Indian Philosophy in Practice: Not Mumbo-Jumbo!

They say we come from the land of spirituality and philosophy. However what these terms mean is a mystery to many who now populate this sub continent (including me). The Oxford dictionary describes it as a study of the meaning of life and existence among other things. Now this could serve as a good starting point but the road then gets a little rocky. scratch that make it quite rocky, almost insurmountable.

This has been an area which has always interested me, but frankly I got quite discouraged when the 10-year-old me was told  that the gateway to Indian philosophy is the sufficient knowledge of  by-rote learnt hymns and couplets (shlokas) in completely undecipherable and many times unpronounceable Sanskrit. Thereafter I completely stayed away from the subject except for the times when I was forced into attending satsangs/pravachans  or when my grandmother decided sit me and my cousins down to explain about maya (transitory) and mukti (nirvana). Somehow these lectures always ended with a note on how we don’t respect our elders enough and the merits of brushing twice daily.

Basically I was uninitiated in what I feel should have been my rightful and proud legacy. I decided some amends were in order. Thanks to another completely unrelated legacy of my generation I naturally first turned to Internet. However so vast and old has been the study of this brand of philosophy in India that the subject is now mired in confusion. Well At least to my eyes.

So many are the different theories and schools in Indian philosophy, that a study of this subject only involves remembering the different names of the scholars (also called as sages) and the books that they have written. Added to all this is the fact that most of the mother documents are in the now forgotten language – Sanskrit. So then I turned to my only other known source – my grandmother.

My grandmother tells me the best way to go about this is to first have “faith” ( however I am still not sure in what), then to in a disciplined manner go about singing hymns and various couplets in praise of at least a handful of gods. A minimum of twice daily, one is free to do it for as many times as possible. More the merrier she accepts. Once one has successfully done all of this he/ she is then required to sit down in a relatively peaceful and lonely corner and indulge in ‘vichar‘ (mindful thinking) and become “antar-mukhi” (self-reflection).

The initiated know that this is actually quite impossible to practice. Of course the first part is completely doable. Except for the boredom and the feeling of utter purposelessness that one will be hit while one is doing the first part. One can easily go about doing this for a lifetime. Many of us actually find solace in this. It is almost like instant noodles, you have eaten Chinese but not really tasted it. (My grandmother’s quote, with my modifications)

So this brings us to the point that according to my grandmothers recipe of philosophy clearly the second is the more important part. However we know that to ask one to blankly sit in a place and generate or think up knowledge is pointless. He/she might to some extent synthesise or vaguely theorise what they think they already know about the meaning of life. But most, now I am sure of this, are involuntarily left to think of what to eat next or why so and so actor chose to do a particularly unsuccessful movie.

Originally I believe the hymns and couplets were to give one some basic working knowledge in philosophy. Equipped with this documented knowledge one was then encouraged to embark on self-study or in other words self discovery. However now the meaning contained in our painstakingly inherited  hymns are largely unknown. They are now nothing but indecipherable and tuneless songs to many. How then is one to use these precious manuals (if that is what they were) to ones use.

Well there is hope many have dedicated there lives into understanding what our ancestors really knew about the philosophy of life. Until then however we should not stop, we should carry on with either the above mentioned recipe of my grandmother’s or just find a spot for vichar or even some healthy discussion/debate. What we could stop however, is thinking that philosophy is mumbo jumbo sitting in a corner.

I found this lecture series to be very informative.

Aishwarya

About Aishwarya

Aishwarya is a practicing lawyer in Bangalore. She has in the past worked with Jyoti Sagar Associates and Poovayya & Poovayya. She is an alumna of Symbiosis International University, Pune and Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. During her post graduation her main area of research was environmental justice and issues relating to access to justice for the marginalized in environmental and livelihood issues.

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3 Comments on “Indian Philosophy in Practice: Not Mumbo-Jumbo!”

  1. Good article . I personally feel., the hymns and prayers are important because , personally whenever i sing them, i get a sense of power. of course its my mind which is conjuring it., but i do get the confidence that, since i have prayed enough, my day will be good. Also while singing, we concentrate.
    Also , in today’s world., as your grandmother rightly said., self introspection is very necessary. We know everything in our world except our mind. its good to spend an hour in utter solitude just thinking and wondering.
    One of the best and true to the heart articles .

    1. @ thinker, I completely agree with your point on concentration. Praying does increase ones ability to focus. This definetly helps in self actualization. Also please see the video I have attached its quite good .

  2. Nice article….. even I am on the same lines as the writer in understanding about the Indian scriptures. One thing which I found out in analyzing/learning them today is that we have scarcity of spiritual teachers who will teach us exactly what is in scriptures, which is in Sanskrit, since Sanskrit is known only to a handful of scholars. Today they(scriptures) have undergone some modifications to suit present times.
    And regarding morning prayer when we wake up, it not only increases our concentration but also refreshes our mind and will give a start to successful day. Similarly if we start a day by doing good things, it can be anything, then we will have sense of satisfaction and our day would cherish.
    As said in the article one should spend sometime daily in introspection for self realization. Self introspection is the best way not only to realize our mistakes but also to correct them.

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