I am a devotee at a South Indian temple a few miles south of Rochester, New York. It’s caste and gender neutral, at least in theory, and its murti, which Indians are unembarrassed to call idols, are out in the open and can be worshiped and touched by everyone, not just by Brahmin priests.[i] The central idol is the Goddess Rajarajeshwari, the monarch of monarchs from whom all being proceeds, and her tantric ritual practice follows the non-dual tradition of Sri Vidya, a goddess cult that owes much intellectually to the equally monistic Śaivite schools of Kashmir. Rajarajeshwari is imagined as a beautiful if slightly daunting woman, but her primary forms are a mantra of fifteen or sixteen syllables and the Sri Yantra, a complex of triangles that depicts the movement from a central point into multiplicity and back again, each moment generating its opposite, the product of that opposition generating its own contradiction, and so on.
The Hindu tradition imagines its temples in a variety of ways. They are bodies that mediate between a macrocosmic body and human ones. They are also seen as condensers of a sort; offerings and chants charge them with energy which is paid out in response to prayers and entreaties. They are always in danger of running down, then, and always in danger of losing their purity—a major concern in the Indic world—so every twelve years they must be reconsecrated and re-energized by days of mantras and fire rituals.
Twelve years ago our ritual was on a vast scale; it was as if a small Indian town had dropped down into exurban Monroe County, and I spent nearly every day there. This time there were fewer homam altars where gifts were consigned to the fire and fewer rishis chanting to the god Śiva, and owing to family and work obligations I was able to get there only one morning. The main offerings had ended the night before, but I got to sit and chant the Sri Rudram, a hymn to Śiva of great antiquity, and of course catch up with old friends.
I was chatting with one when another came up to tell us that the daughters of our guru’s guru were about to perform a ritual rarely done outside their father’s temple in Andhra Pradesh. I knew nothing of what they were doing but it seemed worth my time. I had met their late father only once, but he was both a benign and open character and a man of great intellectual gifts; before his temple-building days he had been a nuclear physicist. I trusted his practices.
What we did was sit quietly and allow ourselves to be imagined and worshiped as the Goddess herself. The officiants touched us in various places while murmuring Sanskrit syllables, they presented offerings, they sprinkled water on us and chanted, and at the end they “took the dust from our feet,” touching our feet and then their own heads and hearts.
But we were not imagining that status, said Guruji’s daughters, because all of us were not different from the Goddess. What we are and what we do is simply what She is and does, and the purpose of the ritual was not to make us different from ourselves. It was to place us, at least for a few minutes, in a state where we could experience our identity with the absolute rather than simply acknowledge it intellectually.
And this is where I found myself thinking, not of Śiva or Rajarajeshwari, but of Fichte. I am not a believer, I must confess, but Hinduism is less concerned with orthodoxy than it is with orthopraxy, and I am attached to its rituals, mantras, and yoga because they lead me towards a world that is surprisingly similar to the one that Fichte evoked. His Absolute is quite like the Goddess. It is what manifests in all activity and in all the forms that this activity assumes and then dissolves. Sitting outside the temple I thought of the ecstatic vision of the “One Life” that closes The Vocation of Man, and I also thought of a strange phrase Fichte used frequently in his later lectures. He was not interested in mere intellectual assent. He wanted his students to “become the Wissenschaftslehre.”
One can hardly hope to “become” a theory, and Fichte did not want anyone to substitute his ideas for their own experience. As he repeatedly emphasized, his was a philosophy of seeing, not of being, and the most consistent philosophy of seeing is one that directs people towards a particular vantage point. Fichte thought that he had found a point from which anyone could see what he had seen. Once there they could construct their own Wissenschaftslehre, different from his own but just as valid.
In his 1804 lectures he showed exactly where that point was located, using this formula:
x y z ● B – T
The “x y z” designates the manifold of experience. B is being and T is thought. Above them both is A, the Absolute, which is prior to the separation of subject and object and is thus rendered “objective and therefore inwardly dead” if we try to say anything about it.
The black dot between the manifold and the subject-object split is the “point … [which] is not just mere genesis but the determinate genesis that is required by the absolute qualitative A.” The Wissenschaftslehre stands “in the point,” which “can be realized immediately, oscillating and expanding itself in this point; and we, as Wissenschaftslehrer, are this realization inwardly.”[ii] It is much like the bindu in the Sri Yantra, which represents the moment when the unmanifest Absolute manifests itself. All things burgeon forth from there, as does the separation of subject from object through which manifestation becomes conscious experience. Fichte’s diagram and the Sri Yantra, then, are both flow charts or pictures of the activity that unites unity and multiplicity.
Those familiar with Kashmiri Śaivism will be struck by even more similarities. The oscillating movement of the Absolute’s manifestation echoes the back-and-forth process of Śiva’s manifestation, often described as vibration, and Fichte’s stress on reciprocal activity, which can be found throughout his theoretical writings, could easily be summed up in Sutra Three of Kşemarāja’s eleventh-century Secret of Self-Recognition: “The universe is manifest because of the differentiation of reciprocally adapted objects and subjects.”[iii] Both of these philosophies, and Sri Vidya as well, aim at redirecting our attention to the genetic activity that forms our everyday experience, and the point where the Wissenschaftslerin is to place herself is the same place that Guruji’s ritual encourages us to occupy, that perspective from which one sees oneself within the circular movement that unites the everyday with its incomprehensible origin. Becoming the Wissenschaftslehre is thus akin to these spiritual disciplines. It is cultivating an attentiveness to the processes that generate and sustain experience.
Fichte does not appear to have known anything of Indic philosophy, and by the late eighteenth century Kashmiri Śaivism was all but forgotten even in India. (It is still a niche subject both there and in the West.) The resonances between the Wissenschaftslehre and Indian philosophy were apparent to Rudolf Otto, though, and he appended a chapter on “Fichte and the Doctrine of Advaita” to his Mysticism East and West of 1926.[iv] Years later, acting on a suggestion from no less than the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, John A. Taber wrote a monograph titled Transformative Philosophy: A Study of Śańkara, Fichte, and Heidegger.[v] Neither is very satisfactory. Fichte cannot reasonably be interpreted as a mystic, not least because he denies the possibility of any experience of the Absolute,[vi] and Taber identifies the philosophical standpoint—which for Fichte is always the standpoint of transcendental philosophy, à la Kant—with the attainment of a “higher level of consciousness.”[vii] This is as profound a misunderstanding of the Wissenschaftslehre as it is possible to imagine.
Trying to draw connections between Fichte and Śankara is something of a misbegotten enterprise anyway, because the Indian philosopher’s denial of the real existence of the manifest world is a poor match for Fichte’s “real-idealism.”[viii] As Jaideva Singh, who did much to revive non-dual Śaivite thought, wrote, “According to [Śańkara], the universe is … unreal. According to [the Śaivite schools] , the universe is perfectly real; it is simply a display of [Śiva’s] power. … What constitutes the ideation of the Real cannot be unreal.”[ix] This is not far from Fichte’s insistence that the world of experience is no illusion; it is simply how the Absolute manifests itself, and indeed it is how the Absolute must manifest itself. In both cases the illusion does not lie in what is apparent to the senses but in our belief that it exists independently of the global activity out of which arises both seer and seen.
These earlier writers may not be to blame for their choice; until recently Śańkara seemed to be the archetypal Indian philosopher, as much Indic theorizing was unavailable even to those who knew Sanskrit. Many more texts have now been published and translated, putting us in a better position to explore these connections. Finding a common language for that exploration remains a problem, however, and this may rest in part on the feeling that Fichte—even though his argumentation is meant to direct one away from the conditions of argumentation itself—is speaking a language of logic and rationality in the tradition of European philosophy, but that Kşemarāja and his brilliant teacher Abhinavagupta, like my guru’s guru, remain mired in religious mumbo-jumbo.
The Eurocentrism of this prejudice is obvious, but it is not really the problem. Far more insidious is a rarely-acknowledged fact about that European philosophical tradition. We like to think that philosophy is no longer theology’s handmaid, and that since Descartes it has rested on its own non-religious foundations. It is pretty to think so, but it takes only a small shift of perspective to see the hidden Christian roots of what looks like a secular undertaking.
This is not a matter of covert beliefs so much as it is one of received problematics, and that is nowhere more evident than in the point of departure of Fichte’s work, the human subject and subjectivity itself. We think of ourselves as discrete beings, the sole authors and owners of our thoughts and experiences. That is certainly how we appear to ourselves. But the earth appears to be flat, and there is no more reason to trust our inner sense of what we are than there is to trust our outer sense of the shape of our planet.
The critique of self-experience is commonplace in contemporary neurology and cognitive science, but it is a foundational element in many Indic philosophies, too, obviously in Buddhism but equally present in Kashmiri Śaivism and Sri Vidya. It is rarely explicit in Classical Antiquity, but one’s identity there (among the elite, at least) was that of a citizen of a “common city of gods and men,” and individuals were moments within a world full of gods, or of divine emanations, the fall of atoms, or the inexorable movement of fate. Christianity is an outlier in this respect. It not only accepts the folk psychology of an independent, pre-social self, it is focused above all on the fate of that self in this world and the next.
As the ideology of an increasingly autocratic empire, Christianity played a key role in a wholesale transformation of both social relations and perceptions of self and world. The divinized civic culture of Antiquity had been a web of horizontal, often face-to-face connections, where boundaries between gods and humans were blurred—as they still are in India. Christianity replaced these with vertical bonds between God and the souls of isolated men and women.[x] This newly-emptied cosmos was repopulated in part by the cult of saints, but everything still began and ended with the individual soul.[xi] That is where Descartes started: with a man alone in his room. We have never really left.
It used to be more apparent that philosophy was trying to take over from Christianity. We often see the Enlightenment as fundamentally critical, as an assault on the repressive institutions of the ancien régime in the name of individual rights and liberties. It is at least equally valid, though, to see it as reconstructive, a response to centuries of religious warfare and to what Paul Hazard called “the European crisis of consciousness.” Christianity no longer provided the grounding and vocabulary which could make large-scale consensus possible, and philosophes and Aufklärer both contested its refusal to acknowledge its own demise and aimed at replacing it with a rational framework for individual and social life.
The enduring radicalism of Fichte and Hegel lies in their insight into the stakes of that project. They knew that no new world could be founded on a human subject inherited from the past. Marx was right when he said that the critique of society had to begin with the critique of religion; the aims of the Enlightenment could not be achieved so long as it was founded on Christian ideas of the self, and neither can the aims of secular modernity. Without that further step Western philosophy remains tied to religion, not because reason or the scientific method is a “matter of faith,” but because the self of contemporary thought, with its internal perspective on an exterior world and its narrative identity, chosen values, and self-generated goals, is essentially a metaphysical construction inherited from Christianity. We are still in the land of mumbo-jumbo after all, trying to resolve problems created by the Christian picture of the world without the aid of Christianity. That task is probably beyond our powers.
Fichte and Hegel thought of themselves as Christians, but they both came up with sui generis versions of Christianity with neither a personal Deity nor a humanity formed in His image. This is why we can imagine a conversation between Fichte and Kşemarāja. They have only one thing in common, but that one thing is enough: it is the unity of global process with individual action and experience, the unity that Christianity had severed. Karl Jaspers quipped that the course of European philosophy ran from Ionia to Jena, but that course was also a Vichian ricorso, a recovery of something that Latin Europe had left behind.
That something lives on, surprisingly, in South India, which has been called the last surviving Classical civilization, and even today I can drive 25 minutes and walk into a common city of gods and men not unlike those inhabited by Athenians and Romans. What happens there may seem bizarre or irrational, but the world it opens up is more in keeping with the biological realities of our lives than is the myth, central to Christianity, that we somehow enter life from outside and remain apart from it until we die. The Indian tradition, though, emphasizes stillness and contemplation, which are thought of as masculine. Fichte came down on the side of activity—the feminine in Indic thought. The Wissenschaftslehre catches the global process on the fly, as the impetus for an eternal striving. Knowing oneself to be a moment in the activity of the whole gives one the task of realizing its inherent fluidity and mutuality. Throughout Fichte’s foreshortened career we can see a steady movement from theoretical to practical philosophy; to become the Wissenschaftslehre is also to act, to replace a world built around the fantasy of the isolated individual with one that grows from human solidarity. Religions can only illuminate the world differently. The point, however, is to change it.
[i] There is a monograph on the temple: Corinne Dempsey, The Goddess Lives in Upstate New York: Breaking Convention and Making Home at a North American Hindu Temple (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
[ii] J. G. Fichte, The Science of Knowing: J. G. Fichte’s 1804 Lectures on the Wissenschaftslehre¸ tr. Walter E. Wright. (Albany: SUNY Press, 2005), pp. 40-41, translation slightly altered.
[iii] Kşemarāja, Pratyabhijñāhŗdayam: The Secret of Self-Recognition, tr. Jaideva Singh. (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1980), p. 52.
[iv] Rudolf Otto, Mysticism East and West: A Comparative Analysis of the Nature of Mysticism, tr. B. Bracey & R. Payne (London: MacMillan, 1932), pp. 219 ff.
[v] Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983.
[vi] Otto’s often perspicacious account is undermined by statements like “The object of knowledge is here [i.e., in the later Fichte] ‘Being itself.’” Otto, op. cit., p. 226. Fichte would of course deny that Being could ever be an object of knowledge.
[vii] Ibid., p. 95. Not much more useful is Leta Jane Lewis, “Fichte and Śaṃkara,” Philosophy East and West, Vol. 12, No. 4 (Jan., 1963), pp. 301-309.
[viii] Otto recognizes this, and makes the reasonable suggestion that Fichte’s blessed life, committed to the betterment of the world, more closely resembles that of the Bodhisattva; op. cit, p. 231.
[ix] Singh, “Introduction” to Kşemarāja, op. cit., pp. 23-24.
[x] This is one of the main themes in Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988).
[xi] Protestantism emptied the cosmos ever more, cutting away at the roles of the church and tradition and eliminating the saints altogether. It is worth noting the clear correlations today between Evangelical Protestantism and extreme individualism and support for anti-government and anti-social movements.