I: IS THE QUESTION OF BEING UNIQUE TO THE WEST?
Inspired by Heidegger’s ontological questioning of Western tradition, Wilhelm Halbfass attempts to retrieve comparable ontological dimensions of Indian thought, which have been neglected by other scholars. He sees “no good reason to adopt Heidegger’s own exclusion of his ideas from the interpretation of non-Western traditions” (On Being and What There Is, SUNY Press, 1992, p. 25). If for Heidegger, the being-question is present in a latent or repressed way in Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche and the early Husserl, although they do not formally discuss being qua being, why should it not be equally present in Indian thought?
Using Heideggerian phenomenology to apprehend what is afoot in Indian tradition in a discreet, suggestive and non-dogmatic way, Halbfass shows a sophisticated awareness of the problematic aspects of Heidegger’s enterprise. The “history of being” which Heidegger distilled out of a selective focus on the ontological implications of past philosophical debates tends, though powerfully illuminating, to a determinism or fatalism which is implausible and paralyzing. Halbfass calls this construction into question by insisting that being is a universal concern, not a distinctively Western one, and that “being is one of the central and pervasive themes of Indian thought’ (OB, p. 21).
If my comments here take the form of doubts and misgivings – most of which have surely occurred to Halbfass himself –, the reason is not only my hesitancy to make positive statements about Indian philosophy, of which I know so little, but also a sense that, given the promise of Halbfass’s approach for the mutual clarification of Indian and Western thought, such misgivings need to be aired as fully as possible lest the process be short-circuited by hasty identifications. This merely dubitative posture may not save me from mistakes, but I am happy to think that Professor Halbfass’s corrections will provide the surest of safety-nets.
My principal misgiving concerns Halbfass’s scepticism about the Heideggerian question of being, a scepticism which facilitates his claim that ontology is a universal enterprise, but at the same time risks robbing this enterprise of any major philosophical interest. Certainly, Heidegger’s view of Western thought needs to be demystified to some extent. In part, his construal of the meaning of being is a modern, idiosyncratic reflection, and this may relativize his claim to retrieve the buried truth of the entire philosophical tradition. The word “being” itself may be incapable of sustaining the edifices of systematic metaphysics or even a unitary reflection on the meaning of being pursued in phenomenological style.
Heidegger’s attempt to gather things together in the Ereignis may be incompatible with the intrinsic pluralism of language, and the Ereignis may reflect a Greco-Germanic sense of being which is but one historical possibility among others, even within Western culture. His effort to step back from Western philosophical tradition to uncover its fundamental bearings, by a phenomenological bringing into view of matters that this tradition occludes, may suffer from a narrow purism in its focus on the being-question. Perhaps the Heideggerian path of questioning has no future unless opened out fully to historical pluralism and relativity. Just as one may take over Hegel’s dialectical negativity without adopting his system, so one may best do justice to the Heideggerian path of thinking by giving it such a pluralist inflection. Just as orthodox Hegelians have been an almost insignificant strand in the Wirkungsgeschichte of Hegel in comparison with heretics such as Marx or Kierkegaard, so the future impact of Heidegger may have little to do with orthodox Heideggerians, perhaps already an anachronistic species.
The being-question may not be as monolithic or as absolutely central as Heidegger supposes. Yet if one sees his concern with it as misguided, and surrenders to “growing doubts concerning the meaning and relevance of the topic itself” (OB, p. vii), the evident richness of Heidegger’s thought is left untapped. If the language of being turns out to be an inadequate vehicle for this richness, then a better one needs to be constructed. Despite my doubts about particular features of Heidegger’s construction of the “history of Being,” I consider that the basic thrust of his thought – the step back from rationalism to the phenomenality ofbeing – opens the most fundamental perspective now available for the assessment of Western philosophy. As sunlight falling on old stone carvings brings out their forms with a startling warmth of presence, so Heidegger’s reading lights up the most intimate concern of Western philosophy. His analysis of metaphysics as onto-theology applies squarely to the definition of that science in Aristotle, Aquinas, and Suarez, but it also sheds light on the ontological depth of German idealism, as the Erkenntnistheorie of Heidegger’s academic elders had failed to do (see GA 42:156-163). The Western philosophers respond to Heidegger’s reading as the pages of Beethoven or Chopin do to the fingers of a great if sometimes eccentric pianist, and his reading of the history of philosophy will retain its authority until those who query it come up with a more illuminating story. However, – and this is my second misgiving about Halbfass’s enterprise – it seems that Indian philosophy does not respond comparably to Heideggerian readings; the question of being has no thrilling resonance for it; its harmonies are not fully awakened by the Western touch.
(a) The Question of Being
The title On Being and What There Is sounds as Greek as Greek can be. Is it appropriate for a work on Indian ontology? The legitimacy of this transference becomes doubtful if we recall how rare and strange the question of being is, even in Greece: “The problem of being – in the sense of the question ‘What is being?’ – is the least natural of all problems, one which common sense never poses, one which neither pre-Aristotelian philosophy nor the immediately posterior tradition posed as such, one which is never sensed or glimpsed in non-Western traditions” (P. Aubenque, Le problème de l’être chez Aristote, PUF, 1991, pp. 13-14). It may be excessive to say that the question of being is not even glimpsed in non-Western traditions. Yet unless it is brought into sustained, explicit focus, it is a question that tends to evaporate. Indian reflection on the logic of being-words seems not to have attained this focus, not being firmly anchored in Parmenidean wonder at the fact that beings are.
[2006: To counter the misinterpretation that I am claiming in colonialist style that Indians are incapable of thinking of being, let me quote Arvind Mandair’s recent essay, “The Politics of Nonduality: Reassessing the Work of Transcendence in Modern Sikh Theology”, JAAR 74, 2006, pp. 646-73. He argues that confidence in the universality of metaphysics has led to the imposition of Western notions of ethical monotheism on Sikh tradition, leading to an “eclipse of nonduality”. Heidegger is cited as an anti-colonial resource: “far from being a term that can be applied without prejudice to all cultures, metaphysics is rooted in a specific religio-cultural tradition whose contours reveal themselves through the combination and continuity of the Greek (onto), Christian-scholastic (-theo) and secular-humanist (-logical) traditions” (649). I would stress, however, that the onto-theo-logical constitution of metaphysics is there in essence in Aristotle, against the tendency of French Catholic philosophers to date it to Duns Scotus or later, which would undercut the use of Heidegger for a critical interrogation of patristic and scholastic ontotheology.]
For Heidegger, this wonder is the founding event of Western thought: “Esti gar einai – ‘For there is being’ – in this saying lies hidden the initial mystery for all thinking” (GA 9:334). As early as 1922 he found here “the historical paradigm for the immediacy of the encounter with Being”:
“Whatever is encountered is. Dasein is the basic trait of its look [eidos]. The overriding experience here, which has a way of obtruding upon what a being is, is that it is. It is in this sense that any being in its look of be-ing is simply one. Parmenides’ thesis is the expression of an original encounter with being itself. The force, simplicity, directness, and so the underivability of this encounter of an entity for itself and from itself correspond to the latent difficulty of illuminating and exposing such a Being” (T. Kisiel, The Genesis of Heidegger’s Being and Time, University of California Press, 1993, 245-6)
Aristotle, unlike Parmenides, is a thinker of form, but as Heidegger shows in Vom Wesen und Begriff der Phusis (GA 9:239-301) form is not mere stuff or shape, but the concentrated actuality of being. Dismissing Antiphon’s conception of nature as underlying matter (e.g. wood as the nature of the bed), Aristotle defined phusis as “the shape or form of things which have in themselves the source of their motion” (Physics 193b). Only when phusis is grasped in terms of form is it “adequately grasped as ousia, as a species of coming to presence” (GA 9:274). Aristotelian form (morphê, eidos) is not a mere attribute but a mode of being. Form and matter are in a relation of actuality and potency, and each of these terms is defined ontologically. When being is interpreted phenomenologically as coming to presence, form or entelecheia is grasped as the event of the coming to presence of an entity. Form as an ontological idea (in Plato) answers the question, “How does the entity qua entity look? As what does the entity itself show itself, when I contemplate it not in view of a given quality but only as an entity?” (GA 22:252). To grasp forms in a merely logical, objectifying way is to be blind to what is nearest to hand: “Corresponding to the colour-blind there are also people who are blind to phusis. And when we consider that phusis is qualified as a mode of ousia (beingness), then the phusis-blind are but a variety of the blind to being” (GA 9:264). Banal conceptions of stuff and shape, matter and form, are the “Allerweltstrasse” of Western thinking (GA 9:214); Heidegger presents these as a decline from originary Greek insight, but they may well belong to the ordinary stock of notions latent in the grammar of Indo-European languages. The question “ti to on?” (Metaphysics 1028b) – “what is a being qua being in its being?” – invites two sorts of reply. The first reply, a rational, speculative one, analyses the characteristics of being as such, and founds being in its ultimate cause, the supreme being. This reply constitutes onto-theo-logy, the distinguishing structure of Western metaphysics, fully explicit in Descartes and Leibniz (GA 40:88). What is wrong with onto-theo-logy is that, as onto-logy, it flattens out the phenomenological apprehension of the being of beings, eventually reducing it to an abstract and colourless ens commune. Concomitantly, as theo-logy, in grounding being in a supreme first cause it subjects being to the principle of sufficient reason; beings are now explained, in a rationalistic way, and are not allowed to flourish “without why” like the rose of Angelus Silesius (see Der Satz vom Grund, GA 14). Just as Voltaire’s Pangloss, caught up in the Lisbon earthquake, has only one question: “What could be the sufficient reason of this phenomenon?”, so one might imagine a caricatural ontotheologist examining a rose: “Aha! A being! And its ground? Why, being as such, being in general, ens commune (onto-logy). But is this sufficient? Must we not pose a supreme being which is the source of its being and the unifying ground of beings-as-a-whole? And this we call God (theo-logy).” in this construction is lost not only the fragrance of the rose, but the phenomenality of being and the authentic otherness of God [as revealed in Scripture].
Heidegger overcomes onto-theology by his retrieval of the Aristotelian question as a hermeneutical and phenomenological interrogation of the coming to presence of beings. He himself interrogates the experience of being (our everyday understanding of isness; our search for authentic existence; our wonder at the fact that there are beings rather than nothing) and the language of being (the everyday uses of “is”; the languages of philosophical and poetic tradition) in order to discover the meaning of being or the truth of being, which he ultimately names the Ereignis – the “event’ which grants the being of beings, which enables “the worlding of world” and “the thinging of things.” This is not a metaphysical foundation but the phenomenological essence of the givenness of beings. The vocabulary of being is inadequate, a culture-bound Western product, to what is emerging here, so that Heidegger has to develop his own style of quasi-metaphorical saying.
The basic step in ontology is to distinguish “being” from “beings” so as to clarify their relationship. Halbfass accepts Quine’s question “what is there?’ as “the fundamental ontological question” (70), thus reducing ontology to a merely ontic “inventory of what exists’ (49). Such an inventory will, to be sure, carry an implicit ontological commitment (a notion of what being is). But if this commitment is not thematized, or if its thematization is seen as impossible, then we do not have ontology in Aristotle’s or Heidegger’s sense. Crude thematizations – e.g. “what exist are just physical things” – lack a sense of the question of being. Even loftier thematizations – e.g., “all that exists is Brahman” – may not have glimpsed the question of being. The issue may have been decided in an ontic contest between different descriptions of what there is, rather than in an ontological clarification of what it means to be. Even if, with Nietzsche, one dismisses inquiry into being as a mist, it does seem to be a distinctively Western mist.
Analytical philosophers may deplore Heidegger’s “use and misuse of ‘systematically misleading expressions’” (OB, 11), yet have they produced critical studies of Heidegger’s language and thought-patterns that could measure the strength and limits of his revival of the being-question? That would require some basic sympathy with his concern for the authentic phenomenality of beings. Full-blooded positivists dismiss the entire ontological tradition as based on systematically misleading expressions. They could be answered by a logical clarification which retrieves and justifies the discourse on being or, in Heideggerian style, by a study of the phenomenological content of being-language. It can happen that a philosophical classic reveals weaknesses when approached in the logical way, while retaining its power in the phenomenological perspective. Thus Parmenides confuses different senses of the word “is”, and the logical reading shows him at best as forming the notion of a pure existence without qualities, which replaces Thales’s water or Heraclitus’s fire in the role of ultimate explanatory principle. The phenomenological approach on the other hand retrieves coherence and depth in his thought by reading him as a thinker of the event or phenomenon of being.
Heidegger is aware that the term “being” is a tricky one. He envisages its multivocity as a weave or skein, a Geflecht, translating the Aristotelian “to on legetai pollachôs” (Met. 1003a. 1028a) in phenomenological terms as “Das seiend-Sein kommt vielfältig zum Scheinen, The coming to manifestation of being is manifold” (Was ist das – die Philosophie?, 1956, 46). His own use of the vocabulary of being acquires its coherence from its rigorously phenomenological character. The precise bearing of his explorations can be measured only in terms of the matter with which they are concerned – not the logic or conceptuality of “being” but the concrete modes of the presence or givenness of beings in their being. However, it is misleading to say that the later Heidegger withdrew “into poetry, myth, and capricious etymologies” and “does not even attempt that kind of historical and systematic clarification that we find in Heidegger’s earlier statements” (OB, 10). The critiques of Leibniz and Hegel in the mid-fifties show that he kept up his quest for a clear overview of the history of the being-question.
(b) A Distinctively Greek Question
The Greek question of being is foreign even to Western ears. It points to what is nearest at hand yet farthest from our reflective grasp. The question is doubly foreign to Indian ears. The Parmenidean wonder at being was not a foundational event in Indian thought, and so the subsequent Aristotelian question “What is being?” was never posed in the same sense, nor did India produce a metaphysics in the sense of a science of being qua being. There is a fit between the being-question and the history of Western metaphysics which makes its illumination central and foundational; the light it can shed on Indian thought may introduce distorting emphases. To ask what destiny of being lies behind Indian thought, as J. L. Mehta does, is to risk forcing it into shapes suggested by the Western story (while drawing on questionable reaches of Heidegger’s thought).
Heidegger would probably agree that blindness to being is universal- and not only because of the Westernization of the earth through technology. Attention to being must then be equally universal. But it is only in the West that such attention has been thematized as a central concern, by a rare handful of powerful thinkers. The other traditions have different languages for awakening to the reality of the things themselves. As a distinctive thematization of a universally latent problematic – a thematization which in its concrete elaboration has of course many parochial, non-universal features – Western philosophy has an irreducible identity. Thus Heidegger writes, as early as 1939: “Philosophy is Western philosophy; there is no other, for the essence of the West and Western history has been determined through what is called philosophy. Ignoring all academic notions and historical accounts of philosophy as a cultural phenomenon, we should understand it as: reflection on what there is as such as a whole; in short – though this too is indeterminate because polyvalent – asking the question of being. “Being” is the ground-word of philosophy” (GA 68:9). It could not be said that “being” is the Grundwort of any Indian philosophy. Some of Heidegger’s strongest pronouncements on the specificity of metaphysics date from the mid-fifties: “The style of all Western/European philosophy – there is no other, neither a Chinese nor an Indian – is determined from the twofold, “beings-being.” Its dealings with this twofold take their normative shape from the Platonic account of this twofold” (Was heisst Denken?, 1954, 136). The word “style” here suggests that there is a contingency to the development of philosophical and religious traditions comparable to that of artistic styles, so that what seems normative and natural within one culture may remain unthought of in another. The concept of being is a cultural construction just as much as is that of moksa or karman. Our present insight into cultural pluralism (as Dilthey understood) forces us to renounce the illusion that these great words are transparent namings of the real.
Metaphysics, for Heidegger, is not a system but “that knowing in which Western historical humanity preserves the truth of the relation to beings-as-a-whole and the truth about beings-as-a-whole” (GA 9:241). Western philosophy is “einzigartig” and “eindeutig” (Was ist das – die Philosophie?, 14) because of the unusual question that guides it, the question of the being of beings: “Philosophy is underway to the being of the entity, that is, to the entity in regard to being” (25). This very simple, but also quite confusing question about beings in their being is one that occurred to the Greeks and that only they pursued in depth: “Just this, that the entity remains gathered in being, that in the manifesting of being the entity appears, this plunged the Greeks, and them first and only, in amazement” (22). It is in this sense that the question, “What is that?” is “an originally Greek question” (17), for it is pushed back to its ontological basis: ‘What is this being qua being?”
If Heidegger had embarked on a dialogue with India, he might have been as unwilling to talk about being as he was when in dialogue with theology, or with Japan. This is perhaps less an “exclusion” (OB, 25) than a sense that, however fruitful inquiry into the ontological aspect of Indian thought may be, we need to go beyond this if the Indian “great beginning” is to put us in question in light of its own foremost concerns. Even in the case of Western sources which use the Greek language of being correlations with Greek ontology can be treacherous. I am thinking of the Johannine vocabulary of Logos, einai, aletheia, pneuma and how entirely it would be falsified if one tried to bring it into direct connection with metaphysical or Heideggerian concerns. Via Philo of Alexandria, John inherited Platonic vocabulary, yet the remarkable thing is how he frees this vocabulary of any associations with the demiurge of the Timaeus or any other theme of philosophical ontology.
The claim that the question of being is uniquely Greek does not imply ignorance of the fact that there have been Indian debates about “being,” with logical procedures similar to those of the West. “His assertion that the ‘question of being’ is the one and only question of philosophy seems as excessive as his stubborn insistence that not only ontology, but philosophy in general, is a uniquely Greek-European phenomenon” (OB, 11). But in Heidegger’s defence it should be noted that he is reducing Western philosophy to a local, historical tradition with a specific question, the question of being; there is no suggestion that India lacked logical analysis and speculative penetration. While Greek thought, at its most distinctive, bathes in the light of being, in other traditions it is not under the aegis of the being-question that logic, ethics, causally based cosmology, theories of truth and of beauty are developed, but in light of some other distinctive opening for thought, such as the question of spiritual liberation. Though much of Indian thought is oblivious of spiritual liberation just as much of Western thought is oblivious of the being-question, the topic of liberation exerted on some of India’s greatest thinkers a magnetic attraction comparable to that which being has had at high points of Western philosophy. It is not on the question “what is being qua being?” that Indian philosophical radicality converges, and India has largely been spared the intellectual headaches this question has always caused.
Heidegger is the opposite of a Eurocentric imperialist, for his awareness of the historical contingency of Western ontology clears the path to a radical pluralism of what he calls the “great beginnings,” though to be sure there is a certain essentialism in the way he tries to cleanly differentiate these traditions (notably the Hellenic and Semitic traditions in the West). His discovery that Greek ontology is but a province of thought makes him a pluralistic thinker in principle, not a provincial one. To stress the commonalities between India and Europe to the point where these differentiations are flattened out is to regress from this dialogal openness. J. N. Mohanty, whose criticism of Heidegger’s view of history resembles Halbfass’s, seems to court this danger: “To hold that, since the specific question about the meaning of Being (raised by Heidegger) was not asked in the Indian tradition that tradition’s concern with Being cannot yield ontology, would be misleading, for not all those who thought about metaphysics and ontology in the Western tradition asked the Heideggerian question about the meaning of Being… Metaphysical or ontological thinking is not Greek in origin: a certain variety of it is” (Reason and Tradition in Indian Thought, OUP, 1992, p. 152). But it is precisely the generic similarity between Indian and Greek philosophy that Heidegger wants to get beyond. The Greek “variety” is not one among others. It is a grasp of being (subjective and objective genitive) which did not come to pass in this insistent, determining way in other traditions, despite their random and tentative broodings on the sense of the word ‘being.’
Mohanty (289) thinks that the importance of the subject-object distinction in Indian thought confutes Heidegger’s view that it belongs to the Western destiny of being; but Heidegger sights Cartesian subjectivity and objectivity in terms of their ontological upshot within Western thought; he does not deny that analogous distinctions may have been made in other traditions, but there they do not play a role in the unfolding of the question of being. How little Mohanty appreciates the strength of Heidegger’s reading of the Western metaphysical adventure can be gauged from his misunderstanding of the term “onto-theology”: “Heidegger continued to look upon the Kantian Transcendental unity of apperception, the Hegelian Geist, the Fichtean Ego as but secularized versions of deeply theological notions. Not surprisingly, Heidegger characterized Western metaphysics as onto-theological” (297).
II: ONTOLOGICAL THEMES IN INDIAN THOUGHT
(a) The Analysis of “Being” is not Central
The intense logico-linguistic discussion about the words “as/asti (corresponding to the Latin est, Greek esti, English is, etc.) and bhū/bhavati (which has an intriguing etymological kinship with Greek phyô/physis)” (OB, 22) does not necessarily amount to focussing the question of being as a basic one, in the manner of metaphysics. Still less does it amount to attending to the phenomenon of being, as the Greeks did in their “wonder” at the enigma of being and as Heidegger attempts to do more explicitly by means of phenomenological hermeneutics or poetic thinking. (Poetic thinking could be seen as a more refined and rigorous version of phenomenological hermeneutics, in that it is less encumbered with metaphysical conceptuality and more attuned to the thing itself.) Even if the darśanas intensively discuss being and substance (bhâva,sattâ, astitva, dravya), this may be no more than a scholastic clarification of abstract concepts, of which “being” may be just one among others. The distinction between sattâ (being) and the second order concept of astitva – “is-ness,” “irreducible identity, identifiability” (OB, 144), which can apply even to non-existence – is a lucid clarification of ideas, but does it reflect an experience of being? Has the notion of being sufficient valency in Indian thought to be invoked as a solution to the problem of evil, as in the Augustinian teaching that evil is nothing substantial, but a mere defect of being? Never more than a pallid universal – whether conceived as an abstraction or as a primal stuff –, it cannot serve to name the concrete actuality of entities in their analogous diversity.
The verbs for “to be” in Sanskrit are “commonly treated as verbs expressing a peculiar kind of process or action” (OB, 22). So is the verb sein in Heidegger. But the process or action in question is exclusively the presencing of beings in their being, and confusion with any other kind of process or action is scrupulously avoided; hence the diffrculty of Heidegger’s language, which is at the service of a basic simplicity. Does the Indian discussion of “to be” bring into view the phenomenon of being in a comparable way? Such topics as occurrence, durable presence, genesis, change, manifestation, actuality/potentiality are ontic rather than ontological unless their specifically ontological import is isolated. Heidegger’s exegeses of Aristotle go one step further, descrying the phenomenological core of the ontological statements. Similarly, the logic and semantics of nonbeing and-negation do not necessarily amount to a metaphysical question (“why are there beings rather than nothing?”) or, still less, to a thoughtful grasp of the phenomenon of nothingness.
The “horizon concepts’ or “mythical projections under which being itself is subsumed” (OB, 23) suggest that the question of being never acquired autonomy and primacy in Indian thought. It could easily be treated lightly and subordinated to other concerns. When Erich Frauwallner finds parallels between the movement in India from myth, to home-made “scientific’ explanations of natural phenomena, to the introduction of a doctrine of categories, and the Greek progress from myth, to Pre-Socratic “science,” to Platonic-Aristotelian categoriology, these parallels throw into relief what is missing at every stage: the ontological interest which prevails in the greatest Greek thinkers. As cosmologists, logicians, category-analysts, the Indians are close to the Greeks; but the elusive question of being remains the distinctive trait of the latter. Moreover, the proto-scientific dimension of Indian thought never flourished, for lack of empirical observation; “in this domain Indian philosophy doesn’t even come near the attainments of Greek philosophy” (Frauwallner, Geschichte der indischen Philosophie, II, 1956, p. 7). Could there be a connection between the non-emergence of the question of being and this lack of empirical curiosity about bodily substances? The Greek wonder at being inspired the interrogation of beings; the Indian readiness to treat the external as secondary or illusory leads to a volatilization of the being-question in favour of issues of spiritual release.
No doubt Sanskrit, just as much as Greek, lends itself to a speculative development and precise analysis of being-language. But isn’t there an extra twist in the Greek fascination with being that has no equivalent in the Indian world? Systems of thinking of different cultures may freely intermingle at their lower reaches – in logical or ethical discussion – but when one traces them back to their fundamental motives their difference appears. As the Seinsfrage loses its specifically Greek contours it can blend with a more general commonsense puzzling about the logic of “to be” found also in Indian tradition.
Greece is more worthy of question than India on the topic of being: “As Indo-European, Sanskrit also is in some measure ‘metaphysical,’ as distinct from the languages of the Far East, with the notions of Being embedded in it grammatically and conceptually. It is metaphysical in being representational, concept-generating, and in being productive of ontological speculation about Being as the ground of all that is… Since this possibility of thinking has been fulfilled in its amplest and purest form in the Greek tradition, Heidegger is not interested in how Sanskrit speaks.” (J. L. Mehta. “Heidegger and Vedanta”, in G. Parkes, ed. Heidegger and Asian Thought, Honolulu, 1987, p. 27).
On other topics, however, India may be the privileged dialogue-partner. Sanskrit shares with Greek “a common stock of philosophical problems, insights, and confusions” (OB, 129) in the discussion of universals. Such logical topics were perhaps only imperfectly integrated with the ontological question in the West, and ontological presuppositions may have been a barrier to the development of logic.
Again, Indian epistemological discussions were often in advance of the West, perhaps because they were not clogged by Western commitments to substantial being. In the West, it is only with Kant that epistemology and logic are foregrounded to supplant ontology in the manner of Udiyana’s (11th century) definition of astitva as “being the object of affirmative awareness” or “ascertainability without reference to a counter-entity” (OB, 156-157), or his definition of dravya as “what is not the locus of the utter absence of qualities” or “the substrate of three layers of inherence” (93). The Vaiśeṣika thinkers know that “objectivity and cognizability as such cannot establish the distinction between being and nonbeing” (157), but this again sights the reality of being only in a logical perspective and offers no distinct positive conception of its nature.
In the treatment of perception, the rival claims of phenomenalism, representationalism and direct realism could be discussed all the more lucidly in that the ontology of substance was not hovering over them as a daunting enigma. Heidegger is a direct realist; he would say: “I see the tree in the garden, not the representation of the tree,” but with an ontological, Aristotelian twist, quite absent in India – “I apprehend the tree in its being, either letting it be in poetic, meditative thinking, or cramping its being in technological, calculative objectifications.” Merely epistemological clarification of perception cannot fulfil the Western philosopher’s thirst for being, to which Heidegger recalls the tradition, and which he retrieves beneath the epistemological burrowings of Descartes and Kant. A parallel argument that Indian epistemology is led by the tacit question of being would be less persuasive.
Again, many themes in the philosophy of mind as developed in the West seem to have been explored more radically in India, so that here one cannot afford to neglect “how Sanskrit speaks.” Conversely, it would be hard to discuss Yogâcâra, for example, without drawing on the resources of a Hegelian or Husserlian phenomenology of consciousness. Yet the “selective affinities” (G. Larson and R. Bhattacharya, Classical Samkhaya, Delhi, 1987, p. 641) between parts of both traditions do not amount to identical problematics. In any case they do not concern Heidegger’s question; he uses the term “consciousness” only for the modern medium of the apprehension of being, which, since Descartes, entails an occlusion of the authentic phenomenality of being. On the theme of consciousness, India may challenge Europe, whereas on the theme of being, it is Europe’s force that challenges India.
Reference to India certainly introduces a broader horizon, bringing our own puzzling ontological legacy into a fuller perspective. But it may be instructive above all as showing how a great intellectual tradition can get on without the question of being. Analogously, what makes Buddhism instructive to Christianity is the way it gets on without the question of God. The “relativistic detachment” (OB, 12) such comparison induces may weaken our commitment to the frameworks of our own tradition, but it is likely also to confirm that our tradition is local and idiosyncratic- that monotheism is characteristically Jewish and that ontology is characteristically Greek, even if one does find notions of God and of being in other traditions.
(b) Being as Stuff and as Abstraction
The Indian notion of being wavers between reification and conceptualism, both of which occlude at base the phenomenon of being. There is no higher understanding of being whereby a critique of these notions could be carried out, though they may be transcended towards an absolute beyond being. Some Samkhya statements look like universal ontological theses, e.g.: “There is no origination for what is not, nor destruction for what is” (OB, 59). But these may amount to no more than a principle of conservation of the material universe. Thinkers who see sat, pure being, as “the universal substrate” (ib.) may likewise think of being only as a stuff; the Chandogya Upanisad’s teaching that “In the beginning my dear, this world was just Being” (OB, 26) glides swiftly into an evolutional unfolding, of which being is no more than the undifferentiated point of departure.
Prabhâkara (Mimamsa) rejected the general concept of existence on the ground that “we do not in fact perceive things as merely existing. The true sense of existence is merely the individuality of things (svarūpa-sattâ); it is not a true class character” (A. B. Keith, The Karma-Mimamsa, Delhi, 1978, p. 58; see OB, 156). The apperception of being qua being, in its transcendental, analogous character – which is neither an empirical datum nor an abstract concept – is again missed here.
In Vaiśeṣika, ontological thought was arrested by a fundamental option for ontological realism (Frauwallner, 119) and especially by the treatment of sattâ as a “reified universal” (OB, 150). For OB, the notion of inherence (samavâya) has ontological status as “the one pervasive structure of our universe that constitutes the condition of the possibility of concrete, qualified entities and of contingent existence” (148). A faint suspicion: do the refinements sighted here depend on a Kantian lens? Others view this notion of inherence as another reified abstraction. But if we see inherence as a pervasive ontological structure, comparable to Buddhist dependent origination or Vedantic mâyâ, we may still ask whether these structures which govern the emergence and relations of beings ever bring into focus their being qua being. A causal and logical ordering of things may trace their origins without interrogating their being, as happens in the sciences for example. The extra step which raises the question of being may be a step back or away from sensible logical or causal thinking. It is doubtful if Western discourse on being is a harmonious continuation of logical and causal investigation; it seems rather to introduce a troubling cloudiness; and even when being is finally tamed to logic and grounds it seems unhappy in its onto-theological abode, as if itching to break out again. In India the analysis of being never clouds over in this way. Buddhism and Vedanta also take a step into realms irreducible to logic or common sense, but led by other issues than the question of being. The energy of fundamental questioning is captured by these issues, and being as such is not what becomes problematic.
Again, defences of stable identity against Buddhist doctrines of universal momentariness and flux are not properly ontological. The concept of “practical efficiency” (arthakriyâ) as a criterion of being focusses on the problem of distinguishing reality from appearance (OB, 152) rather than on the question of what being as such is. If the Buddhists used it to give a reductive account of being-language, this again is not ontology but a discrediting of ontology. On the Buddhist side, being had only conventional reality, and did not become a subject of contemplation for its own sake; on the other side, the defence of robust ontological realism against Buddhist subversion left little leisure for disinterested musing on the enigmatic character of being. Such musing remains a peculiarly Greek pastime and to pursue it today one has to think as a Greek rather than as an Indian.
Vyomaśiva (c. 800-850 CE) expresses the Vaiśeṣika ambition thus: “I shall enumerate everything in the world that has the character of being”(OB, 69). Does this mean that an ontological understanding – “one comprehensive horizon of being” (70) – underlies the task of categorization? The idea of being (bhâva) at work here may be an unexamined one, just an everyday commmonsense notion of what is real. If one proceeds from it to the listing, never returning back to thematize the enigmatic aspects of the notion itself, one has not embarked on ontology in the sense of a questioning of being. The explicit discussion of bhâva in Vaiśeṣika resorts to abstract universals immediately: “existence is a universal only” (sûtra I.2.4; OB, 140); “that genus which is not a species lying under any superior genus” (K. Potter, The Tradition of Nyâya-Vaiśeṣika up to Gangesa, Delhi, 1977, p.140). “‘Reality’ (sattâ) constitutes the ‘ultimate universal’ or ‘supreme generality.’ It is all-inclusive and pervades all substances, qualities, and motions” (OB, 117).
“Being is one, because of the uniformity of its mark ‘is,’ and because of the absence of any mark of differentiation”; “Being is not a substance, because it possesses one substance. It is neither a motion nor a quality, because it exists in qualities and motions. Also because of the absence of genus and species in it, Being is known to be different from substance, quality, and motion. For the same reasons, substanceness, qualityhood, and motionhood are known to be different from substance, quality, and motion” (Potter, 213-14). Being here is a pure abstraction, comparable to substanceness or motionhood. Aristotle, in contrast, rejects the interpretation of being as supreme genus (OB, 2, 140); only in doing so can he keep open the question of being in its multivocity, and glimpse the irreducibility of being as the transcendens schlechthin (GA 2:51; 9:336-7), in its qualitative difference from entities (the ontological difference). Phenomenologically, existence is not a universal, a predicate universally applied, but in each case the distinctive act or event of existing – energeia. Here Vaiśeṣika finds nothing worthy of thought. The readiness to identify bhâva as the supreme genus cuts off the question of being at its roots. In the West, when being is thought of in this abstract way it represents a forgetfulness of the question; in India it represents a failure of the question to emerge. We have at best an undetermined sense that “as the supreme universal it is also something over and above, and different from, the particular and perishable entities in which it occurs” and “imperishable and permanent” (OB, 140)
(c) Shared Themes
1. Form. There is a wonder at form in Indian thought. But again it is not clear that this carried the charge of a wonder at being. Is there any Indian notion of form that plays the specifically ontological role that eidos has in Plato and Aristotle? Even the “form itself is emptiness” of the Heart Sutra grasps phenomena in their phenomenality, not specifically in their being. A phenomenology of the empirical world in view of emptiness is quite a different matter from one in view of being. Though one might find in Plotinus, Spinoza, Berkeley, Bradley, or Bergson some rough analogies to Madhyamaka and Advaita notions that the objective world with its differentiations has a merely conventional reality, or that all empirical objects are merely superimpositions on the pure undifferentiated ultimate reality, nonetheles such ideas are still, after two centuries of Western exposure to Vedânta, experienced as foreign and unsettling. The Western concern with being and form seems to have worked against a radicalization of the question of appearance and reality. This concern was reinforced by the Christian metaphysics of creation which stressed the distinct existence of finite created substance, and by the doctrine of Chalcedon (451 CE) which, by insisting on the integrity of Christ’s human nature, formed a bulwark against emanationist or absorptionist accounts of the relation of human and divine (see H. U. von Balthasar, Kosmische Liturgie, Einsiedeln, 1988, pp. 35-41; he refers sweepingly to “asiatische Auflösung”, p. 122). To Western thinkers, Indian reflection on mâyâ and emptiness initially seems but an inchoate groping toward their own mastery of logical determinations. But if these Indian worlds of thought could be tucked neatly away in the folds of Hegel’s Logic, they would not be worth our study. Their cultural and historical roots make them more than mere intellectual contructions. As living paths of thought they elude our mastery and summon us to open dialogue.
2. Causality. In Indian thought a fascination with causality has given rise to theories at least as subtle as those of the West. However, this causal reasoning was not applied to being qua being, but only to entities – cosmic or psychological – in their arising and passing away. Cause, in India, is not the Aristotelian aition, namely “that which is responsible for the fact that a being is that which it is” (GA 9:246). We do not find in India “Parmenides’s persistence. in holding fast to the purity and simplicity of the experience contained in the single Greek word Esti (‘it is’), by the sharp repulsion of the obtrusive tendency to address being in terms of doxa, as coming to be and passing away” (Kisiel, 246). Descending from the Eleatic acropolis one may indeed retrieve the world of coming to be and passing away as a worthy theme of specifically ontological thought; but this was not the Indian experience.
In the West, causal arguments for the existence of God quickly become ontological. The arguments from motion or design can be reduced to the argument that finite or participated being requires to be grounded in Being itself. The arguments of Udayana in the Nyâkakusumânjali sometimes have a familiar feel to Western readers, for instance the temporal argument against self-causation: “Nor can things be self-caused, since a thing cannot both originate at a certain time and yet exist prior to that time, and the causal relation involves temporal succession” (Potter, 559); compare Aquinas: “nihil est causa semetipsius; esset enim prius seipso, quod est impossibile” (Contra Gentiles I 18). Yet as he develops his causal reasoning, it is striking how rarely he alights on the ontological notions that would immediately suggest themselves to the Western mind. “Causation just means regular connection between something prior to the effect and the appearance of that effect” (Potter, 560). There is a touch of Humean refinement to this, but no sense of the production of an effect as an ontological (rather than merely ontic) event – no glimpse of the cause as bringing the effect from potency to act in virtue of its own actuality. This might give Udayana a modern cast, prompting comparison of his arguments with Western discussions of causality since Leibniz. Most of his arguments are epistemological: “we need the hypothesis of God to justify the initial acceptance of the Vedas by reasonable men” (Potter, 574). Epistemological acuity seems to crowd out talk of being. Again, when Udayana plays with the notions of “latent causality, potentiality, and manifestation” (OB, 58) in his dialectical refutation of the sheer actualism of the Buddhist doctrine of momentariness, it does not appear that these acquire any properly ontological consistency for him.
Earlier, Vyomaśiva had defined the production of objects as “connection with their own causes and reality” rather than merely “(coming into) existence after prior nonexistence” (ib., 193); this had some ontological bite. Udayana regresses to the view that “‘Being an effect’ is simply the state of being of something that did not exist before” (ib.). His disregard of the earlier stress on sattâdsambandha, “connection with reality,” may reflect a major ontological reorientation as OB suggests. But sattâdsambandha, as originally used by Prasastapâda (6thcentury), ‘does not answer or even address the question what being, reality, or existence is.” It has the merely logical, classificatory sense of “having reality as a predicate” (ib., 170, 174). It seems that discussion of causality never made the breakthrough to a radically ontological treatment.
3. Act and potency. Halbfass claims that the debate between Sankhya satkâryavâda and Vaiśeṣika asatkâryavâda – between “actualization of the nonactual” and “production of new actualities out of preexisting underlying actualities” (186) – is not merely about causation but is “a genuinely ontological debate,” albeit marked by “a certain refusal to address each other’s basic premises concerning the nature of being and the different meanings in which the words sat and asat are used” (58). The “being” from which things originate in Samkhya is a kind of being that Vaiśeṣika does not recognize at all, characterized by “potency, potentiality, latency, indefiniteness, and subtleness” (185). There is a contrast in ontology here, but if the two darśanas did not join battle on this topic, then the specifically ontological question was eluded.
Even if the Vaiśeṣika sattâ could be seen, in the light of the Samkhya pradhâna, as “a mere storehouse of potentialities or as potentiality par excellence” (177), the potentiality in question is not purely ontological dunamis but the concrete evolutional substrate, the “indefinite, nonmanifest, nonactualized ground” of the cosmos” (185). Criticizing the language of modern Samkhya scholars who talk of effects as “specifications of the inherent generativity of primordial materiality” (Larson/Bhattacharya, 68), Halbfass says such language does not address the fundamental ontological issue” (59); but it may be an Aristotelian lens that enables him to sharpen the ontological focus. If the Samkhya sources did not in fact get beyond a material image of evolutionary transformation, we must not read back into them Aristotelian conceptions of dunamis, entelecheia and final causality. These notions can be applied to Samkhya from outside, but they have a transcendental generality that the Samkhya notions lack. Since they capture aspects of being qua being, they apply to any being whatsoever, from God to the abstractions of mathematics or logic. True, a general concept of potency, applicable to everything, is found in Vaiśeṣika; but its ontological foundation is not securely grasped. To stress Udayana’s concern with “potentiality” (58, 65) is to underline the fact that he does not reflect on potentiality as a state of being. To conceive of the potential and the actual in a general commonsense way, or merely as abstract logical categories, is not to attain the Aristotelian insight into potential being and actual being.
In Yoga, “Transition from potentiality (śakti) to actuality (abhivyakti) in the mental sphere means change from an unconscious, ‘unnoticed’ (aparidṛṣta) state to a conscious, ‘noticed’ (paridṛṣta) one” (60-1): here there is no reference to being. “Present phenomena are manifest, that is, actual; past and future phenomena are subtle, that is, potential… The concepts of actuality and potentiality are thus used in an attempt to clarify the nature of time” (61). Again, the contrast between subtle and manifest is not the equivalent of the Aristotelian focus on being in potency and in act. It seems misleading to see here an insight into “the enigmatic relationship between being and time” (62). Nor do Bhartṛhari’s questions – “How does the verb be (bhū), how does the noun reality (sattâ) refer to time?... How can ‘being’ itself in its verbal sense, as an act or process, be there?” (207) – rise from the logico-ontic to the ontological level. Again, Bhartṛhari’s thesis that time (conceived as a substance) activates “those powers and potentialities (śakti) that constitute the condition of the possibility of all actual, particularized existence,” or that “reality itself (sattâ), the highest universal, is unleashed and manifested in those lower universals (jâti) which are the eternal prototypes and potentialities of all particulars” (205-6), is a speculative construction that does not entail a phenomenological meditation on the interplay of being and time.
4. Time. The closest one comes to such a phenomenology in India is in the Buddhist tendency to “an increasingly radical and explicit fusion of being and time or temporality” (221). But even here Nâgârjuna uses the mutual dependence of past, present and future to prove that none of them has real existence; this demonstration of emptiness shows little puzzling over the phenomenon of time for its own sake. For Advaita, “time appears as fundamentally incompatible with reality in the true sense” (221), whereas Western thought, even in Neo-Platonism, has dwelt attentively on the being, or half-being, of time. The Greek way of posing the question “What is time?” or any other “What is” question is honed by a focus on essence or being. Indian definition, in contrast “has no relation with what we would call the essence of a thing… Because I read the universal in the concrete, at the very level of the concrete, I am dispensed from thinking that universal, from conceptualizing it, from defining its essence” (M. Biardeau, Journal Asiatique 257, 1957, pp. 373,375). Indian analysis was not answerable to a strict, authoritative regime of essence (as even Christian theology has been); its starting points and its goals were of varied religious or speculative kinds, each determining a style of analysis only rarely coincident with the “scientific” and “philosophical’ attitudes central in the West. Heidegger is the heir of Aristotle (and Augustine) whose aporetic interrogation of the most salient phenomenological features of time set the agenda for Western thought on the subject. Rather than dissolve time in true Being he focusses more sharply the phenomenon of being by bringing into view the inevitable temporality of its play of presence and absence.
Halbfass’s account of the Vaiśeṣika categories confirms the impression that categories in Indian thought do not carry the same ontological intention as in Aristotle. Aristotle’s categories are rooted in a full apprehension of substances in their being; there are few of them and they lend themselves to empirical, phenomenological exposition and interrogation (as in the Physics); Vaiśeṣika categories are abstract and multiply, to fill out a system, more by logical distinction than by reference to phenomenological aspects of observed entities; if they map out “what there is,” they do so with little attention to the being of what there is. Udayana’s attempt to derive and justify the Vaiśeṣika categories (79) stresses the primacy of substance (dravya) in a commonsense way, but does not attempt to order them in terms of being. Heidegger was aware of the categorical genius of the Sanskrit language: “A kategoria is a word in which a thing is “indicted” as what it is’ This prephilosophical meaning of kategoria is far removed from that which the casual and superficial foreign word category still retains in our language. The Aristotelian usage just cited corresponds much rather to the spirit of the Greek language which, as tacitly philosophical and metaphysical, distinguishes Greek, along with Sanskrit and cultivated German, above all other languages” (Nietzsche IV, San Francisco, 1982, p. 37, modified). But the “special affinity between ontology and categoriality” (OB, 139) does not mean that a developed system of categories necessarily implies a profound ontology; indeed the question of being can throw one’s categories into confusion, whereas dexterity in handling categories can go hand in hand with forgetfulness of being.
Kanâda’s six categories do not include “isness”; neither do Aristotle’s ten, but ousia is related to einai, whereas dravya (substance) is not related to sat or astitva. To be sure, among the six, substance, quality, and activity are singled out as connected to being (sattâ). In the list of ten we find śakti and aśakti, potentiality and nonpotentiality. There is confusion as to whether the universal, sattâ, applies to all positive categories or to the first three only. In any case since the three following categories (universal, particularity, inherence) inhere in the first three, and since quality and activity inhere in substance as their substrate, there is a strong identification of substance with being, as in Aristotle. So in this sense “explicit conceptualization of being” does indeed “emerge out of the enumeration and classification of what there is” (OB, 139). But does it emerge as just a formal abstraction? Is it an especially thought-provoking concept, a source of wonder – or is it merely an occasion for logical clarifications? “Is the Vaiśeṣika ontology an epiphenomenon of its categoriology? Is there an understanding of being which is prior to, and the condition of, its project of categorial analysis and enumeration?”(ib.). “A sense of ‘being’ that implies, above all, enumerability and identifiability” (220) is a very undeveloped notion of the meaning of being – and one that is “internally inconsistent, theoretically unfeasible” and “soteriologically irrelevant or counterproductive” (70). Even if other Indian thinkers formulated such negative evaluations of the ontological upshot of enumerability, they did not necessarily do so from an ontological concern of the sort that we are likely to import into the Indian framework. Neither the positive nor the negative implications of Vaiśeṣika ontology bring it into the neighbourhood of the highest Western thematization of being.
Even if Indian thought lends itself to Heideggerian exegesis in a way that biblical thought, for example, does not, what the exegesis yields is much less rich than in the case of Western sources and also much less illuminating as regards the internal dynamic of Indian thought. In Western thinking led by the question of being the categoriology is a fleshing out of the prior understanding of being (even in philosophers such as Hegel who have “forgotten” being as the Greeks saw it). The tendency to enumeration, so tiresome in Abhidharma, Samkhya and Vaiśeṣika, never took hold among the Greeks, because their overriding philosophical interest was not the multiplicity of beings but their unity in being. Vaiśeṣika enumeration aims to be an exhaustive catalogue of the many; some Vedantin critics insisted that “an understanding of Being cannot be gained through an enumeration and classification of different entities. True, absolute being transcends and precedes all distinctions, including the distinction between being and nonbeing” (OB, 159). But do even the Vedantins linger in meditation on the hen panta in terms of the being of beings? Does their quest for unity get beyond an ontic totalization? Having identified the principle of cosmic unity, do they go on to interrogate it, and to dwell on the enigmatic interplay of the one universal reality of being and the many distinct individual entities? Their monism is the obverse of Vaiśeṣika enumeration, and equally suggests a forgetfulness of being: they “argue against the very possibility of defining entities, of establishing them in their individual identity, and of defining and establishing being itself in its distinction from nonbeing” (232). The failure to focus being as being is in both cases due to an overriding concern with spiritual liberation. Multiplicity, for the Abhidharma or Vaiśeṣika, is of interest primarily as a map of the obstacles or aids to liberation, while the Vedantins’ stress on unity also has a primarily soteriological purpose; whether controlled by categorization or totalized and dissolved in some form of monism the many ceases to obstruct liberation.
When Western metaphysics declines into representational thinking, used as a means of technological mastery of the earth, an expression of the will to power, this should not be equiparated with vaguely similar features in Indian thought:
“‘Representational,’ ‘objectifying’ thought is fully present in the Vaiśeṣika system of categories, in its enterprise of enumerating and classifying whatever there is, and above all, in its conceptualizations of being. To be sure, it is not a Cartesian attempt to establish man &s the master and owner of nature; but it is an attempt to put the world at our intellectual and conceptual disposal, to explain it once and for all through a process of comprehensive enumeration and classification. Being itself is either objectified and appears as an entity among entities or it accompanies the process of enumeration as its receding horizon or expanding shadow.” (OB, 231)
Here a Heideggerian lens allows one to find a phenomenon of rationalistic decadence in Indian scholasticism, and at the same time this casts doubt on Heidegger’s claim to explain such phenomena in the West exclusively in terms of the destiny of the thinking of being. But what also emerges is that the Indian phenomenon lacks the distinctive ontological import that it has in Western rationalism; it even appears to suffer a certain aimlessness in comparison with the intense determination of the Western rational project. The fixational character of Vaiśeṣika categorizations, criticized by Sankara (OB, 231), contrasts with the dynamic thrust of Western rationalism precisely in this: that the West is haunted by the quest for Being (however narrowly conceived) whereas Vaiśeṣika is trapped in the enumeration of beings. In short, Vaiśeṣika thinking is ontic, not ontological. Or if it has an ontological upshot, this is clarified by reference to the Greek tradition, just as the relevancy of Western philosophy to the attainment of moksa could be clarified only by reference to the Indian tradition.
(e) The Absence of the Question of Being in Nâgârjuna and Sankara
The Indian style of thought which effects a “simultaneous de-objectification of the objectified” may make Indian philosophy “a treasure house of direct promise to the Heideggerian quest” (Mehta 44). But to conflate it with the Heideggerian tension between calculative and meditative thinking is to slur over the basic difference between the thought of being and the nondual apprehension of Brahman or śūnyatâ. Nâgârjuna and Sarikara, in their overcoming of the conventional in the name of a different kind of thinking or apperception which reaches highest truth, recall Heidegger’s overcoming of metaphysical and technological reason in the name of the thinking of being. In both cases what is to be overcome is allowed validity in its proper sphere; though in both cases there is a certain ambivalence toward the realm of the conventional that is never quite resolved. But the ultimate truth aimed at in the Indian thinkers is of a loftier order than the contemplative apprehension of beings in their being, and they do not have any time to linger on the latter occupation. Advaita overshoots the thought of being to affirm instead “the nondual state of âtman/brahman that is prior to, and the condition of, all apparent dichotomies and alternatives, including those between being and nonbeing” (233), and the same may be said of the Madhyamaka affirmation of emptiness. The contemplative nonduality both cultivate cannot be equated with Heidegger’s goal, the togetherness of being and thinking in the Ereignis.
Halbfass claims that in addition to the negative ontology – “beyond being and non-being” – Indian thought also apprehends the character of being in a positive way in a kind of “soteriontology.” Sankara’s concept of liberation and Nâgârjuna’s emptiness have “an undeniably ontological dimension” (39). The trouble is that any transcending of beings to their ground or to their true identity has an implicit ontological dimension, but its explicit thematization is likely to remain vague or inadequate unless the question of being has been elaborated beforehand. To what extent is Halbfass’s focus on the ontological upshot of Sankara’s or Nâgârjuna’s language the product of his schooling in Western ontology?
Unlike earlier Buddhist analysis, which stopped at the identification of dharmas as its end-point (54), Nâgârjuna’s question about the ultimate reality of these dharmas and his diagnosis that it is emptiness offer a semblance of the Western question of being. But is the doctrine of emptiness established by ontological inquiry into the being of dharmas and is it presented as an answer to such inquiry? There is a dialectical dissolution of the dharmas’ claim to substantial identity, so that they are no longer obstacles to the vision of emptiness, but the topic of the being of these entities does not emerge prominently. When Nâgârjuna treats objective categorizations as “part of the conventional world of samvrti and vyavahâra” to be surpassed in “the transcendence of is and is not..., the disappearance of our preoccupation with being and nonbeing” (233), he takes conventional notions of being and non-being as they stand, and then transcends them towards a condition to which ontological language does not apply; he does not interrogate them for their own sake; the idea of being is undone not by a leap back to its origin (the Ereignis) but by a leap forward to nirvâna.
The transcendence of both sat and asat was typical of higher Indian speculation from Vedic times (OB, 32) and prevented a focus on beings in their beingness. “The sense of transcending the entire ‘ontic’ realm, which we find not only in Vedic-Upanisadic thought, but also, though in a radically different style, in Buddhism (most notably in Nâgârjuna’s śūnyavâda)” (43), is not something distinctively ontological: it overleaps the phenomenon of beingness in favour of Brahman or emptiness. To say that “negative ontology, deliberate silence about being and nonbeing, radical critique of worldly notions of being and identity may, indeed, be reflections and expressions of an intense search for, and commitment to, being and identity” (233) is an impossibly vague statement that only confirms that Nâgârjuna never embarked on the discourse of the question of being; Heidegger’s critique of worldly notions of being is indeed ontologically motivated, but Nâgârjuna’s motivation is radically different, however one describes it. David Loy believes that “Buddhism includes a strong ontotheological element” which Nâgârjuna seeks to deconstruct. He explains the Madhyamaka distinction between conventional and ultimate truth in Derridian terms: ultimate truth “points beyond language and therefore beyond truth, raising the question of ‘the truth of truth’ and the very possibility of truth in philosophy” – the ‘higher truth’… is that there is no truth” (“The Deconstruction of Buddhism,” in H. Coward and T. Foshay, ed., Buddhism and Negative Theology, SUNY Press, 1992, pp. 227, 241, 244). Such loose analogies blur the specific contours of what Nâgârjuna was doing in the second century and what Heidegger and Derrida are doing in the twentieth. The Indian “‘tension and balance’ between objectification and its transcendence” follows a spiritual dynamic as remote from Greek ontology as it is from Christian mysticism. The Indian “meaningful silence about being” (OB, 234) is a silence that is not really about being but about that of which the language of being cannot speak. Heidegger never gives up the effort to bring being to speech, even if the names he finally comes up with are no longer ontological ones. Indian categorization lacks ontological bite, and its move to silence is a further move away from the being-question.
III: QUASI-HEIDEGGERIAN OVERCOMING IN INDIAN TRADITION
(a) Can Heidegger’s quest for a regrounding of thinking in a contemplative presence to being and beings, world and things, be extended, mutatis mutandis, to Indian philosophy. Analogous extensions of Heideggerian overcoming to Christan theology, favoured by Heidegger himself in his dialogue with theologians, have had a twofold character. The first stage has been an overcoming of the metaphysics in Christian tradition, implementing the Heideggerian critique not for the sake of the “truth of being” but for the sake of the biblical revelation, compromised by its ontotogical explication. The intra-Christian differentiation of original, authentic Christianity from the various forms of occlusion or forgetfulness which it has fallen into is not a distinctively Heideggerian path of overcoming, but a structural similarity allows us to call it “quasi-Heideggerian.” The movement from occluding secondariness back to the primary and originary, whether in Heidegger, in Christianity, or in Indian thought, can become too sweeping. But whatever demystification or deconstruction is required need not entail an invalidation of its basic concern. If deconstruction makes of the ontological difference only one difference among others, in a general play of différance’, “weaving ontological difference’s traits into the quasi-synthetic arrangement of difference” (R. Gasché, Inventions of Difference, Harvard UP, 1994, p. 105), or if it treats the quest for a more faithful phenomenological grasp of the event of being or the event of revelation as the product of a delusive metaphysics of presence, then deconstruction itself becomes a rationalism sunk in forgetfulness of being.
Since Indian philosophy was not affected by Greek thought, Heidegger’s critique of metaphysics has no direct application to it, apart from inspiring a general attentiveness to the alienating character of abstract formalism and suggesting a method of historical genealogy. An intra-Indian differentiation of the authentic depths of Indian thought from alienated traditions does not have to wrestle with the Western fate of rationalism and technology, but with whatever fate hangs heavily Indian history. (Of course India has to struggle with the modern West as well, and may appropriate the Heideggerian critique.)
Halbfass evokes “the Vedic sense of the openness of space and what we may call a primeval metaphysical clearing,” and “a sense of wonder and amazement about that which appears in this extended openness, the spatial and temporal things that emerge in it… experienced in the sheer amazing presence and inexplicable coltingency of their existence” (30-1). As Heidegger finds traces of a primordial unhiddenness in the Pre-Socratics, the Vedas reveal in its first immediacy the Indian experience of the “worlding of world.” Yet the topics of wonder, contingency, and the clearing (Lichtung) are perhaps still too Heideggerian to match the intrinsic phenomenoiogical lineaments of the Vedic world. One remembers Heidegger’s comment on Bultmann’s existential interpretation of New Testament categories: “That’s too Heideggerian for me!” Again, how serviceable are the Heideggerian elements in this statement?: “One may say that Brahman and Âtman are the ground-words of the Indian tradition, not just words or concepts, but the very embodiment of that primordial unhiddenness in the light of which the Indian mind thenceforth breathed and thought” (Mehta, Philosophy East and West 20, 1970, p. 305). “Primordial unhiddenness” has a specific phenomenological thrust in Heidegger, as a description of the originary truth of being; but it is devalued when used indiscriminately to describe the other “great beginnings.” Similar applications of Heideggerian language in Christian theology have the same doubly falsifying effect. The central Indian phenomena are the depths of the mind or the supreme simplicity of emptiness, themes remote from Heidegger as the otherworldliness of Neo-Platonism is.
The Indian love of concept and speculation is too close to what Heidegger was fleeing from, and does not offer the refreshing contrast provided by the Chinese use of characters and aphorisms to name things in their concreteness. It is with Daoism, and the Daoist element in Zen Buddhism, that his thought finds the most vibrant affinities. His recall to living in the present world, to letting things be in a wise passivity, and his use of paradoxical language to awaken to here-and-now reality, are quickly understood by Asian readers. The vast spaces of Chinese paintings are conjoined with an intensively this-worldly sense of mortals in their finitude and of the thereness of things, and thus invite Heideggerian attention. Regrettably, his dealings with the East were thwarted by the language-barrier: “The greatest difficulty in this enterprise always lies, as far as I can see, in the fact that with few exceptions there is no command of the Eastern languages either in Europe or the United States’ (quoted, W. E. Nagley, Philosophy East and West 20, 1970).
Both Christianity and Indian thought can learn from the Heideggerian quest for the phenomenal, worldly reality which grounds Western metaphysical language. The overcoming of metaphysics puts in question its basic frameworks, such as the distinction between being and becoming, and questions back to what underlies these frameworks and is occluded by them. In Indian thought, the distinction between the world of karman and transmigration and the salvific goal of release constitutes a basic framework that has perhaps been grasped in ways that occlude its original significance. To bring to light the unthought of this tradition, an overcoming should focus not on “forgetfulness of being” but on “forgetfulness of release” – in this respect Buddhism and Vedânta play a quasi-Heideggerian role.
If Buddhism, in its concern with liberation, neglects the being of the beings it analyses as “empty of self-nature, it may be that Heidegger, conversely, in his fascination with the “thinging of things” neglects the realm of transmundane spiritual freedom. Each tradition is pursuing its own overcoming from within, in an irreducible variety of ways – Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Derrida on the one hand; different forms of Vedânta and Buddhism on the other. When the Eastern and Western styles of overcoming meet, the resulting hybrids may be superficial academic constructions or a convincing new departure. The gesture of overcoming has on both sides to be released from its doctrinaire sheath – Buddhist, Vedantic, and Heideggerian orthodoxies are relativized as they are brought to bear on traditions remote from their original field of application.
(b) Heidegger’s reading of the history of metaphysics digs beneath homonyms to discover the quite different ontological horizons presiding over, say, the principle of contradiction in Aristotle, Leibniz, Hegel, and Nietzsche: “The principle says something essential not only about ‘contradiction’ but about the being as such and about the kind of truth in which the being as such is experienced and projected” (Nietzsche IV, 112). Can we bring the tired doxography of histories of Indian philosophy into such an enlightening perspective, by differentiating the horizons within which theses and principles are generated? An obstacle to this is the relative stability of Indian intellectual history. Heidegger overcomes metaphysics as a history that has run its course; only the completion of this history allows us to step back to what could not be thought by any system within the tradition. Has Indian thought also completed a historical trajectory that now opens up a space for more radical questioning? Whereas Heidegger’s many targets – the Platonic dualism between soul and body, literal and figurative, medieval creationism, the onto-theo-logical constitution of metaphysics, the increasing hegemony of the principle of sufficient reason, the objectivation of beings and the dominance of narrowly defined Cartesian subjectivity, the technological reduction of being to the functional, the latent nihilism of metaphysics – are united under a single rubric: the story of being’s self-concealment in the various formations of metaphysics, it is hard to tell a similar over-arching story of Indian thought. The major systems persist with little change from the time of their consolidation. Even if Sankara or Râmânuja represent a transformation in the essence of Vedânta or the Mahâyâna sutras and philosophies are a revolution within Buddhism, these developments are not matched by contemporaneous events in the other traditions.
Heidegger’s story of how metaphysics moves through various transformations of its essence, as destined by being, belongs to a tradition of such stories (Hegel, Dilthey, Nietzsche). The composition of the tale is helped by its narrow setting – philosophical Europe, dwindling after Descartes to Germany alone – and by the cult of progress and sense of historicity that have increasingly marked Europe. India is too big, and the social distances between its schools and religions too wide, for a tidy story to be told, nor does it help the teller by any innate sense of its own historicity. Indian thinkers laboured at an eternal tradition, rather than worrying, with Hegel, that their works would be sold off at the next book fair. In the age of the cathedrals, as the scholastics unrolled their commentaries on Aristotle and the Sentences, Europe may have briefly enjoyed that boundless intellectual peace which was the Indian norm. Perhaps one of the results of exposure to India will be that history will lose the hegemonic status it enjoys in Hegel and Heidegger (and in theology in its relation of mutual influence to these thinkers).
(d) The foundational Indian texts – the Vedas, the Upanisads, the Buddhist Sutras, the Bhagavadgitâ – raised questions about being only incidentally to cosmological, psychological and soteriological debates. In the darśanas, there is inverse proportion between scholastic analysis of the concept of being and existential concern with deliverance. In Vedânta and Mahâyana the soteriological reflection on the status of the samsaric world generates a functional ontology, but this is not developed for its own sake. When Greek philosophy came under the sway of soteriological concern, in Neo-Platonism, its ontological heritage was simplified: the question of being yielded to an ordering of being in terms of transcendence – strongly oriented to the One beyond being. Something similar happened in India, except that the ontological basis was overshadowed from the start.
Biblical theism also generated a special sense of being: the conviction that things are sustained in being by God at every moment, that in their finitude they reflect God’s glory. This is a large component in the ontological interpretation of causality in the West, along with Neo-Platonic interpretations of Aristotle. Heidegger does little justice to the power of this biblically-inspired ontology when he denounces Christian philosophy as a square circle, on the grounds that faith is qualitatively different from philosophical questioning (GA 40:9; GA 9:379). He might have similar misgivings about the Indian philosophies that appeal to Vedic authority, though it would be hard to apply his purist ideal of the autonomy of philosophy and his rigid notion of faith and its authority to the looser relations prevailing between the Vedas and Indian philosophy. Philosophy always has contingent cultural matrices in which it is embedded, though it aims to free itself from them; these generally include a dialogue with religion. Heidegger half-freed himself from Christianity only to hitch his thought to a Neo-Hellenic religious tradition refracted by Hölderlin.
Heidegger saw theism as occasioning an arrest of the ontological quest: the question of being is curtailed when one immediately answers the question, “Why are there beings rather than nothing?” by referring to God the creator, the source of all being (see GA 40:8-9). He would probably see the Naiyâyika arguments for the existence of God (see Potter, 100-11) as reducing the world to a thing made, thus closing access to its being. Brahman in Vedânta is Being (sat) as is God in medieval theology (ipsum esse subsistens): the theologically radical character of this thought may be at the expense of ontological questioning. When Bhâsarvajnâ (c. 860-920) invokes “divine cognition” as a framework and receptacle of reality in the widest sense – wider than the highest universal, sattâ, and encompassing also astitva, the common denominator of all six categories” (OB, 219), he may seem to transcend the abstractness of the Vaiśeṣika concept of being, but the concreteness he introduces is a theological rather than an ontological one; the truth of being is more remote than ever.
The thirst for the Absolute, both in Christianity and in India, has been in tension with the consideration of being, for the being of beings – whether approached phenomenologically or in speculative reflection – is not something absolute; neither is it relative; it simply is – “Es ‘ist’ Es selbst” (GA 9:331). Vaiśeṣika began as a pure natural philosophy, yet already Prasastapâda presents understanding of the six categories of the Vaiśeṣikasutras, their similarities and dissimilarities as a condition of release (Potter, 283); attempts to explain cosmic process in karmic terms, and with reference to an omnipresent invisible soul, increasingly drew this school into the soteriological drift characteristic of Indian philosophy (Frauwallner, 90-105). The connection between knowledge and salvation here is external, paying lip-service to the general Indian ideal of philosophy as salvific. Classical Nyâya, in contrast, is a doctrine of salvation; its twelve objects of knowledge are soteriological key themes (ib., 27-8, 73-6); “body,” for instance, is focussed not as an objective, physical datum but as an element of personhood, mistaken for the self because of the delusion of “mineness” (G. Oberhammmer, “Der Frühe Nyâya,” in A. W. van den Hoek, et al., ed., Ritual, State and History in South Asia, Leiden, 1992, p. 245).
Philosophical salvation was a feature of the Greek philosophies – Stoicism, Epicureanism, Neo-Platonism and some aspects of Plato’s own teaching – but after Judaism, Christianity and Islam drafted philosophy into their service, an autonomous philosophical doctrine of salvation was not recovered until Spinoza; even the German idealists could not draft a philosophical path of salvation independent of Christianity. Schopenhauer replaced Christianity in this role with Indian doctrines of salvation. Since then, Nietzsche and Heidegger come closest to creating an autonomous philosophical soteriology. Heidegger’s message of a right relation to being can be a bridge to the soteriological philosophies of India, permitting a demystified access to them which should also shed light on the problems of interreligious dialogue.
From: Beyond Orientalism, ed. Eli Franco and Karin Preisendanz. (Poznan Studies in the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities vol. 59). Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1997.