Historicity of Rama, Krishna, Anjaneya

One of the questions that has come up in this discussion is the following: are we logically forced to assume the ‘existence’ of, say, Rama or Krishna, when we ‘believe’ in them? This question has partly been responsible for the discussion about the ‘historicity’ of Ramayana. Here is my answer as I see the situation today.

1. In some sense, we all work with some notions (however vague they might be) of ‘belief’ and ‘existence’. These have at least two origins: (a) the western philosophical and scientific discourses about them, the way these have percolated into our common-sense; (b) their reinforcement by our day-to-day experiences in the world. That is to say, we have some conceptions of what human beings are (however vague or even incoherent these may be), what their properties are and so on. In other words, this notion of human beings tells us that (a) we are creatures who can form beliefs about some things (this ‘aboutness’ is called intentionality in the relevant literatures); (b) that these beliefs could be about the world, about language, about ourselves, about what exists in the world and so on; (c) that some of these beliefs are about existent objects, whereas other beliefs are about non-existent objects; (d) and that to ‘believe in’, logically speaking, either entails or presupposes (it is irrelevant for now whether it is a presupposition or an entailment) that the entity we ‘believe in’ is believed to exist. And so on. If we assume this picture of human beings to be true, then it follows that “believing in Rama or Krishna” has the same force as “believing in Christ or God”. Thus, one has to ascribe the logical truth about their existence to those who “believe in” these figures. In simple terms, if you “believe in” Rama or Krishna, then you are logically compelled to believe in their existence as well, just in case you endorse this picture about human beings.

2. The problem we face today is this: this is not the only conception of human beings that exists in the world. We know of at least one other culture, the Indian for instance, that postulates (almost) the opposite: it is a pernicious illusion (agyana) to think that human beings are intentional creatures. Therefore, the idea that they have (or form) beliefs about the world because they are such intentional creatures is itself an illusion. (What is not ‘real’ is considered as illusory here. Illusions exist but they are not real because of their existence. That is, what exists may or may not be real. However, this issue is secondary.) Consequently, if what I am told is true, Sanskrit does not have a word for ‘belief’.

3. Thus, if you accept the first picture, Indians do have beliefs (like all other human creatures), and they do believe in the existence of Rama or Krishna if they believe in them. To say anything else is absolute nonsense. The absence of the word ‘belief’ in Sanskrit is no more or no less significant than the absence of words for ‘gravitation’ and ‘genes’ in Sanskrit (or any other Indian language) before their formulation in their respective theories. This is one way or arguing.

4. The second way of arguing is to suggest that there is no obvious superiority to the first picture about human beings and that what we perceive (namely, that human beings have intentionality), by virtue of that perception alone, is not true. (We perceive the movement of Sun around the earth, but that does not guarantee its truth). If we take this route and develop a theory of human beings that is richer than the elaboration of the common-sense perception that parades as a theory (which is what the first picture is), quite obviously, even such facts as the absence of a word for ‘belief’ begin to assume some significance. Then, we can say that the way the first picture formulates the problem is unintelligible and that this picture is incapable of framing questions about the Indian culture.

5. I take the second route because I ‘believe’ that the way Indian traditions have framed questions about human beings is far superior to the way the western common-sense does. That is, that Indian traditions have done better than Christian theology. I am aware that I need to elaborate on the so-called theory about the human beings in the Indian traditions to make this claim stick. Even though I have been working on this issue (at multiple levels, albeit in a fragmentary way) for the last three decades and more, it is hardly enough: I am painfully aware of this. However, my intended note on Adhyatma will take this quest one step further. It is only through such small steps that I hope to make clear to others what I think is the case: the way Indian traditions look at human beings is far, far superior to anything else we have in the marketplace today.

As of now, all I can say is that, yes, one can be a bhakta of Rama, or Krishna, or Anjaneya or whoever without answering questions about their ‘historicity’. And that such a stance is more logical and more coherent than the western stance about the same issue.


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