“Spiritual Titanism: Indian, Chinese, and Western Perspectives” – Nicholas F. GIER


What matters most for India is not so much the salvation of the personality as the acquisition of absolute freedom.

—Mircea Eliade

In the millennium to come we are meant to become Gods on other planets. This is the great potential of our Divinity.

—Gopi Krishna

The whole ascetic tradition . . . springs from that most polluted of all sources, the Satanic sin of pride, the desire to be “like gods.” We are not gods, we are social irrational animals, designed to become rational, social animals. . . .

—R. C. Zaehner

The idea for this book arose out of an insight I had about the use of the term humanism by the Religious Right. The typical conservative Christian describes a humanist as one who attempts to move God aside and to take God’s place. For such a Christian, humanism is Titanism, a worldview in which human beings take on divine attributes and divine prerogatives. (The Religious Right is especially keen on maintaining God’s right to set the laws of human conduct.) As I show in chapter 1, some existentialists express a form of Titanism, but the Religious Right’s blanket condemnation does a gross injustice to more moderate forms of humanism, which include Christian humanists as diverse as Aquinas, Erasmus, the American Founding Fathers, and C. S. Lewis. Over the twenty-five years that I have taught Indian philosophy and religion, I have been struck by the number of texts that contain a form of spiritual Titanism, in many ways more extreme than Western Titanism. Whereas the latter humanist rarely, if ever, claims that humans have divine attributes, this is the basic view of human nature in Jainism, Samkhya, Yoga, and later Hindu texts.

The spiritual Titanism of India as been obscured by what some have called affirmative Orientalism, a response to the “negative Orientalism” that arose out of the first Western encounters with Indian culture. Negative Orientalism viewed the Indian as an uncivilized, irrational, superstitious, lazy, cowardly, and effeminate man. Edward Said has defined Orientalism as a “Western style of dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” He sees it as a form of cultural and political Titanism, an expression of the will to power over Asia. Orientalism promoted an invisible combination of cultural and technological knowledge as power. It is, according to Said, a “political doctrine willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the West, which elided the Orient’s difference with its weakness.” The Orient then became an idea, a representation, an alien Other.

While granting the technological advantage of Western culture, Anne Besant and the theosophists promoted affirmative Orientalism, a view that proclaimed the spiritual superiority of Indian civilization and the nobility of its commitment to the virtues of passivity, nonviolence, and compassion. (Ironically, Gandhi learned to appreciate the value of his own Indian tradition from his association with theosophists in London.) Affirmative Orientalism is still very strong today and Indian philosophy and religion are still viewed by many as the answer to the ills and deficiencies of modern society. A great many Indian scholars, far more sophisticated than Besant, remain committed to the view that their own monistic metaphysics is the proper response to the anthropocentric philosophies of the West. This book will remind readers that some Indian philosophies are dualistic (even Manichean) and that some are even more human-centered than Western humanism.I submit that affirmative Orientalism is just as guilty of making the Indian an alien Other, even though this Other is dressed in attractive soteriological garb. Both forms of Orientalism cover up the roots of our common humanity and the view that the human mind, even though profoundly affected by culture, is capable of experiencing the world and conceiving of philosophical problems in very similar ways. In his classic work Mysticism East and West, Rudolph Otto showed that the basic idea of the union of human soul with the divine was common to Christianity and Hinduism. (The fact that Christian mystics find themselves at the margins of society rather than at the center, where their Asian counterparts sit, is simply a cultural variation.) More popular (and less accurate) works such as Aldous Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy have given the false impression that mysticism is the Asian philosophy par excellence. More egregious yet, some have claimed that Asian mysticism anticipates the theories of contemporary physics. Such views overlook the fact that the original philosophies of India—Jainism and Samkhya—assert the radical autonomy of the individual rather than its dissolution into a divine One. Just as the Western mind is capable of mystical thought, so is the Asian mind equally able to think of human beings as individual and isolated as well. We will find that the isolated jiva and purus.a souls of Jainism and Samkhya are the main sources of Indian Titanism. In answer to Kipling’s famous line “Never the twain shall meet,” one could say that East and West did “meet” centuries ago just as they are meeting again today. Goethe said it best: “He who knows himself and others will also recognize that East and West cannot be set apart.”

The idea of an Indian Titanism has upset some practitioners of yoga and advocates of other spiritual disciplines. They represent a common view that Asian spirituality is the only answer to Western individualism and technological Titanism. Let me just say for the record that I, too, practice yoga (every day if my schedule allows); and that I have found it to be not only a solution to a lower back problem, but also a recipe for general physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Even here, however, there is surprising confirmation of my thesis in the mantra that I use for my daily meditation. I learned yoga twenty-five years ago from the Ananda Margis. The mantra they gave me was babanam kaivalyam, which they translated as “in the name of the father, liberate me.” I did not interpret this in terms of the personal theism in which I was raised; rather, I conceived it as Gandhi himself has explained prayer: a petition by the ego self to the Higher Self. But the total inwardness of this meditative state is much more intensified now that I know that the literal meaning of kaivalya is being totally isolated, alone, and independent. Is there a basic tendency in human beings, at least in male human beings, to escape nature and the body by Titanistic declarations of autonomy—whether through external domination through technology and politics or by journeys of inward spiritual conquest? I address the issue of gender dynamics in chapter 6—The Yogi and the Goddess—where the goddess religion is offered as a counter to spiritual Titanism.

The fact that I can find personal satisfaction in a discipline whose philosophical foundations I find unsatisfactory has forced me to reconsider the thesis that certain theories of the self—for instance, seeing the self as isolated and self-contained—will necessarily lead to certain practices. Disconfirmation of this thesis is especially strong and dramatic in Jainism, where the goal of the Jaina saint is complete separation from the body and isolation from nature. Not expected by my thesis, however, is the fact that contemporary Jainas are at the forefront of India’s environmental movement. Although as a philosopher I am thwarted in my belief that practice ought to follow theory, I rejoice in the fact that, even though they are conceptually handicapped by a Manichean dualism and by an extreme individualism and anthropocentrism, the Jainas can nevertheless be great champions of nonviolence and ecological concern. By the same token I also acknowledge that the Chinese, even though their cosmology of balance and harmony should have helped them, were no more sensitive to their environment than Westerners and had less positive views of nature. Neither were they kinder to their women, although contemporary feminists should celebrate the relational self that one finds in Confucianism.

The discovery that we tend to make both other people and other cultures into the “Other” is the greatest contribution of postmodern thought. An important achievement of modernism, at least initially, was its axiom—exemplified by Descartes’s search for clear and distinct ideas—that truth lies in making distinctions and in reducing to simples. Awhole set of dualistic distinctions—between fact and value, object and subject, public and private, science and faith, politics and religion, and theory and practice—are the great conceptual landmarks of modernism. (As I will demonstrate in chap. 2, both modernism and its postmodern critique were already nascent in “axial” thinkers in Asia and Europe and that Titanism can be seen as the most negative form of modernism.) More and more, however, these modernist distinctions have been found to be, arguably, the cause of institutionalized racism (a modernist invention), militarism, social disintegration, and environmental degradation. Rather than making the elimination of all otherness the goal—achieved in either a premodern dissolution into the One or an equally amorphous dissipation in Derridean différance—I have chosen the constructive postmodernist approach promoted in this SUNY Press series.

The constructive postmodern framework I choose is broader than the one found in the book Founders of Constructive Postmodern Philosophy: Peirce, James, Bergson, Whitehead, and Hartshorne. The common ground is there: major Asian philosophers reject a mechanistic worldview; many are panexperientialists; some propose nonsensuous forms of perception; most preserve the laws of logic. However, only Buddhism and Chinese philosophy reject substance metaphysics and only the Buddha of the Pali scriptures is arguably a radical empiricist like James. The strongest expressions of pansubjectivism are found in Veda¯nta and Jainism—atman and jiva reside in everything—but we will discover that the former is primarily a premodern philosophy while the Jaina’s autonomous self and dualism foreshadow modernism. Therefore, only Buddhism and Confucianism truly anticipate constructive postmodern philosophy. The focus of the book will be the reconstructed self of Buddhism and the naturally social self of Confucianism. I say “naturally” because the Chinese did not ever have a substantial self such as atman to react against, so the self did not have to be reconstructed. With this focus on a social, relational self I choose to embrace the “dialogical” existentialists (defined in chap. 1) as constructive postmodern philosophers.

I offer a broader view of constructive postmodern philosophy in yet another sense. I include Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Wittgenstein in this movement because I believe that they have been mistakenly viewed as panlinguists and as deconstructive postmodernists. In other works I have demonstrated that Wittgenstein’s language-games are derived from forms of life (Lebensformen), forms of human behavior that have both cultural and biological roots. While Heidegger never refers to a biological basis for his “existentials,” I have proposed a parallel between Heidegger’s ways of being-in-the-world and Wittgenstein’s Lebensformen. We can, therefore, speak of a common humanity (an idea deconstructed in French postmodernism) that makes communication across cultures possible. (It is found in Wittgenstein’s bedrock on which “our spade turns,” a foundation that makes Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Horizontsverschmelzung possible.) This means that when we read about the yogi’s desire for complete independence, we can be confident that this is essentially the same desire that some Westerners feel in their own misdirected yearnings for complete and total freedom. To avoid the temptations of spiritual Titanism we should follow the model of the Chinese sage, who, instead of independence seeks integration, in place of autonomy chooses sociality, and rather than the conquest of nature, as the Analects tell us, finds “joy in water [and] . . . joy in mountains.”

N. F. G., Bangalore

GIER, Nicholas F., Spiritual Titanism: Indian, Chinese, and Western Perspectives. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000.


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