Philosophical investigations in Delhi: About Moral Choices, Intellectual Honesty and Political Freedom
Ananya Vajpeyi 9 January 2015

Doubt, choice and freedom

Professor Chakrabarti delivered the first of the newly-instituted Daya Krishna Lectures in Philosophy, speaking about reality, freedom and knowledge on three separate occasions. Professor Jahanbegloo held a reading and discussion around his recently-published memoir, Time Will Say Nothing: A Philosopher Survives an Iranian Prison (University of Regina Press, 2014). Although the two men are very different from one another in their personal and intellectual trajectories, they are almost exact contemporaries. Both impressed audiences with their passion for philosophical thinking, their broad comparative knowledge of philosophical systems, eastern and western, their moving eloquence and their pedagogical energy. The start of a new year under a new right-wing regime, one that continually poses challenges to liberal thought, rational debate and free expression, felt a lot less depressing thanks to the old and new ideas, deep erudition and bold questions that both Chakrabarti and Jahanbegloo brought to the table.

Although he has lived overseas now for a long time, Chakrabarti is a familiar figure to anyone interested in philosophy in contemporary India. Equally adept in navya nyaya, Kashmiri Saivism and analytic philosophy, educated in Calcutta and in Oxford, a student as much of Bimal Krishna Matilal as Peter Strawson, fluent in Bangla, Sanskrit and Continental philosophical idioms, argumentative styles and textual traditions, Chakrabarti has been an unforgettable teacher and an engaging speaker throughout his career from the late 1980s.

His Daya Krishna lectures in Delhi on December 24, 26 and 27, 2014, that ranged widely over many subjects, are impossible to summarise descriptively. But what struck me as most significant, particularly given the current political climate in India, was his second lecture, which was about doubt, indecision, choice and freedom.

We are given to thinking that concepts like choice and freedom characterise modern and capitalist societies, and come to us in India thanks to our encounter with the West. But through incisive readings of the Bhagavad Gita, sections of the Mahabharata, the writings of Mahatma Gandhi and of his grandson, the recently deceased philosopher Ramchandra Gandhi (who was personally very close to both Daya Krishna and Arindam Chakrabarti himself), together with the Buddhist philosophers Nagarjuna, Dignaga and Dharmakirti, Chakrabarti explored the pathways through which the understanding of freedom in Indian philosophical systems was closely tied to issues of the stability or instability, persistence or impermanence of the self; the necessity of making ethical choices in the face of doubt, indecision, hesitation and ambiguity; and random strokes of both “moral luck” as well as “epistemic luck” with which some individuals may be blessed and others, not so much.

On Indic antiquity

At a time when we are continually subjected to unsubstantiated claims about how our ancestors made scientific discoveries and technological advances thousands of years before any other culture, it seems much more valuable to learn about the principal problems that thinkers in our part of the world were actually reflecting upon with great intensity, intelligence and sophistication in Indic antiquity. Self and Other, doubt and decision, action and inaction, birth and death, war and peace, bondage and freedom — these were matters of philosophical scrutiny over millennia, spread out over multiple schools of thought, and locked in long-running debates within, between and across traditions.

Figures like the historical Buddha, the epic heroes Rama, Yudhisthira and Arjuna, characters from the Upanishads like Nachiketa and Satyakama, the enigmatic divinity Krishna, and so many others from our ancient literature illustrate vividly for us both the moral significance and the narrative power of fundamental questions like Who am I? What should I do? What is the right way? and ultimately, Does it matter? Whether or not they flew airplanes and practiced plastic surgery, the best minds in India took the big puzzles of metaphysics, ontology, aesthetics and epistemology very seriously indeed.

Chakrabarti brought to life a world of thought humming with creativity for centuries, to which we are each day losing access, thanks to our misguided and meaningless obsession with whether or not India was modern before modernity, and whether it was superior or inferior relative to other civilisations. If only we learned how to read and appreciate what is in our texts, instead of pointlessly probing them for what they never contained, and insisting, falsely, that they anticipated the theories and inventions of every other people on the planet.

Chakrabarti suggested, intriguingly, that imagination (kalpana) too, ought to be taken seriously as a touchstone of valid knowledge, pramana, because many times the access to truth is first made through imaginative leaps and only later substantiated using other, harder, epistemological criteria. Some things can be imagined even if they are not known. From what I could discern, the warrant for such an argument too lies embedded within the voluminous folds of Indian philosophy.

Imprisonment and freedom

Ramin Jahanbegloo’s personal history highlights a different sense of the word “freedom”. Born in Tehran in 1956, educated in Paris where he lived for over two decades, bilingual in Farsi and French, widely travelled, a self-confessed Gandhian and Indophile, the philosopher found himself arrested and thrown into his native country’s notorious high security Evin Prison from April to August 2006. He was accused of conspiring to destabilise the Islamic Republic and fomenting a “velvet revolution” against the Iranian authorities with the help of western powers like France and America, following Eastern European examples. This liberal humanist has spent time with figures like Isaiah Berlin, Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Václav Havel, Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama, but also has an interest in teaching the West about Iran’s complicated history, politics and religious traditions, both Islamic as well as non-Islamic.

Jahanbegloo’s new book, Time Will Say Nothing (a title based on a line from a poem by W.H. Auden), takes his 125 days of imprisonment as an occasion to reflect on his life as an itinerant philosopher, a cosmopolitan intellectual, a son and lover, a family man, a political activist and a moral human being suddenly thrown into a confrontation not just with tyranny in the abstract, but with terrifying silence, physical violence, and the very real prospect of torture and death in solitary confinement. He follows Jorge Luis Borges in thinking of every experience that befalls him as a “resource”, even the terrible days and nights in his prison cell, where he is allowed to read little else besides the Koran, Hegel, Gandhi and Nehru, and has to confine his writing to aphorisms scribbled on biscuit wrappers and bits of newspaper.

Eventually after repetitive and degrading blindfolded interrogations, as well as untold hardships to his young wife, elderly mother and newborn daughter, he realises that it would be better to concoct an admission to crimes against the state that he never committed, and buy his release by trading in the very fictions that had secured his imprisonment in the first place. He knows about other political prisoners in Iran and in totalitarian states like the former Soviet Union; he has read Franz Kafka, written about Hannah Arendt, and visited Auschwitz. Through a convoluted and sometimes guilt-racked inner journey, he decides that preserving his bodily health, retaining his full mental powers, keeping his faith in human goodness, and holding on to life itself, through the sheer determination to survive, are all essential for him to fight his way back to freedom.

After an elaborate but false “confession”, it may appear as if the jailed philosopher was freed on the basis of lies, but he is convinced that what actually got him out was his steadfast dedication to the truth — and with it, his commitment to hope, to humanity and to non-violence. Since emerging from the darkness of prison and years of post-traumatic depression, Jahanbegloo writes and speaks with courageous bluntness. He is understandably critical of his native Iran, of which he says that the idea of a “religious democracy” is a contradiction in terms — a regime can either be religious, or democratic, but not both. After he got out of prison, he was exiled indefinitely to Canada, where he has lived since 2007, with temporary research and teaching positions at various universities. But he is equally critical of Canadian political correctness, advanced capitalist consumer culture, conformism, conservatism, and the dilution of freedom through the erasure of differences and the homogenisation of identities.

If there is one place in which Jahanbegloo sees the possibility of reconciling enormous cultural diversity with genuine secular coexistence, it is India. How many lifetimes, he writes plaintively, before I am reborn as an Indian! It is ironic and alarming that Jahanbegloo’s Tagorean “heaven of freedom” — the very India that taught him about ahimsa and in which he sees the greatest promise of true democratic transformation — is all too eager to give up its hard-won liberty and its fiercely resilient plurality for a narrow-minded and mean-spirited sectarianism. We seem hell-bent on denying the voice that is great within us from our earliest history down to our precarious present.

The original article is published on The Hindu at this link, January 9th, 2015.

Ananya Vajpeyi is Associate Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi. She is the author of Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India (Harvard University Press, 2012), which has just come out in a paperback edition (December 2014).