Western Intellectualism Versus Eastern Spiritualism

Progress is then mainly materialistic, scientific and outward oriented. Our efforts are then focused more on developing, enriching and perfecting our body/physical being, life/vital being and earth-bound mind or mental being. Knowledge is then limited to the knowledge of the nature of things.

Feb. 7, 2022, 6:17 p.m.

Greece is considered as the center of Western intellectualism while India the source of Eastern spiritualism. The rationality of Greek thinking has led to great human achievements but the question has been: “whether thought expressed in terms of reason only is the best means of human understanding?” Of course, thoughts that are rational and intellectual are appealing, and so the rationality of thoughts cannot be under evaluated. It is very pragmatic to be rational. Reason, in order to express itself adequately, requires certain arrangements of thoughts where one thought depends on another thought without which it cannot survive. No thought is complete by itself, and so it cannot know the ultimate truth. This invites the basic question: can thought transcend itself? “While the Eastern thinking lays stress on its absolute sincerity in spirituality, the Western thinking lays stress on its intellectual ardour… The philosophy and thought of the Greeks is perhaps the most intellectually stimulating, the most fruitful of clarities the world has yet had” says Sri Aurobindo. Although the rationality of Greek thinking has led to great human achievements, the question that still remains is “whether thought expressed in terms of reason only is the best means of human development?” Of course, thoughts that are rational and intellectual are appealing, and so the rationality of thoughts cannot be under evaluated. It is very pragmatic to be rational. Reason, in order to express itself adequately, requires certain arrangement of thoughts where one thought depends on another thought without which it cannot survive. No thought is complete by itself, and so no thought or a chain of thought can know the ultimate truth. This invites the basic question: can the thinking mind or the intellect transcend itself?

If we assess human development in terms of scientific progress, intellectual rationality becomes the focus of all thought forms. Satisfaction of the reason and the reflective intellect is what mainly constitutes human progress. Progress is then mainly materialistic, scientific and outward oriented. Our efforts are then focused more on developing, enriching and perfecting our body/physical being, life/vital being and earth-bound mind or mental being. Knowledge is then limited to the knowledge of the nature of things. This severely underestimates man’s relation with Nature, and underestimates man’s symbiotic relation with environment and Nature. It is through proper understanding of the relation between man and Nature that we know not only how to live into our life, but also the power of life which can be used to bring about the harmonious balance between the human and the Being. It is when we use science as the science of values. But the Western emphasis on scientific knowledge of things has proved an impediment in establishing this balance between science and religion as since is then used for manipulation.

The basic feature of intellectualism is that knowledge deals with knowledge of the process, but the process has no understanding of itself. It deals with the nature of things instead of dealing with the relation between man and Nature. It sees only a limited part of the Truth which is our deepest being behind the vesture of body, life, mind and intellect. The intellect deals with external vision of things...It moves from object to object, and is lost in their multiplicity,- Radhakrishnan. The real is beyond intellectual comprehension but is revealed to them whose intellect is illumined through freedom of mind, spiritual intension, philosophical intuition and religious philosophy, but the West emphasizes more on the demands of the secured life, scientific observations, intellectual philosophy, and this is where the difference lies between the intellectualism and spiritualism. Further, the security of life and the freedom of mind do not mean the same thing. Maximum security is not always consistent with the maximum safety. Therefore, while the East seeks inward safety, the West emphasizes on outward efficiency. While man is in cordial relationship with God in the East, man is the center of attraction in the West. While the Western man is basically a believer, the Eastern man is a seeker.

The interpretation of the relation between philosophy and religion is not the same in the two hemispheres. While this relationship is organic and synergic in the East, philosophy is less intimately related to religion in the West. The prominent ancient Greek philosophers were more closely related to religion and had certain affiliation with mysticism, but the situation has now changed. We see that the differences and anomalies between the Western intellectualism and the Eastern spiritualism are related more to the change in the scope of philosophy and less to religion obviously because philosophy is more changeable with time. While philosophy expresses itself through words, ideas, concepts etc., religion speaks through lived experiences. The truth of science like that of philosophy is of theoretical value while that of religion represents the truth of lived experience. While the East overwhelmingly puts more emphasis on the truth of spirit, the West emphasizes more on life. However, both of them represent their own exaggerated or one-sided views. The East emphasized on pure spiritual existence at the cost of outer progress. The intellectual and materialistic West emphasized on intellectual and material aspects of life leading to degradation of religious, philosophical and even psychological aspects of life. Marx and Hegel represent only the two most important intellectual Western philosophers while intellect never became the problem in the East as its limitations are well understood. Up until a few centuries ago, the two views were almost diametrically opposite. This left little room for their reconciliation. The Eastern view overemphasized on the truth of the spirit neglecting the other aspects of life. It tended to neglect humanity, and other democratic elements of life. On the other hand, the West put its whole emphasis on the truth of life with little emphasis on the existence of spirit relegating it to the sphere of unknown or unknowable. While the East emphasized on the content of the truth – the spirit, the West emphasized on its form of expression, – the life. Both the hemispheres are realizing their limitations and are now coming closure to one another.

In the West, an intense search for the inner being through intellect began to take shape in the early nineteenth century. As a result of philosophic rationalism, philosophy was raised to its intellectual height, but because of its intellectuality it grew as an independent, intellectual discipline and separated itself from religion. Philosophy tended to become intellectual, logical, and mental attributes i.e. feelings, emotions etc., were not given their due respect although acknowledged psychologically. The result was that knowledge could not be extended beyond the phenomenal sphere. But the new surge of metaphysical speculation led to a period of intense mutual interpenetration of Eastern spiritual thoughts and Western pragmatic intellectualism. As a result, the Eastern idealism entered into Europe through German metaphysics, for example, through Kant’s idea of the thing-in-itself resulting in fruitful cooperation between the two streams of thought. They have become so interrelated that their further interpenetration now seems inevitable, although the process is still incomplete. The difference between the two streams of thought has also been highlighted by R. Rolland. “Therein lies the capital difference separating India and heroic Greece from Anglo-Saxon optimism. They look reality in the face, whether they embrace it as in India or struggle against it and try to subdue it as in Greece”.The continued interpenetration of the two streams of thought is enriching the Western philosophy, although this is limited only to a few Western philosophers who were exposed to Eastern philosophy. The well known French historian, philosopher and Indologist Victor Cousin writes: When we read with attention the philosophical monuments of the Orient – above all, those of India – we discover there are many a truth so profound…that we are constrained to bend our knee before the philosophy of the East, and to see in this cradle of human race the native land of the highest philosophy.

Similarly, another well known French philosopher Karl W.F. Schlegel writes: “Comparing the highest European philosophy represented by the Greek rationalistic idealism with the vitality and the reality of the Eastern idealism is calling the sun as Prometheus or showing the candle before the sun”. We may also recall the remark made by G. Feuerstein and L. Miller:Long before the Critique of Pure Reason was written, the yogis in the East had recognized the insufficiency of the intellect with regard to the cognition of final truths... They sought after a faculty in man which might break through the limits of the mind”.

In the East, philosophy is essentially spiritual, and human progress is integration of science, philosophy and religion. Its object is to go beyond intellectualism, but in order to achieve the implied objective, we have to take recourse also to feelings, emotions, inspirations, insights etc. because they lead us there first. They may not be directly accepted by the rational mind, but are registered in the very basics of human psyche. It is quite often through them that we can establish a direct connection with the higher Self. They aid poetry, aesthetics and beauty to our life but have to be supported by the discriminating intellect.

Since psychological experiences are the first tangible and subtle experiences that our mind finds easier to accept, psychic unity among us is the first requirement that can steer us across different philosophies, religions and cultures. This psychic unity has to be achieved first through psychological transformation of the mind which simply is transcending the attributes of the compulsive mind or the intellect. This transformation redefines the mind-body relationships in a positive way, and directly establishes the superiority of the mind over the body. With this begins the psychological transformation of the mind and body which, once complete, leads to spiritual transformation.

While the great revolutions in the East have been spiritual and cultural, they are intellectual pragmatic in the West. While the East has served as a field for man’s spiritual experience and progression, the West has been a workshop for his mental and vital activities. These two streams of thought represent what may be called idealistic and pragmatic. While the first stream nourishes our inner life, the other takes care of our outer life. But the one supports the other, and thus life can move ahead on its natural course without being biased neither to one nor the other. But then man has first to become aware of his true nature, and start to actively take part in the drama of his life because “man approaches nearer to his perfection when he combines in himself the idealist and the pragmatist, the originative soul and the executive power”, - Sri Aurobindo. The two aspects can also be termed as the Purusha as the eternal Spirit or the creative Power, and the Prakriti as the executive Power. Sri Aurobindo calls them the “twin aspects of being both in the eternal foundation of things and in their evolutionary realization; both are indispensable and justified”. Evolution occurs through the action of Prakriti, but the commander is the Purusha. In fact, our spiritual development is possible through their evolutionary realizations or though the interaction of Purusha and Prakriti.

The real progress in terms of spiritual progress is dependent on how we can achieve proper synchronization and mutual interpenetration of the two great currents of Eastern spiritualism and Western intellectualism. But the fact is that the idealistic and the pragmatic currents of thought do not flow along the same path. Most of the time they are in conflict, because here the contradiction cannot be solved by logical reasoning as all reasoning leads to the adoption of one position i.e. leaving us with one position only. But it is also through this conflict that they improve on themselves, and thereby mutually serve the purpose of human development. Although spiritual development can also be explained through contradiction between reason and what is beyond reason (Verse 18, Chapter IV Gita), the easiest way of explaining spiritual development is through understanding the relationship between Purusha and Prakriti or between the creative Soul and the executive Power or between Spirit and Life, although this understanding is not an end in itself, but only a means to that end. Alternatively, this relationship can be explained through interpenetration of Eastern spiritualism and the limitations of Western intellectualism. Outward progress is the greater part of intellectual progress but the inward progress is more essential for spiritual progress, but it too is incomplete if the outward progress is left out. We cannot attain Spirit if life is ignored. The interpenetration of the Eastern stream of thought with its emphasis on Spirit, and the Western stream of thought with its emphasis on Life has proved far incomplete. Each of them is incomplete in isolation.

The East and the West are now returning back from their one sided view about spirit and life. The East is returning back from its exaggerated stress on spirit, and the West from its exaggerated stress on life. This change in our philosophical understanding has proved beneficial and has already produced some positive signs of human development as well as of spiritual development. This has become possible by establishing proper relationship between spirit and life. There is a qualitative difference between them, but we are now reawakening to the far reaching possibilities for discovering the spirit as well as life on earth. This can be considered as the most far reaching development in the history of mankind.

In order to properly understand interpenetration of Eastern and Western streams of thought, and other accruing positive results, one has to understand how Life is related to Spirit or how Life and Spirit complement each other. The two hemispheres will come even closure when both of them become able to properly relate Life to Spirit. It is through this relation that we find a common ground of mutual understanding first in terms of psychological unity of humanity. Fulfillment of this condition will free us from religious, racial and other secondary conditions. Spiritual unity can follow only after human beings are first united psychologically. Spiritual unity or spiritual transformation means “direct contact with the truth of Self, a taste of universal bliss, libration from the imprisoned smallness and suffering of the gross body”, - Sri Aurobindo.

We have to accept that human spirit has not yet understood God completely, neither has the human intellect understood life completely. The solution lies in the art of living into life. It is through this art of living that we can transcend the rationality of the intellect and know the truth through intellectual illumination which is complete mutation of our outer existence and leads us directly to the Reality. To conclude this chapter we must accept that while the East can see the truth face to face through intellectual illumination, the West is still struggling to subdue it through pure intellectualism.

AB Singh Photo.jpg

Prof. Dr. Akal Bahadur Singh

Prof. Dr. Singh was one of the founding Pragya in the old pre-1990 RONAST. Recently he has been spending much of his time thinking about the relationship between science and spirituality.

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