The Night of First Discussion

Long ago in a dark, dry cave in erstwhile world, when some men and women sat and tried to convey something to each other on some topic, a new episode of civilization began. Whether it was about food, shelter or a discovery is not clear, but it is definite that with their limited language and varied gestures, they sowed the seed of what later would become the cornerstone of their existence. The birth of opinion or inclination is older than this night. Humans always had opinions, selfish or benevolent is immaterial, but they never had shared it to someone else before. Before that day, decisions were subject to physical or metaphysical might. Before that glorious night the only way they could get what they wanted was through display of their singular strength- predominantly physical. But after that night things changed. That night was the birth night of common ideology, of a new concept called agreement/disagreement, of a new prowess called persuasion and of a new decision system which defined ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. That night was the night of enlightenment of homo-sapiens, on which they transformed from a group of good looking primates to a bonded and decisive force which knew routes other than that of violence.

I call that night as ‘the night of first discussion’. This is a night purely in my imagination, but if it happened, this was definitely the night when democracy, values, traditions, tolerance and the-right-to-deny got their first whiff of oxygen. Since this night we started to decide based on our common agreement or have at least tried to do so. This night proclaimed the dawn of a period of thought, debate and philosophy which go on to become the cornerstone of the human civilization in times to come.

Every period of our history had its own signature on human thinking and hence its own typical questions and arguments. Whenever there was a question, people debated. Some of these debates were political, some religious, some moral and some just interpersonal. But some debates in each period have stood the test of time and not lost their relevance even now. The ancient worlds of Euphrates, Aegean Sea, Nile, Indo-Gangetic plains and Huang-Ho valley had questions that may appear trivial now, but their methods of search, scrutiny and  pondering were colossal pillars on which our understanding of the world is based . Their discussion about stars led to astronomy, about lands of far and wide led to geography, their petty quarrels for land led to geometry. In fact every subject has roots to what these people debated upon.  But of all the debates, the question of Socrates was distinctive and can be said to be a signature for this period of debates.

Socratic Dilemma and His Methods
Socrates (by Raphael)

Socrates was the resident of Greece at its glory and like all great things Greece also had started to wane. There were continuous wars between Greece and Sparta and war-like Spartans frequently pulverized Greeks. Socrates was very critical of Greek politicians and their ways. Furthermore, he had realised that he was wiser than them and to exasperation of others he kept proving so. As expected he was sentenced to death by Hemlock for sedition and heresy. His wisdom and love for the city had several supporters who managed to bribe the gatekeepers of the prison and asked him to escape. Socrates in this dilemma approached to a conclusion, using one of the first appearances of Inductive Logic which we now know as Socratic Method. If he stayed he was to die, and he could definitely serve his cause by educating more people and removing ignorance; his followers argued. Also he did not believe in the country’s leadership, which was proven to be corrupt and immoral. Thus they had no right to punish him, and he would be right to escape. He decided to stay. He asked himself following interconnected questions:

Was he a true philosopher? Does a true philosopher fear death? 
How would he live in other country? Was his life in this country any wrong? 
Will his followers feel leaderless when he is gone? What do followers follow? - a person or his teachings.
As one can see the answers are obvious through this reasoning. From a different perspective this dilemma might have had a different answer but this led to birth of two things. One the way which we know as Socratic Method which insinuates that to solve a problem, it should be broken down into a series of questions, the answers to which gradually induce the final answer; and other the concept of ethics, which are bigger than society- imposed morals or self-imposed principles. Socrates accepted the law of corrupt because he felt that it was ethical in his current capacity as a citizen of Greece to accept the law of land even if it were immoral and unjust.

Ancient Indian Schools of Philosophy

Simultaneously in India debates and logical argumentation were gaining grounds. The Indian philosophy which derived its roots from metaphysical and symbol worship in Rig-Veda, nurtured further to present itself into a well-developed tree with six branches: Yoga, Sankhya, Nyaya, Vaishesikha, Mimansa and Vedanta. All these philosophical schools strived for the singular aim of establishing the liaison between ‘the known’ and ‘the unknown’. 

Yoga systematically deals with all of the levels of a being, striving to experience the eternal centre of consciousness. 

Sankhya school whose most famous exponent was Krsna, deals with Prakriti(matter), Purusha (consciousness), intelligence, ego, elements of stability, activity, and lightness, mind and senses. It accepted the duality of Prakriti and Purusha, stressing that Karma (actions) were the only way the Purusha could really merge into Prakriti for eternity.

Nyaya can be hailed to be the precursor to the Contradictive Reasoning. This was a great triumph for the debaters of yore as they now manifested the doubt to be prerequisite to rational reasoning. It revealed that nothing was beyond doubt and to establish the truth one should first find a contradictive argument and prove it wrong. A big corollary to this philosophy was the segregation of the relative and the absolute. Nyaya implied that there was no absolute logic or truth. The fallacy or certainty of an argument could be verified against only some opposing argument. Cannot we see the seeds of embracing your opponent and spirit of tolerance sprouting through this very ancient philosophical school?

Vaishesikha was the school of atomicity. They were first to discover the concepts of atom as prior to them it was supposed that all the matter of Prakriti(nature) was continuous and composed of indivisible five basic elements of Prithvi(earth), Ap(water), Tejas(fire), Gagan(sky) and Vayu(air). They proposed that although these may be basic elements but each of the things in universe was made up of very small indivisible particles called Parmanaus. They even had derived that the dust particles visible in the sunbeam coming through a small window hole are the smallest perceivable particles (defined as Tryaṇukas). With their arguments of reverse dichotomy (which was also followed by Eleatics of Zeno) they gained a lot of ground amongst the scientific community of ancient India.

Mimansa and Vedanta were two schools of similar thoughts. While Mimansa was the art of investigation of the infallible scriptures, it laid that the Prakriti or Brhma and Purusha could be joined together only through actions, rituals, incantations prescribed in the Vedas. They created a karmic rule set based on strict dharma and language purity. As opposed to Mimansa, Vedanta was more of a contemplative self-inquiry. It believed that the true self was indestructible and everything else was an illusion. And through an austere life one could attain the true self which is within everyone. The subtle difference between hard laid Mimansa and contemplative Vedanta, led to the following debate in Indian history which can be regarded as a benchmark in the history of thought.

Debate between Adi Sankara and Mandan Misra

Mandan Misra was the leading Mimansa exponent who lived in Mahismati with his wife Bharati who was equally great philosopher. Sankara was a young Advaita Vedanta scholar who was gaining fame for his interpretation of ancient texts. One fine day Sankara went searching for Mandan Misra, to find him in a garden where even parrots were chanting incantations. He asked him for a shastrarth (a debate based on knowledge). Misra accepted the challenge, told him that as he was not even half his age, many might doubt the impartiality of the discourse in case of his loss, so he could chose the judge. Feeling humbled at such a worthy opponent Sankara was overwhelmed and said that he could not find any one more learned than Misra’s wife in the vicinity so she be the judge. So between the two unbiased scholars the debate ensued and continued for six months at the end of which Bharati pronounced Sankara the winner. But a profound learned she was; she reasoned that scriptures said that a man was incomplete without his wife who forms his better half. Thus to complete a victory over Mandan Misra, he will have to win over her as well. She dragged the debate to Kama, one of the four ingredients of a complete life prescribed by Vedas. Sankara was an ascetic and knew little about it. But Misra and his wife were so impressed by his knowledge, humility and alacrity that they accepted him as their teacher. Sankara went on to establish four centres of Hindu religion.

Is not it wonderful to note that the man, who knew only to kill to prove his claim, now could reach for his opponent and ask him for a debate? Is not it just wonderful that Mandan Misra offered Sankara to choose the judge and he chose Misra’s wife? The results are immaterial, but it laid the foundation for decision in religious circles in India through words of wisdom rather than swords and spears.

Questions of Medieval World

The medieval ages saw the discussions turn mostly towards science and religion or both at the same time. Right from the day the levitating Thomas Aquinas, the primordial theologian for the church’s anti-heretic approach proposed that it was religions duty to free the heretics from the clouts of their sad life, there was a war raged between free thought and Christianity. Very seldom the church embraced the ideas that were new or challenged the old setup. The Galileo conflict is very famous, and so were the plights of Kepler and Copernicus. The methods of the civilized were again going to the barbaric ends. Fittingly, this age is termed as the “The dark age”.

Not far in the middle-east, another question of self-existence arose from the laps of Islam. Islam was formed in a turbulent socio-political environment and like its previous monotheistic brothers viz. Christianity and Judaism; it had to face the ire of the pre-existing tribes of the region. The future keepers of the faith sat down and decided upon the direct words of Allah or words via the holy prophet to setup the canonical texts called Hadiths which provided guidelines for a pious life. Amidst this discipline prescribed by the religion and random mergers of different cultures a new thought process of Sufism started to sprout out. Sufism with the Bhakti movement of India provided a transcendental approach towards God. The metaphysics was not a incomprehensible subject, theology was no more puritanical  and the almighty was not only omnipotent but also all loving. The Sufis looked at him/her as their beloved and treated this life as a moment of separation from the ecstasy of his/her company. Although at times it was not well received and a lot of such saints were persecuted in their own times nonetheless they were successful in starting a debate about whether the God was to be feared or to be loved, or were we any different from him.  An interesting debate on singularity of God and Man in Islam was raised by the Sufi Mansoor.

Mansoor and the Ana-al-Haqq

Sufi Mansoor Husayn; courtesy Joël-Claude Meffre
Mansoor was a simplistic man from Persia who became a Hafiz (a person who memorizes Quran) at a very early age. With his experiences with the world and the company of other dervishes; he turned more and more towards Sufism and with continuous contemplation and devotion became a mystic himself. Mysticism was supposed to be against the laid foundations of Islam, and still many orthodox sects believe so. They continued to exist because they were very few, were eccentric and cut-off from the masses. Mansoor started writing poems and songs about the mysticism and was getting popular. He in his transcendental ecstasy proposed that he was in unison with the almighty and ‘Ana-al-Haqq’ (He is truth). He went on to claim that God was within him, and there is no separating the two. At once, the Caliph’s theologians called it heretic and he was sentenced to death by dismemberment. The legend has it that he was not disturbed by the fact that he was to die. On the contrary, he was happy that he will be in perpetual unison with His beloved. He kept repeating, ‘Ana-al-Haqq’ while being dismembered and died with a smile.

Though gory, but his story of self-sacrifice started a debate amongst the residents.  The local debate was not afraid of power or practice, and soon mysticism became a mass movement.

Neo-Philosophy and Tolerant World

Mansoor’s proclaims mark the nature of lone battles waged by the philosophers in medieval world. The new world order was more tolerant, restrained and accommodating. Suddenly Philosophy was a profession and psychologist was a doctor. Beginning of the modern debates and philosophy can be attributed to Descartes when he said, “I think, therefore I Am.” questioning the metaphysical soul-theory of human existence and actions. In Sartre, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche a new school was taking roots, which had stopped grouping individuals and their study through a set of symptoms or rules. They challenged the age old logic of mind and body, and purity of soul. They also criticized the psychological interpretations of individuals based on study of templates and experimental groups. They treated individuals as direct outcomes of their own choices, actions and responsibility. Nietzsche even proclaimed that the God was dead in a symbolic way. These group of people argued that a man’s actual self is actually distant from the world and yet he has to live in the midst of it. They thought that everything around the man is meaningless but still it attributes to his actions and responsibilities causing angst and ‘being with nothingness’. This school was known as Existentialism as its followers evaluated a person as he stood out from the world. There were ensuing debates on the eccentric and suicidal attributes of Existentialism and the debates still go on.

There were parallel philosophers finding more questions to debate, more ways to analyse and more deft techniques to answer the three questions of God, Person and Freedom. In Kant and Schopenhauer idealism took roots and in Dewey and Sanders Pragmatism. Now the media for debates was not only direct discourse but volumes of books, research and movies. Writers like Kafka and Dostoevsky kept hinting at Existentialism while Bertrand Russell started popular writing for logical and analytic pragmatism. Artists and litterateurs have criticized their own religions and regime and at times they have even accepted the mistakes of past. Church is now embarrassed at witch hunts and scientific persecutions, Islamic institutions condemn Fedayeen orthodoxy, Hindus question the relevance of Varnas and even political methods of fascism and obligatory communism have accepted the chinks in their thought process.

A Golden Future

A wide world delving into human mind and its existential question is now breathing in free air, which will open more windows of thoughts and gather more questions to answer. The debates now are not divisive and contain again a mutual respect between the participating sects. There are no more restricted to binary opinions. They are more in tune of discussions, on King Arthur’s round table, where no one has a high seat and everyone is given equal opportunity. The decision for the most powerful man in the world is made by live debates. Even religions that used to be each other’s scourge sit on the same dais and discuss. We have really come a long way from that glorious night in the ancient cave. We have continued on the path of civilization and the point that no one is going to kill me for writing this, proves the same. I agree that our kind has deviated at times and we have even lurched ourselves deep into barbaric puddles of violence. There have also been pseudo debates or manipulated discussions to bend the truth, but they have been due to a personal weakness or a combined misjudgment. 

I am an optimist and to me the past says that the future of thought is golden.

Picture credit: Raphael; School of Athens

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{ 12 comments ... read them below or Comment }

  1. Are you a student of philosophy? quite a detailed article. I am often surprised that how less we know about our own school of thought except yoga or to a limit Sankhya which eventually influenced Buddhist school of thought.

    In one of the paragraphs you state 'Suddenly Philosophy was a profession and psychologist was a doctor.' I never knew psychology as a profession started that back that too out of popularity of philosophy.

    1. Na Na. I just observe, assimilate and write. Not officially a student of Philosophy. And I have always thought of philosophy and psychology and even sociology to be very closely related

    2. Of course they are as all other social sciences, they are all inter-related. But as philosophy had a ready acceptance in society even at the time of Mahabharata (or I would say inception of education system) psychology as a profession was accepted quite late.

      Why do't you write similar detailed articles on different Indian schools of thought!

    3. I think psychology is as old as hypnotism. The ancient village elder was generally a man with vision with certain paranormal powers of mind. It is still like that in certain tribes.
      And I will write articles on Indian schools of thought. By the way you might be interested in if you haven't already read.

  2. What a wonderful article on philosophy . A must read for everyone and to choose a path.

    1. Thank you Vishal. You might be interested in as well

  3. A very informative article, wonderfully written.

  4. Thanks for the article. It is really binding and thoughtful.. My first tryst with philosophy and it indeed was a wonderful read.

  5. This is one hell of an article...shame i hadnt read it...

    Beauty! Sheer brilliance! Bravo!

    1. Aha... You have been caught red handed. Keep reading. Keep sharing


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