Orient and Occident – III Structure - Knowledge

Orient and Occident – III  Structure - Knowledge

It is easy to notice most of the defining differences between orient and occident. The religions of orient are rooted not in faith but in well evolved spiritual philosophies, unlike the Abrahamic religions that are rooted in faith. Experience of truth and happiness become primary in the former for this reason. There has been a long standing conflict between the institutions of religion and science in the west while both these evolved hand in hand with a common philosophical backdrop in the orient.

However what is not so apparent is the reason for this. The reason why it is possible in our society to develop several facets of life hand in hand with not only no conflict but with a common metaphysical/philosophical backdrop is a structure, a system. There is a common structure of knowledge and society in the east that reconciles and develops the several aspects of life and different forms of knowledge. In contrast the different facets of life develop from different institutions in the west.


Truth is two-fold (absolute and phenomenal) and knowledge is of two-forms (para and apara) in the Hindu knowledge system.

Besides there is a common set of subjects that aid the development of knowledge –

  1. Pramana sastra or epistemology, which lays down the means to acquire and validate knowledge
  2. Vada or argumentation
  3. Bodhana sastra or pedagogy

These subjects are orthogonal to the actual knowledge, and every area of knowledge lays down its accepted modes of explanation and valid pramanas. All argumentation, deduction and refutation happen on the bases of these. These subjects also evolved with time, contributing to growing precision in the methods of analysis, explanation and argumentation.

While most subjects had general acceptance and were part of the bigger scheme of Hindu knowledge, the knowledge developed and was sustained as part of sampradayas or traditions. The literature of each tradition is also arranged in a scheme common to the traditions.

The traditional knowledge is categorized into multiple categories, broadly two. First is the axiomatic knowledge which is called revealed/discovered or sruti portion (ex. Veda and Sruti portion of Agamas). This is “knowable” but not falsifiable – hence one has the choice to either accept or reject it but not refute it. In the para vidyas this is usually a larger body and in apara vidyas it is minimal. There is limited addition that happens to this part.

Rest of the knowledge is either independently deducible or from the above. It is falsifiable, hence evolves over time with deprecations, modifications or additions. This kind of knowledge has further divisions – the portion which is deductive, that which is experiential, that which is known from experts etc.

Any area of knowledge or text spells out its category, its valid means of validating knowledge, its scope of falsification etc., and hence its place in the bigger scheme of knowledge and where it stands with respect to others can easily be understood.

Thus the entire knowledge system is a syncretic scheme, and there is no strict differentiation between different forms of it as philosophy, religion, art or science. The texts that come under these categories exist separately, and subscribe to different sets of pramanas and modes of explanations, but they all fall under a common umbrella of the larger scheme.

Thus knowledge system can be seen as an inverted tree structure with the axiomatic portions at the top, the general principles next, then more specific subjects etc. The statements at the root happen to be less refutable, those at the leaves happen to be more disputable and hence modifiable. The seed thoughts/principles of more specific subjects could be seen in the texts that are closer to the root. For instance Siksha is a limb of the Veda that deals with phonetics. One of the Siksha texts Naradiya happens to lay down the basic swaras of traditional music, from which an entire branch of knowledge forks out. Thus this knowledge tree grows, with seed-thoughts getting appended at the root levels and more specific, elaborate detail getting added at the lower levels. In short the closer you are to the root, the more general the truth is, and the more specialized it is lower down.

An important point we must note is that this tree is not a chronological development – for instance Naradiya does not need to be older than the origins of music. In the process of discovery the general principle comes later than the specific observations, but the general still becomes the root from which conceptually the specific derives, and hence some of the modifications to the parent/root concepts can well be chronologically later than some of the specific additions lower down in the tree. It is the nature of a statement that determines to which category of knowledge it belongs and in which text it gets appended, and not its chronological evolution. This perspective is important even when we evaluate statements like “Sanskrit is the mother of all languages”.

There are several implications of this structure –

  1. The different forms of knowledge – art, religion, sciences, philosophy, socio-political all aim at the same goal of truth/beauty. There is no dichotomy between truth and beauty; they are seen as two sides of the same coin – the divine or transcendental principle. Thus the terminology used in all these forms of knowledge is not the same, but derives from a common philosophical background. The Deva of religion, the Rasa of art, the Brahman of philosophy, the Vijnana/knowledge principle of sciences and Dharma of social life all represent the same transcendental Truth in different forms and at different levels – to be only experienced and realized in different ways.
  2. The same transcendental principle descends further as an “existent-invaluable” in the different forms of knowledge. Examples – zero of mathematics, prana of medicine. This principle makes a significant difference to the philosophy of pursuit of these subjects, and its effect is not limited to ideas like zero or prana.
  3. The knowledge system neither remains academic nor merely a tool for enhancing human comfort or productivity, but keeps the same goals of human life (of ultimate happiness or experience of truth-beauty). This is how this scheme directly relates to the life and social-scheme.
  4. Apparently contradictory aspects of truth are found to be reconciled at a higher level of generalization. Thus a common metaphysical backdrop can make conflicting aspects complementary.
  5. The knowledge corresponding to all aspects of life, social or individual or cosmic is part of the same scheme. Different aspects of life such as society, religion, statecraft all exist in different spheres of life, but still are reconciled under a single grand scheme.
  6. Diversity of approaches to same subject exists – they all share the same bases but coexist as parallel branches of knowledge.

Structure – Society

The structure of Hindu knowledge/literature is one of the major reasons, in my view the primary reason behind the structure of Hindu society. It positively affected the social structure in several ways.

The society also sustained through several institutions which are interrelated but well defined in their scope, each of them deriving its scope from a root principle – Dharma or righteous natural order. The institutions form a syncretic scheme that sustains the society, and not mutually conflicting ideas.

The primary dichotomy is well explained through a series of principles. The society itself is seen as a dichotomy of two sets of institutions, those of the state and those of the nation – the rajya and rashtra. The individual and collective principles are well delineated through the principles of vyashti and samishti. The micro and macro are delineated through the principles of pinda and brahmanda.

This line of differentiation is the reason why most of the occidental duals like secular-religious, left-right, knowledge-dogma etc. are irrelevant in the Hindu society.

Orient and Occident – III  Structure - Knowledge

The main institutions of Hinduism can be seen as two sets of orthogonal arrangements – those of the rajya and those of the rashtra. First is the set of state institutions – administration, governance, military etc. These are essentially hierarchical and represent a power structure. Second is the set of social institutions – knowledge traditions, practicing religions and spiritual traditions, the jati or ethno-cultural communities, the occupational lineages etc. These are diverse and interrelated, but are not hierarchical.

There is a clear definition for each of the institutions, its goal, scope and purpose. The purpose of all the institutions put together, is to enable individuals in fulfilling the purpose of human life and achieve the primary goals of life. While individuals pursue diverse goals, the most general purposes of those are four-fold (the purusharthas). The understanding of the meaning and purpose of human life follows from the theory of causation, of universe and life. Thus the Hindu institutions blend microcosm with macrocosm, relate the individual to collectivity in a way that the purposes of individual form part of those of the collectivity. This is done by identifying cosmic principle in the individual and vice versa. The cosmic order is called Rta, whose micro counterpart which is identified in microcosm as Dharma, the natural righteous order.

The fulfillment of individual functions which are micro manifestations of cosmic functions, and their realization as such, is the pervasive idea behind Hindu traditions.

Similar to the dichotomy of left and right, even the dichotomy of duty and right is also not the lines along with the Hindu institutions define their goals. Thus the institutions are not created on the basis of individual right or respect or ego, but on the basis of the purpose of life. Both duties and rights are implicit in the concept of fulfillment of life and its purpose. The actions that lead to the fulfillment of the purpose of life are inspired by basic human desires, conscience and instincts. Thus the institutions that are based on the goals of life are self-sustaining and self-regulating, and do not need an external machinery to control or regulate it.

As scholars like Sri Aurobindo and Ananda Coomaraswamy noted about a century ago, the occidental society is shaped around rights and duties, which is quite different from the Hindu concept of basing on the meaning and purpose of life. The primary flaw in this idea is that there is no natural inspiration towards duties. Thus the sustenance of these institutions needs external inspiration and a machinery to enforce execution of duty.

This explains the reason why oriental institutions sustained for thousands of years by regulating, feeding, reforming themselves while the foundations of the occidental institutions such as family are fast eroding. This also explains why today in India the society at large is peace-loving and self-regulating, and maintains remarkably healthy social institutions in spite of relatively weak state institutions and leadership. In contrast, the health of western societies is largely owing to their strong and vigilant state machinery and in spite of weakening social institutions.


The limbs of society are thus replicas of the limbs of cosmic being. Varna as we can see in the diagram is not a community-based institution but an abstraction, a model that describes the macro view of the society. Thus when people say Varna is not identified by birth but is a descriptive term that explains society in a four-fold model, they actually are not being apologetics. Jati, an ethno-cultural unit is the one that identifies the group an individual belongs to by birth. And Varna not only transcends the institutions like Jati but overlooks the entire social framework.

It is a well-known (and well defamed) concept that the four-fold social functions that varna defines are represented as limbs of the primal cosmic being (Purusha). This pantheistic representation is very much used today in the western societies with some censoring. For instance heads and all-hands is a known corporate notion that treats senior management as head and the execution staff as hands of an organization. However it shies away from calling your peon staff legs, both because it does not count the concept of running of the organization as leg work and because it is a sign of disrespect. But if we look at who actually causes an organization to *run*, it is not really the peon staff, at least in the corporate world. Thus this varna-pantheism is both misunderstood and misrepresented. The sudra functions in a society are those that run the society and include as much of a spectrum of activities as the Kshatriya functions. For instance while governance, administration, military etc are Kshatriya functions, those like engineering, metallurgy, architecture, sculpture, agriculture form the sudra functions. And each of these has a range of activities right from research and policy making to the spade work. Therefore there is no reason to believe that in a living society where each group is proud of what it is doing, the pantheistic notion undermines the dignity of any group.


While religion just another social institution, it needs an explicit mention both because of its impact on life and because it is the area where much of the distortion and propaganda takes place.

Since the Hindu terminology, religious or otherwise is centered on truth/knowledge/experience and not around faith, the dogma or ignorance is clearly recognized as an inevitable individual phenomenon and was never allowed to enter the basic tenets of any tradition. This is the basis of Hindu approach to religion, whether it is about believing in diversity or pluralism. Any religion or for that matter any concept is only seen as one of the infinite alternative approaches to the same principle of Truth/Beauty.

Unfortunately we saw a distortion of the basic concepts along the lines of occidental notions, part of it deliberate, part of it due to applying occidental framework to oriental knowledge and most of it because of the destruction of traditional education. A few examples –

  1. Deva/Isvara as God. The former is a complex concept, a combination of philosophical principle of causation, a consciousness principle, sometimes an astronomical symbol, an aesthetic principle, a theological principle etc., while the latter is expressly a theological concept.
  2. Nireeswara (being agnostic to a singular causal principle) as atheism.
  3. Sraddha (attentiveness, meticulousness, commitment etc) as faith.
  4. Sadhana (pursuit of a vidya/knowledge) as a religious practice/faith exercise.

This led us to buy false equivalences between the concepts that are not equivalent by any standard.

The other most important difference is that religion is never a supreme institution in Hindu society in spite of the society being predominantly spiritual. The scope of religious traditions was limited to religion, and both in terms of knowledge and society it always remained a relevant subset of the overall framework. Thus the theocratic tendencies in Hindu kingdoms were curtailed, and though there were aberrations they were aberrations which were corrected rather than uncontrolled excesses.

Non-Translatability Issue

Rajiv Malhotra in his “Being Different” mentions the need to recognize the Hindu terminology that has no equivalents in English. The reason why these words are non-translatable is that the concepts underlying are not known to occidental societies.

However this in my view is only partially correct. While the occidental societies are not dharma based, it is very much possible to accurately define these words in English – something like natural righteous order. It is not always necessary to have a single word in English that accurately describes a Sanskrit or native Hindu word. There are bad translations in vogue they need to be corrected. On the other hand there are already several words like Guru, Karma that are being used in English communication without a lot of difficulty.

However, there is a deeper problem than this – the Sanskrit language and Hindu thought in general is not jargon or noun-centric but is verb-centric. The verbal roots or dhatu-s are of primary importance in Sanskrit. Therefore conveying Hindu thought in English is not difficult because of nouns, but because of verbal nuances.

For instance, there was an article recently published (read it here http://www.hinduhumanrights.info/brahman-is-not-god/) which argues that the Hindu notion of Brahman is not the same as the Abrahamic notion of God. Now I do not see any difficulty in the nouns, because Brahman is fairly translatable as The Absolute. The real problem is the way we interpret “is not”. This is not a language problem but a concept problem. This “is not” is a well-known philosophical style in Hindu thought –the “neti”. And when a Hindu says “is not” with Brahman, he has in the back of his mind the whole Upanishadic neti argumentation. This Sri Aurobindo actually translates to English and expresses excellently, by devoting paragraphs to what the “is not” means.

This issue is not limited to the metaphysical concepts but to the entire range of alankara-s, upamana-s and logical deduction.

Therefore the expression of Hindu thought in English in a way that people untrained in formal Hindu traditions understand requires recognition of the fact that the real problem is verb-centric. It is definitely a bigger exercise to actually explain those concepts, but it requires us to recognize the issue more precisely.


Previous parts


Latest Articles

    Artboard 4Created with Sketch.