Sri Aurobindo World Centre Talk Series
Transcript of a discussion with Rajiv Malhotra : 24th JUNE, 2000
Copyright – The Educational Council on Indic Traditions, 2000 All Rights Reserved
Introductory note: Rajiv Malhotra has been involved in discussions with a number of western thinkers and scientists, some of whom are well-known, world-wide, and who have borrowed many concepts, ideas and insights from Indian philosophy in general and Sri Aurobindo’s thought in particular without any reference or proper acknowledgment of sources. As an Indian living in the States since decades, he feels very concerned about this growing misrepresentation and misappropriation of India’s spiritual riches and heritage. He would like to explore and exchange ideas with Auroville about the impact of Sri Aurobindo’s Vision as well as of Indian Philosophy….
Deepti: We’re really very glad to welcome to Auroville Rajiv Malhotra, who is here in India for a few weeks. He lives in the United States, and I’m going to request him to give his background. Rajiv would like it to be interactive so questions are welcome after.
Rajiv: I’m delighted to be here. This is my first, hopefully of many visits to Auroville. I’ve known about Auroville and Pondicherry since I was a kid. I was born and raised in North India, mostly in Delhi, and in school I had a math teacher very involved in the Pondicherry Ashram, so through him there was a lot of general exposure. But my own upbringing was conventional Hinduism, mainly exposure to the Bhagavad Gita, Vedanta and similar ideas. I arrived in the United States 30 years ago, so I’ve lived there most of my life. Basically one goal after another got me deeper into the professional rat race, then the corporate rat-race, and then the entrepreneurial rat race. But somehow I always had the sense that this was just a passing show, and I had to go back to my roots in something more meaningful, more spiritual. At every stage, I would say okay, another two years and I’ll be done, and this kept going for quite a while. I went through many different careers and businesses. Then about the mid 1990s, I decided to get out of business and professional life, and spend more time in pursuits that I felt would be more valuable and worthwhile long term.
So in ’94, I created the Infinity Foundation , to basically start sponsoring and getting involved in non-profit projects, not being clear of the details of what that meant. We started by sponsoring a whole lot of things, quite randomly, learning through experience what works what doesn’t. We evolved to a vision that we now have, which consists of two areas: Wisdom and Compassion. Wisdom is mainly involved with academic institutions, usually universities, research and schools, in aspects of spirituality, philosophy and science. Spirituality is the core interest. And in Compassion, its projects are going to help humanity, usually in the United States, and some are also in India.
Concerning the Wisdom projects, I was very interested in Indian Philosophy being taught in the US. I was very naive, since I believed it was something very important, and assumed that everybody must be studying it by now. Naturally, I was shocked to find out that it was not being addressed, not being included, and academicians were amazed that I assumed that it ought to be included. So, to make a long story short, we gave grants to a few Universities Religion Departments, because the religion department is happy to teach Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Judaism, Christianity, etc., that being their job. However, they are usually not willing to teach details of philosophy. For philosophy they send you to another department, usually at the opposite end of the campus, and the two typically don’t get along. There are certain definitions of religion and of philosophy, and these are separate turfs. There is a long history of religion verses science conflict in the West, and philosophy placed itself in the science camp. Indians do not appreciate this because it never happened in India.
Hence, I would go to the other end of campus to talk to the Philosophy Department, and usually they wanted to have nothing to do with Indian Philosophy – nothing at all. I kept going back and forth because I really wanted this to be in Philosophy, rather than in Religion. There are only two universities in the US where you can get a Ph.D. in Indian Philosophy: at the University of Texas in Austin (thanks to Steven Phillips); and at the University of Hawaii (which also has the East-West Center which incidentally was inaugurated by Dr. Radhakrishnan), thanks to Arindam Chakrabarti. Other than these, there are no major institutions where you can get an advanced degree in Indian Philosophy. And if there is a course at all, it is a very minor course, and not necessarily taught in a very sincere way.
Having a background in physics, I had been reading a lot about the synthesis between quantum physics/relativity with Vedanta, and thought that all this must be really exciting for these scholars; but I found that this was absolutely not the case. I got Rutgers University in New Jersey to do a conference called ‘Quantum Physics and Eastern Philosophy’, for which we gave a grant. But what transpired was one-sided Western chauvinism, even outright negative towards any Indian philosophical orientation. I concluded that I had quite a lot of work to do to incorporate Indian philosophy as part of the American academic system. So when people ask why I positioned all this as religion, my answer is that that’s the only choice I had, the only way it could get in the door.
In University of California, Santa Barbara, we now have a very successful course in the Religion Department for the past four years, called Science and Religion, where the curriculum consists of Quantum Physics, Madhyamika and Vedanta etc. and shows how these ancient philosophies relate to the modern discoveries in science. It’s a good introduction and the department has found this to be a very successful course, one of the most popular courses in the religion department. The success is largely due to Alan Wallace who teaches it with great sympathy for the Buddhist tradition that he belongs to, as well as to Vedanta and to modern science.
In the University of Hawaii, thanks to Prof Arindam Chakrabarti, we are in the Philosophy Department for the past four years. They use the grant to sponsor Ph.D. students each year who are interested in studying Indian Philosophy. Because of the availability of the grants, it helps students to opt for it. They also have a conference, and a lecture series on Indian Philosophy, to which they invite some very distinguished persons. They’ve done fourteen or fifteen of these lectures and these will be collected into a book.
At Columbia University in New York, we funded a course at the graduate and undergraduate levels, called ‘Non-Duality’ – it included Buddhism, Vedanta, Quantum Physics, etc. It was a very successful course, mainly because of the enthusiasm and support from the Buddhists. I was bothered to discover that the teaching of Hinduism was mainly anthropology. They were not emphasizing the ideas or philosophy behind the religion to make the practices sensible. The focus was mainly on social structure, the role of women, caste, and all the different goddesses and different rituals. A student would not necessarily understand if there was any sense in this. In my opinion, a student would leave with the impression of something very exotic, theatrical and emotional, but which doesn’t make any sense especially in a modern context. In this respect, Buddhism is taught with deeper respect for the ideas, because most teachers of Buddhism are practicing Buddhists. In case of Hinduism, most teachers in academics are NOT practicing Hindus. At present, we hope to try a one-year test on a visiting professorship in Harvard.
I’ve found that there is a lot of stereotyping about India in the United States. My kids go to high school, so I see what kids of their age are reading and thinking. I’ve interacted with the parents and the teachers. In the universities, I’ve met people in various faculties to get an impression of what’s going on. And if I were to summarize, I would say the following: Within university academics there are three different departments or categories relevant to Indic thought: philosophy, religion, psychology and perhaps also medical school. Fortunately, the Indian traditions were not chopped up into such boxes, so they are integrated. But in the West, there exist these different categories into which the Indian traditions must be divided.
The Philosophy department is the most closed one in most universities. Part of the problem is that Indian Universities do not produce Ph.D.s in Indian Philosophy. Where they do teach Philosophy in India, it is mainly Western Philosophy. So even if a college in America were convinced that they wanted to start a department of Indian Philosophy, they would tell me to get some good candidates for the faculty. But I cannot find any. What I find available is a Swami or someone’s uncle who knows a lot about ‘philosophy’. But for Universities in the United States you need very formal credentials: you need a Ph.D. and background as a scholar; you need to have written books, published in peer reviewed journals; you need to have worked your way up, like in any field. So I cannot find enough people qualified to recommend. We still don’t have a solution, but I would like to see if we might convince young people who are interested in Indian Philosophy to go for a Ph.D., and we would agree to sponsor. We want to invest so that they could spend three to five years and then be teachers.
As far as Religion Departments are concerned: there are two common ways of teaching religion and both are unacceptable when applied to Indic religions. One is the Judaic -Christian methodology of teaching it as history: you learn what God said, what the prophet said or did and a lot of analysis of evidence to decide if these things happened or not. It resembles what lawyers do. It’s very historical, and tries to establish unique historical events and what they imply. To be religious is largely having faith in specific historical events. To apply such a methodology to the Indic Traditions is a terrible injustice. Also, there is the incorrect portrayal that Indic religions are neo-pagan polytheistic, whereas the West is credited with having a monopoly on monotheism. The other ‘new’ trend may be even worse, which is to look at religion as social phenomena – anthropological and Freudian portrayals of customs and so forth, which has become trendy, with exotic ways of portraying Hinduism. In India, there are no departments of Religious Studies. Hence, books that have come out from India have been from people from the leftist orientation, replacing the colonialist mentality with socialist orientation; they are naturally unsympathetic to religion – so that’s shaping the portrayal of the Indic traditions.
In the Psychology departments, it is amazing that they are teaching, to a large extent, what should be properly called Indian Psychology, but the Indian sources are not acknowledged. It is appropriated without acknowledgement. You find fields like trans-personal psychology, humanistic psychology, science of consciousness, evolution theory, human evolution potential – and you think “wow, I’ve seen this before in Patanjali, Buddhism, Sri Aurobindo, Vedanta or Kashmir Shaivism, etc.” Privately, the scholars will acknowledge that that’s where they got it from, but its not easy for them to admit this in public. They will say, “well, you know we are helping the tradition”. This is something we heard today also (in Pondicherry); it’s quite common. The typical excuse given by the goes as follows: “We are helping the tradition by not naming it as a source, because we can spread it more by saying that we have discovered it ourselves in the West. That looks more legitimate and scientific, because we are a scientific and rational people in the West. If all this was named as coming from some mystical, poor, old kind of civilization, not many people would want to believe in it; so we are doing a favor to the tradition by re-packaging its ideas, and calling them our own.” Ironically, many Indians find this acceptable, and even consider it a great pride to say that what they practice has the Western stamp of approval.
To me that sounds like: “Look, you own this gold, but you’re this poor guy. If I take this gold and wear it as a crown on my head, it’ll be a big favor to you, because your gold will look better on me.” This blatant attitude bothers me. I feel that on the one hand the portrayal of Indic traditions is devoid of meaning. I have a lot of debates with authors, as to why they don’t mention when they write a chapter on Indian Traditions or Hinduism, such topics as yoga, ayurveda, meditation, contributions to mathematics, science, or Sri Aurobindo’s theory of consciousness. But they tell me that this is not their job because its either philosophy or psychology or medicine. So what remains of Indic traditions after you take out all this cream is seen as a bunch of meaningless pagan-like rituals. Meanwhile much of the cream of ideas has been taken out and repackaged by various Western scholars. One of the problems in the West is a tremendous craving for originality. You have to publish original material, so it’s not good enough to say that one is just interpreting Sri Aurobindo or some tradition. Also, many who learn under Indian teachers for decades will later distance themselves or even start to trash their very sources for the sake of originality.
As a result, a whole lot of modern jargon has been created, for which far more sophisticated Sanskrit terminology existed long ago. For example meditation, in popular scientific terminology is being renamed neuro-phenomenology. This means to do a brain scan (FMRI) on persons in various mental states and to co-relate with symptoms or meditation experience. It’s really very rudimentary, just a co-relation, and doesn’t really have much meaning. It’s like measuring the heat of a computer chip, and correlating it with running a spread sheet, word processing, etc. – that would not help one understand the internal workings of a computer. These scans are basically measurements of heat in different parts of the brain, and you can do color-coded diagrams in three dimensions to show temperature in different sections of the brain. But given the credibility of things appearing scientific, now it has become the ‘in’ thing. Western scientists say that if they are able to legitimize these ideas, it’s their discovery. In other words: before it was just Eastern mystical belief, but now it’s proper science because we have a picture of the brain while it happens. Hospitals will give grants for doing research in neuro-phenomenology often easier than grants for doing research in meditation. This is a clear consequence of taboo of the East when it comes to rational endeavors, which in turn is the result of misappropriation.
Then there are the exceedingly sympathetic but closet meditators in the West. They cannot come out, because of the reputation issue. Privately one is told that if there was an atmosphere more conducive, respectful and friendly, they would ‘come out’, but no one wants to risk their careers, so they are careful about it. Even this morning, in one of our discussions it was said by an American in Pondicherry, “but do we have to come out?” So that’s the phrase, “come out.” Remember that phrase when you talk to scholars – “Hey, have you come out yet?” and the guy may tell you, “No, I haven’t come out, but so-n-so has.” It reminds one of the situation facing gays 15 years ago, when they debated whether or not to come out in public. Some brave ones pioneered in coming out, fought the battles, and paved the way for others to do so with lesser risk. It was also risky for women in business to show their emotional side for fear of being labeled weak, until they came out on this topic vigorously.
What we have is a kind of inner struggle going on in scholars’ minds. They go through 3 or 4 stages: Stage One is curiosity and interest in some Eastern idea. Stage Two is to go and really get involved, spend many years/decades and get deep into it, appreciate it. And at each of these stages they write books and articles, and you can track who is at stage one or stage two or three. Stage Three is when the person wants to make a re-entry back into their original tradition. For example, I’ve come across a lot of rabbis and Christian preachers who have done a lot of meditation, either Tibetan, or Muktananda, or TM, etc. But after a long time, they want to return back and become preachers in their tradition again and have a congregation. When they want to make this reentry, the question is how to do this in a way that is acceptable to their original tradition. They are at a crossroads and there are two choices, the first of which is ethical. The first category are strong, courageous, and they come out saying “I learnt lot from this other tradition, for which I have great respect and that’s now part of my life and practice.” These people are unfortunately in a minority. The common trend is the second, which is to deny or distance, or even to pretend that the Eastern exposure never happened. Or, to say, “Well I was misinformed, hypnotized or led by the Devil, and now I’ve woken up or ‘saved’, and I’m back.” This category of persons looks for symbols within their Judaic-Christian traditions to replace the symbols of the East. Or it could be Goddess Sophia, or someone else from Greece. I also found that to quote, for instance Vedanta or Sri Aurobindo, is not acceptable to this group of people. But to call the same thing Kantian or neo-Platonic, is okay, or Teilhard de Chardin or even Ken Wilber, instead of Sri Aurobindo.
I have started to go deeper into this one issue, which is the portrayal of the Indic Traditions in the West. For this we started a separate non-profit foundation: The Educational Council on Indic Traditions (ECIT). The other one, Infinity Foundation, will carry on with what it was doing. ECIT has a full-time director, Dr. David Gray, who just got his Ph.D. in Religion from Columbia University. The strategy is to have a council of well-respected scholars in the different Indic Traditions, with academic credentials, and also religious and other leaders of the traditions, but emphasis on the academicians.
We want to do several projects. First we are hiring very prestigious market research companies. In Princeton, where we are based, we have Gallup Poll and other famous companies, and we want to fund a survey about Americans’ attitudes, beliefs and opinions about Indic traditions. This has never been done. One survey will be with school-teachers, another with college students, another with a group of very intensely involved church goers, etc. We want to find out what the different demographic segments of American people think about these traditions.
George Gallup wrote a popular book based on surveys of Christianity, and it has some interesting facts. Almost 45% of Christians in America believe in the literal meaning of the Bible, including the 7 day Creation, original sin and eternal damnation, etc. Of this 45%, some are very fundamentalist, openly vocal, and have no qualms about saying on television that if you’re not their way then you are damned or working for the devil, and that something should be done about you to cure your problem. The rest are subtler. Regarding this 45%, I don’t think our Council can do anything. We’ll just let their consciousness levels to go up with the course of collective evolution. But the other half is logical, and is looking for something that makes sense, are willing to experiment and are open minded – these are the people we think we can work with.
We also want to find out, based on the survey, what are the most common stereotypes regarding the Indic traditions. Some we already know. One is that these traditions are very backward. They have vague rituals. Their followers are very poor and are not educated, maybe because of their beliefs. The typical view is: “We (in the West) have to help them, educate them, get them out of that mode. And if we teach their traditions in our country, we’ll do it with respect to be politically correct. But lets be clear that such traditions are relevant only for the other people to practice, and not for our own young people to learn from.” That’s a kind of stereotype. Therefore, Indian ideas are embedded within Indian culture to emphasize the strangeness, whereas Greek thought is not taught within the context of eating Greek food or dressing like the Greek, and nor is it within a department of Mediterranean Studies.
Auroville is a unique cultural setting to bridge these gaps, for instance, to understand poverty in India, or that even the people who are poor here still have a culture and values and so on. Psychologically, there’s a big difference between India’s poverty and that in the West. So there’s a large amount of bridging to do.
Two sets of projects are intended: One is to challenge the stereotypes. We want to identify the stereotypes via research. If the research says X % of the American people believe something false, then I can take it to the Governor’s office, to the school system and it’s no longer just my opinion. We’re planning on using research as a tool that the system respects. Once the stereotypes are identified, we want to prepare a very provocative response challenging these stereotypes. For instance, take the stereotype that says: Religion made Indians poor. Now is this true? Were they always poor, or became poor in recent centuries only? One has to look in history to understand how this poverty happened.
The second, also very interesting, is a series we want to do on the history of ideas. There’s actually an academic subject called the history of ideas. It’s fascinating that there are so many ideas that came out of India, that are not attributed to it. This includes mathematics, linguistics, grammar, logic – some things are very well documented, others are speculative but not proven. Then there are more recent appropriations, like Carl Jung, in psychology, whose students are often not aware of his sources. While they appreciate concepts of Jung, they do not want to believe the source from which many of these came. A lot of work needs to be done to challenge the negative portrayals and to install the proper contributions of a culture that are due. Then one can negotiate with the book publishers, with school boards and universities, to change the way in which they portray these traditions.
The classical view among many Indians in America that I talk to is like this: “Why should I care? I’m making a lot of money; my kids go to good schools. I got this car, I got this house. So I don’t care what they think of the heritage.” But when you point out what’s happening to their kids, who often don’t know and don’t want to know anything to do with their tradition, and how the negative stereotyping leads them to treat it like their shadow side which they want to deny, then Indians get a lot more concerned. Other Indians say, ” Okay, there is this problem with bias, but is it safe to talk about it, is it good to fight it, can we do anything; or maybe lets just forget about it.” There are very few who feel they should do something.
Among the 99% of Americans who are non-Indians, I would conjecture that at least half of them are open minded if you give them good information, something that’s logical, not emotional. They are very genuine. I just think that the right educational material has not been put together.
I’d like your feedback, your comments on whether this is a worthwhile idea.
Tapas: I think it’s great!
Tapas: Well, I lived for ten years in France, I worked in the Indian Embassy and had to interact with the cultural and intellectual people, and I tell you it is exactly the same situation…
Rajiv: My feeling about the French is that among all the people I have met in Europe, I think the French are more open minded.
Tapas: Even then, I came back feeling very discouraged. Obviously, India is poor but it’s shown as though it has nothing to give. They have something to teach us but we have nothing, that’s the attitude, in the private sector, in the academies…
Rajiv: You know when I went to the US first and worked in the computer field, there was a similar sort of image I faced – Hindu, mystic, what’s he going to do in the computer field? Computers are meant for rational people. But that is no longer the case in the technology field at least. Nobody, in the tech field, anywhere in the US would now say that about the Indians. What has happened is that at Wall Street, Indians have done well, in technology Indians have done well. Indian doctors: initially, in the hospital system they could not go above a certain position; so out of frustration they would quit and start private practice. And due to a combination of circumstances, they did very, very well. The Gujaratis went out and became businessmen. However, you do not find Indians teaching religion, or philosophy, and very rarely history. The ones that do, usually come from the Marxist orientation, from institutions such as JNU in New Delhi. However, Buddhism in America is taught by Buddhists, very often by Americans who are Buddhists. And Buddhism is well regarded because the people who teach it have pride and explain it from experience. But the teaching of Hinduism is by people who do not want to be known to have anything personal to do with it, except from a distance, like a taboo… So I think what needs to happen is with young Indian people, just like we did for computers and the medical business. Why couldn’t there be such people getting advanced degrees to teach religion?
Anu: What I found interesting in what you mentioned, is about the creation of new ideas. This is where there is a huge gap in not only what is happening in the West but also in India and this needs to be addressed. The barrier that exists, specially with the younger generation, is because what’s coming through to them, is coming within a certain stereotype image and this is not fair. There almost has to be a pole vault in terms of ideas, to make it relevant in contemporary terms, especially because all the essential ideas that are there in the Indian tradition are actually very contemporary. So, it also needs contemporary tools and imagination.
Rajiv: I think you’re right, but do you think this is happening.
Anu: It’s happening, but attention has to be drawn, clearly, so that even the kids can understand it. For instance it was recently in the news about the Speed of Light being surpassed, it’s not ‘official’ yet, but what it implies among other things is the possibility to be at two places at the same time – something which the rishis knew about and practiced. Such relations or study could be interesting (between new scientific evidence & existing knowledge of human potential) and need to be made.
Rajiv: You know, I think you are very right. Examine the reason why the British could succeed in India. The Indian rulers were very happy to let them do all the administrative dirty work. They would say: “You come and run this place for us.” And the British said, “Maharaja you’re so great, but you have no time. We’ll look after your palace and kids, we’ll run your kingdom, collect taxes; we’ll even run your army for you, because you have no time, you’re so great… ” (laughter) But what saddens me, when I’m here in India now, with all the work that, say, Sri Aurobindo has left behind, I can’t find a single person to recommend for academic teaching. Whereas for Buddhism, the Dalai Lama told them to just go out and get advanced degrees and teach, which was the best way to keep it alive. So everywhere you’ll find Tibetans who have the credentials, who are teaching and keeping this alive. If you have a chair for Buddhist Studies you just call the Dalai Lama, and he’ll send you five resumes the next day. Its very sad that I cannot get qualified people, for Sri Aurobindo as an example, for the standards of high level academic institutions.
Bruno: Not actually very sad, because proselytism and propaganda are not part of our idea. There’s something more deep, which may take more time to develop but that’s the process.
Rajiv: I’m glad this has come out, we should be talking about this.
Bruno: I don’t say it is out of place to pass the information, but the process, may be different that the academic. In academics different measures are employed, prompted by so many external.
Rajiv: Let me respond to that -the situation in India is such that what you are saying applies. The values of spirituality, philosophy, religion of the average person in India is not acquired through university education, but through homes, family, getting involved in some spiritual tradition. Lets call it the non-institutionalized way of spirituality, which is the powerful path in India. It has always been non-institutionalized.
Bruno: The institutions were conceived in a different way, in the gurukula.
Rajiv: Yes. But in America it is different – formal schooling and college education are a very powerful force in shaping values, beliefs, attitudes. The informal, non-institutional method is called the ‘new-age’ – although what is being taught there is not new but very old. These are people who do yoga courses, meditation, chant Hare Krishna, become vegetarian – and at least 10% of Americans are into such new age activity. So yes, for those 10% it doesn’t matter what they teach at Harvard. But the majority of Americans get their values, beliefs, what they consider to be the truth, from the academic setting. Or they get it from the powerful media, which is shaped by what journalists learnt in college. In every university, the Philosophy department has a core curriculum called Introduction to Philosophy – 101. This is a required course. Everything else is elective. I’m talking about the Humanities now. Religion, Economics, Political Science, all these might be electives, but a core curriculum of philosophy is a requirement, because the belief is, and correctly so, that everybody must learn how to think. No matter what they are going to do in life, you still have to know how to think and philosophy teaches you how to think.
So concerning this Philosophy 101, I’ve tried so hard to say that people should learn to think in many different ways, not just what the Greeks and the Europeans had to say, but what Confucious said, and Buddha, and the Vedanta, and Sri Aurobindo, etc. so that the graduates grow mentally richer and more diverse in their thinking. But the Philosophy department is a fortress and preserves its sense of superiority. The mentality is that yes, other cultures can do art, they can cook food, and music, and history, of course they have history, and exotic anthropology. But philosophy is the cream of thinking and intellect and that’s the West monopoly. So Philosophy 101 must remain pure Western.
Maybe, my ‘mission’ has no relevance in India, but maybe it does. I’m looking at it from the point of view of the US where there are two million Indians, and Buddhists, and more Asian people will come. Therefore, it’s not about propaganda, its about respect, being understood, about cultural harmony – in a pluralistic society in America. You cannot isolate people, they have to work together in businesses, in neighborhoods, and so it is good to have a portrayal about each other that’s friendly and sympathetic; so our kids respect each other. My idea is not to teach about someone such as Sri Aurobindo in order to convert people, but just so that they understand what another person’s tradition is, rather than have some patronizing exotic images.
Bruno: But you see, the bridging of cultural gaps is a very recent trend and we cannot expect quick results. Centuries of colonial rule purposely created misunderstanding, and before that there were millennia of ignorance about what was happening in other parts of the world.
Rajiv: Do you think in the future all this will be necessary because cultures are all mixing, borders are coming down…
Bruno: It is essential in the present, but it must be approached in a deep way. The changing of thinking patterns does not happen overnight.
Tapas: I think there are more openings for all this in India – so what you want to do there should also happen here. And I think we need people like Edward Said to do what you are saying.
Jean-Yves: Sri Aurobindo spoke about a world civilization at the beginning of the century – a world civilization between the East and the West. And if the East, particularly India, is not aggressive in this work, then India will be completely deprived of everything for the sake of the culture of the West. For example, Yoga in the West is not what it means here, it is to be more successful in life…
Rajiv: Yes… it is to get slim, reduce wrinkles and get a spouse!
Jean-Yves: Because it is not for the essential. So I was very surprised to read Sri Aurobindo say that India must be aggressive in this, not just culturally, but spiritually as well. It’s from the ‘Foundations of Indian Culture’.
Rajiv: Can somebody get me these quotes from Sri Aurobindo. I love his quotes.
Bindu: I’ll give you some specific quotes.
Rajiv: Frankly speaking, what do you think we should do?
Bindu: Well, I think religion is a matter of experience, its not something academic that is codified. If you try to codify then you end up with fundamentalists.
Rajiv: Which we want to avoid. But we also want a fair portrayal. If they said in America that religion, culture, philosophy will be out of the school system, I would not argue. But if it is in the system, then I’d like to make sure that the curriculum is proper. And if they are going to teach a course on world religions, where Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Buddhism each get coverage, then also I’d like to make sure its not about some naked sadhus, rituals and cows – they should also teach something about what it means. So I’m not promoting evangelism or aggressiveness in terms of spreading, not that at all. But if they are teaching, then it must be the right thing.
Bhaga: Its clear that information is not the same as publicity. Information should be there. The Mother asked Satprem to write books which would be useful for the West, the presentation of all those concepts, the vision of life, would be transmitted in terms which would help the Western mind. Another thing: one quote which I find very interesting, which Mother said to Satprem in ’72 : ‘In fifty years the whole world, the receptive section of humanity, I am not saying intellectuals, all the receptive section of the world will be absorbed in the power of Sri Aurobindo’s thought.’ Since then I’ve read many books published particularly in America, and I’ve been astonished to see how much has penetrated, as concepts, in scientific and philosophical books, and indeed you can recognize Sri Aurobindo.
Rajiv: Well let me ask a question: How important is it that Sri Aurobindo’s teachings be presented in the West as Sri Aurobindo’s teachings as opposed to mixed in another way, repackaged, maybe even distorted. How do you feel about it? A lot of people say, ‘ who cares as long as the message gets across, it doesn’t matter’. So what do you think?
Jean Yves: Its more interesting than that. Its not that they are pillaging Sri Aurobindo, they don’t know very well Sri Aurobindo, but it happens that all the scientists are looking now for some kind interdisciplinary knowledge to find out what is a complex unity. So I think one day they will realize that. I don’t think they came to that point by reading Sri Aurobindo, its more a convergence. They will find it in Sri Aurobindo very well developed already, so it maybe that both are happening separately but they are converging.
Rajiv: But, you know, a lot of what seems to be happening in psychology and consciousness evolution theory is actually inspired by Sri Aurobindo, when you talk to the people privately, but its not acknowledged, its absolutely amazing. I’ve had a lot of email debates and discussions with people who started out by saying they don’t know anything about Sri Aurobindo. But after about three or four exchanges they start quoting him, and they know a lot about him! They just don’t want to admit. There is a taboo. Its like there was taboo against women, who were not supposed to be able to do equally in the workplace in managerial jobs, because they were supposed to be very emotional. So women had to stand up and get their dignity and now its okay. So (likewise) I’m trying to create an atmosphere where ‘coming out’ is okay. Why must it be difficult to quote from Sri Aurobindo, when you can quote Heidegger, Kant or Wittgenstein, and why can’t common courses in philosophy include great people from the East?
Olivier: There’s a certain ‘established’ view of India in the West, that is shared by journalists, academics, by the government people, and all these views are very difficult to change, because books have already been written, like about the Aryan Invasion. Then there are people who don’t know much about India and who would be much more open, who are really touched by India, and would be ready to read the right books.
Rajiv: Regarding the Aryan Invasion: I was at Harvard just before coming, here for a conference, where Prof. Witzel, is an eminent Indologist and very thorough and conservative. Now my sense is that he would consider the new challenge to the Aryan invasion theory at least 50% right. So its at 50-50, which is a very big move. So intellectual activism did make a difference on this issue. And this issue can have many repercussions to common misconceptions. For instance, Indians are afraid or embarrassed to have a swastika in their house. Hitler misinterpreted and misapplied an old Indic symbol commonly found in both Hindu and Buddhist sites. Now what did India do wrong?
Serge: The resistance is not so much in the people, in India and in the West nowadays; its in the scholars. In India, even to teach culture is putting questions in the name of secularism. So the question I have, do we have to break this system or do we have to create an alternative? To come back to France, its true that most French people are open to India, but the institutions, the establishment is quite closed. What you said about Philosophy in America, in France it is the same. So I was shocked to learn that in France you cannot learn Indian Philosophy because by definition philosophy is Greek.
Olivier: Another point is in the 18th century in Europe, people were interested by the Eastern thought like Voltaire, Schopenhauer. Then in the 20th century this changed. People now quote Schopenhauer but not his Indian sources.
Rajiv: Yes, so things like this could be exciting, provocative documentary, CDROM and web material.
Claude: Since the problem as Tapas said was also in India, are you planning to do something here?
Rajiv: Yes, if you give me a proposal. For instance to approach Psychology departments in India and show them how Jung’s ideas are in fact from Patanjali, Kundalini and Sri Aurobindo etc. and propose that they teach these in their curriculum. What do you think? And if we could create a chair for Sri Aurobindo, I’d prefer it either in the philosophy or psychology department and not in religion. We need to create one such center of excellence somewhere in India.
Bindu: Don’t you think there’s a danger that Sri Aurobindo will be stuck in a category of psychology?
Rajiv: Maybe the category of psychology is so new and so fluid, so elastic that it will actually take over and redefine that category of psychology. Traditionally, psychology was about disease and mental disorders, about people stuck in schizophrenia and what not, and not about higher levels.
Bindu: But instead of focusing on academia alone, why not go in for the mainstream, that’s where all the people who want to know Sri Aurobindo are… you know, just put good books out.
Rajiv: Good point.. If some of you think that in your countries of origin, Italy or France, a curriculum like this could be started, we would be ready to organize something. Or it could just be one interesting person who could teach Science and Religion. Sometimes it takes just one person to start something. That’s how it worked for us at Santa Barbara. In many universities in the United States you can endow a chair, and they will teach the subject. However, I cannot easily find a qualified faculty member at their standard, so they might appoint someone else who could actually turn out to be negative.
David C.: I’m not quite clear what it is you want really? If tomorrow morning the situation in the States was exactly as you really liked what would happen?
Rajiv: What would be happening under my wish is that in the Philosophy department, there would be a fair number of courses, on Eastern philosophies – India, China, Japan. In Psychology there would be a lot of the Patanjali, the Shiva Sutras, the Tantric traditions, Sri Aurobindo’s yoga. In Medical Schools, Ayurveda and other alternative systems would be happening. Religion departments could continue teaching conventional belief systems and dogmas, and expand to be more experiential than they are currently allowed to be.
Bruno: Why not have a multi-disciplinary approach…you were talking about bridging thought – Greece & India. There is a work by Sri Aurobindo called Heraclitus – there, a common source of both Greek and Vedantic thought has been traced, probably the first document in bridging both cultures. This book was written during the first World War – and you can sense a cultural watershed already being identified.
Rajiv: Can you get me that book?
Bruno: And there are quite a few French scholars who are quite positive in this regard, for instance there is one who has written a very interesting book on linguistics who quotes Sri Aurobindo, Andre Padu, he is in charge of the CNRS.
Rajiv: Maybe with your help we could approach someone like that and ask if they are interested to start such programs. So I think here we have the right kind of thinking, the right kind of feeling, right attitude, whatever can help.
Bruno: If you talk of some inter-disciplinary organization, why not here? Since we are not bound to any academic constituency or trend.
Rajiv: Why not ? One more thing to finish: I think Auroville needs to have a global outreach program. I don’t know if you are ready for it, maybe it’s too early. You are unknown to most of the world. You should be part of the movement called Consciousness Studies that’s based in Tucson, Arizona – you should be a core part of that and others like it.
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