Commonalities and Similarities—S.N.Balagangadhara

1. Whether or not we observe ‘commonalities’ has to do with the descriptive framework we use. Things might share common properties in one description; at the same time, share nothing common in another description. Both could be true descriptions of the same set of objects. ‘Perception of similarity’ is (at the moment our knowledge is in) is extremely difficult to analyze and understand. On the one hand, our perceptual abilities (as they have evolved out of a successful adaptation to the world) must tell us what is present in the world. Otherwise, we could not have evolved. (We share this with other products of evolutionary development, i.e. with other species.) On the other hand, we cannot say what that similarity is without using a descriptive frame work. (When the notion of ‘similarity’ poses such problems, the problem of ‘commonality’ is even more difficult to solve. This is a matter of huge philosophical debate: do two objects share the ‘common property’ of “being blue” or are they merely similar to each other?) Even though I have no solution to this problem, I fail to see the relevance of solving it for my enterprise.

2.1. You say: “While our Western observers mistakenly saw religion in India…”. As a scientist, you should know that Nature cannot be cut at its joints because Nature does not have joints. It is our theory (or description) of the world that allows us to speak of (relatively) independent phenomena like gravitation, electrical forces, magnetism, nuclear attraction and such like. Again, it is our theories that try to unify these forces. That is to say, our theories first distinguished them, only to try and unify them at a later stage. The same applies to culture. The western observers did not ‘see’ religion; their hypothesis about religion allowed them to construct a phenomenon (from a set of facts which their hypothesis singled out as relevant) they called Hinduism as a religion. So, unless you are willing to argue that cultures comprise of distinct and discrete phenomena called ‘religion’, ‘politics’, ‘secular’ and such like, you cannot claim that the western observers saw ‘something’ that is discrete and that they mistakenly described it as a religion.

2.2. You say, “I have no doubt that they did follow the principle of not unnecessarily multiplying entities…” You should have doubts, because it is historically false. (a) They spoke of one religion called Hinduism because heathendom or paganism was ‘one phenomenon’ for them. (b) Why they did not speak in terms of regional religions has to do with the fact that their theory about religion did not tie religion to either a people or a region. Such an attitude of tying ‘religion’ to a people has more to do with the notions of ‘traditions’ (as the Romans used them). (c) As their ‘knowledge’ of India accumulated, they made many differentiations. For instance, they spoke of ‘Vedism’ and ‘Brahmanism’ as the religions that preceded ‘Hinduism’. The latter is the corrupt version of the purer ‘Brahmanism’. (d) They also differentiated between Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Bhakti movement, etc. as religions that are distinct and different from ‘Hinduism’. Today’s wisdom wants to speak of ‘Hinduisms’ in the plural and not just ‘Hinduism’.

In other words, they did not follow Occam’s Razor in not ‘multiplying’ entities. However, if they did (as you suggest), I am afraid you are contradicting yourself. Multiplication of entities refers to multiplying ‘theoretical’ entities, and not observational ones. If they ‘saw’ Hinduism, Occam’s Razor is not applicable (you see what there is, is it not?); if they followed the argument of Occam, then they could not have seen Hinduism but postulated its existence as a theoretical entity.

2.3. You then go on: “So whatever it was they observed, there was sufficient commonality in it.” I do not see how you can say this. ‘Commonality’ is a concept we use in describing. When we say some things have some properties in common, it is shorthand for the following: we can build a set with a specific set of properties and we can give a true description of some objects such that they constitute a set. Neither in Nature nor in Culture could we say that objects have ‘commonalities’. Objects have something in common in one set of descriptions; in another set of descriptions, they need have nothing in common. From this it follows, they could ‘see’ commonalities because according to the description they provided, whatever they saw had commonalities.

2.4. You say: “I take our subject of study to be the traditions, teachings and practices of dharma and moksha.” Let me just say why this is not sufficient to speak of Hinduism. Kamasutra, under this interpretation, does not belong to Hinduism. But it does talk also mention ‘dharma’. What do the Tantriks speak about? They explicitly deny wanting ‘Moksha’ (so do the naastikas), and they practice ‘adharma’. Are the charvakas not Hindus?