An Upanishadic lesson for modern science?

Do the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads lack the “baggage of biography” – to borrow Amit Chaudhuri’s words – because we don’t know who the authors, outside of the mythology, are or – as Chaudhuri writes in a new essay – do these texts carry more weight than their authors themselves because Eastern Philosophy privileged the work over its authorship? Selected excerpts:

One might recall that the New Critical turn against biography is related to a privileging, in the twentieth century, of the impersonality, rather than the emotional sincerity or conscious intention, of the creative act. This development is not unrelated … to the impact that certain Indian texts had on modernity after they were translated into European languages and put into circulation from the late eighteenth century onwards. …

By the time the Gita’s Krishna was first heard in Europe, all judgements were deemed, by the Enlightenment, to be either subjective or objective. What kind of judgement escapes this binary by being at once passionate and detached, made in earnest without mindfulness of outcome? Immanuel Kant addresses this in a shift in his own thinking, in his writings on aesthetics in 1790 … Five years separate the Gita’s appearance in English, and three years its translation into French, from Kant’s intervention in aesthetics. It’s unlikely he’d have been unaware of the work, or made his sui generis departure without it. The second time such “disinterestedness” appears as a concept, when Matthew Arnold redefines what criticism is, the link to the Gita is clear, and doesn’t require speculation. …

The Gita’s practice of “impersonality” points to T. S. Eliot’s attack, in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” in 1919, on the idea that poetry is an “expression of the personality” or of “emotion”. It’s no accident that the final line of The Waste Land is the Upanishadic refrain, “shantih shantih shantih”, the Sanskrit word for spiritual peace or even-mindedness …

It’s uncertain in what way these conceptual departures would have existed in modernity if these texts hadn’t been put into circulation when they were. Yet a great part of this history of ideas remains unwritten.

Chaudhuri also sets out the relative position of the Upanishads in modernity, particularly their being in opposition to one of the fundamental tenets of modern philosophy: causality. Per Chaudhuri, the Upanishads “dismantle” the causal relationship between the creator and the creation and “interrogate consciousness” through a series of arguments that attempt to locate the ‘Brahman’ in human and natural logic.

He concludes this portion of his text by speculating that the Upanishads might in fact have been penned by “anomalous Brahmins” because in the Bhagavad Gita, which is contemporaneous with some of the Upanishads and followed the rest after more than a century, Krishna asserts, “Neither Vedas, nor sacrifices, nor studies, nor benefactions, nor rituals, nor fearful austerities can give the vision of my Form Supreme” – whereas just these rituals, and their privation, concern the typical orthodox Brahmin today.

While the essay provides much to think about, the separation of creator and creation – in terms of the Upanishads being disinterested (in the specific sense of Chaudhuri’s definition, to mean an ‘evenness of the mind’ akin to unfixation rather than uninterestedness) with both a godlike figure or rituals and making room for biographical details in their verses – is incredibly interesting, especially in relation to modern science.

As Chaudhuri writes,

… “the field of knowledge called “the history of Western philosophy” could just as easily be called “the history of Western philosophers”, inasmuch as Western philosophers are the sum total of their lives and works, and we often defer to both biography and thought when we interact with the philosophy. Each body of work has a personality, but so does its author; in almost every case, we can, literally, put a “face” to the work, whether that’s a photograph of Bertrand Russell or a fourth-century BC bust of Plato.”

Prof Gita Chadha alluded to the same trait in the context of science pedagogy – in The Life of Science‘s promised postscript to their webinar on July 10 about ‘geniuses’ in science. In response to a question by Mrinal Shah, as to how teachers and educators could disprivilege the idea of a ‘scientific genius’ at the primary school level, Chadha said (excerpt):

There is an interesting problem here … In trying to make science interesting and accessible to children, we have to use relatable language. This relatable language organically comes from our social contexts but also comes with the burden of social meanings. So then, what do we do? It’s a tricky one! Also, in trying to make role models for children, we magnify the individual and replay what goes on in the world of science. We teach relativity as Einstein’s theory, we teach laws of motion as Newtonian laws of motion. The pedagogic need to lend a face to an idea becomes counterproductive.

‘Geniuses’ are necessarily individuals – there are no ‘genius communities’. A genius’s status as such denotes at once a centralisation of power and authority, and thus influence; a maturation of intellect (and intellect alone) presented as a role-model to others; and, in continuation, a pinnacle of achievement that those who profit from the extraction of scientific work, such as universities and research funders, valorise.

This said, I can’t tell if – though I suspect that – the modern history of ‘Western science’ is largely the modern history of ‘Western scientists’, especially of the ‘geniuses’ among them. The creator causes the creation, so by contemplating the science, you contemplate the scientist himself – or, as the ‘genius’ would have it, by contemplating the science you necessarily contemplate the creator and his specific choices. And since the modern scientific enterprise was largely harmonised to the West’s methods in the post-colonial period, this is our contemporary history as well.

Chadha had previously noted, in response to a question from yours truly, that she struggles to argue for the non-separation of science and scientist in the context of the #MeToo movement. That is, our liberty to separate important scientific work from the (extra-scientific) actions of an errant scientist may not be so easily achieved, at least if one intends to the extent possible to not participate in the accumulation of power. Instead, she said, we must consider them together, and call out “unethical or non-inclusive practices” – and by extension “you will also call out the culture to which they belong, which will help you to restore the balance of justice, if I may say so.”

This resolves to some extent my issue with Lawrence M. Krauss (although not fully because while Krauss’s culture has been dismantled at his previous university, however temporarily, he continues to maintain an innocence grounded in distasteful convictions). However, I’m still adrift vis-à-vis the late Richard Feynman and others. As a physics journalist first, I can’t help but encounter Feynman in one form or another – but how do you call out a dead man? Or does calling out the dead man’s culture, as perpetuated by the likes of Krauss today, suffice?

Chaudhuri has a similar question: “What do we do with a philosophy when there’s no philosopher in sight?” This matters because the philosopher’s “absence constitutes a problem in giving, and claiming, value. Meaning and significance in Western culture are not just features of the work, but pertain to, and arise from, the owner of the work – the author is the work’s first owner; the author’s nation or culture (“Greece” or “Germany”, say; or “the West”) its overarching one.”

So as with the Upanishads, would we be better served if we concerned ourselves less with deities and their habits and more with the “impersonal” instruction and interrogation of what is true? This seems like a straightforward way out of the problem Mrinal Shah poses, but it doesn’t address, as Chadha put it, the “pedagogic need to lend a face to an idea” – while “impersonal” interrogations of what is true will wrongly ignore the influence of sociological forces in science.

However, all said, I suspect that the answer is here somewhere. The ‘scientific genius’ is a construct and a shared one at that. When we contemplate a body of groundbreaking scientific work, we don’t contemplate the work alone or the scientist alone; we contemplate the work as arising from the scientist but even then only in a limited, constructive sense. But there is more at play; for example, as Chadha said, “We need to critically start engaging with how the social location of a scholar impacts the kind of work that they do”. If I write an article calling X a ‘genius’, X wouldn’t immediately occupy that position unless he is held there by social and capitalist forces as well.

The Upanishads in this context encourage us to erase the binary of ‘creator’ and ‘creation’ and with it the causal perspective’s temptation to think the scientist and the science are separable. In their stead, there is I think room to compose a communitarian story of science – where good arises not from the one but the whole, where power becomes, in keeping with the Upanishads, impersonal.