Learning and Happiness: Sketches for an Alternative Theorization of Indian Sociality

Learning and Happiness: Sketches for an Alternative Theorization of Indian Sociality

Vivek Dhareshwar |

The question how we can draw from Indian thought or intellectual traditions to learn to live in our contemporary world has yet to find a satisfactory articulation. Our problem is not simply that we no longer employ terms such as atman, avidya, dharma to reflect on our experience; the terms that we do indeed use—sovereignty, secularism, rights, civil society, political society, and corruption—seem to insulate our experience from our reflection. The predicament we find ourselves in will not even appear as a predicament until and unless we think through the choice we have to make between a) religion and tradition b) history and the past c) philosophy and adhyatma d) the caste-system and the practitional matrix. The task of reconceptualizing Indian intellectual traditions and making them available for our reflection must begin by inquiring why the first term in each of the pairs above stands for a domain of inquiries and disciplines that blocks and distorts the element in which Indian thought moves. This paper will take an indirect route to explore the implications of that choice.[1]

My research into Indian thought and social structure (which has been necessarily comparative because one has to understand the relationship between western descriptions of India and the western culture, in all domains) has lead me to formulate the hypothesis that the intellectual traditions of India were (are?), without exception, concerned with discovering the meta-learning paths to understanding the relationship between learning and happiness. Perhaps the central question common to all the Indian intellectual traditions is the relationship between learning and happiness. If my claim is correct, exploring that question will allow us to understand the extraordinary insights generated by the Indian traditions; by learning to ask that question again we would at the same time be continuing their pursuit.

Because of their insight into the ways and stages of learning as well as into the nature of the learner, Indian traditions saw the need to set up multiple sites of learning to encompass and articulate Indian sociality. The ambition was to make learning penetrate all aspects of sociality (through what we now think of as ritual, art and other practical disciplines). In short, ethical learning was inseparable from sociality. When this extraordinarily complex and dynamic configuration of learning came into confrontation with a religious and moralizing culture, namely the West, the latter had no resources to understand it cognitively except to see its practices – the fine inter-articulation of sociality and ethical learning – as immoral. Why the western frame is normative in this way is itself a research question: when we look at “the caste-system” or “hinduism” as normed products of the western frame, rather than as theoretical entities whose background theory we can reconstruct and understand, we will come to the realization that “the caste-system” or other such entities are black-boxes that obstruct our understanding of the meta-learning paths that Indian sociality represents. While we need to understand the pragmatic reasons for the perpetuation of these black-boxing categories, it is vital for the reconceptualization task to realize that they are not cognitively justified. When objections are raised to the very possibility of an alternative knowledge-system, all the objections are unsurprisingly parasitic upon colonial descriptions and parasites are threatened by what undermines their existence, namely alternative knowledge.

The challenge that the framework I am excavating or articulating has to confront is: in what way can the cognitive attitude deal effectively with parasitism? This paper will argue that that is indeed the challenge Indian traditions give us the resources to tackle: the indirect route taken by this paper will make clear how swaraj, parasitism, phantasy (upadhi, maya), desire, ignorance, learning and knowledge (avidya and jnana) are to be thought in terms that makes sense to us today. If we pursue this insight about how the Indian traditions sought to create a learning society[2], we will be able to develop alternatives in all the domains where we are now saddled with normative theories, some disguised as “social scientific” theories and others as political and legal doctrines, and some even as interpretations of “Indian Philosophy.”

My strategy in this paper will be as follows. I will set out the framework within which to understand the link between practical knowledge and sociality. The framework will, I hope, enable us to understand the audacity and profundity of the attempts by Indian traditions to organize the social and natural spaces, relations, and events/acts as learning experiences. Only when we achieve a conceptualization of this extraordinary process and the cognitive or learning attitude it nurtured, will we begin to have a sense of the nature of practical knowledge. While the formulation of this hypothesis in this particular form is possibly novel, as my discussion of Gandhi and Tagore (and of their debate, in particular) will make clear, they were articulating it in other ways, both practitionally and theoretically. I will then turn to explaining why normativity is a problem and what kind of problem it is, especially for Indians. The contrast between the learning attitude and normativization that I am setting up will enable us to formulate questions for future research as well.

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