Although I have read Vivekananda (sporadically) throughout my life, it was Swami Suddhananda whose talks in Melbourne about two years ago kindled a deeper (although time-constrained) interest in the Upanishads. This man is very witty and attending his talks is a fun experience. In terms of sheer persuasiveness and simplicity, perhaps none that I’ve met so far comes even close. Later I’ve watched a DVD of the Dalai Lama. Both are bold, down to earth, and witty.
The thing that brings the Dalai Lama and Swami Suddhananda together is the common thread of Indian thought that arose more than 2500 years ago, and informs both the Upanishads and Buddha’s way of thinking. The Indian culture recognises the value of open debate, with everyone left free after the debate to make his own decision. Indian culture was absolutely vital over 2500 years ago, with thinkers ranging from theists (dualists) to nondualists, agnostics, and all varieties of atheists and critical thinkers. [That vitality was transmitted through Greece to the West - through the Renaissance - and ultimately brought the gift of modern science to mankind.]
There is a strong influence of Charvaka and the many Indian sceptics and atheists on this dramatically open culture of India. For even to dispute Charvaka's ideas the Upanishads had to resort to reason (it was often speculative and deductive, not always empirical – despite its attempts to do so – but it was reason nevertheless). Accordingly, Hinduism (or the Vedantic school of thought) became is the first religious system founded almost entirely on pure reason. The Buddhist and Jain systems continue this tradition. And that's why the Dalai Lama speaks so similarly to Suddhananda.
The key point is that the main Indian traditions (including Buddhism) have this in common: that they don’t oppose science. That is unique in human history. ALL other religious traditions have opposed scientific inquiry for the major part of their history. Unlike the strong opposition in other religions to the idea of evolution, for instance, I'm not aware of any Hindu or Buddhist who has opposed this or any other "revolutionary" scientific idea. A new truth is accepted without fuss. Everything that takes mankind closer to the truth is adopted immediately.
It was because of this dramatic level of openness that there was a good bit of scientific development in India in the past. Significant advances in medicine and brain surgery, astronomy, metallurgy, and mathematics (which was the most developed in ancient history – things like the "pythagoras" theorem had been discovered in India long before Pyghagoras was born, and the decimal system was discovered, later, in India, as well: something that underpins virtually everything today) were commonplace in ancient India. Buddhism even advocated a very advanced theory of critical thinking, something discovered by the West only in the past few hundred years. (The fact that Chinese central planners and bureaucrats curbed scientific critical thought explains why China – the largest nation to adopt Buddhism – slowed down its scientific advances by around 1500 AD – see Timothy Ferris's book, The Science of Liberty for details of how Chinese "socialism" destroyed Chinese science).
Of course nothing is as simple as this. Some scriptural discussions in Hinduism do seem to oppose reason. That is a matter of concern, and I have been investigating these issues (as time permits). Listening to Suddhananda, however, has clarified to me that it would be inappropriate for me to generalise based on such discussions, since the overarching message is one of liberty and reason.
In brief, if any philosophical system in the world is tailor-made to modernity, that is India's. If only we can fix India's socialist governance (arising from the ideas of Marx and Keynes – the Fabians), we'd find a huge unending spring of innovation arising from the untrammelled brilliance of India.
Let me stop here, and I'll post an extract from Suddhananda's book, Self-Knowledge: A Path to the Pathless
(Indian edition priced at less than $2, well worth purchasing) in the next blog post.
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