- Purposeful Play
Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772–1833) is called the “father of modern India” because of his ability to live—and write!—in several cultures and languages, in several Indias, as it said these days. His father was an important courtier at the Moghul court, and as an adolescent Roy read Aristotle in Arabic. His mother was from a venerable Brahmin caste, and Roy learned Sanskrit. In his twenties, he traveled to a yoga ashram in Nepal. But the young man also saw the trend of the times, learned English, and, partly from tutors and partly auto-didactically, got a thoroughly Western education, writing elegant essays and political tracts in English. He also championed the vernacular, and (I’m told) wrote equally elegantly in Bengali, his mother tongue, for which he authored the first grammatical textbook. In 1832 Roy was invited to England, where he addressed the British Parliament, the first Indian to do so. He was an East-West synthesizer, founding the Brahmo Samaj, which embraced the Upaniṣads for their philosophy of Brahman but also certain features of Islam and Christianity, in particular socially oriented practice teachings. Other Indian intellectuals in the colonial period followed his lead, not necessarily by joining the Brahmo Samaj but by embracing English as an intellectual lingua franca and assuming positions in Indian colleges and universities, including departments of philosophy. There and elsewhere Indian professors and public intellectuals reasoned and published tracts in English about issues presented by the peculiar politics of the British occupation (such as Indian national identity) as well as about transcultural issues of self and consciousness, God and the world, the right, the good, and the beautiful, while aware of both a Western philosophical and a classical Indian inheritance, in particular that of the Vedānta school.
Often philosophy in India in the colonial period is called neo-Vedānta because of this prominence and because of a certain modern attitude among those cognizant of science and Western philosophy who voiced in English and in the modern vernaculars views about self and consciousness as well as Brahman and the world that echoed the Upaniṣads, the original Vedānta, as opposed to the philosophy of the classical school. (We should say “schools” since although there is a single Brahma-sūtra that originates and defines broadly the classical school, there are such divergent commentaries on it and tendentiously quarreling subschools that we should count Advaita Vedānta, Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta, Bhedābheda, et cetera, as separate philosophies.) [End Page 647] There were characteristically neo-Vedāntic attitudes and positions that mark the moderns as significantly different as philosophers from their classical forebears.
Especially, there was an attitude taken toward the Upaniṣads that was different from that of classical Vedāntins, who took from ten to twelve of these texts that were considered to be revealed as being of unquestionable authority for the otherworldly topics they addressed, such as the nature of Brahman and the self (ātman). In sharp contrast, the typical neo-Vedāntic attitude was to see the Upaniṣads as the works of very fallible humans who were nevertheless quite accomplished as yogins as well as teachers and reasoners intent on understanding the self and consciousness in relation to whatever is ultimately real (brahman). Theirs was a view of the world in relation to Brahman that was also different from the theisms/realisms of classical Vedāntins such as Rāmānuja and company (and the rich Viśiṣṭādvaita literature), and not only with respect to the illusionism or māyā-vāda of Śaṅkara and company. For example, classical theistic Vedānta sees the world as both the body of God and the product of God’s or Brahman’s nature as sac-cid-ānanda, and rejoices in its beauty et cetera, with little concern about its dark places or evil, whereas neo-Vedāntins, especially during the...