Have we got a complete map of life?

Contents

  1. We Live with Incomplete Maps of Life
  2. What are Maps
  3. The Map We Download Unwittingly Through Our Education System
  4. Is the Map of Scientific Materialism Truly a New One for Indians ?
  5. What the Map of Scientific Materialism Denies
  6. Maps and Meaning to Life

We Live with Incomplete Maps of Life

“I stick my finger in existence — it smells of nothing. Where am I? Who am I? How came I here? What is this thing called the world? What does this world mean? Who is it that has lured me into the world? Why was I not consulted, why not made acquainted with its manners and customs instead of throwing me into the ranks, as if I had been bought by a kidnapper, a dealer in souls? How did I obtain an interest in this big enterprise they call reality? Why should I have an interest in it? Is it not a voluntary concern? And if I am to be compelled to take part in it, where is the director? I should like to make a remark to him. Is there no director? Whither shall I turn with my complaint?”

These were the words of Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher. I doubt if all of us feel the same way as he did, but I am sure that there are a few, who have felt this at some point in our lives: a gnawing sense of something terribly missing in what we have all been told about life. This sense especially afflicts those who have grown up studying in the western education system of public schools where scientific materialism rules the roost. Being an Indian, it is difficult to totally abandon our vast cultural inheritance of religion and spirituality. Yet, as centuries roll by, Indians too, have almost completely lost their way, or rather seemed to have formed a totally new map of viewing the world.

When we try to navigate life with these maps, there inevitably arises conflict. “All through school and university I had been given maps of life and knowledge on which there was hardly a trace of many of the things that I most cared about and that seemed to me to be of the greatest possible importance for the conduct of my life. I remembered that for many years my perplexity was complete; no interpreter came along to help me. It remained complete until I ceased to suspect the sanity of my perceptions and began, instead, to suspect the soundness of the maps.”

What are Maps?

Maps are ideas through which we view the world. Except those who consciously inquire into life, like philosophers or seers, the rest of us are ‘unconsciously’ living out the maps that are encoded in our minds. There are biological maps, cultural maps as well as universal maps. “Maps are more than mere formulae or dogmatic assertions: we not only think and feel with them, they are the very instruments through which we look at, interpret and experience the world. When we think, we do not just think: we think with ideas. Our mind is not a blank, a tabula rasa. When we begin to think we can do so only because our mind is already filled with all sorts of ideas with which to think. All through our youth and adolescence, before the conscious and critical mind begins to act as a sort of censor and guardian at the threshold, ideas seep into our mind, vast hosts and multitudes of them. These years are, one might say, our Dark Ages during which we are nothing but inheritors: it is only in later years that we can gradually learn to sort out our inheritance: if we ever do. The vast majority toil along with these maps uncritically.”

In Indian philosophy, which is the most sophisticated system of ideas that man has ever built, these maps are called Darśanas – literally meaning “to see”. The Indians knew all the while that what matters most is the viewpoint through which one views life. It determines everything. It is the map that one uses to make meaning of life. What is not there on the map does not exist for the individual. The six orthodox systems of Indian philosophy along with the five heterodox systems are extremely sophisticated maps of life. In our vain ignorance, we may think that we have outgrown these maps through our technological and scientific advances. Nothing can be as far from the truth. Till eternity, man cannot do anything that can outgrow the maps of some of these schools. The current map that most public school educated Indians and much of the western world follows was called the Cārvāka school of Philosophy, which, in layman’s terms can be expressed as hedonistic precepts of “eat, drink, and be merry”

The Map We Download Unwittingly Through Our Education System

Our public school education system, through which we all are shaped, moulded, conditioned and stamped for fitness in a techno-industrial complex, is a neuronal processing centre. We enter these warehouses with minimal conditioning and come out stamped with a uniform code of life, which only a few are ever going to critically examine for the remainder of their life. This map is called scientific materialism. This is nothing new or advanced if you thought it was. As I have already mentioned earlier, this viewpoint is just one of the eleven viewpoints that existed in Indian Philosophy: the view of Cārvākas. I shall dwell more on this later in the article, but for now, let us see what we are told in our schools.

“The maps I was given advised me that virtually all my ancestors, until a quite recent generation, had been rather pathetic illusionists who conducted their lives on the basis of irrational beliefs and absurd superstitions who apparently had spent most of their time and energy on nonsensical studies of non-existing things. Throughout history, enormous amounts of hard-earned wealth were squandered to the honour and glory of imaginary deities – not only by my European forebears but by all peoples, in all parts of the world, at all times. Everywhere thousands of seemingly healthy men and women subjected themselves to utterly meaningless restrictions, like voluntary fasting; tormented themselves by celibacy; wasted their time on pilgrimages, fantastic rituals, repetitive prayers, and so forth; turning their backs on reality – and some actually still do it even in this enlightened age! – all for nothing, all out of ignorance and stupidity; none of it to be taken seriously today, except of course as museum pieces. What a history of error from which we had emerged! What a history of taking for real what every modern child knew to be totally unreal and imaginary! Our entire past, except the most recent, was today fit only for museums where people could satisfy their curiosity about the oddity and incompetence of earlier generations. What our ancestors had written was also in the main fit only for storage in libraries where historians and other specialists could study these relics and write books about them. Knowledge of the past was considered interesting and occasionally thrilling but of no particular value for learning to cope with the problems of the present.”

“All this and many other things of a similar kind I was taught at school and university, although not in so many words, not plainly and frankly. It would not do to call a spade a spade ~ ancestors had to be treated with respect; they could not help their backwardness; they tried hard and sometimes even got quite near the truth in a haphazard sort of way. Their preoccupation with religion was just one of their many signs of underdevelopment, not surprising with people who had not yet come of age. There was, of course, some interest in religion even today which legitimized that of earlier times. It was still permissible, on suitable occasions, to refer to God the Creator, although every educated person knew that there was not really a God, certainly not one capable of creating anything, and that the things around us had come into existence by a process of mindless evolution, that is by chance and natural selection. Our ancestors, unfortunately, did not know about evolution, and so they invented all these fanciful myths.”

Is the Map of Scientific Materialism Truly a New One for Indians?

One of the ideas created in our western educated maps is the word “development”. The more we tear into that word, the more we shall come to realize the insubstantiality of it, in fact of all the ideas that we cherish as “truths”. I have already talked about the  Cārvāka school of Indian Philosophy. Much before the Englishman, Francis Bacon graced the scene of the world in the 17th Century, ancient India cradled in her bosom the ‘developed’ view of scientific materialism as long back as 600 B.C, more than two thousand years ago. As Wikipedia mentions: 

E. W. Hopkins, in his The Ethics of India (1924) claims that Charvaka philosophy predated Jainism and Buddhism, mentioning “the old Cārvāka or materialist of the 6th century BC”. Rhys Davids assumes that lokāyata in ca. 500 BC came to mean “skepticism” in general without yet being organized as a philosophical school. This proves that it had already existed for centuries and had become a generic term by 600 BCE. Its methodology of skepticism is included in the Ramayana, Ayodhya kanda, chapter 108, where Jabāli tries to persuade Rāma to accept the kingdom by using nāstika arguments (Rāma refutes him in chapter 109):[41]

O, the highly wise! Arrive at a conclusion, therefore, that there is nothing beyond this Universe. Give precedence to that which meets the eye and turn your back on what is beyond our knowledge. (2.108.17)

The Cārvākas held perception and direct experiments to be the only valid and reliable source of knowledge. (Acharya, Mādhava (1894). The Sarva-darśana-samgraha: Review of the Different Systems of Hindu Philosophy)

The Sarvasiddhanta Samgraha states the Charvaka position on pleasure and hedonism as follows,

The enjoyment of heaven lies in eating delicious food, keeping the company of young women, using fine clothes, perfumes, garlands, sandal paste… while moksha is death which is the cessation of life-breath… the wise therefore ought not to take pains on account of moksha.

A fool wears himself out by penances and fasts. Chastity and other such ordinances are laid down by clever weaklings.

— Sarvasiddhanta Samgraha, Verses 9-12

I am sure, a lot of ‘modern folks’ can empathize deeply with these verses, which were written more than two centuries ago. But understandably, our western educated Indian masses would not have heard of this philosophy at all. For what we study in our schools is not History as written by Indians but by the West. So most of us would have still heard of Francis Bacon. This is what Wikipedia says of him:

Bacon has been called the father of empiricism.[7] His works argued for the possibility of scientific knowledge based only upon inductive reasoning and careful observation of events in nature. Most importantly, he argued science could be achieved by the use of a sceptical and methodical approach whereby scientists aim to avoid misleading themselves. Although his practical ideas about such a method, the Baconian method, did not have a long-lasting influence, the general idea of the importance and possibility of a sceptical methodology makes Bacon the father of the scientific method. This method was a new rhetorical and theoretical framework for science, the practical details of which are still central in debates about science and methodology.

People with a modicum of intellect can observe how similar are the notions shared by the Cārvākas and Francis Bacon. One may query whether Indians developed a science? Yes, they did. But Indians or the West do not study the developments of Indian science in their curriculum. Consequently, the western model of scientific materialism which perpetuates itself through the education system globally is nothing but a meagre fragment of the vast system of world-views India fostered. The ‘Eurocentric’ history and the consequent world-view, working as the unquestioned background of public school educated individuals, create a hegemonic flatland. People are born into this world-view, suck their nourishment for life through its udders, failing to understand that it is just one of the many world-views to understand the world. Anything that does not exist in this map/world-view is invalid. 

What the Map of Scientific Materialism Denies

The maps produced by modern materialistic scientism leave all the questions that really matter unanswered. More than that, they do not even show a way to a possible answer: they deny the validity of the questions. “The rigorous application of the scientific method to all subjects and disciplines has destroyed even the last remnants of ancient wisdom – at least in the Western world. It is being loudly proclaimed, in the name of scientific objectivity, that ‘values and meanings are nothing but defence mechanisms and reaction formations; that man is ‘nothing but a complex biochemical mechanism powered by a combustion system which energizes computers with prodigious storage facilities for retaining encoded information; How is anyone to resist the pressure of such statements, made in the name of objective science”. One evening I was reading a book on Philosophy in my college room balcony. One of my colleagues, a devout student of Civil Engineering asked what was I reading. With some hesitation, I divulged to him that I was reading a book on Philosophy. In all his scientific simplicity, or should I say naïveté, he retorted, “What is the point of reading all that? When you read Structural Dynamics, you can build structures. What shall you get reading Philosophy books? You can do nothing with that knowledge.” I did not respond to him. I can’t recollect why, because I am usually argumentative? But I remember thinking to myself, “What shall I do building all these structures?”

“Ortega y Gasset, a Spanish Philosopher once remarked that ‘life is fired at us point-blank’. We cannot say: ‘Hold it! I am not quite ready. Wait until I have sorted things out.’ Decisions have to be taken that we are not ready for; aims have to be chosen that we cannot see clearly. This is very strange and, on the face of it, quite irrational. Human beings, it seems, are insufficiently ‘programmed’. Not only are they utterly helpless when they are born and remain so for a long time: even when fully grown they do not move and act with the sure-footedness of animals. They hesitate, doubt, change their minds, run hither and thither, uncertain not simply of how to get what they want, but above all of what they want.”

Natures, which can be deemed philosophical do not arrive at certainties in life very early. This is often seen as muddle headedness in our utilitarian society. The current map of society is drawn in such a way that from right to left and from top to bottom is drawn in utilitarian colours: hardly anything was shown existing unless it could be interpreted as profitable for man’s comfort or useful in the universal battle for survival.

When my eyes opened to the world, I was under enormous pressure to compete in the Engineering Entrance Exams and secure a career for myself. I was charmed by “The Feynman Lectures on Physics”. But I had to put all that vast and charming stuff aside to grit and gnash my way through a mechanical system of public exams. At college, I got a breathing space; I plunged myself into the world of books on philosophy. Classes, degrees were all rituals to be mindlessly completed. My main learning happened through these books which I got hold of in the vast university library. Towards the end of my third year in college, life fired point-blank again, as I had to get a job. But honestly, I did not know what I wanted.

Actually, all I wanted to be was to be happy. This simple insight was a very big prize for me, the summum bonum of all my intellectual endeavours in college. When I ask people what is it that they are seeking their lives, almost none is able to come up with the answer that they are seeking happiness. Because this simple word has never been plotted on our current maps: achievement, fame, power, success, wealth – yes! But not happiness.  

For happiness, you need the truth that makes you free – but what is the truth that makes us free? Who will tell me where I can find it? Who can guide me to it or at least point out the direction in which I have to proceed?

The map that I had been provided did not have any of these questions, let alone the answers. It took me many more years to understand that the maps we have are incomplete. Having discarded the map of scientific materialism I entered into a long phase of the meaninglessness of life. 

Maps and Meaning to Life

“While we are still seeking, we cannot formulate precisely what we are looking for; what we are really looking for are ideas that would make the world, and our lives, intelligible to oneself. When a thing is intelligible one has a sense of participation; when a thing is unintelligible one has a sense of estrangement. If the mind cannot bring to the world a set – or, shall we say, a tool-box – of powerful ideas, the world must appear to it as a chaos, a mass of unrelated phenomena, of meaningless events. Such a man is like a person in a strange land without any signs of civilization, without maps or signposts or indicators of any kind. Nothing has any meaning to him; nothing can hold his vital interest; he has no means of making anything intelligible to himself. All traditional philosophy is an attempt to create an orderly system of ideas by which to live and to interpret the world. ‘Philosophy as the Greeks conceived it,’ writes Professor Kuhn, ‘is one single effort of the human mind to interpret the system of signs and so to relate man to the world as a comprehensive order within which a place is assigned to him.”

Paragraphs in quotes are writings of E. F. Schumacher in two of his books – “Small is Beautiful” and ” A Guide to the Perplexed”.

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