Thursday, March 10, 2016

Summary and Reflections of Workshop on "Ontological Status of the Perceived World"

Overview of GAIIT Research

The field of Indic studies has got divided into two islands, so to speak. On the one hand, there are academicians to whom 'rejection of authority' and 'autonomy of reason' form the basis of study, while the insider or traditional view is quite the opposite. In the professional setup of a university, the traditional view has not even been considered due to a lopsided understanding of professional philosophy. On the other hand, the traditional scholars are stuck with their age-old pūrvapakṣas without even studying the recent developments. It is as though, that as modern science started evolving in Europe during Renaissance, the traditional learning in India went into a freeze. As a recent fallout of this phenomenon and the emergence of the US as a superpower, even the discourse on Hinduism has shifted to the US; as though it were handed over from Britain to the US after the fall of the British Empire. The views, understanding, articles and books produced by Western, particularly American, Professors undermines Indian culture almost to the extent that no one deeply rooted in and practicing Indian culture would approve of. The recent books by an independent Indian-American scholar Shri Rajiv Malhotra point out the problems very systematically. Also, Indians have always understood dharma as the very basis for order and harmony in society, cutting across religions, sects and castes; but that very basis is being shaken by these academicians in the name of secularism.

With the said problems, following are the principles with which GAIIT would like to function:

  1. Regenerate Vedavidyā in Bhārata:
  2. Identity is rooted in difference.
  • Vedavidyā to be given to Hindus for correct understanding of dharma, and not for teaching the West or to seek recognition from the West.
  • The concept of adhikāra to be re-introduced and not naively that everyone is eligible for everything.
  • Refute others' pūrvapakṣas based on tarka, as suggested by Jayantabhatta in his Nyāyamañjari, and uphold Veda as pramāṇa; in an effort to clear the mind of Indians.  
  • Veda is to be established as apauruṣeya.


  • Is Indian culture limited by the Vedas? How about Bauddha and Jaina traditions then?
  • When dharma is essentially about do's and don't's, how do we substantiate that Indian culture is universal?
  • When Nyāya is essentially a dvaita-darśana, will relying on it exclusively to refute other views suffice in one's defense.

Contemporary Themes in Ontology

One of the shortcomings of the way humanities are taught in universities in India is that Western and Indian psychology, Western and Indian theories of language and other topics are being taught separately. This is not a very good pedagogy. Psychology, theories of language etc. should be taught free from the brand of Western or Indian and introduced as different views or models on the topic. Another limitation is that research and dissemination about India and Indian culture happening in non-Indian languages, predominantly English. For example, there is much doubt as to whether anumāna is to be translated as logic or inference; among many others, which have far reaching implications. To overcome the above limitations, a humanities course has been designed at Manipal where both Western and Indian models are taught free from labeling and a course on Sanskrit is made compulsory.

Another important concern for such workshops or debates is one of the title. Quoting an example would be instructive here. Once a workshop was organized on "Buddhism and Modern Science" in JNU in one of the main auditoria. The Dalai Lama himself was seated on the stage, with a few other monks participating, and a statue of the Buddha was placed in a corner of the stage. The program was a huge hit without any hiccups where the discussions were lively and the Dalai Lama with other monks answered questions. So, instead of having titles as Indian culture, Indian philosophy etc. in an attempt to over-generalize, perhaps it is better to stick to Vedic philosophy, or Buddhist or Jaina philosophy so that the debates on whether Buddhist and Jain philosophies are included in Indian philosophy may be laid to rest; unless such unification is in the interest of the workshop or the presenter.

Coming to the topic at hand, we get three questions starting from first principles:
Q1. What kind of objects exist? Why even ask?
Q2. Why do we think things we don't even perceive exist?
Q3. How do we know?

Q2 is based on universal human cognition. Perception is a conglomeration of various qualities; eyes revealing rupa, skin texture etc. The mind somehow puts it all together and understands that this is a particular object. The unity of the object possessing these qualities is never perceived. Hence, all perception seems to be based on the non-perceptible.

Q3 is somehow kept aside by Western philosophers; perhaps on the premise that existence is independent of knowing. For example, planet Uranus exists even if no one knows! But this appears not to be the case with Indian philosophies since there is no good word for Ontology in Indian languages, while epistemology is pramāṇa-śāstra. This pramāṇa-śāstra is even said to be the Indian scientific method.

Example: Suppose there is a bottle in front. Eyes reveal form and color, skin the texture etc. But the concept of a bottle, the idea of its use for storing something, the idea of abstraction and generalization applicable for other bottles; is never perceived. Does such a concept even exist is a question. In Indian philosophies, these concepts are called universals, or family/class, technically jāti. Ex: bottle, human, dog etc.

The next non-perceptibles associated with every perception is space and time; that every object is located spatially and temporally.

  • One view is that space is a container in which things are/can be.
  • Greeks considered space to be finite which led to problems for their science.
  • Space has been thought of as ether.
  • Leibniz said "Space is measure of relation", meaning that space is actually non-existent, but gives a notion of order that some things are nearer than others.
  • There is some doubt whether ākaśa refers to space, since the popular dictum is आकाशं शब्दगुणकम् |

The question then is whether these universals really exist and how do we know them. One possible answer is inference (अनुमान). For example: Time is inferred/used to explain change; mind used as an explanatory concept to explain activity.

Let us next look at scientific objects, such as electons, protons etc. There is a problem for logical positivism here since these objects cannot be seen. If they are real, how are they real? Do they have properties/qualities (गुण)? For example, electron is not a localized object like table or chair; but has properties like charge (like color) and spin. If such scientific objects are considered real, then a table will not be real as a scientific object since it is a collection of atoms etc.

Einstein said "Only fields are real.", leading to the area of Field theory. How is field real? Field is like a wave, has properties; and is real due to its causality. [It can cause an effect etc.]

Mathematics is the foundation stone for Western science and philosophy. Mathematical objects are conceived to exist and to be real. More importantly, the quality of infallibility is associated with mathematics, which all Western philosophers tried to attain. It would be interesting to discuss whether a similar trend exists in the case of Indian philosophers; or whether the basis was something other than mathematics.


  • The Indian word for an object is padārtha (पदार्थ) which means both the meaning of a word and also an object.
  • The universals or जाति is the subjective element in all perception.
  • There are two branches of Western logic - apriori and aposteriori. Logic done prior to experiment or observation, which is even independent of experiment is called apriori while after observation is aposteriori. Example of apriori are the axioms of Geometry, for example with which Euclid started. They cannot be questioned but known to be true. But the fifth axiom that parallel lines never meet had to be repelled. A new Riemann geometry was later created without assuming any axioms.
  • The fact the electrons are not localized - is it just a consequence of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, since we do not say that protons or neutrons are not a cloud or not localized. Also, in quantum mechanics, a particle of interest becomes localized once an observation is made.


With the Hindus accepting the Veda as pramāṇa, it is not different from Islam and Christianity accepting the Koran and the Bible respectively; the only difference being that the Hindu philosophies are logically consistent. As an engineer, that is to be considered as real which is workable/useful अर्थक्रियाकारित्वात् सत्यम् .

Also, the philosophy should be such that the inherent assumptions must not be contradicted in the process of development.
Example: Suppose x=y.

x2 = y2
x2 - y2 = 0
(x-y)(x+y) = 0
x+y = 0 ⇒ x = -y

Contradiction! But this is violating the principle that 0/0 is not defined.


  • How do you say that Islam and Christianity are not internally logically consistent?
  • If utility is the criterion for reality, things will be real as long as they are useful and cease to be real later? Or, is a thing defined to be real for eternity even if it is useful for an infinitesimal period of time? Will/can anyone say that mirage water is useful as it creates an illusion and makes deer run eternally?


  • The Greeks thought that numbers had some special qualities. A number was said to be good if it could be expressed as a/b and √2 was banned since it could not be expressed that way. Perhaps, it is due to such notions that ideas of irrational, transcendental and imaginary numbers came up. One wonders whether the difference between √2 and π that one is irrational while the other is transcendental, was or could be known by Indians in spite of the values being known quite well.
  • Do the Western philosophers make a distinction between गोलक and इन्द्रिय like the Indian counterparts. Also then there is the question of how to explain perception - does knowledge arise due to contact between the sense organ and the sense object? Is this contact physical? What does सन्निकर्ष of the logicians mean in this context?
  • Does the perceived object/world actually exist as it is perceived? Or should we make a guess on how the world might exist based on our perception? Or it is that some brain is just sitting on a bench and showing us this world like a dream?
  • Chinese room argument
  • God-helmet experiment
  • Immanuel Kant holds that "Existence is not a predicate."
  • With the question on language of communication for these philosophical dialogues, we could form a list of Sanskrit non-translatables may be as a booklet explaining why the common English translations lack the meaning or twist or distort the intended meaning. Then, these non-translatables can be used in the English medium itself with subsequent addition of non-translatables.


  • Buddhists and Vaiśeṣikas have debated each other for about 500 years. But since Buddhism declined in India, the Vaiśeṣikas also lost their vigor. Thus current scholars of Vaisheshika are relegated to the gymnasium; while is there a difference between sweating in the gymnasium and sweating in the शय्यागार!
  • When an effort of bringing the scientists and traditional scholars together for a debate happened thirty years ago, it so happened that each one could not understand what the other was saying; the message getting lost in the details and intricacies of vocabulary and jargon. With similar continued sustained efforts for about ten years, we could reach a stage where both parties can talk to each other in a way that one understands what the other is saying. We have our work cut out in ensuring that such a day dawns.