Saturday, July 6, 2013
George Grant and Hinduism: Contemplative Probes - Ron Dart
Christianity seems in a certain way closer to Hinduism than it does to its fellow religions that arose in the East.
George Grant, George Grant in Conversation(1995) p. 176
In talking about a philosophical response, are we not supposed to have agreed upon understanding as to what philosophy is? And certainly one should not try to take advantage of the fact that there is no definition of philosophy on which all are agreed.
John Arapura, Modernity and Responsibility: Essays for George Grant (1983) p.52
Modern scientists, like the modern thinkers in Swift’s Battle of the Books,explain nature, human and non-human, the idea of soul, and not surprisingly they have produced a world where it is difficult to think what it means to be open to the whole. Ancient thinkers are compared to the bee which goes around collecting honey from the flowers; modern thinkers are compared to the spider which spins webs out of itself and then catches its food in that web.
George Grant in Dennis Lee, Poetry and Philosophy (1982)
The recent book, Athens and Jerusalem: George Grant’s Theology, Philosophy, and Politics (2006), probed Grant’s deeper theological roots, but in the doing of this, Grant’s interest and affinity with the Orient and Hinduism was missed and ignored. This is a serious lack and weakness in an otherwise needed and necessary commentary on Grant.
Grant saw himself as standing within the ‘Hindu wing of Christianity’, and, as mentioned above, he thought the contemplative and mystical core of Christianity made it ‘closer to Hinduism’ than to either the Jewish or Islamic traditions.
What did Grant mean by the statements mentioned above, and why was he, as a Canadian, at the forefront of probing greater contemplative depths in the Christian Tradition, and, by doing so, opening up new trails for interfaith dialogue?
Anderson did not raise serious criticisms of either Bacon’s empirical method and some of the conclusions Bacon reached and Anderson accepted. Grant just thought this was a case of philosophy being co-opted, assimilated and uncritically genuflecting to a form of scientific rationalism. Such an approach to knowing and being, Grant thought, was reductionistic and undermined the classical contemplative approach to philosophy. Grant did a review in Dalhousie Review (Volume 28:1948-1949) of The Philosophy of Francis Bacon, and Anderson was not pleased. Anderson was a senior scholar and elder in the philosophic clan in Canada, and Grant a younger apprentice. Grant had dared to challenge the master. Anderson would not forget nor forgive such impertinence, but Grant’s criticism of Anderson-Bacon did speak much about his emerging way of understanding and doing philosophy. Grant objected, in short, about the increasingly limited way that philosophy was being defined and defended.
George Grant’s uncle, Vincent Massey, became the first Canadian born Governor General in Canada, and in the early 1950s, Vincent Massey launched the Massey Commission. The purpose of the Massey Commission was to examine the state of arts and culture in Canada and make recommendations to the government about a post-WW II way forward for Canadians. Vincent Massey asked George Grant to do the article in the Commission on philosophy. The article was published in 1951 as ‘Philosophy’. Grant makes it quite clear in ‘Philosophy’ that he thinks most Canadian philosophy and philosophers had lost their way. They had given themselves to an empirical and narrow scientific rationalism, and this simplistic form of the ‘vita activa’ had banished the classical notion of the ‘vita contemplativa’. Grant urged and argued, insisted and pleaded, made it clear and obvious that if philosophy was merely going to be an errand boy to science, the death knell of philosophy was already ringing. Grant’s straight on criticisms of the state of Canadian philosophy in ‘Philosophy’ drew forth the ire of Anderson and tribe. They would and could not accept Grant’s approach to philosophy and his criticism of them. The Brahmin class gathered to protect their commitments.
‘Philosophy’ was published in 1951, and in 1952, a symposium was held, PHILOSOPHY IN CANADA, in which Grant was brought to the dock. Philosophy in Canada: A Symposium (1952) makes it more than clear that Grant’s contemplative approach to doing philosophy would not be accepted, and, predictably so, Fulton Anderson led the intellectual armada against Grant. Needless to say, Grant learned quite early in his academic career that the classical contemplative way would not be welcomed in a serious approach to philosophy or, by extension, in theology. Theology, to a greater or lesser extent, had also been co-opted by an empirical, confessional and rationalist method that had little to do with the classical contemplative way of knowing.
Western philosophy had become, for the most part, a plaything of rationalism and empiricism, and the study of religion and theology followed the same path. Grant began the task in the 1950s of casting about in different directions for traditions that embodied an older and more contemplative way of knowing. This is what, of course, walked Grant to Plato and Aristotle and to the East.
The tale and drama was to heat up further, though, for Grant. Grant decided to leave the philosophy department of Dalhousie in 1959. He had been offered a position in philosophy at a new university in Toronto (York). The founding of York University was part of the birth of many new universities in Canada in the 1960s. The older universities could not accommodate all the new students. York was formed as a companion university to University of Toronto, and, in many ways, it became a counter cultural opposition to it.
Grant, as I mentioned above, was hired to provide leadership to the fledgling Philosophy Department at York. It was just a few months before problems emerged. York University was to be under the watchful eye of University of Toronto for the first few years, and this meant that George Grant was to be responsible to Fulton Anderson for how he taught courses and the text he used. Anderson strongly recommended Grant use a text written by Marcus Long (a friend and colleague of Anderson’s). The Spirit of Philosophy, by Long, had little to do with Grant’s approach to philosophy. Philosophy, for Long, was about critical reflection on arguments and issues, and Long’s notion of the philosophic spirit was more about skepticism and cynicism than anything else. Grant refused to view philosophy in such a way, he insisted such a text would not be used, and he would not bow the knee to Anderson and the University of Toronto. Grant wrote a letter to the president of York in April 1960, clearly explaining why he had to resign from York.
The differences between Grant and Anderson-Bacon did not abate. Anderson took a persistent pro-Baconian position and, in 1960, his The New Organon and Related Writings was published. Anderson edited and wrote a lengthy introduction to the book that, by 1978, went into ten printings. Grant knew the difference, in an acute way, between Bacon, the spider, and the ways and means of the more classical bee. There could be no doubt that Bacon had taken to the philosophic throne and many were the acolytes that fawned, genuflected and defended his right to rule. Grant dared to challenge the reigning monarch, Anderson was an apologist for Bacon—the differences between the spider and the bee could not be more obvious. The fact that Bacon’s approach to nature was so questionable meant that those who followed in his footsteps became those who colonized, imprisoned and justified abuse of the natural world for profit. Grant realized, decades before the ecological ethos came to the fore, that Bacon (and his minions) had to be confronted by an older, deeper and more contemplative way of being and knowing.
Grant was committed to teaching philosophy, but, throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, it became clear to him that his understanding of philosophy stood in stark opposition to the reigning paradigm of the time and the Brahmin class that protected such a worldview.
The Great Ideas Today series published in 1961 a long article by Grant. ‘The Year’s Developments in the Arts and Sciences: Philosophy and Religion’ takes a long and hard look at the failings, limitations and possibilities of both philosophy and religion. Most of the article is on the state of philosophy, but there is a significant aspect in the article on religion. It is in this article that Grant began to unpack, in a deeper and broader way, some of his thoughts on Eastern religions. These reflections on the Orient are important for two reasons; first, this signals a conscious turn by Grant to a formal interest in the East: second, Grant became the chair of the religious studies department at McMaster, and McMaster’s religious studies department became a centre in Canada at both an undergraduate and graduate levels for studies in the East and Orient. Grant was front and centre in all this work at McMaster.
Grant saw, most clearly, three trends emerging on the cultural scene in Canada and beyond in the 1960s. First, the age of Christendom and Christianity was on the wane. Second, there was a growing interest in the East (some of it naïve and shallow, some of it substantive). The interest in the East was heralded by an interest in the East as a more meditative and contemplative way of knowing. Third, the rational and empirical way of knowing that seemed to produce such objective facts and information had to be challenged at the university level. There were deeper ways of knowing and being, and Grant was doing serious sleuth work on the places and sites of such wisdom.
There were two prominent Indian thinkers that held Grant at this period of time: Gandhi and Tagore. Grant, in 1966, addressed many students that were opposed to the Vietnam War, and his article, ‘A Critique of the New Left’, holds high Gandhi as a model to heed and hear rather than naïve and idealistic protest politics that wither when the hard times come. Grant offered a solid and penetrating critique of the New Left, and handed out many accolades to Gandhi. He said, and much was said in such a compact way: ‘The central Christian platitude still holds good. The truth shall make you free. I use freedom here quite differently from those who believe that we are free when we have gained mastery over man and over nature. It is different even from the simple cry for political liberty: Freedom now. For in the long haul freedom without the knowledge of reality is empty and vacuous. The greatest figure of our era, Gandhi, was interested in public actions and in political liberty, but he knew that the right direction of that action had to be based on knowledge of reality—with all the discipline and order and study that that entailed’.
I should also mention that for Gandhi the Bhagavad Gita and the Sermon on the Mount-Beatitudes (taught by Jesus) were basic to understanding the discipline, order and study that birthed genuine freedom. Gandhi’s commitment to theBeatitudes is central to understanding his core ethical vision. George Grant’s ethical centre was also thoroughly rooted and grounded in the Beatitudes. Grant stated this quite clearly in his ‘Five Lectures on Christianity’. He had this to say in the second lecture: ‘Let’s start with the teaching from the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew chapter(s) 5 to 7 reveal a perfect account of justice or righteousness…. What is breathtaking also in the teaching is its immediate clarity and comprehensibility’. Grant and Gandhi both shared a commitment to the Beatitudes as the foundation of the inner-outer life and the pathfinder for a healthy soul and civilization.
Grant saw in Gandhi an Indian thinker and activist that had integrated, in thought, word and deed, the real meaning of philosophy and politics. This is why, for Grant, Gandhi was the ‘greatest figure of our era’. This was philosophy that had not retreated from the fray or bowed to the scientific way and modern industry. This was truly classical philosophy embodied in the modern era, and just as Gandhi felt the opposition for challenging the juggernaut of modern technology, so did Grant.
Grant was also quite fond of Rabindranath Tagore. Sheila Grant, in ‘George Grant and the Theology of the Cross’ in George Grant and the Subversion of Modernity: Art, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, and Education (1996), makes this quite clear. Sheila Grant had this to say about Grant’s interest in Tagore. Sheila mentioned that Grant often used this prayer by Tagore ‘when taking a service for students’:
Give me the supreme faith of love, this is my prayer; the faith of the life in death, of the victory in defeat, of the power hidden in the frailness of beauty, of the dignity of pain that accepts hurt but disdains to return it. P. 225
There is little doubt that Grant found in Gandhi and Tagore a merging and meeting of contemplation, poetry, politics and action. This was a different approach to philosophy than Grant had encountered at universities in the west. There was something life giving and authentic about such an approach.
There was more than this, though, to Grant’s interest in Hinduism.
George Grant left McMaster in 1980, and in his letter of leaving, ‘The Battle between Teaching and Research’ (1980), he makes plain, simple and clear why and how Universities have lost their way. The older way of knowing has been abandoned for modern empirical and technical ways of knowing, and our souls have been lost in the process. Grant turned again to the Maritimes and Dalhousie to spend his last few years.
William Christian/Sheila Grant mention in The George Grant Reader (1998) that ‘Of all his colleagues at McMaster, Grant felt closest to those who studied Hinduism. His understanding of the meaning of the Gospels was informed not just by Plato but also by what he had learned from Indian religion’ p.459.
Bithika Mukerji had published a book, Neo-Vedanta and Modernity in 1983. Grant wrote an appreciative ‘Foreword’ for Mukerji’s book. There are two published ‘Forewords’ to Neo-Vedanta and Modernity. The shorter version by Grant is in The George Grant Reader. whereas the much longer ‘Foreword’ is inNeo-Vedanta and Modernity. Mukerji has this to say about Grant in her ‘Preface and Acknowledgements’ to Neo-Vedanta. ‘I learned much about the Western tradition from Prof. George P. Grant at McMaster during the years 1973-1977. Whatever is right and perceptive about the West, in this book, I have gathered from him and what is partial or wrong is my own interpretation’ (p. ii). Bithika Mukerji, also, made it clear the assistance and guidance Dr. Arapura from McMaster offered her throughout her doctoral studies.
It is essential that the reader has available the longer version of Grant’s ‘Introduction’ to Neo-Vedanta and Modernity. Much more is said and pondered in the longer version than that which is in The George Grant Reader. The meaning of modernity is probed at a deeper level, ‘and the great truths of the religions and philosophical traditions from before the age of progress’ (p. iii). Grant asks this question: ‘What happens to the apprehension of the ontology of the Vedanta in the context of modernity?’ (p. iv).
Grant makes it more than clear in the ‘Foreword’ that modernity-westernization and technology have done much to ‘obscure’ the meaning of ‘bliss’ in the older Vedantic tradition. Grant is more than drawn to Mukerji’s notion of ‘ananda’. The deeper Indian notion of Being that the West has lost by following the breadcrumbs of ‘Locke and Marx, Rousseau or Darwin or Hume’ (p. v) means that the West has sought joy and bliss in areas in which such gifts cannot be offered. The Neo-Vedantic understanding of Being takes the honest pilgrim to places the West cannot go for the simple reason it has lost its way. Grant brought to an end his ‘Foreword’ by stating this: ‘Much silliness has been written in the modern world about the meeting of East and West, by both westerners and easterners. Such a meeting must not sacrifice the greatest of either side….Both westerners and easterners should read the book with close attention’ (p.vi). It is essential not only to read Neo-Vedanta and Modernity, but Grant’s longer ‘Foreword’ is a must read for those interested in his interest in the relationship between tradition and modernity, classical Indian thought and classical Christian thought. Much is brought to the fore in the longer introduction that is missing in The George Grant Reader.
George Grant turned 65 years of age in 1983. He had challenged the reigning educational, political, economic and philosophic Brahmins in Canada most of his life. A festschrift was written and given to him to celebrate many years of hard service and much turmoil. Modernity and Responsibility: Essays for George Grant (1983) has a fine essay in it by one of Grant’s dearest Indian friends from McMaster days: John G. Arapura.
Arapura’s essay, ‘Modern thought and the transcendent: Some observations based on an Eastern view’ goes straight to the heart of Sankara and Vedantic thought. Arapura makes it clear that with the rise of an empirical method, the issue of the transcendent has become a problem. How can the reality of the transcendent be verified or falsified within a rationalist and empirical method? Arapura’s article is short but to the poignant point. Arapura, like Grant, turned to Heidegger to highlight the problems with the modern understanding of thinking and reason. Heidegger, more than any other modern western philosopher, undermined and undercut the foundation of modern reason and opened older paths to knowing. These older markings and signposts pointed the way to a deeper way of knowing and understanding the meaning of thought and thinking. Kant and reason are left behind. Heidegger leads the way to Sankara and his understanding. The path is opened to the transcendent once again once the single vision and one dimensional view of empirical reason is doubted and questioned as the only way of knowing. Arapura’s use of the Upanisads and Sankara’s interpretation of them also points the way to a dialogue between Sankara and Plato. This meeting much interested Grant and Arapura. ‘Modern thought and the transcendent: Some observations based on an Eastern view’ brought Grant and Arapura together yet closer in their desire to understand how an older contemplative Hinduism and an older contemplative form of Christianity might have some important points of affinity. This is why Grant thought he had much in common with the ‘Hindu wing of Christianity’. Both Arapura and Mukerji taught Grant much about a deeper and older Indian and Hindu way, and Grant was more than eager to hear, heed and learn.
Bithika Mukerji had been both a student of George Grant and John Arapura when she studied at McMaster. Neo-Vedanta and Modernity very much embodies and reflects the deeper concerns of Grant and Arapura. The full fruit bearing of Arapura’s thinking came to the fore in his book, Gnosis and the Question of Thought in Vedanta (1986). Arapura was, like Grant, very much pondering how Heidegger had challenged the western notion of reason and thinking, and, by doing so, opened up new ways to understand thought and different levels of knowing (gnosis). Gnosis and the Question of Thought in Vedanta is divided into four sections: 1) ‘Gnosis and the scope of philosophizing in Vedanta, 2) Gnosis and philosophical thought in Rig Veda, 3) Gnosis and philosophical thought in the Upanisads, 4) Gnosis and philosophical thought in the Bhagavad-Gita, and 5) Gnosis and philosophical thought in the Brahma Sutra. It is impossible, when reading Gnosis and the Question of Thought in Vedanta, to miss the many conversations Arapura and Grant must have had while in Hamilton at McMaster University.
John Arapura’s book, Gnosis and the Question of Thought in Vedanta was published in 1986. Arapura sent Grant a copy of the book, and Grant replied to Arapura in a letter (12 November 1987). Grant says. ‘Your book is wonderfully illuminating’. The rest of the short letter goes on to explain how and whyGnosis and the Question of Thought in Vedanta is illuminating. Grant had less than a year to live, but he was always willing to be led and taught about the depths of Sankara and Neo-Vedantic thought, and how such an ancient line and lineage might assist Christians in both going deeper in their own journey and, equally important, challenging the narrow approach to knowing of modernity.
There is one more thinker we need to ponder as Grant engaged Hinduism. This is Nietzsche. Both John Arapura in ‘Modern thought and the transcendent: Some observations based on an Eastern view’ and, interestingly enough, Ronald Beiner in ‘George Grant, Nietzsche, and the Problem of a Post-Christian Theism’ in George Grant and the Subversion of Modernity (1996) deal with Grant, Nietzsche and Hinduism.
The 19th century witnessed two important events; Science replaced Christianity as the new religion and source of authority; this is an aspect of modernity. As Christianity was marginalized and science rose to the throne, a spiritual thirst still existed that science could not slake. There was a turn to the East to make sense of such a thirst and hunger. Western modernity had marginalized Christianity, but the spiritual void was filled by an increasing interest by westerners in the Orient. Germany was front and centre in this turn to the East, and Nietzsche had apart to play in the drama.
Nietzsche’s oft quoted ‘God is dead’ obscures his deeper ponderings on the meaning and significance of Christianity, religion, spirituality and the Orient and Ancient Near East. Nietzsche, like Grant, had serious doubts about the spirit and forms of modernity, and he looked to the Classical past for insight and guidance. Nietzsche makes it quite clear in books such as Will to Power, Genealogy of Morals, The Antichrist, Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Twilight of the Idols where his commitments were and why. Nietzsche preferred Roman Catholic Christianity to Protestant Christianity, he preferred Hinduism to Buddhism, the warrior gods of Homer and the Jewish warrior God to Christianity and Buddhism. He was quite drawn to the Hindu caste system, but his view of hierarchy and caste was based on nobility, risk, energy, courage and effort rather than an inherited Brahmin class. Nietzsche countered the leveling of values that modernity brought, and he thought Christianity and the Enlightenment were to blame for the problem. Christianity was as much part of modernity as was the Enlightenment for Nietzsche, and Nietzsche wanted little of either. Grant and Nietzsche both shared deep suspicions of the modern project, and both turned to the wisdom of the past to counter the modern ethos and mood. Both had an interest in Hinduism, although they were interested in different parts of Hinduism. The lawbook of Manu spoke to him of aristocracy and heroism, of those who overcome for a higher ideal. Beiner’s ‘Grant, Nietzsche, and Post-Christian Theism’ highlights how both Grant and Nietzsche turned to the Classics in opposition to modernity, but their interpretation of the Greek and Indian Classics went in different directions. It is essential, though, that most thinkers that opposed modernity (like Grant and Nietzsche) turned to both the Occidental and Oriental past as a means to both counter modernity and offer an older and deeper way of knowing and being. There was, therefore, a convergence for many in their turn to the ancient past in the West and East.
The question was this, though: what and whose interpretation of the Classical Western and Eastern should be heeded and why? There can be no doubt, though, that both the more ancient Greek and Indian traditions had a certain charm and appeal for those that saw through the pretensions and limitations of liberalism and modernity.
Many of the more thoughtful Germans in the 19th century were quite keen on pondering how the Orient could and would walk them beyond the failing and faults of both Christianity and Science. Arapura’s article, ‘Modern thought and the transcendent: Some observations based on an eastern view’ discussed Nietzsche and Paul Deussen (the German Vedantic scholar).
Deussen and Nietzsche were friends and both had an interest in India as a way of transcending both a faltering Christianity and the limitations of science. Deussen argued that Parmenides, Kant and Sankara had much in common. Nietzsche read Deussen’s Das System des Vedanta and some of the Upanisads, and he opposed both. The Dionysian spirit did not live with an energetic passion in such texts. Apollo was too present.
Grant thought that Nietzsche and Heidegger had done more than most thinkers to make ‘the modern western project conscious of itself’. Both men turned to the Classical way (both interpreting it selectively and bringing many modern assumptions with them). Nietzsche, like Grant, had an interest in Hinduism, but their interest and interpretation took them down different paths and trails.
Grant lived, moved and had his being in the ‘Hindu wing of Christianity’. This means Grant’s interest was much more in the contemplative wing of Hinduism. There was no doubt that Grant was drawn to Nietzsche and Heidegger. Both men, in their different ways, showed Grant how modernity could be challenged, the flaws and fallacies within it, and, following Heidegger, the problems with empiricism and rationalism as a way of knowing. But, Grant did not follow Heidegger or Nietzsche in their interpretation and turn to the Classical Eastern and Western traditions. This is where Simone Weil entered the drama for Grant.
George Grant, in many ways, saw Simone Weil as his Diotima. Grant thought that Weil’s read of the Classical Greeks in Intimations of Christianity Among the Ancient Greeks was much sounder, saner and comprehensive than Nietzsche and Heidegger. The same sensitivity that Weil applied to the Greeks she applied to reading Oriental and Indian texts.
Simone Weil had a contemplative understanding of the philosophic journey that threaded together the inner and the outer journey, contemplation and justice. This is what brought Grant and Weil close to Gandhi and Tagore.
There is little doubt that Nietzsche and Heidegger did much to assist Grant in his analysis of the modern project, and that John Arapura and Bithika Mukerji did much to walk Grant deeper into the world of the Vedanta and Sankara. But, Gandhi, Tagore and Simone Weil did even more to guide Grant into a more integrated understanding of the Classical Greek and Indian way of integrating contemplation and politics. Grant, to his reflective and activist credit, embraced such wise sages and lived forth such an integrative way within the Canadian context.