Dialogue  July-September,  2011, Volume 13 No.1


Indian and Chinese Thought

Lokesh Chandra*

The cultures of India and China can be distinguished as follows. In China, it was a ‘Culture of the State’, while in India it was a ‘Culture of Sages’. The early interpreters of Confucian teachings were literal and interested in historical facts. It changed under the impact of Buddhism and later in the 12th century with the Neo-Confucianists represented by Chu His (1130-1200) the Confucian Way became principle (li), more philosophical and more subjective. Confucius idolized the legendary sage-emperors. He had served as an official and later travelled to advice rulers for reform. A basic Confucian classic The Book of History is a collection of documents from the time of the legendary Emperor Tao (3rd millennium BC) to early Chou (1111-249 BC). Yao and Shun were sage-emperors. The Doctrine of the Mean says that Confucius transmitted the ancient traditions of Yao and Shun. To all ancient Chinese philosophers, the ideal human being was always a historical person. Confucius and Mencius idolized Yao and Shun. In India, the Culture of Sages was of the forest. The hermitages were on the banks of rivers. The hermits occupied no positions in government, did not reside at the court, lived away from urban centres, and in fact shunned the ways of the world. Theirs was a life of thought, of knowledge of the super-mundane. While Chinese value-system leaned heavily on the King or Emperor as the fountainhead of virtue, the sage or monk in India formed the essence of the highest values in divine abstraction. As the Rgveda says: men of wisdom saw the bonds of being in non-being. In Confucianism, jên is a virtue of kindness, the kindness of a ruler to his subjects. The 58 chapters of the Analects (out of 499 chapters) are devoted to the discussion of jên.

The sophistication of the Sanskrit language due to its innate grammatical structure lent itself to the formulation of abstract thought. Transcendence, organic philosophy of generalities and implications, noumenon and phenomenon, Brahman and life, abstraction and Divine: all flowed with ease in the subtle expression of Sanskrit diction. Realism of daily life, human virtue and human effort, Heaven as the supreme reality could be spoken of in Chinese diction of daily parlance, without complex syntax or subtle expressions. Chinese thought centred on existence with particular reference to the human condition, while India’s quest was the transcendental Brahman or Buddhist anityatā that unfolded in the deepmost being of man. Thus in China the emphasis was on morality, on social ethics, while in India it was the flowering of a supreme auto-consciousness. Religion and philosophy blended in India in a unity of a vision (darśana) that helps an experience (sādhanā). The luminous consciousness, karmic experience, the dawning of Illumination (bodhi) in the depths of our beings united intellection and meditation. Reintegration beyond all visible form was the quest of India, while perfection of the visible social order prevailed in China. Social integrity spiraling to the central axis of an Emperor was Chinese, while psychical integrity identifying with the Universe and the Beyond was what India strove for.

The cultural space of China was dominated by the ideogram. The academic was a keeper of this ideographic space. Learning was meant to gain official position in the government. It mattered. Confucius says in the Analects 8.13: “When the way prevails in your own state and you are poor and in a humble position, be ashamed of yourself.” The mandarins in the palaces mattered and were accorded esteem. It was the duty of ordinary people to follow the elite. The word ju means ‘literati’. This term was restricted exclusively to the Confucianists from the days of Ssu-ma T’an (died 110 BC), the compiler of China’s first great history, along with his son. In India, the great hermits, the torch bearers of learning and wisdom, of philosophy and meditation, were not only honoured, but were adored and worshipped. They illumined the minds and lives of the people by their learning and blessings. The philosophical writings closely connected with the Upanisads are called Āranyakas because they were composed, studied and contemplated upon in the forests (aranya). In India, the Guru precedes Govinda (God) as it is he who leads the disciple to the Supreme Being. A folk adage goes: “Guru and Govinda are standing together. Whose feet should I touch first. I shall touch the feet of the Guru for he will lead me to Govinda”. In India, the scholar of academic excellence and the learned hermit of wisdom and contemplation have been accorded the highest status in the varna system. They stand higher than  emperors and mandarins.

The Chinese term ju means a ‘scholar, a man of learning’ rather than ‘a man of books’. Writing in China goes to the third millennium. The Indus script also belongs to the same millennium. Written documents have existed in both cultures for the last five thousand years. In India, the sages lived on rivers. India’s thought arose on their banks, and it was a constant flow, a flux. For the water to flow, a river needs banks. It there are no banks, the water would spill all around into marshy land. Likewise the thought of India was a perennial flow, a philosophia perennis, whose two banks were śruti and sm_rti. Śruti was the eternal, and sm_rti the ephemeral. The two constituted continuity and change. This prevented all dogma, every rigidity. The mind remained free to respond to time and space. Śruti is from the root śru ‘to hear’, but it refers more to fame, glory, praise. The parallel world śloka is the voice of the gods, hymn of praise. The cognate word slava in Russian means ‘glory’. Thus śruti is the glorious, meritorious aspect of the tradition which lends patina of timeless time to the sm_rti the ever-changing ethos that governs human society. In India, personal audience with the Master and leaning his words was a qualitative ‘leap’. It was not due to the absence of the written word. It was not merely physical seeing but visualization, not only hearing with the sense organs but the essence of perception beyond the phenomenal, an indefinable becoming. Thus Śāriputra and Maudgalyāyana are śrāvakas to whom hearing is the germinative presence of contemplation. It is the divine touch of the voice that illumines the two great disciples. The Physical gaze sublimates into the serenity of Bodhi. Nāgārjuna in his Chidōron (translated into Chinese by Kumārajīva around AD 405) devotes a whole section to the real meaning of śrutam (Taisho edition, Vol. 25, p. 64 b, c, 66b). The word sm_rti is from the root sm_r ‘to remember’, related to the Latin memorari, without an initials. Thus historically, sm_rti can be m_rti ‘the dying or changing element’ of the tradition. In the monotheistic religions, ‘The Book’ was part of the triad of God, His Son and Scripture. In the Indian tradition, philosophy was darśana ‘visualisation, contemplation’ to manifest the unseen. It was a flow, reflecting the evolving transcension of the epic splendour of the mind. Darśana was not a revelation. Sm_rti, like those of Manu and Yājñavalkya, are law codes, and do not connote written records.

The cultural and civilizational accents in India and China have been different. We may tabulate some of them as follows:

China                                                                    India

Culture of the state                                             Culture of sages

Urban setting and Palace                                  Immensity of nature : rivers and forests

Simple syntax and limitation of vocables        Complex sentence structure and sophisticated vocabulary

Ethics in society                                                 Transcendence of Being

Esteem of the academic cum mandarin            Adoration of the Sage

Role of Classic                                                    Relevance of contemplation in the incandescence of Being  

Buddhism gave to the Chinese tradition a new depth and a transcendence, besides linguistic development for expressing philosophical thought. It introduced a new trend of hermeneutics to interpret the classical antiquity into the ascendance of fresh heights.

The descent of philosophy is a long process of human evolution from his animal existence to an ever-rising development. The human brain and speech were twin factors that made all sophistication possible. As man tilled the soil, he looked up to the sky for rain for bumper crops. Agriculture gave him a Heaven above and an earth below. The Rgveda (which may be dated anywhere from the fourth of the second millennium) speaks of the sky the father and earth the mother (Dyaus Pitā Prithvī Mātā).  Life was surrounded by nature both in its benign aspect and the fury of its elements. The vehemence of natural phenomena gave the humans an overwhelming super-order.  Thus life and nature led the human mind to the relationship of existence and transcendence.  These realities of life created syndromes in the mind.  This crucial transformation of biological needs created patterns of thought. To give expression to the ascending perceptions language had to play a role.  Language gave a voice to the silences of the mind, as newly enhanced verbal capacity itself became an instrument of ever-evolving sophistication. In India language had already become sophisticated around the third or fourth millennium BC.  The system of prefixes opened up the vast potential of meaning, shades and nuances and the suffixes created a new world of unlimited possibilities of refinement and subtle distinctions.  While prefixes added to expansion of vocabulary, suffixes were deeper dimension of semantic shades.  New words and new forms were putting man on the threshold of new universe of myōshiki (nāma-rūpa).  It was a phenomenon where name and form were giving rise to a new understanding of phenomena in the universe.  The sky led to a universe. Body and mind were interacting on the level of language, on the plane of ideas and the ideas were becoming inventions of objects and new relationship. These relationships wee between individuals, between an individual and his family, between family and  society, between citizens and their ruler, between humankind and natural surrounds, between environment and universe, and all of them converged to a Transcendent.  It was a pyramidal structure ever deepening ever on the move, rising higher and higher. In India, the delicate and versatile linguistic richness of Sanskrit became a prime instrument of the formulation of the basic and profound ideas and structures.  The human mind needed a speech of sensitivity. Experience and its conveyance led to creativity. Speech was generating ideas and ideas were giving rise to new linguistic potentialities. We will take the example of a simple Sanskrit root bhū to be, exist, grow’ as it evolved in the Greek language. In Greek it gave the word phuton ‘growth, plant’, phusis ‘nature’, phule ‘tribe, race’, phuma ‘growth, tumor’. These words have the root bhū as phu with the addition of the suffix-ton in phuton, suffix -sis in phusis, suffix -ma in phu-ma, and so on. The English words physical, physique, physics all go back to phusis which is bhūti in Sanskrit. Physics became metaphysics in 70 BC. Andronicus of Rhodes gave the name ta meta ta phusika to a collection of the writings of Aristotle in reference to the circumstance that the treatise with metaphysics followed the treatise on physics. Metaphysics as a branch of philosophy which deals with the first principles of being and of knowledge, goes back to the growth of a plant as part of nature. the plant arises from the soil and metaphysics rises unto higher realms of being.

The subtlety of language in its ever-expanding vocabulary and the abstraction of relations in complex syntax were instrumental in the emergence of philosophical speculation in remote antiquity. The absolute, the ineffable became part of the world-view of India alongwith its dedication to forests, rivers, as the whole of nature was benign to agriculture and hence to life. The flowing rivers and raining heavens did not breed sands of dogmas.

When Rutherford smashed the atom at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, Prof. A.B. Keith wrote a book entitled Indian Logic and Atomism. It was published by the Oxford University Press in 1921. Prof. Keith wrote that atomism first arose in India in 1000 B.C. The Vaiśesika-sūtras are the first attempt to understand the emergence of atoms from cosmic energy. The Japanese have known Vaiśesika thought for thirteen centuries from its Chinese translation done by Hsüan-tsang in AD 648.

Indian thought has been polycentric with many centres of being, with several deities, as against monocentric conceptions which insist on One God, and a Single System. Polycentrism comes from the flow of rivers on whose banks the sages of India thought of life as a flowing, of time as ever moving, and the universe itself a flux. The philosophic speculation of India was not restricted to cities or royal courts, but was part of the primeval forests in the darkness of their vast unknown. There were always territories where travellers had never gone, and which were domains for sages to explore.

India saw the synergy of the laukika dimension of daily life, of this world, in harmony with the lokottara dimension beyond this existence, the transcendent of the universe. The interplay of the two enriched the landscape of life, giving it a substance, a meaning above all daily events.

In India, philosophy was darśana, a vision, wherein daily realities found their sublimation and blessing. It functioned on four levels:

Jñāna or knowledge of the nature of Ultimate Reality in the richness of mythology and multiplicity of deities. This corresponds to the Philosophy of the Greeks, and to Transcendence of modern thought.

Kriyā or Ritual, with a vast pantheon of deities. It was the interface of humans and darśana.

Caryā or Ethics. Mythological concepts deepened the morality in social relations.

Yoga or Meditation. It is unique to Indic systems including Buddhism.

The six heretic teachers of the life time of Śākyamuni were minor sects that were mushrooming all the time. They did not become the mainstream. Śākyamuni came from the ksatriya order which was steeped in the Brahman of the Upanisads. He shifted the accent Brahman of the Upanisads. He shifted the accent from Brahman to the human. The sufferings of men by virtue of birth, disease, old age and death became his central concern. It was a qualitative leap from the unfathomable unknown to the perceivable centrality of man. The Enlightenment of the Tathāgata gave a new order to the world wherein wisdom and compassion enlivened human existence.

The rise of philosophy in India may predate the others and more so its sophistication, because of the rich linguistic potential of the Sanskrit language and its derivative Pali.

The development of Greek language was promoted by their reception of the Phoenician alphabet in the eighth century BC and by the symbolising of vowels. The correct representation of vowels gave precision to Greek. The Ionic alphabet was officially adopted at Athens in 403 BC as the standard Greek script and it has remained so till today. It affected the general growth and progress of culture, of the diffusion of ideas. Narrative songs sung to the accompaniment of the lyre were followed by a period in which epic tales were recited by rhapsodes. By the ninth century the epic verse had been refined and perfected. Homer’s genius could express itself in this hexameter. From bards to rhapsodes, to Homer, to the Attic drama and to the great philosophers: a quantum leap that represents Greece in all her glory. Thales, acknowledged as the father of Greek philosophy, was born as late as 640 BC, by the time Indian thought had reached its zenith. The ideas of Xenophanes, Parmenides and Zeno that the world is unreal, and that God and Universe are one, are close to Indian thought. The Pythagorean concepts of rebirth and five elements remind of India and the Pythagorean theorem recalls Baudhāyana’s treatise on geometry. Max Müller says that during the time of Socrates there were Indian scholars at Athens. The Latin poet Ovid who died in AD 18 gives an account of the teachings of Pythagoras about vegetarianism, and his doctrine of metempsychosis. Pythagoras remembered his former births – an instance of jāti-smara of Buddhist jātakas. Dr. C. Krause terms them “purest Indian philosophy”. Lucian (2nd century AD) lets the Goddess of Philosophy tell Jupiter that she first descended upon the Indians, the mightiest nation upon earth. Greek philosophy has shed itself into the mind of modern Europe. The Greeks were the first Westerners. The spirit of the West, the modern spirit, as a Greek discovery.

Chinese philosophy was an evolution from its historical and political milieu. The myth of Sinocentrism and the isolation of China from the Barbarians can no longer be sustained, after the study of well-preserved mummies from the Tarim Basin. In her meticulous work The Mummies of Urumchi, Elizabeth Barber has shown that the mummy people were Tokharian speakers who settled in the Tarim Basin around 2000 BC. It is long before the Han dynasty annals that describe the forced migration of Central Asian Yüeh-chih by the Hsiung-nu in the 2nd century BC. The Tokharains were an Italo-Celtic people. Lao-tzu supposed to have journeyed to India, to the Da`n]daka mountains in Kashmir, and to the court of King Pu`n]darīka. E.G. Pulleybank has written over the years on the contacts of the Chinese with the Indo-Europeans. For instance, he says that mi ‘honey’ (which has a final t sound) can be a loan from Indo-European (Sanskrit madhu, Greek methu, Englsih mead). Likewise, ma ‘horse’ can be related to English mare and German Mahre. The horse is not indigenous to China. There are close parallels between Aristotle and philosopher Han Fei (died 233 BC) about thoughts and words. The ancient ritual text Chou li dates from the 4th century BC and has materials from much earlier times. It speaks of ritual jade and jade insignia. Chinese obtained their jade from the region of Khotan and Yarkand.

The foregoing points to possibilities of interactions between Chinese and the ItaloCeltic and Hellenic worlds. Khotan was an Iranian language area and must have had contacts with the rest of the Iranian world. Iran was close to the Greek ecumene. Though no direct influence can be found in Chinese philosophy, but cultural contacts were quite possible. The grammar of the Book of Odes is structurally simple, so simple that scholars fail to understand it as they cannot transport themselves into that primal atmosphere. The word ku ‘because’ is not found in this sense in the Odes. Abstract terms are few. By the time of Confucius (end of the 6th century BC) the idea of ‘because’ had arrived. The main spur to logical thinking and speaking was given by Mo Ti, who came a generation after Confucius. The language of reason, of logic, advanced in his day. It was accompanied by refinements in grammar and syntax.

There were contacts between Greece and India, and the Greeks were acquainted with Indian thought. Greek and Sanskrit belong to the same family. The communication lines between China and Greece could have been through the Iranian people of Central Asia and also through the Tokharians who were allied to the Europeans ethnically and linguistically. Yet the insularity of the ancient peoples was strong and philosophy developed in the three great civilizations in the contexts of their own society, values and linguistic expression. The sophistication in Chinese thought emerged after Mo Ti. The records of his teaching reveal methodical thinking: the book has a title and one subject is treated at a time. The unsystematic nature of the Analects demonstrates the undeveloped state of prose composition. The philosophical essay came into existence in the third century with Hsun Ch’ing and Han Fei. The  flourishing of sophisticated thoughts were subsequent developments of ideas and ideals set forth in the aphorisms of Lao-tse, Confucius and others. Brief and cryptic they provoked thought. There is an adage in Sanskrit: the gods love the cryptic (parok_sa-priyā]h devā]h).

The discoveries in particle and high energy physics, have led modern thought into holistic channels: “The survival of our whole civilization may depend on …to experience the wholeness of nature and the art of living with it in harmony”. This holistic conception of reality is replacing the Cartesian-Newtonian world-view of breaking up thoughts and problems into pieces and arranging them in an artificial logical order. Life is not logic. This mechanistic view of early science has its roots in the philosophy of the Greek atomists of the 5th century BC like Democritus, Leucippus and others. Fritjof Capra, in his famous work The Tao of Physics, points out that hadrons in particle physics and the 64 hexagrams of Taoism are related. The I Ching is the closest analogy to the S-matrix theory. Leibniz was acquainted with Chinese thought of the Neo-Confucian School of Chu Hsi through translations he received from Jesuit monks. This was rooted in the thought of Avatamsaka Buddhism. Joseph Needham mentions the parable of Indra’s net of pearls in connection with Leibnizian monads.

Life and mind are human universals. The thrust of Indian and Chinese philosophies, inspite of their qualitative divergences, has been an effort to uncover deep motivations and underlying causes of human action at the basic level of nature and profound reality of the universe. Ideals were created in the human mind to provide a morphology of society that was in consonance with the cosmos, the divine and the human. The quest was not a human universal, an offshoot of monotheism, but a human harmony wherein multiple minds and cultural milieus could turn the dynamics of history into the motive power of life. Just as day time fades into night time, so in the world of experience values and life merge. Life is beyond time. As eternal and universal, it will be shared over the ages, sometimes even after a hiatus of centuries. Modern physics with its probings into the very inner being of processes per se, leads us to the very heart of life with values. It takes me to a saying of Confucius:

        The wise find pleasure in waters,

        The kind find pleasure in mountains.

        The wise are active, the kind are placid.

        The wise enjoy life, the kind enjoy long life.

The great revolutions of the USA and France in the latter part of 18th century were inspired by enlightened institutions of the Chinese thinkers. Chinoiserie was the height of fashion in Europe. Confucius had said “where education took root, no class distinction would exist”. Voltaire (1694-1778) commented upon the theories of government of Confucius. Vice President of the USA, Mr. Henry Wallace said on 10 October 1942 that Chinese philosophy and democratic trend in folk psychology have made important contributions to the political philosophy of the West.

Chinese and Buddhist thoughts with their holistic world-view are timeless in their broader essence, dedicated to life in its multiple surrounds, and stand poised to inspire new world views with their accent on the biosphere.

The ancient Buddhist caves at Tun-huang, Kizil and other places are visual renditions of several sutras representing diverse sects. These several sutra representations were later systematized into the concept of multi-level teaching. Thus the Tendai sect recognised a scheme of five levels of teaching belonging to four preliminary stages of revelation, and the whole culminating in the ‘One Vehicle’ doctrine of the Lotus Sutra. This ensured continuity of the tradition, as well as its perfection in the final doctrine. Opening of the Eyes is a process of several centuries to open up the profound levels that enhance the quality of present life. Daishonin Nichiren integrated the three major expressions of Chinese thought as:

Confucianism (Ru-jiao)      Kung Tzu        mystery of being

Taoism (Dao-jiao)               Lao Tzu           mystery of non-being

-                                             Chuang Tzu    mysteryof both being and non-being

This interpretation of the Daishonin reminds me of Ch’eng-wei-shih-lun by Hsüan-tsang where he speaks of Being, Non-being and Thusness. It is an effort to harmonize Chinese philosopher-sages and Buddhist concepts. The three systems have interacted over the centuries and have also been modified by Buddhist ideas. The philosophic systems are so vast and so profound. Taoism opposed Confucian worldliness with a transcendental spirit. It went deeper into the Way of life, so much so that it was termed as The Way by Ssu-ma Ch’ien. It denotes simplicity, spontaneity, tranquility, and no action (wu wei) that is contrary to nature. The lesson of Taoism is: Man is to follow Nature but in doing so he is not eliminated; instead his nature is fulfilled. Excessive living is ominous. It is better to make the desires few from the beginning. The Taoist classic Tao Te Ching provides perceptive insights into the processes of the universe. It has been translated into English by a physicist Jane English and Gia-fu Feng. Jane did her doctorate in high energy particle physics and teaches a course in Oriental thought and high energy particle physics at Colorado College.

Confucius (551-479 BC) exerted great influence on Chinese philosophy by determining its outstanding characteristic, namely, humanism. He concentrated on man: man can make the Way (Tao) great. He did not talk about divine beings or about life after death. His primary concern was a good society based on good government, filial piety in family relations, and proper conduct (li). He believed in the perfectibility of all humans. His concept of a chun-tzu as a morally superior man amounted to social revolution, wherein nobility was not of blood but of character. His five fundamental concepts were Rectification of names, the Mean, the Way, Heaven and Humanity (jên). They regulated words and actions, virtue of kindness and the Way according to which men should behave. Though not a philosopher in a technical sense, he moulded Chinese thought in a way that balanced and harmonised self and society. Mencius sums up his personality in the following words:

        He was perfectly void of four things :

        He had no selfishness, no prejudice, no bigotry, no egotism.       

Chuang Tzu (about 399-295 BC) transcends the mundane world, yet he is always in the depth of daily life. He is mystical and at the same time reason is his leading light. The Tao is worldly in Lao Tzu, whereas it has become transcendental in Chuang Tzu. He carried Taoism to new heights. His impact on Buddhist terminology and presentation has been tremendous. He helped to transform Confucianism into Neo-Confucianism. His profound interest in how to live and how to respond to all things has been an inspiration for centuries. Our century needs his concept of Harmony: to be in harmony with men means happiness, and to be in harmony with Nature means the happiness of Nature.

Meaningful arrangement of the Classical norms of Chinese philosophy, especially as it applied to the hierarchy of the ruler and the people, was attempted by T’an Ssu-t’ung (1865-1898) and K’ang Yu-wei (1858-1927). They remained within the main stream of Confucianism and said that humanity is the power of attraction that unites all people. It is universal love. His Book of Great Unity (Ta-t’ung Shu) provides a deep foundation for a New Human Order. T’an Ssu-t’ung propounded a philosophy of univeralism, and he regarded jên “universal virtue and basis of all goodness” as the source of all elements of existence. Both were influenced by Buddhist ideas of compassion or karu`. They upheld tradition in its most open aspects, but orthodoxy did not enable them to develop the innate tendencies of Chinese culture into modern values. With marketization under the protection of socialism, China is in the danger zone. The dominant role of the Chinese language with its ideographic space is a saving grace that can bring in a national renaissance in an international context.

After millennia of separate histories, the cultures of mankind now suddenly find themselves in a common situation. Natural resources dwindling, water table going down every year, pollution levels reaching critical levels, social relationships being dominated by egotism, and national frontiers in meaningless array: all threaten human life itself. The technosphere is on a collision course against the biosphere. Humanity needs a dynamic transformation. It has to be a meaningful arrangement of different orders. A common situation cannot be and should not be a single syndrome. It has to be a symbiosis of the multiple, a polycentric consciousness. To achieve a New Human Order:

i)      We have to switch on our consciousness to the fact that humanity and nature are interdependent. Nature can no longer remain the backdrop or raw material for exploitation. Polluting nature is to our own peril. Nature commands our reverence. Lord Buddha gained Bodhi under the Bodhi tree.

ii)     We have to delimit our needs. As Lao-tzu says: Manifest plainness, Embrace simplicity, Reduce selfishness, Have few desires. Nature has enough for need, but not for greed. In Buddhism it is aparigraha ‘non-acquisitiveness’.

iii)    People have to share with fellow beings, with nature, so that all things flourish.

iv)   Wisdom and compassion (prajñā and karu`) of Buddhism will be the joy and beauty of life.

v)    The confluence of the nobility of several traditions, functioning in their respective domains, can ensure a harmony of Life, Nature and Enlightenment (Bodhi) from the beyond within. To quote Poet Tagore “every moment it comes from the heart of the master, it is breathed in his breath”. Our self must be born anew every moment in the rhythm and repose of the Spirit and kindle our inner consciousness.  



Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

                                               Astha Bharati