A Christian misconception of Indian spiritual culture14 min read

In his book called ‘Indian Thought and its Development’, the great philanthropist Albert Schweitzer made a critical examination of Indian spiritual culture and finds little good in it.

His knowledge of Indian spiritual literature is impressive in its range, but he approaches the subject very much through the blinkers of a Western orientalist. He finds two features in Indian thought valuable and worthy of note for Europeans.

The first is their determination, despite (in his view) an unbroken series of failures, to maintain their ideal of union with the Primal Source of Being as the main goal of human endeavour. And the second is their evolution of an ethic that is unlimited in its range of application, even if deficient in content.

Thus, in his view, the failure of Hegelianism during the course of the nineteenth century led European thinkers to abandon the search for supreme reality, and to limit themselves to scientific enquiry, thus concentrating on techniques and means to the complete neglect of ends. He ascribes the perilous condition of modern western civilization very largely to this fact, and maintains that our thinkers should take a lesson from the Indians in their steady perception of the goal.

And he finds European ethics faulty in being limited to a consideration of man’s duties to his fellow men in society, whereas in Mahayana Buddhism the Indians have shown us the true ethical ideal, which is active compassion for all that lives.

Even here, however, he takes away with his left hand what he has given with his right, for he does not think the Hindus ever reached this ideal, being too far hemmed in by caste traditions, while the Buddhists themselves were never able to put it properly into practice, owing to their belief in the fundamental unreality of sansara.

Perhaps a fair idea of Schweitzer’s general mode of approach to his subject may be obtained if we quote at some length from the opinions he expresses about the Bhagavad Gita.

He says : “ When Krishna speaks of action he never means more than the exercise of activity dictated by caste, not subjective action proceeding from the impulses of the heart and self-chosen responsibilities. If one would rightly understand the Bhagavad Gita, one must not forget the Brahmanic narrowness of its horizon. . . . The only activity which is truly of a higher quality is that which sets natural aims before it, and realizes these in devotion to a supreme end. In the Bhagavad Gita, man plays a part in the drama from a blind sense of duty, without seeking to find out its meaning, and, along with that, the meaning of his own action. . . . The Gita does not demand ethical deeds. It recommends ethical qualities. But for it, love of God is an end in itself. Hinduism does not make love to God find expression in love to mankind. Because it fails to reach the idea of active love, the ethic of the Bhagavad Gita is like a smoky fire from which no flame flares upward. In the Bhagavad Gita there is no question of loving devotion to the God of Love. God is for it a value completely exalted above good and evil. And because it desires active self-devotion to Him, it reaches a point where it is forced to regard even non-ethical action as required by God. . . . The Bhagavad Gita has such marvellous phrases . . . that we are wont to overlook its non-ethical contents. It is not merely the most read but the most idealised book in world-literature.”

There is in all this passage a strange blindness and insensitivity to the true value of the material he is handling that is unfortunately characteristic of Schweitzer’s book as a whole, and a few of his remarks in the present connection call for an answer.

It is true that the teachings of the Gita are set in the framework of caste, as was appropriate to the times in which they were given.

But the central messages of bhakti and jnana carry us into lofty regions far beyond the narrow confines of caste duty.

The Gita is quite explicit on the point. “ Abandoning all duties, take refuge in Me,” says the oft-quoted verse in the last chapter.

The real emphasis of the Gita is on jnana or spiritual knowledge, and upon karma or action only as a means to purify the mind so that it can attain knowledge. To say that the Gita recommends activity from a blind sense of duty is to contradict the whole tenor of its teachings. The distinction between ethical deeds and ethical qualities is simply a verbal quibble, as how can ethical qualities exist without expressing themselves in ethical deeds ? The charge that the Gita does not teach love of man is also quite unfounded.

The sage in the Gita is more than once described as intent on the welfare of all beings. And are we to accept the idea that there is in the Gita no relation of mutual love between God and His devotees ?

Chapter VII, verse 17, says : “ I am supremely dear to the wise and he is dear to Me ”, and such quotations could be multiplied.

Nowhere is anti-ethical activity taught in the Gita, as Schweitzer suggests. Arjuna’s battle is conceived as a righteous struggle against the forces of darkness.

Nor is it true to say that the Gita is indifferent to ethics. We have seen that the core of its teachings is knowledge. But at the beginning of chapter XIII knowledge is defined as a set of ethical qualities, for without these it is unattainable.

It seems hardly too much to say that every sentence in Schweitzer’s indictment contradicts one or the other of the Gita’s explicit teachings.

One great impediment which prevents Schweitzer from appreciating Indian thought at its true worth is his failure to understand the significance of tradition.

He does not see that the identity of the individual with the Absolute is an actual experience, communicated by a guru to a suitably disciplined pupil, and thinks of it as merely an intellectual assumption.

And he does not see that the scriptures of Hinduism derive their unity from the fact of being the receptacle in which the various methods for attaining this experience have been traditionally preserved.

Thus in describing Indian thought he concentrates on the changes and developments undergone by its external form, and completely neglects its inner content.

He notes, and indeed exaggerates, the changes which its conceptions undergo with the passage of time, but he does not realise that these conceptions have only the one aim of leading the mind towards an experience that is always and everywhere the same.

This failure of Schweitzer’s to appreciate that the literature of Hinduism is bound together by having a common focus in a living spiritual experience leads him into some very unacceptable opinions.

Thus he holds that the Upanishads, as a body of teaching, do not hold a unified doctrine, and that “ those who have described the Upanishads as chaotic are not altogether wrong ”. Hence it follows that

Of course the Brahma Sutras cannot give to the teachings of the Upanishads any real coherence, but only an appearance of consistency ”.

With Shankaracharya the case is even Worse, for “ he does not cling to the belief of the Brahma Sutras, but interpolates his own belief even when it is quite different

But the fact is that the real meaning of the cryptic utterances in the Brahma Sutras cannot be understood except in the light of tradition.

In the hands of a traditional guru they reveal the unity of the Upanishadic doctrine by serving as an aid towards the attainment of the spiritual experience on which it is based. But they do not yield their secrets to the free-lance enquirer.

Schweitzer betrays his muddled notion of their contents by first of all saying that they do not admit the doctrine of Maya, and then accusing them of dismissing the world as mere lila or sport, all in the same paragraph.

Nor is he a better guide to the teachings of Shankara, as the following quotation will show. He says of him :

That the Upanishads speak of the Brahman as the Absolute without qualities and also as the highest God he explains, of course wrongly, by saying that they distinguish between a higher and a lower Brahman.”

But in actual fact Shankara did not say that the Upanishads distinguished between a higher and a lower Brahman, as if they were separate entities like two blocks of ice. He said they distinguished between two kinds of knowledge (Paravidya and Aparavidya) of one and the same Brahman, and for this he had perfect textual justification in the Mundaka Upanishad.

See Mundaka Upanishad 1-1-4 and the verses which follow.

Perhaps enough has been said to show that Schweitzer is a very dubious guide to the ancient Indian wisdom, and it will not be necessary to go further into his views on other topics, nearly all of which take us very far from the traditional point of view.

One wonders why he should have felt driven to write such a harshly critical book. It seems that at the time he wrote it, before the last world war, he recognized that European thought had abandoned its concern with the Absolute, and that he felt that the cry of “ Back to the Upanishads ” being raised by certain self- styled prophets of New India, such as Aurobindo and Tagore, was a challenge that ought to be answered on account of the (as he thought) non-ethical character of the Upanishads’ teaching.

He saw that the appeal of these writers to the Upanishads was skin-deep, that they were largely occupied with pouring the new wine of European positivism into the old bottles of Upanishadic formulae.

The anti-Upanishadic character of Tagore’s thinking emerges with particular clearness from his analysis. But what he did not see, and what because of his anti-traditional approach he could not see, was that the teachings of the Upanishads themselves contain by implication all that is best in European positivism and much more besides.

We may illustrate this by a reference to Schweitzer’s own opinions. He says, “ All that is ethical goes back to a single principle of morality, namely the maintenance of life at its highest level and the furtherance of life ”.

Schweitzer contrasts this spirit with the spirit of what he calls world and life negation, which he discovers in the Upanishads. He describes the latter as the conviction that existence as experienced by one’s self and as developed in the world is meaningless and sorrowful, followed by the resolve to bring life to a standstill in one’s self by mortifying the will to live, and to renounce all activity which aims at improvement of the conditions of life in this world.

The point that Schweitzer seems to miss is that the metaphysics of the Upanishads is a metaphysics of inclusion and not of rejection.

The formula “ neti neti ” (not this, not this) does not mean, as he interprets it to mean, that ultimate reality is featureless, but rather that it includes and yet is greater than any particular aspect of it that we can conceive.

In the same way, the Upanishads both include and far transcend Schweitzer’s own world- outlook.

There are several noble passages in the Upanishads which teach us the unity of the great force of prana or life pulsating in all living beings.

By the vital breath, verily, is this whole world upheld ”, says the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (1-3-23).

But the Upanishads do not stop here and rest satisfied with this conception. They go on to ask what is that for the sake of which the prana acts. What is that conscious intelligent light which perceives the existence of prana, from which in the last resort prana derives ?

Says a later verse in the same Upanishad (4—4—18), “They who know the life of life, the eye of the eye, the ear of the ear and the mind of the mind, they have realised the ancient primordial Brahman ”.

The ancient Acharyas have explained that life is a composite changing entity, and can only be conceived as existing for the sake of another. Schweitzer, however, does not understand this important point, and says, “ All Being is life, and in loving self-devotion to other life we realise our spiritual union with infinite Being ”.

There seems to be a deep confusion in his mind, however, as to whether love is based on a sense of the lover’s unity with or difference from the loved object, for on another page he says,

True ethics presume the absolute difference of one’s own ego and those of others and accentuate it”

In any case his appeal to ethics is irrational.

He accepts the Kantian view that the nature of the world is an inexplicable mystery, and that goodness is the one absolute fact. “ A true and valuable world-view,” he says, “ does not come from knowledge of the universe, but from knowledge of the nature and range of ethics ”.

He adds, “ As soon as thinking in the very least degree leaves the position that the world-spirit and world events are an unfathomable secret, that thinking is no longer in harmony with reality ”.

In the end he justifies his glorification of ethics on the ground that it is “natural”, and that non-ethical ideals, including that of the Upanishads, are not.

It does not really seem possible thus to reject reason and other forms of objective knowledge and base one’s philosophy on what feels natural.

Feeling may lead a man like Schweitzer himself to serve the backward peoples, but it may lead a man like Hitler to a very different kind of activity, and each will claim he is serving life in the best way open to him.

The philosophy of the Upanishads is far more safely and soundly grounded than that of Schweitzer, because it pushes beyond the blind life force to the intelligent principle in which it rests.

Ultimately it is not reason but un-contradicted experience which sanctions the truth of the Upanishadic world-view, and yet this experience exists in a world above mere feeling, in which reason can at least function as a check.

Schweitzer first dogmatically assumes that all Being is life, and then criticises the Upanishads for dealing with those aspects of Being which lie beyond life and which in fact give life its meaning.

It is not that the Upanishads deny the claims of life within its own sphere. When the great modern apostle of Vedanta, Swami Rama Tirtha, went to Japan, he preached to the people, with great simplicity and sweetness, a gospel of work, self-sacrifice, universal love and self-reliance, not a gospel of retirement and solitary meditation, as he ought to have done if Schweitzer’s interpretation of the Upanishads had been the correct one.

He used arguments about the welfare of the hand depending on the welfare of the whole organism of which it was a part very similar to those used by Schweitzer himself about life finding its fulfilment in self-devotion to other life. And yet he must have made his audience feel that the ideal of service of other life while yet retaining one’s sense of agency and egoity was an incomplete one, and that final peace and satisfaction would only come when even the sense of individuality and agency had been killed out by self-sacrifice in love.

It is a travesty of the Upanishadic doctrine to say that it is based on the idea that life is meaningless and sorrowful and aims at the extinction of one’s own life and the renunciation of the will to serve mankind.

It is the fragmentary life associated with the sense of individuality and limitation that is held to be meaningless and sorrowful. Our sense of individuality and limitation is ignorance, and it is just this that prevents us from realising our unity not only with all life but also with the universal consciousness that sustains life and illumines it.

It is the very sense that we are serving, says Swami Rama Tirtha, that causes the imperfections of our service.

Ethical activity is a stage in the evolutionary ascent of man, but not the final goal. This is the message of the Upanishads, and it is a gospel not of negation and sorrow, but of affirmation and ultimately of joy.


He said to him: ’’The knowledge to be acquired is of two kinds – the high        (apara) and the transcendent (para). This is said by those who know Brahman”. 1.1.4

By ‘high knowledge’ is meant learning acquired to refute the theories which do not accept or which ignore the supreme spiritual Being (Brahman); also the knowledge of arts and sciences which are helpful to right living in the world on the physical and mental planes. ‘Transcendent knowledge’ is knowledge of Reality which does not perish and which is consequently bliss (ananda) and liberation (moksha).