Dr Ivo Coelho – The Person, Human and Divine, in India…

MARCH 2013

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The Person, Human and Divine, in India – Richard De Smet’s Contribution by Dr Ivo Coelho. First published in Live Encounters Magazine. A special thanks to Ivo Coelho for taking time out to write this exclusive.

The great Vedantic tradition in India distinguishes two forms of Brahman, saguna and nirguna. Saguna Brahman is the Brahman with qualities, while nirguna Brahman is the Absolute Brahman without qualities. The former is usually identified as personal, while the latter is considered impersonal. The problem is that the impersonal nirguna Brahman is regarded as superior to the personal saguna Brahman or Isvara. One implication is that the Christian God, who is clearly personal, tends then to be looked upon as a lower, anthropomorphic form of deity.

Is this a fair reading? This is one of the great questions with which Richard De Smet concerned himself, producing 15 essays spread out over a period of 39 years. The problem is that these essays tend to be difficult of access, having been published for the most part in a number of relatively obscure reviews and journals in India. Brahman and Person: Essays by Richard De Smet (ed. Ivo Coelho, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2010) aims to remedy this situation by bringing together 14 of the essays (one has not yet been traced) within the compass of a single volume.

The relative inaccessibility of De Smet’s work, and the consequent fact that De Smet has remained one of the ‘largely unsung pioneers’ of dialogue in India, has spiritual roots: a twofold ‘election,’ first, to meet requests arising from his dialogical activity rather than produce works satisfying his personal inclinations, the organs of publication for which existed mainly outside India; and second, to give preference to the requests of Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Muslims, etc. over those of Christians. Towards the end of his life, however, he had the desire to bring together and publish his work, and with this in mind he had approached me for help. At the time I was not in a position to respond to his request. So Brahman and Person is a much delayed guru-daksina.

De Smet: the man and the scholar

Richard de Smet (1916-1997) was a Belgian Jesuit Indologist who lived and worked some 50 years in India. He joined the Jesuits in 1934, served as medical assistant in three of the battles of World War II, and spent time as a prisoner of war in a German camp. Influenced both by the openness of mind and heart called for by Ignatius of Loyola and by an early and fortuitous interest in Indology, he volunteered for the foreign missions. In the meantime, before and after the War, he engaged in philosophical studies, coming under the influence of outstanding Jesuit thinkers such as Pierre Scheuer and Joseph Marechal, and great Jesuit Indologists such as Pierre Johanns and Michael Ledrus.

In 1946, De Smet landed in India as a young student of Catholic theology. Asked to specialize in Indology after his ordination to the priesthood, he launched on a study of Sanskrit and obtained a doctorate from the Gregorian University, Rome, in 1953 for a thesis on the theological method of Sankara. The inspiration for the thesis had come from hearing Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan describing Sankara’s doctrine as almost purely rational, and his method as philosophical.

Against this prevailing current opinion, De Smet showed how the great Vedantin was a theologian, a srutivadin who applied reason and other cultural resources to the sacred texts accepted as authoritative. This thesis, which was never published in its entirety, went on to become something of a legend, circulating in ‘roneotyped’ form among students and scholars both inside and outside India, and earning a reputation as a pioneering landmark in Indological studies.

Returning to India in 1954, De Smet was assigned to teach at the new Jesuit department of philosophy at Pune – later incorporated into the Jnana Deepa Vidyapeeth. He quickly established himself as an Indologist of note, thus joining the ranks of the ‘Calcutta School,’ which is the name sometimes given to an impressive group of Jesuit Indologists taking inspiration from Brahmobandhav Upadhyaya, a group that includes William Wallace, Georges Dandoy, Pierre Johanns, Robert Antoine, Pierre Fallon, Joseph Putz, Joseph Bayart, Camille Bulcke and Michael Ledrus.

From almost the very beginning of his sojourn in India, De Smet had become a member of the Indian Philosophical Congress and other such associations, participating regularly at their meetings at not little personal cost and sacrifice, contributing papers and establishing relationships of enduring friendship with many scholars after initial moments of incomprehension and even hostility. De Smet thus has the merit of having actually engaged in dialogue with Indian thinkers in secular universities and with religious leaders and people in ashrams and other such places. 

The fact that, for many years, he taught not only Indian philosophy but also ‘Western’ courses such as metaphysics and philosophy of God accounts for his extraordinary ability to be a bridge between East and West. He was achieving in himself the fusion of horizons which Gadamer speaks about. A small indication of the esteem in which he was held is the undocumented remark of Prof. S. Panneerselvam, Head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Madras, that he is to be counted among the great Vedantins of India.

De Smet may be said to have made two major contributions to Indological scholarship: his interpretation of Sankara as a non-illusionistic non-dualist realist, and his clarification of the personhood of the Absolute Brahman. Brahman and Person, as we have said already, is dedicated to the documentation of the latter contribution.

The nirguna Brahman is personal

De Smet’s campaign on the topic of the personhood of Brahman unfolds in two movements, the first dealing with the origin of the concept of person in the ancient and medieval West, and the second with the loss of that concept in the modern West.

In the first movement, De Smet explains how the concept person was formed precisely in the effort to think about God. The term itself originated on the stage, where it meant mask or character (the Greek prosopon and the Latin persona). From here it was transferred by the Stoics to the role played by human beings on the stage of the world. The Roman jurists took an important step when they applied it not merely to an aspect of human beings but to human beings in their entirety.

However, they restricted this application to Roman citizens, so that only Roman citizens were really persons. Still, this move prepared the term for use by Christian theologians who were searching for ways of expressing adequately the revealed mysteries of Christ and the triune God.

After much controversy between Greek and Latin Christians, mainly because of the need to identify proper equivalences, it was agreed to say that Christ was one person in two natures, divine and human, and that God was a Trinity of persons subsisting equally in the unity of the divine nature. But the point is that ‘person’ took shape in the effort to think about God.

De Smet notes that this precise application of persona to Christ and to God had the effect of opening up the field to Christian humanism. Biblical revelation spoke of the human being as created in God’s image. If then God was personal, it was a short step to the recognition that not only Roman citizens but all human beings created in God’s likeness had the dignity of personhood. Historically, the recognition of this dignity had great consequences for the emancipation of the human being from all kinds of oppression.

There followed efforts to define the term, one of the earliest and most influential being that of Boethius: “Person, properly speaking, is an individual substance endowed with a rational nature.” De Smet shows how this definition underwent a brilliant transformation at the hands of Thomas Aquinas, who strove to safeguard its application to both God and the human being.

The resultant concept is not only holistic, but also applicable equally to a partless, absolute spiritual substance, or to a complex substance that is spiritual as well as material, where the spiritual in the sense of the intellectual dominates. The person in this sense is an ultimate subject of attribution, freely responsible, and an end in itself.

A problem is presented by relationships: can a personal God enter into interpersonal relationships with finite persons without compromise? De Smet appeals here to Aquinas’ theory of relation to answer yes: God can and does relate to finite persons without violation of his transcendence and simplicity, though this kind of relationship is regarded as real from the side of creatures but ‘merely logical’ from the side of God. On this point, perhaps, contemporary thinking might urge us to go further and deeper.

The second movement in De Smet’s campaign consists in indicating the connections between the loss of the person in the West and the reception of the term in India. Aquinas’ organic, holistic and intrinsically social concept degenerates in the modern period of the West into atomic individualism. This degeneration has roots in Duns Scotus and Descartes, but Leibniz is the first to posit an infinity of spiritual monads in an effort to overcome Cartesian dualism and Spinozian monism.

Hobbes introduces a new dualism between human beings and society: since the human being is essentially individual, society is a construct and the state a despot. Locke modifies this despotism by positing a political contract based on trust. Rousseau adopts Hobbesian individualism but ends up alienating all the rights of the individual to the state.

In such a context, the German philosopher F.H. Jacobi proposed a restriction of the term person to human beings: since to be a person is to have qualities, relations, etc., only a limited being can be personal. He was followed in this by a certain number of philosophers, and this trend influenced the great translators of Sanskrit works towards the end of the 19th century, who made the fateful decision to render saguna as personal and nirguna as impersonal. De Smet points out, however, that the original concept of person is fully and properly applicable to the nirguna Brahman.

In fact, it transcends the opposition between nirguna and saguna, incomplex and complex, since, like being, spirit and bliss it is transcendental rather than predicamental. Of course, even transcendental terms cannot be said to apply univocally to God and creatures. But here comes the utility of another of De Smet’s discoveries: that Sankara was familiar with and made use of jahad-ajahal-laksana, which is largely equivalent to the intrinsic analogy of Aquinas.

Such a doctrine enables us to understand that God is properly personal, but only in an eminent sense. De Smet admits that the Indian conception of nirguna Brahman does not clearly connote the possibility of interpersonal relations with finite creatures, but insists that what it denotes is identical with the personal God defined by the great Christian councils, the Trinitarian aspect being excepted.

The advantage of admitting the personhood of the Absolute Brahman is significant: we do not any more have to explain away the mysterious pointings in the later Upanisads and in the Gita to grace and love.

The Svetasvatara Upanisad declares not only that the Atman must be loved above all, but that this love is reciprocated. The highest word entrusted by Krsna to Arjuna is, “I love thee well, thou art dear to Me.” And the Buddhist tradition has not only insisted on karuna (compassion) but has also thrown up the ideal of the Bodhisattva, a hero of charity, morality and wisdom, a merciful saviour, an ideal personality to be emulated.

It must have been, then, a matter of considerable personal satisfaction for De Smet to hear the scholar and revered Vedantin Prof. T.M.P. Mahadevan declaring, at a seminar convened in 1973 at the University of Madras on the topic of the person, that the Brahman of Sankara was, if anything, surely not impersonal.

Unfortunately, it would seem that this declaration has not had the kind of resonance in subsequent Indological thinking as might have been hoped for. De Smet’s remark that this was “an important linguistic change,” far from being merely an expression of his personal modesty, now appears to have a far deeper significance. Change of meaning, especially at a systematic level, is not so much an event as a process: it involves a change of a whole set of interconnected terms and relations.

Towards an Indian recognition of the human person

We come now to the related topic of the absence of a proper equivalent to the term person in India. The Indian tradition has atman (self), purusa (male human being), vyakti (individual), jana (a being that is born), none of which is the exact equivalent of person. De Smet’s method here is to construct an adequate notion by gleaning elements from all over the tradition. In the Vedas he finds an organic, holistic and social conception of the human being, quite the opposite of the atomic individualism of the modern West. Thanks to an equation between being and stability, however, and the consequent tendency to analyse (viveka) in order to find the most stable and enduring element in the human being, the holistic Vedic conception was torn apart in the Brahmanas, the Upanisads, Jainism, Buddhism, Samkhya and Nyaya Vaisesika. But there were also gains. The Upanisads rooted the human being in the Absolute, thus establishing clearly the creaturely dimension and implying dignity, while the later Upanisads speak explicitly of grace and love. Jainism implies a real connection of the eternal jivas with material bodies, and the doctrine of ahimsa implies consubstantiality between jivas and their bodies: violence against the latter also disturbs the former. Early Buddhism goes to an extreme of analysis, but also throws up a new ideal of personality centred about the virtues of the Buddha: non-violent morality, selflessness and devotion to wisdom.

The tension between the Vedic ideal of the human being, embodied in the caste-system in the age of the dharmasastras, and the challenge of the renouncers, both orthodox and heterodox, was met in a brilliant way by the Gita which inserted renunciation within the structure of duty itself through the concept of disinterested action (niskama karma). Further, it overcame the dualism of Samkhya through a highly personalistic conception of the human being and of God: when the Absolute is not only the object of love but also Lover, and the human beloved is free, then both Lover and beloved are personal.

The Mahayana Buddhists responded with an apophatic monism which, despite its sunyavada, was able to give birth to the attractive ideal of personality embodied in the Bodhisattva. But the most adequate conception of the human person available in India, according to De Smet, is to be found in the redoubtable Sankara: the jivatman of Sankara is a contingent and dependent reality; it is the only door by which we can pass from the ordinary to the other meaning of I and Thou, but also the key to any correct anthropology. Here the human person is internally unified by the Atman through the reflection-like jivatman. Sankara’s conception is somewhat deficient only in the social aspect. Unfortunately, says De Smet, this integrated conception of the human being failed to receive the attention it deserved in India.

De Smet goes on to point out that the Gita, Mahayana, and Sankara represent attempts to transcend the transcendence of the renouncers in favour of an Absolute, whether conceived of as Brahman or as the Buddhist Dharmakaya, giving rise in the process to anthropologies that are less cut off from the world. In this sense, there is a surprising affinity between the three: their focusing on the Absolute allowed them to turn compassionate eyes to the world and to adopt a humanistic perspective, though this is somewhat less obvious in the case of Sankara. He concludes with the observation that an Indian personalism is bound to be meager unless lit up by a religion of the Absolute.

Interestingly, De Smet is also able to say that contemporary India itself has a conception of the human being that is congenial to the development of persons. This conception is made up of various elements: the organic conception of society from the Vedas; an acknowledgement of the dignity and rights of individuals from the modern West; a combination of the lofty transcendentalism of the Upaniṣads with the humanism of the Sermon on the Mount in Neo-Hinduism, as also a balancing of the self-sufficiency of Hinduism with a universal openness and religious and cultural pluralism. “The conjunction of these three,” he says, “has opened India to all the chief dimensions of the human person.”

In De Smet’s opinion, then, there are enough materials for an Indian recognition of person. The outstanding problems, to his mind, are two: that of rebirth, and that of the selection of a term. The latter he seems to have resolved in favour of vyakti, despite possible confusions with ‘individual.’ Given that meanings evolve and that they become determinate through efforts at systematization, this holds out hope for an increasing rapprochement as far as the concept of person/vyakti is concerned.

At any rate, Brahman and Person is a small effort to bring the contributions of an outstanding Indologist to the attention of scholars and the general public.

A second collection of De Smet’s articles, this time on Sankara, will hopefully soon be out of the press.

Read More…The Person, Human and Divine, in India – Richard De Smet’s Contribution by Ivo Coelho, exclusively for Live Encounters Magazine.


Father Ivo Coelho earned a PhD in philosophy at the Gregorian University, Rome, for his work on “The Development of the Notion of the Universal Viewpoint in Bernard Lonergan: From Insight to Method in Theology” (1994). He was principal of Divyadaan: Salesian Institute of Philosophy (1988-90), Rector (1994-2002), secretary of the Association of Christian Philosophers of India (2000-02), and provincial of the Mumbai province of the Salesians of Don Bosco (2002-08). Currently he is Rector of the Studium Theologicum Salesianum in Jerusalem, while continuing to edit Divyadaan: Journal of Philosophy and Education. Among his publications are Hermeneutics and Method: The ‘Universal Viewpoint’ in Bernard Lonergan(2001), “‘Et Judaeus et Graecus e methodo:’ The Transcultural Mediation of Christian Meanings and Values in Lonergan” (2000), and “Lonergan and Indian Thought” (2007). He has recently edited Brahman and Person: Essays by Richard De Smet (2010), and Violence and its Victims: A Challenge to Philosophizing in the Indian Context (ACPI vol. 11, 2010), while Understanding Śaṅkara: Essays by Richard De Smetis in the press.


MUSINGS http://ivocoelho.blogspot.com

PHILOSOPHICAL MUSINGS http://ivophil.blogspot.com

INDIAN CHRISTIAN WRITINGS http://indianchristianwritings.blogspot.co.il/

Richard De Smet SJ: CHRONOLOGICAL BIBLIOGRAPHY OF THE WRITINGS OF FR. RICHARD DE SMET, by Ivo Coelho, SDB. http://richarddesmet.blogspot.co.il/


Ivo Coelho, SDB
Rector, Salesian Community
Editor, DJPE
Ratisbonne Monastery
26 Rehov Shmuel Hanagid
P.O. Box 7336
91072 Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-6259171, +972-2-6258677 (direct)
Cell: +972-543115841 (Israel)

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