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Posts Tagged ‘Buddhism

“As for us Indians, we have our own problem before us. It is the problem of the world in miniature. India is too vast in its area and too diverse in its races. It is many countries packed in one geographical receptacle.”*…

Dalit children sit next to a painting of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar at the 2006 Vanangana conference in Chitrakoot

The current approach to this challenge seems to be (to oversimplify, if only slightly) to create a majoritarian Hindu state that homogenizes those differences. But it wasn’t always so. Scott Stroud tells the story of Bhimrao Ambedkar, an Indian student of John Dewey, who worked for a very different, more inclusive, kind of country…

When one thinks of American pragmatism, one often puts too much emphasis on the American part. It might even stunt our enquiry, irrevocably fixating on thinkers such as John Dewey, William James, and Jane Addams. But there is more to the story of pragmatism than what happened in the United States around the turn of the 20th century. Pragmatism itself was a flexible, loosely allied approach to thinking that held few maxims in common other than the idea that our theorising and arguing ought to come from lived experience and ought to return back to experience as the ultimate test of its value. Its advocates such as Dewey greatly affected nations such as China through his teaching and lecturing, leading us to see that pragmatism has a global narrative connected with it. Is there a similar tale to be told about pragmatism and its interactions with India?

Any narrative of pragmatism’s influence and evolution in India will centre on Bhimrao Ambedkar, a student of Dewey’s at Columbia University in New York. Some might recognise Ambedkar (1891-1956) as a chief architect of the Indian constitution in the 1940s. Others might recognise him as the indefatigable leader of India’s ‘untouchables’ (now denoted by the self-chosen label ‘Dalit’), given his constant advocacy for the rights of those oppressed by the complex and long-rooted caste system. Ambedkar himself was a so-called untouchable, which only fortified his commitment to seeking justice in the law and in social reforms for India’s most vulnerable populations. At the end of his life, he channelled his frustration at the prevailing caste consciousness within Hindu society into a conversion effort that tried to convince his fellow Dalits to convert away from Hinduism and into a more egalitarian Buddhism. On 14 October 1956, just weeks before he died, he led what was at the time one of the world’s largest voluntary mass conversions. This event held in Nagpur featured Ambedkar, his wife Savita, and an estimated 500,000 Dalits converting to Buddhism. For reasons such as these, Ambedkar was voted the ‘greatest Indian’ in post-independence India in a poll that included more than 20 million votes being cast.

Ambedkar was not merely a political figure or leader. He was also a philosopher. One can see the evidence for this in the reconstructed Buddhism that he advanced in his final years, coalescing in his rewritten ‘Buddhist Bible’, The Buddha and His Dhamma, which was completed just before his death on 6 December 1956. In this book, Ambedkar reconstructed the narrative of the Buddha, de-emphasising traditional formulas such as the four noble truths, and foregrounding poverty, injustice and the building up of social communities. In short, he reconstructed the Buddhist tradition and its myriad texts to show how it could function as a social gospel, or an engaged philosophy that could even meet the growing waves of those inspired by Karl Marx and Russian communism in the 1950s…

The politician and thinker whose philosophy of democracy challenged the caste system: “The Indian pragmatist,” from @scottrstroud in @aeonmag.

Rabindranath Tagore


As we contemplate community, we might recall that it was on this date in 1492 that all remaining Jews were expelled from Spain. On March 31 of that year, the joint Catholic Monarchs of Spain (Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, the patrons of Christopher Columbus) had issued an edict– the Alhambra Decree— ordering the expulsion of practicing Jews from the Crowns of Castile and Aragon and its territories and possessions by this date that year.

Expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 by Emilio Sala Francés (source)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 31, 2023 at 1:00 am

“Cogito, ergo sum”*…

Descartes and Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia

Rene Descartes (and here), who laid the foundation for modern rationalism and ignited the interest in epistemology that began to grow in the 17th century, been called the father of modern philosophy. Erik Hoel argues that he had very influential help…

Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia—the first person to fully understand the paradoxical nature of the mind-problem, a mathematician, the possible romantic interest of Descartes, and an eventual abbess—was born in 1618, and lived in exile with her family in the Netherlands, a political refuge after her father’s brief reign. Her father’s rule had ended after he lost what was called the “Battle of the White Mountain,” for which he would be known via the sobriquet “the winter king,” having been in power for merely a season.

Elisabeth was a great philosopher in her own right—whip-smart and engaged by the intellectually stimulating times, she maintained numerous correspondences throughout her life on all manner of subjects. For her learning, within her family she was known as “the Greek,” and this was in a set of siblings that included an eventual king, another brother who was a famous scientist in addition to being a co-founder of the Hudson’s Bay Company, another sister who was a talented artist, and a further sister who was the eventual patron of Leibniz. Mathematician, philosopher, theologian, and politician, Elisabeth was, in her day, an important hub in that republic of letters that would become science.

The princess and Descartes only met in person a few times, but maintained a long correspondence over the years, exchanging a total of fifty-eight letters that have survived (more may not have). The correspondence began in 1643, and would last, on and off, until Descartes’s surprising death in 1650 (he died of pneumonia after being forced to wake early in the morning and walk through a cold castle to tutor a different and far more demanding queen). In the princess and the philosopher’s letters, Descartes usually signed off with “Your very humble and very obedient servant” and Elisabeth with “Your very affectionate friend at your service.”

Their letters are vivid historical reading—the two’s repartee is funny and humble and courteous, intimate and yet respectful of the difference in their classes (Elisabeth’s far above Descartes’s); but they also dig deep into Descartes’s philosophy, with Elisabeth always probing at holes and Descartes always on the defensive to cover them…

Philosophical letters from a possible Renaissance romance: “The mind-body problem was discovered by a princess,” from @erikphoel.

For more, see: “Princess Elizabeth on the Mind-Body Problem” (source of the image above) and Elizabeth’s entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

And for the likely inspiration for Descartes’ most famous phrase– St. Teresa of Ávila– see “One of Descartes’ most famous ideas was first articulated by a woman.”

* Rene Descartes


As we duel with duality, we might spare a thought for Buddhadasa (born Phra Dharmakosācārya). A Thai ascetic-philosopher, he was an innovative reinterpreter of Buddhist doctrine and Thai folk beliefs who fostered a reformation in conventional religious perceptions in his home country and abroad.

Buddhadasa developed a personal view that those who have penetrated the essential nature of religions consider “all religions to be inwardly the same,” while those who have the highest understanding of dhamma feel “there is no religion.”


“I love to talk about nothing. It’s the only thing I know anything about.”*…

Joy Walker: Three Boxes Three Ways, 2009

Nonbeing belongs to that category of concepts that seem self-evident and self-explanatory, but as FT explains, it has perplexed philosophers for ages…

Bertrand Russell’s 1951 obituary for Ludwig Wittgenstein is only a few paragraphs long, and the second consists largely of a single pointed anecdote:

Quite at first I was in doubt as to whether he was a man of genius or a crank…. He maintained, for example, at one time that all existential propositions are meaningless. This was in a lecture room, and I invited him to consider the proposition: “There is no hippopotamus in this room at present.” When he refused to believe this, I looked under all the desks without finding one; but he remained unconvinced.

The exchange is typical of the two philosophers’ relationship: Russell’s proper British demeanor was frequently ruffled by the Austrian’s dry humor. But it also illustrates two general approaches to philosophy: one that takes pleasure in complexities, absurdities, and ironies, and one that takes pleasure in resolving them. Just as Wittgenstein surely realized that there was no hippopotamus in the room, Russell surely realized that Wittgenstein’s objection could not be dispelled empirically by looking under each desk. At stake was not a fact of perception but the epistemological status of negation—the philosophical meaning and value of assertions about nothing.

Nothing, or nonbeing, belongs to that category of concepts—like being, space, and consciousness—that seem self-evident and self-explanatory to most people most of the time, but that for philosophy have been objects of deepest perplexity and millennia-long dispute. It’s a little like breathing, which happens automatically until we stop to think about it. To most of us, Russell’s statement “There is no hippopotamus in this room” is both easily understood and easily verified. We think we know what it means, and most of us would only need a quick look around to affirm or deny the proposition.

But here our troubles begin. If you look around the room and don’t see a hippopotamus, presumably you do still see something: some kind of perception or sensory data is reaching your consciousness, which allows you to make a judgment. What is it that you do see when you see a hippopotamus not being there? Are you perceiving a nonbeing, seeing a particular thing whose nature is absence, or are you not perceiving any being, seeing no “thing” at all? When you see a hippopotamus not being there, are you also seeing a whale and a lion and a zebra not being there? Is every room full of all the things that aren’t in it?

From an evolutionary perspective, one predator not being there is just as good as any other predator not being there, but dialectics and logic are a little more particular. If every possible animal is not there at the same time, what specific truth-value can the assertion “There is no hippopotamus in this room” possibly have? Hence Wittgenstein’s insistence, facetious or not, that all existential propositions are meaningless. In this manner the complications and implications of nothing spill into every area of philosophical inquiry, and we quickly come to sympathize with Aristophanes’ brutal satire of philosophers in The Clouds:

Socrates: Have you got hold of anything?

Strepsiades: No, nothing whatever.

Socrates: Nothing at all?

Strepsiades: No, nothing except my tool, which I’ve got in my hand.

Nonbeing, through the ages: “Apropos of Nothing,” from @ft_variations in @nybooks.

* Oscar Wilde


As we analyze absence, we might send mindful birthday greetings to Mahasi Sayadaw; he was born on this date in 1904. A Burmese Theravada Buddhist monk and meditation master, he had a significant impact on the teaching of vipassanā (insight) meditation in the West and throughout Asia.


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