Vasubandhu’s Twenty Verses and Comparative Philosophy, Part Two

In Part One, I discussed Sonam Kachru’s criticisms (Kachru 2021) of some of my earlier work on Vasubandhu’s Twenty Verses (Mills 2017).

I ended the previous post with a question: what if we were to listen carefully to Vasubandhu in his own terms, and learn from what he has to say?

This attitude toward the text can challenge understandings of Western categories. Whereas most pragmatists, phenomenologists, and a certain type of analytic philosopher diagnose external-world skepticism as a metaphysical failure to appreciate the entanglement of mind and world, I think Vasubandhu suggests that entangled though mind and world may be (and it’s hard to imagine them being more entangled than in Mahāyāna Buddhist non-dualism!), the cognitive failure of regular human experience is a failure to appreciate how fundamentally mistaken we are in our regular cognitive lives—in light of the fact this very entanglement.

It may be that Vasubandhu shows us something about skeptical inquiries into perception, broadly construed: such epistemological inquiries do not rely on any particular metaphysical framework. (I personally have long thought the anti-skeptical strategy of trying to reduce the epistemological problem of skepticism about the external world to a metaphysical problem of mind and world is a huge mistake, but that’s somewhat besides Vasubandhu’s point as he seems to be doing something more like working out the epistemological consequences of the metaphysics of non-dualism).

I think some contemporary interpreters fail to understand how thoroughly revisionary and revolutionary Vasubandhu’s philosophy is; whereas most contemporary anti-skeptical strategies seek to preserve regular human experience against a philosophical abstraction, Vasubandhu wants to challenge the dogmatic attachment inherent in the regular human experience of thinking our way of seeing things is the right way or the only way (a point I think Kachru and others could make better without appeals to contemporary anti-skeptical strategies!).

So, am I saying, after all this, that Vasubandhu really is a skeptic, just not as we know it? (“We” here means, I guess, 21st century academics writing in English). Maybe. I don’t know.

My own attempts in the past to argue for skeptical interpretations of classical Indian philosophers (e.g., Mills 2018) have often met with resistance precisely because most contemporary philosophers have a (dare I say it?) dogmatic attachment to a specific version of external-world skepticism inculcated in them by contemporary interpretations of Descartes and in contemporary analytic epistemology (this modern view of skepticism is in my opinion also deeply at odds with ancient “Western” skepticisms like Pyrrhonism and Academic skepticism).

At this point I’m willing to cede the label “skepticism.” I no longer care whether Vasubandhu or any other classical Indian philosopher is a “skeptic,” partly due to the unwillingness of my academic colleagues to rethink their own definition of skepticism as a category, but mostly because whatever Vasubandhu and others are doing is philosophically interesting no matter what Western categories we apply to them.

It’s time to stop pretending that classical Indian philosophers have to be subjected to the procrustean bed of Western categories to be interesting or worthy of study or respect in the discipline. I study Indian philosophy because it’s philosophically interesting in its own terms, not because it can glom on to whatever’s popular in mainstream analytic or continental philosophy this month.

While I’ve moved more in the direction of the type of textual work that prevails in Indology or Area Studies, I’m not quite there, either (I never make things easy for myself!). While understanding texts in their historical context is important, at times this approach can leave one a bit too limited by linguistic history or the traditions of interpretation that came before and after a text, leaving little room for innovative philosophical understandings of individual texts (European Indology has its own problematic Orientalist history to contend with as well).

Vasubandhu was obviously responding to the Buddhist traditions before him and he has been taken up in certain ways by centuries of Buddhist and non-Buddhist scholars that have come after him, but I also think Vasubandhu has something unique to say that is not captured by Buddhism in general or even Yogācāra in general. At least if we bother to listen to him carefully.

Nor am I denying that all interpretation today takes place in a postcolonial political context or that each reader doesn’t bring their own preconceptions (in a Gadamerian sense) to the text (my own philosophical preconceptions have been shaped by Buddhism as much as anything else; I learned about the Four Noble Truths long before I learned about semantic realism). I’m not saying we should assume we 21st century scholars have a transparent insight into the one true nature of a text for all times. Such would be hopelessly naïve, and in any case goes against the very spirit of what Vasubandhu is telling us about normal human experience!

Going forward, maybe I’ll say Vasubandhu was working out the epistemology of non-dualism, or maybe we can just call it early Yogācāra and let it speak for itself (even if later Yogācāra philosophers do come close to the Western category of “idealism,” I think reducing Vasubandhu to “idealism” is just as problematic as reducing him to “skepticism” or “phenomenalism” or “phenomenology”). I don’t know where I will go next, but I will keep trying to think with Vasubandhu as best I can.

Helpful though comparative philosophy can be at times, sometimes it can be yet another problematic causal factor in our experience of ancient texts. I thank Sonam Kachru for his part in inciting me to think more deeply about my own previous scholarly experience of Vasubandhu and other classical Indian philosophers, moving instead toward listening carefully to what these texts have to say for themselves.


Works Cited

Kachru, Sonam. 2021. Other Lives: Mind and World in Indian Buddhism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Mills, Ethan. 2017. “External-World Skepticism in Classical India: The Case of Vasubandhu.” International Journal for the Study of Skepticism 7 (3): 147-172.

——. 2018.  Three Pillars of Skepticism in Classical India: Nāgārjuna, Jayarāśi, and Śrī Harṣa. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books. 

3 Replies to “Vasubandhu’s Twenty Verses and Comparative Philosophy, Part Two”

  1. I would have to read a bit more to have anything worth saying about your informative post so for now pardon me if I get a tad off topic but I believe it is in keeping with your remarks about the possible perils or pitfalls posed in the manner comparative philosophy has sometimes been practiced, problems that may perhaps always shadow comparative work insofar as the stress is simply on an accounting of apparent or surface similarities and differences in a manner that blinds itself to uniqueness or creativity or originality or simply fine and subtle modes of discrimination that can elude such comparison.

    I am thinking, therefore, by way of example or illustration, of the notion of “atheism,” which comes with quite a bit of baggage in the form of social and cultural presuppositions and assumptions and thus is too often awkwardly applied to its “appearance” in Indian and Chinese philosophies. A former teacher of mine, Ninian Smart, reminded us that “one can be an orthodox Hindu and an atheist, and some of the traditional schools deny the existence of a Creator God,” as do the so-called heterodoxical schools like the Lokāyata/Cārvāka, Jainism, and Buddhism (we need not go into Chinese philosophies here). Therefore, as Smart pointed out, “atheism in the Indian context does not carry with it irreligiousness,” a truth not always appreciated, at least not outside the Indian case. Consider, for instance, the so-called new atheists, which includes such philosophers as Daniel Dennett, A.C. Grayling, Michel Onfray, and Sam Harris, the biologist Richard Dawkins, journalist and critic Christopher Hitchens, as well as the former Muslim, Somali-born Dutch-American activist and former politician, Ayaan Hirsi Al (no doubt there are other public intellectuals who would proudly assume this descriptive mantle). This form of atheism is of a piece with a vigorous and occasionally hysterical or simply militant rhetoric opposing what it considers “superstition” magic, religion, and irrationalism (interestingly, it seems there is a clear-cut battle here between rational and irrationalism, while non-rationalism or supra- or para-rationalism fall by the wayside), thus it is strikingly different in character and purpose from the meaning of “atheism” in some cross-cultural contexts.

    From yet another vantage point atheism is thought to bring in its wake beliefs, values, or attitudes that are somehow amoral, immoral, or unethical among those that assume religion is somehow a necessary condition of morality and ethics (a view, by the way, that no less than the Dalai Lama has taken pains to refute, going so far as to encourage a robust conception and practical cultivation of ‘secular ethics’). And Mohandas K. Gandhi once wrote to a “sincere atheist” that faith in God can be defined as faith in absolute truth or satya (which exists alongside conventional truths, and Gandhi acknowledges different conceptions thereof), as Gandhi himself came to use “God” and “Truth” interchangeably, to the point of preferring the expression, “God is Truth,” and identifying such Truth with the essence of nature and reality (hence his belief that the Moral Law is logically prior to God!). Gandhi accordingly also told our atheist that “so long as you feel akin with mankind you accept God in practice,” recalling as well the “clergymen who came to the funeral of the great atheist Bradlaugh. They said they had come to pay him homage because he was a godly man.”

    Finally, it bears noticing that even the history of atheism beginning with the European Enlightenment gets a bit messy or complicated insofar as it sometimes lacks the ideological and rhetorical polemics common to the “new atheists,” as suggested in the chapter title, “Diderot the Metatheist” by Charles Devellennes in his recent book, Positive Atheism: Bayle, Meslier, D’Holbach, Diderot (Edinburgh University Press, 2021). One argument finds that, “if Diderot did embrace atheism, he did so with reservations that he kept for the rest of his life. He was too sceptical not to apply his scepticism to his own lack of belief, and it may be better to think of him as a post-atheist, or metatheist [perhaps even pantheist insofar as pantheism is sometimes conceived as consistent with physicalism or materialism, and Diderot was an avowed materialist] thinker than an atheist’ [why not agnostic?]. In the words of Devellennes, “Diderot remains sceptical of both theistic and atheistic positions throughout his life, and that while he often leans towards atheism, he never quite dismisses some theories about the existence of God.”

    Diderot even considers a “definition of God as a big animal [with a soul!] which comprises the entire universe…. [again, close to materialist pantheism or pantheistic materialism or naturalism although he was opposed to Spinoza’s pantheism].” The primary epistemic motivation here is clearly a dispositional scepticism animating Diderot’s thinking, for he “remains a sceptic at his very roots when it comes to our ability to actually get to know the world in concrete manner”: ‘Understanding has its prejudices; meaning has its uncertainty; memory has its limits; imagination has its glimmer [or its flirtations with illusion, delusion, and phantasy]; instruments have their imperfections.’ So, at best, this is an atheism and materialism suffused with scepticism! This strikes me as very different from current philosophical versions of such views. It seems the intellect and the heart are at odds with each other in the lifeworld of Diderot: “In his correspondence … he labels atheism “a devil of a philosophy, that my mind [esprit] cannot but approve of, but that my heart denies.”

    I close with a compelling passage that reminds us why individual lifeworlds (on the ground, as we say) often exist in considerable tension with “official” or “authoritative” worldviews that have or aspire to systematic and often “defensive” (in the Freudian sense) character. Devellennes contends that “[t]his affective attachment to a belief in a type of God is entirely consistent with Diderot’s delicate sentimental character.”

    “Writing to his brother the abbot, Diderot denied the labels of atheism, impiety and anti-Christian furies. ‘I am not impious, since I believe [or perhaps he is not ‘attached’ to beliefs in a Buddhist sense?] in nothing. You should have said I am an unbeliever [incrédule]. I do not have anti-Christian furies, since I live with Christians that I admire [much like Gandhi knew atheists he admired].’ The heart, love and admiration always bring Diderot closer to his fellow human beings, and it is ultimately out of this love of others that Diderot maintains a sentimental attachment to God. [….] Diderot’s materialism is not without a certain spiritual dimension [e.g., prayer and Stoic ‘meditation’] –as long as one understands the human spirit in material terms.”

    Diderot came to defend a consistent secularism and “the right of all to come to their own conclusions” on such matters, an attitude of tolerance and amity that respects Rawlsian-like (or Liberal) worldview pluralism, is motivated by “cross belief engagement,” and is at least in the spirit of the Jain doctrines of anekāntavāda and syādvāda. As Devellennes explains, Diderot understood that people can arrive at the same political conclusions and appreciation of identical or similar values from different metaphysical or religious presuppositions, assumptions, and premises such that atheism (and perhaps missionary and missionizing religions as well) “can cease to be a proselytising enterprise [as it is with the ‘new atheists’] and attempt to be a bridging enterprise with other belief systems [analogous if not identical to what Rawls christened as and intended by ————-an ‘overlapping consensus’].”

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