Jaidev Dasgupta’s book on Indic thinking is an incredible work of scholarship and more, it shows a mind deeply engaged with the search for understanding. He has sorted out, arranged, and presented the ideas, original beliefs and speculations of the Rig Veda, the early and later Upanishads, and other works (including Buddhist and materialist) in a clear, insightful way. These ideas and world-views evolve from early absolutist pictures of creation and the meaning of existence, to more subtle and complex conceptions. The history of the people of the region, the past and current contexts of ideas and beliefs, and various interpretations of meanings, are juxtaposed in a way that gives them all due respect and range.
In each of the phases that took place in Indic views there are contradictory ideas, and in each of the changes in those views, transmutation, or refutation and rejection of previous ideas and ideals. Human thinking is continually forming new belief systems, world-views, and narratives. A “major shift,” he writes, “took place in later stages in how the creation was viewed. While the Vedas speak of the origin of the world, the late Upanishads also talk about the dissolution of the world.” Another change was the emergence of the law of Karma, which was probably driven by human desire to escape the absolutes of heaven and hell.
“Was there a new idea that led to the change in story between the Rig Veda and the late Upanishads? Before reaching the possible answer, let us see the difference between the two creation models. According to the Rig Veda, the universe once created could continue forever without dissolving, but in the Upanishads the world went through cycles of birth and death. In the first case with no dissolution of the world, time moved forward linearly, but in the second scenario, time moved in cycles, assuming that in both cases time started with the beginning of the creation.”
Among the many fascinating parts were those that dealt with creation stories, the codification of behavior in order to support the world, the change from ritualistic to other ways to achieve “right living” and union with the ultimate reality, being and non-being, immanence and transcendence, and the combination of two polarities in one state or being.
Another interesting passage is this: “There are good reasons for assuming an imperishable, unmanifested Being as the background for the world phenomena. First, it avoids the problems of explaining how the world came into existence from nothing. Indic thinkers believe that there has to be a prior causal base for the world to appear as an effect. It cannot just leap out of nowhere. Second, because of the inherent dynamism of the ground, the world can arise without any divine intervention. Otherwise, the existence of a god prior to creation has to be assumed. Third, Indic thinkers are skeptical about the reality of the world. Right from the Upanishads we find seers and sages troubled with its evanescence and vagaries. They need respite from its transitory nature. And Brahman is the perfect refuge for such troubled souls. Immortality is in demand.”
Dasgupta establishes connections between Indic and non-Indic world views and science, especially in the areas of time, causality, polarities and unity, moral behavior, and similarities in the way the human mind works. These connections are enhanced by the knowledge and experience the reader can also bring to it, which can form the kind of relationships among philosophies that make it invaluable as communication expands across the globe. I know I will be re-reading parts of this book as I go along through life.