomprehension makes me feel intellectually richer, not poorer. I am enjoying the discovery of my ignorance of the full meaning of this amazing work. I am able to laugh at my past confidence, with which I once went up to the author and told him once, ‘You know Ramu-da, I understand your position quite well and largely even agree with it but, honestly, I could now explain it more clearly than you have done; you should leave the philosophical analysis of your position (in IaT) to us.’ With ethically healthy shame, I now recall the self-control which stiffened his face, evincing his moral struggle to convert his outrage into forgiveness with which he had said, ‘Achha bhai Arindam, if indeed you have the time to do that, I shall be honoured. But by the time you will put it in your words, I am sure, I shall disagree with your interpretation, most probably because I have moved ahead thinking about those issues and I would put the points differently now.’
To describe IaT as just a modern chatty reconstruction of the Advaita philosophy of Ramana Maharshi, punched with the ahimsa of Gandhi would be an atrociously crude over-simplification. I don’t think I understood half of the major points he was making in that book in my first reading; I thought I did. I was being clever then. In my second reading I am bewildered as I am beginning to discover how falsely confident I was that I got it. The piece, for instance, titled ‘Wittgenstein and Vaishnavism’ (IaT, 75) remains opaque to me. I do not know what exactly he means by a sentence like: ‘I wish I could sense and say what Puranic animation cinema would ideally be like, beyond this: that it would be a confluence of Turner and Chagall, and Klee and Walt Disney on the side of light, and on the other side a massing of Goya (of the horrors of the war cartoons) and Francis Bacon, and Mahabharata narrative of slaughter darkly doodled as in Tagore.’
But the sheer breadth and nimbleness of connective imagination makes me wonder. Since I am enjoying the discovery of my own gaps of grasp of meaning, I am articulating my experience of re-reading the book in terms of Kantian awe. For at least a century after its publication, IaT will remain an ‘amazing book’ – not because it has a dizzyingly complex maze of dialectical moves, but because it invites many layers of understanding and empathy each of which, successively, it withstands the rejection of as ‘neti, neti’: this is not what Ramu meant, no, not even that, let’s try some other meaning… and so on. Many books will be written on its individual chapters which bear such intriguing titles as: ‘Kali with a broom’, ‘Mâtâ theoria’, ‘Towards Abrahamic Advaita in India’, ‘Gold does not litter’, ‘Four ragas of realization’, ‘A Bania’s deal with the anguish of inequity?’, ‘Kali on a bicycle’, and the vintage Ramu-punny, ‘Man and Hanuman’.
The reason why many books will have to be written on them is that the shallow reader will inevitably take these titles as gimmicky and frivolous, just as James Joyce’s language would have been initially deemed. We shall return at the end of this review to the important point that in RCG’s thought our deepest thoughts wear the mask of humour, and we are made to transcend the serious/jocular binary when we are offered a carefully sculpted sentence like the following: ‘Hanuman’ means "of burnt chin", for Mâruti compassionately instructively wears this telltale mark of a mercifully abandoned raid on the Sun regarded as external to himself, other than himself, a disfigurement of what should be our dualistic pre-history. Mankind has a future only as Hanumankind’ (conclusion of ch 78). Without losing the link with the metaphysical theme of the book – you get burnt if you take the Sun to be other than your Self (I am sure, given the Vedic mantra ‘Sun is the Atman of all the world’, RCG would have translated it as ‘You can’t be unselfish unless you are Sun-Selfish’!) – this delightfully humourous sentence manages tacit allusions ranging from Tulsidas to Darwin – knowingly surrendering to the seductive pun between ‘human’ and ‘Hanuman’. One is relieved that Ramu bhai did not stoop to a ‘chin’ to ‘chinmaya’ slippage of associative thinking.
A review is not supposed to be a summary of the book under review. I am just trying to convey my sense of amazement at the impossible combination of depth and expanse, genuineness and glitter, contemplativeness and argumentativeness, in nearly every chapter of this book.
One added bonus of the second edition is the exceptionally insightful – somewhat autobiographical but entirely self-effacing – Preface by Probal Dasgupta which starts by directing the reader to the heart of the philosophy of undifference that RCG was in the throes of exploring when he was writing IaT. To quote Dasgupta’s Preface: ‘Ramubhai presented with his characteristic enthusiasm the conceptual basis and the experiential richness of the celebratory overflow marking what lies at the heart of communication of self: namely, a constitutive freedom from causal coercion.’
Let me now try to formulate the two major sustained lines of argument in the book, on the basis of the crucial chapters ‘Advaita is Ahimsa (52)’, ‘Sambodhana (55)’ and ‘Communication as Gita (56)’. Addressing, invocation, calling is more central to the use of words in general and proper names in particular than referring or describing, because talking to each other is real communication rather than talking about the world or using each other’s talk for some pragmatic purpose. In so far as by addressing a friend or a stranger, we draw attention of that person without forcing them to respond, linguistic invocation is the opposite of causal compulsion. It is an acknowledgement of the freedom of the interlocutor, and a drawing near to let the other know that one is taking all causal pressure off that person, that one is expecting the other person to freely think that she is being respected as a self and not pushed around as an object.
Thus, ‘communicative invocation unfurls three dimensions of Advaita (non-duality, un-other-ness) in human life’: First, the gesture of abandonment of causal power which says that you are none other than me upon whom I can or need act. Second, the prompting to self-consciousness which says positively that you are myself (I cannot help thinking that RCG got to the same secret truth that Abhinavagupta accessed, without reading much Kashmir Shaivism). Third, the revelation that âtman self-identically is both where I am and where you are. All three premises are argued for separately and step by step in the book, so if they appear to be dogmatic in this formulation that is because I am trying to create an appetite for getting down to the business of grappling with RCG’s logico-phenomenological argument directly, first hand.
This connects RCG’s Grice-Strawsonian philosophy of language with his Advaita metaphysics: from language-games to the realization that ‘two cannot play’, that all play is self playing with self, losing one’s Selfhood so that it can be regained through every vocative rebellion against causal necessity and the inertness of mutually pushing billiard balls.
The next step is the connecting of the non-dualistic metaphysics with the ethics of non-injury. Just because I am you, I cannot take as a childish mistake Atman-Brahman’s cosmic will-to-be-many, the dance of dynamic Kali-Prakrti on the chest of inactive Witness-Purusha. It is as much a moral offense to take as infantile fantasy the many-centredness of the Non-Dual Atman, as it is to treat as hard reality the illusion of Other Individuals. Hence the Ethics of empathic suffering at the suffering of the None-Other-than-myself Other, and the obligatoriness of non-coercive letting-be towards the disagreeing neighbour or enemy.
With these two moves, from philosophy of language (the performative phenomenology of Addressing) to metaphysics (Advaita) and then, from metaphysics to Ethics (Ahimsa), RCG expects to build a foundation for meditating on the Truth of India, through fearlessly unfashionable and politically daring but not faddishly ‘P.C.’ positions on the caste, untouchability, dalit issue (See ‘Why didn’t Dr. Ambedkar visit Tiruvannamalai ?(4)), the future of Sikhism, the possibility of an Abrahamic Advaits, and controversial takes on Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity, Indian Islam, Parsi identity and eventually to a Ramakrishna Paramhansa inspired syncretism.
I am aware that this last sentence ran on for too long through too many clauses. That gives a flavour of some, not all, of the sentences that the reader has to plough through if she has to delve into IaT. RCG did take liberties with how much weight of long compounds and parenthetical clauses English idiom can take. But this book was not only his thought experiment, it was an experiment in book design (which I still think failed), and an experiment also with Sanskrit-saturated English which Ramu bhai refused to be apologetic about. Heading the long five page glossary of Sanskrit terms that he added to the first edition, was calculatedly condescending to the increasing number of South Asianists – even of the ‘spiritual’ kind – who are self-righteously ignorant of Sanskrit. Let me quote that note in its entirety since it throws an oblique light on his deliberately ‘Bharatiya English’.
‘Etymology, usage, context, and contemplation are inter-dependently needed for understanding Samskrta (notice the refusal to write ‘Sanskrit’ which is not a Sanskrit word) philosophical and spiritual terminology. The minimum meanings of keynote (sic!) words listed below are intended as guide only for those readers who are quite without Samskrta.’
Before I end this review with an apparently unconnected translation of a Sanskrit poem of unknown authorship which illustrates the ‘awesome’ dance of ‘ardha-narishwara (Shiva as half-woman) – a running theme of IaT, I would like to mention one significant influence on RCG, besides the influence of Wittgenstein, Strawson – our common mentor at Oxford – K.C. Bhattacharya and Ramana Maharshi. After Thomas Nagel’s influential paper, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’, the entire field of analytical philosophy was agog with ‘what it is like to be’ talk which eventually paved the way, after RCG’s death, to a happy union between analytic philosophy, neuro-psychology and phenomenology. This Nagel-ushered renewed attention to ‘inner first person experience’made it possible for philosophy to recover from the ‘externalist’ over-enthusiasm started by Wittgenstein’s private language argument against all ‘inner’-talk.
During this period RCG published three papers/chapters in this genre: What is it like to be a human being? What is it like to be God? (IaT, ch 23), and What is it like to be dead? He also published in our University of Hawaii journal (Philosophy East and West, 1981) a classic paper called ‘On Meriting Death’ and, of course, would often start his lecture by speaking of his personal memory of his grandfather’s dead body being carried through an ocean of mourning people in a military vehicle. What Ramchandra Gandhi imbibed from his spiritual hero, Ramana Maharshi, was a sense of deathlessness in the middle of dying, a sense of deep contemplativeness in the middle of a fun-loving, politically feisty worldliness, the sense of loving union in the middle of parting for ever every moment.
I was stunned by the news of his sudden death under tragic circumstances. To be stunned is for our minds to be arrested. Arresting the operations of the mind is how samadhi is defined by Patanjali. RCG told me that one form of daily meditation he practiced was contemplating what it would feel like to be dying – not the pain or loss of consciousness but the unflagging awareness of extinction of intentional awareness. I would like to imagine that the night he died he must have recalled the first mystical experience of Ramana Maharshi – experiencing ‘what it is like to be dead’ while being alive.
I have not spoken of the rich and complex Aesthetic Theory, Theory of Abstract Non-Representational Art, and his Philosophy of Literature, which he develops in IaT. As a compensation, I would like to end this review by my lame English translation of a matchless Sanskrit poem which imagines the cosmos, not just as Death/Time/Shiva Nataraja’s dance, but Pure Consciousness to be a dance instructor. If RCG himself wrote a sequel to IaT, he would perhaps have unpacked the metaphors in this magical musical meditative verse by writing a new book, perhaps titled ‘Dancing to the Claps of Death the Time-Keeper’.
‘Look here, my dear, hold up your creeper-like supple arms just this way!
Make the trunk like this.
No, no not that high! Bow down a bit,
Yes, that’s perfect, now bend your front leg,
And just keep looking at me who is in front of you’
Thus teaching the goddess how to dance,
With the aid of the side-drums of his own voice,
Which sound like the roaring of thundering clouds,
Shiva keeps time, his hands clapping in a slow measured tempo.
May those cosmic clappings of Shambhu
Protect you all.’
At times IaT does engage in studiedly irritating word-plays, but none of that is accidental. When meditating on the Truth of India, if you are an RCG type thinker-about-thinking (which Probal Dasgupta tells us was RCG’s definition of a philosopher), you must make the ridiculous sublime, and the sublime ridiculous. After all, Ramu bhai would stretch his mouth into a Cheshire-cat-style broad grin and say, the universe is a Play of Word, if not a play on words!