Platos' Indian Connection - A Review
This compact booklet (all of 40 pages) is a compilation of 3 lectures delivered by Prof. Dr. Sheryar K. Ookerjee (former Head of the Department of Philosophy-Wilson College) at the K. R. Cama Oriental Institute, on March 16th, 17th and 18th 2009, as part of the Government Fellowship Lectures. It is published by Ms. Homai Modi and Dr. Nawaz Mody for the Cama Oriental Institute. The 1st lecture is a fairly serious discourse on the concept of Karma and the allied concept of Rebirth, as expounded in Hinduism and in Plato’s Dialogues-Phaedo, Republic, Symposium and (a little more seriously) in the Meno.
One of the main tenets of Hinduism is that the soul is in bondage, trapped in a physical body and needs to be liberated. Every action produces a reaction, an effect, a result, and therefore, actions (karma) are the main source of bondage. And according to the principle of Rta, (accepted in Hinduism) good actions must be rewarded and the wicked punished-that alone would satisfy man’s inherent sense of justice. However one span of human life is too short to have all the results of karma crammed into it; this necessitates a series of rebirths, in the course of which the accumulated results of karma are played out. Hence the law of karma (considered by Hindus to be universal and invincible) and the doctrine of Rebirth go hand in hand; for we often see the good suffer and the wicked flourish like the green bay tree. This, says Dr. Ookerjee, tongue- in- cheek, would be a miscarriage of Divine Justice. Faith in an equation between karma and its fruits entails a faith in a series of rebirths. However the Hindu law of karma is an impersonal law and is not routed through a Divine Being.
Dr. Ookerjee now compares this view with Plato’s stand on Reincarnation. Plato also believes that the soul is trapped in the body, as a result of which it cannot attain ‘pure knowledge’ and its ‘desire for truth’ remains unsatisfied. But as in Hinduism, the doctrine of rebirth does not form a main part of Plato’s philosophy. Plato, however adds a new doctrine (and relates it to the concept of Rebirth) - the doctrine of Reminiscence or Recollection - to show that nothing is ever learnt anew (except knowledge that comes through the senses); everything else is only a recollection of what we once knew in our previous births. However, in Plato, the fruits of the action come via God, who ensures that the wicked souls are hurled into Tartarus and accordingly the evil souls may enter the bodies of wolves, kites and donkeys! Admirers of Plato (and obviously, Dr. Ookerjee is one of them) seem to be embarrassed and cannot believe that a rational, analytic philosopher like Plato, could believe in such myths! To supporters of Plato, says Dr. Ookerjee, all this comes as a ‘painful shock’ and ‘blots his copybook’! Perhaps an attempt is made to save Plato by maintaining that the mythical accounts appear, after he has argued strictly philosophically, his convictions about the moral life.
Fortunately, for Plato’s supporters, a different account is given in the Republic namely, that morality is autonomous, an end in itself, and does not require to be supported by an external contrivance of ‘karmic’ or ‘extra mundane causation’. Like the concept of ‘Nishk‚ma karma’ in the Bhagwad Gita, Plato also believes that an act has moral value, only if it is not done with ‘an eye on the fruits’. Of course, one cannot quarrel with this view .A strictly moral act should be done because it is right and for no other reason. However, for the common man there is some psychological satisfaction, that somewhere, sometime, in some form, the reward will come if the world is believed to be a moral order.
For believers in the Karma theory, the Law of Karma is simply the principle of causation, as applied to the moral world. One does not doubt or question the cause-effect relationship in the physical world, because it can be experienced; however the belief in effects or fruits coming in different births seem unpalatable to the opponents of the theory of Reincarnation.
It is necessary to note, that the doctrine of Reincarnation will always remain a matter of faith, arguments for and against will continue till the ‘cows come home’. That the soul continues to exist even after the body perishes, is an esoteric issue and there is a whole new branch of study-Para Psychology, - which can be read profitably and needs to be given some consideration.
The 2nd lecture is a delightful dialogue (though admirers of Kautilya may not quite agree) between Plato and Kautilya, dealing with the Institution of kingship, the qualities ideal rulers should possess, and the guidelines along which the state ought to be governed. All the while Dr. Ookerjee is skillfully bringing out the contrast between Plato’s Republic and the Statesman on the one hand and Kautilya’s Arthashastra on the other.
Both Plato and Kautilya, reject Democracy, because how would ordinary common men know how to govern. They are like sheep and therefore would require a shepherd to know what is good for the sheep .The importance of the study of Philosophy, for the ruler king is also accepted by both; though Plato insists that philosophy is not just of ornamental value- for a ruler has to be a genuine philosopher, having the correct knowledge of what is right and wrong, and never doing the wrong intentionally and knowingly. Kautilya claims to be a down to earth pragmatist and is sceptical about Plato’s attempt to change the world by introducing new ideas. His job as a philosopher, claims Kautilya (knowing the ways of men and specially of politicians), is to be an advisor to the king and show how to indulge in lies, intrigues-but efficiently and professionally! According to him, a ruler should also be a good warrior, exhibit courage, have a sharp intellect, be free of all negative emotions, be dignified in dress and behaviour, be morally correct and capable of upholding caste distinctions in his kingdom. Philosophy is only a pleasant pastime- a royal accomplishment!
Plato is surprised at the qualities Kautilya thinks a ruler should possess because for him Education would be the most important factor and education for the rulers would include a study of Astronomy, Mathematics and Philosophy. The rulers would be Philosopher - Kings, so that the governing of states, in a rational manner would be ensured. Plato is very emphatic that the caste system can never be accepted. The class system which would comprise the Philosopher - Kings, Soldiers, and the Artisans has the advantage that mobility is permitted, whereas the caste system is fixed and has a religious sanction. Both agree that the happiness of the citizens must be ensured, but differ in the concept of ‘happiness’. Kautilya thinks that happiness for the masses lies in permitting them to do what they like to do as long as they are not a threat to the ruler. Where as Plato feels that the citizens’ happiness lies in making them do what they ‘ought’ to do, and which would also be good for them.
There is good-natured bantering that goes on occasionally and Kautilya’s inability to understand the essence of the governing of the state as envisaged by Plato, tries the latter’s patience from time to time and hence the parting shot to Kautilya; - ‘I cannot honestly say it has been great knowing you!’ shows Dr. Ookerjee (who himself does not suffer fools gladly) openly avowing his partiality for his favourite Greek Philosopher!
The bogey of Reincarnation surfaces again, and Plato, (unlike his master-Socrates) is reborn around 1979 A.D. (probably to reap the fruits of his bad karma, accumulated in some of his past births!) visits India and is interviewed by the Assistant Editor of the Times Of India.!
After lamenting on the pathetic condition of the roads, the increased level of corruption, Plato emphasis the austerity to be practiced by people at the ‘top’. The Dialogue Republic mentions the requirements including the denial of family life and that these people would have no hold, control, or right over their children, for they would be brought up by the state. Since the finest people would be at the top, everyone’s happiness would be ensured, and people who were unfit to rule, would be automatically weeded out. Of course, to achieve this, the right kind of education is required which proceeds with ordinary ‘opinion’ at the base, gradually moving up to ‘proper knowledge’ and at the apex would be Philosophy. This would ensure that the ‘top layer’ is clean and the dirt does not percolate down. Realizing the highly idealistic stand of the Republic, in his last Dialogue- The Laws, Plato gives guidelines not only for rulers but also for common citizens.
[It is not clear whether Plato has reread his own dialogues in this new birth or whether in keeping with his theory of Recollection or Reminiscence, he has been able to recall- centuries later- what he had written in one of his previous births!].
The interviewer appears a little skeptical about the proposals in the Republic and the Laws, for they would not fit into the modern pattern, and Plato concedes that he would have to reconsider the entire system of education because today the rot starts from the ‘top’. But one thing Plato is sure about is that the state should be ruled by a wise and a good ruler. [What may surprise the reader are the words Dr. Ookerjee puts in Plato’s mouth- “By the time I wrote my last dialogue a little before my death”!. Even believers in the theory of Reincarnation admit that one hardly remembers anything about one’s previous births, and here is Plato, recalling even the finer details of what he had done nearly 2000 years ago! In fact, Plato’s rebirth itself comes as a surprise, for, Dr. Ookerjee’s first lecture gives the impression that he is not comfortable with the concept of Reincarnation- with or without a Divine connection, and sometimes even mocks at it!]
Finally, the interviewer thanks Plato, for sparing some time, hopes he would be around for a long time, and this time (as against the conversation with Kautilya) Plato is quite pleased with the ‘good and appropriate’ questions asked and gives a very optimistic and heartening reply:- ‘I shall always be there!’ Truly, like Shakespeare, Plato has also become immortal, through his works!
The booklet, Plato’s Indian Connection is highly readable, very neatly printed and Dr. Ookerjee, in very simple language, brings out the essence of Plato’s philosophy ingeniously. The book has the advantage that it can be read very profitably both by a serious student of Philosophy (who would be inspired to re-read the dialogues and possibly from a new perspective) as well as by a lay person-who may sometimes have to read between the lines, and sometimes may have to take it-half in jest and half in earnest!
- R. DOCTOR
(Former Head of the Dept. of Philosophy- Ruia College)
Adjunct Faculty-in charge of Counselling- at I.C.T since - 2004