Philosophy began in the East—Ex oriente lux.¹ It was in Asia that the first thinkers asked about the nature and origin of the cosmos, that the first seers experienced the Supreme Being in their own way.
Historical research reveals that Plato departed from Athens after the defeat of the Athenians in the Peloponnesian wars. In his travels, he encountered an Indian in Africa who served as the conduit of Indian philosophy.² Plato was exposed to the philosophy of the East in this encounter. It is not surprising, then, that his Dialogues are now divided into two: those he wrote before he left
Athens, and those he wrote after his long trip. Aristotle and the other Greeks could not accept Plato’s theories which contained a notion that I term un-Greek, namely that there could exist a World of Ideas that men have not experienced in any way.
Since Aristotle was a philosopher whose feet were literally planted on the ground of experience, the Platonic notion was never accepted by the Greeks.
The pedagogical clash between Plato, the teacher, and Aristotle, the pupil, caused a branching out of the philosophical trunk. The Aristotelian branch dominated the Platonic by the force of sheer logic, whereas the Platonic, which is truly ancient and Eastern, suffered a repudiation.
Philosophy, however, has come a long way since its origin in the East. The West, building new systems on top of the old, has enriched and strengthened its own weak points. While philosophy originated in Asia, the West has substantially improved on it to such an extent that some of its philosophies are decidedly better formulated than—though not necessarily superior to—the East’s in scope and magnitude, style and substance, and latitude or perspective.
I believe in giving Asia its due, and will try to express Asian thought in simple, lucid, and readable terms, intelligible to anyone making the acquaintance of Asian philosophy for the first time.
In order to understand Asian philosophy, it is imperative to put away all complexes, whether of superiority or inferiority. There are, however, gross differences between East and West which should be accepted as axiomatic from the very start.
First, the Western mind thinks in a linear manner. Western man invariably thinks in terms of time, as beginning and end, and his concept of eternity is but an extension of the end to an invisible no-end, and of the beginning to an unknown no-beginning.
The Asian, on the other hand, thinks of time in a cyclical manner. For him, the beginning and end of events or of individuals are but links in a chain of beginning-ends where the end of one immediately gives rise to another beginning in a perpetual manner. Nothing really ends; nothing really begins absolutely. Once in existence, always in existence, and a non-existent will never become, but will remain forever in the bosom of nothingness.³
Thus, the Western mind thinks naturally of creation at the beginning of the world of things and annihilation at the end of the same. The Asian mind summarily dismisses absolute creation and absolute annihilation. The fact that things exist now is an indication that they have always existed. They were never lifted from nothing into something by way of creation, and they will never cease to be; they will always exist in a different mode.
Second, there is no dichotomy between a way of life and a way of thinking in Asia. Religion and philosophy are one. No gap exists between philosophy and life, contemplation and action, theory and practice. And this is perhaps the reason philosophical theory has not soared as high as it did and still does in the West for, commensurate with theory, the Asian must accomplish in practice, which is not easy. The West has but to theorise and speculate; no application to life is necessary. Such are the Platonic, Hegelian, Kantian, Fichtean theories to which the Western philosophers render lip service.
Thirdly, the Asian mind resorts to intuition if logic is no longer able to solve a life problem. One should therefore not be surprised at its propensity for mysticism, its appeals to super-consciousness, or its countenancing the existence of a third eye or sixth sense.
By using the seven disciplines of Western philosophy—psychology, ethics, theodicy, epistemology, metaphysics, cosmology, and logic—to compare Asian and Western philosophy, we may easily discern further similarities and differences.
In psychology, the study of human nature, Asian and Western thinkers have different perceptions of man.
In the West, man is an individual, special and unique, whose individuality is based on personal characteristics emanating from a soul that is his and his alone. In Asia, man is looked upon as a speck in the universe of things; he does not possess the importance accorded him in the West. His existence is merely a continuation of another existence in a long and continuous chain.
The etymology of “psychology” (psyche- meaning “soul”, and -logos meaning “word”) is suggestive of the Western preoccupation with the duality of man. Body and soul are the two components of the human person, from which arises the difficulty of tying these two components into a single unity. Throughout the history of Western philosophy, this has always posed a problem.
Plato did not attempt to conjoin them. He said that the soul of man inhabited the World of Ideas ‘up above the heavens’, while his body inhabited the sensible world below. So that, when the soul descended into the body in the Phaedrus, it forgot what it once knew.⁴ Plato saw the body as a sort of prison, which he held responsible for consigning to oblivion ideas the soul once knew. He never taught an indissoluble union of body and soul.
Aristotle did conjoin man’s body and soul in his doctrine of hylomorphism (hyle- meaning “matter”, and -morphe meaning “form”).⁵ He said that every being was made up of matter and form.
A table has matter and form. Matter can be of two kinds: primary and secondary. Primary matter is the ingredient in all beings. It cannot be created nor annihilated since it is an underlying substrate in all things. Secondary matter is what is perceived as coloured, textured, shaped, its bulk and weight. Secondary matter can undergo accidental changes if the table is re-shaped, shortened, re-painted, etc. The table can also burn, in which case its substance seems to be annihilated, and a new one, ashes, created in its place.
Aristotle’s doctrine states that primary matter remains unchanged, whatever formal changes occur. In this case, the primary matter of the table was retained in the ashes, since primary matter is the common substrate of all things. Only the secondary matter and the form were involved in the change from table to ashes.
Hylomorphism similarly applies to the human being. The human person is made up of matter (the body) and form (the soul). For Aristotle, the body is just as important a component of man as the soul. If, for Plato, the body is like a prison or a glass case that dims the brilliance of a burning candle—in either case a liability—for Aristotle the body is necessary, if only for acquiring knowledge.
Aristotle believed that man’s soul was a tabula rasa at birth, and that the only way to fill up this blank tablet was to allow the outside world to penetrate it through the bodily senses. ‘There is nothing in the mind without having been in the senses’ is an important doctrine of Aristotle’s.⁶ Hence, the body is necessary as a contact point between the soul and the material world.
When man dies, does the soul die as well as the body? The answer given in Western philosophy is that it does not. Two proofs are given. One is that the soul is simple, i.e. it has no parts. If death means the disintegration of parts, the soul cannot die because it has no parts. The other proof is that the soul is spiritual, i.e. it is nonmaterial. This argument is based on the principle of agere sequitur esse—‘action follows essence.’⁷ As is the tree, so are its fruits. Man has spiritual activities like thinking, therefore man must have a spiritual component responsible for them. The body is not spiritual, hence the soul is the source of all spiritual activities. A spiritual being is by definition immortal.⁸ Therefore, man’s soul is immortal; it will survive the body’s death.
In the East, there is no difficulty in proving immortality. To begin with, Eastern philosophers do not put any emphasis on the duality of man’s nature. Man is one self. This self is the atman that is the seat of consciousness. The atman is man’s deepest selfhood where man is truly man. Even in sleep, consciousness is never turned off. If so, then this consciousness must exist beyond death, because it depends not on the body but on the atman.
The concept of freedom is another point of divergence between East and West. In the West, freedom is such a valuable commodity that all of man’s values centre on this concept. The categories of guilt, responsibility, retribution, and the noble and ignoble depend on freedom. No ethics is possible without freedom. The Westerner prides himself on enjoying freedom to the point that he has built his philosophies around it.
In the East, freedom does not merit any attention. The reason could lie in the lack of freedom surrounding man’s birth. Man is born ‘without having been consulted’ as the existentialists say.⁹ He has no choice of parents, place and date of birth, bodily feature, mental power, physical capacity, etc. His goals, ambitions, desires, and propensities are already laid out by the circumstances of his birth. Why, then, fuss over freedom?
Ideogenesis, the theory of how we form ideas, is another point of difference. In the West, there is only one way to arrive at ideas. An external sense like touch perceives a tree. The internal sense extracts the tree’s substance, such as its bulk, weight, and mass. Then, the intellect eliminates its colour, size, and shape to arrive at the essence of a tree. Finally, the passive intellect defines the tree’s essence as ‘a plant about 10 feet tall, rooted to the ground and having twigs and leaves.’ This essence is non-material because its colour, size, and shape have been dropped. For the West, there is no other path to knowledge.
Eastern thinkers accept other ways of ideation, such as intuition, inspiration, seeing in a mystical way. Words like rishi which means “seeing”, and vidya meaning “to see”, abound in the writings of Indian thinkers. In Chinese philosophy, the “heart” is given emphasis. One thinks with the heart and not with the mind. When one forms an idea without passing through the usual medium of the senses, this process is called inspiration. When one “sees” what other eyes do not normally see, this is called mystical vision.
In the East, man is atman, seat of consciousness. This consciousness has access to a universal or cosmic consciousness, and the only hindrance is man’s individuality which is rooted in his body. However, the body is not a hindrance as it is for Plato. In Eastern writings, the body is subservient to the atman, which can overpower it.
In line with this conception of man, the Asian brand of ethics has a basis different from that of personal responsibility.
Asian ethics is based on one’s caste. To every station in life there corresponds a certain behaviour according to which a person must live. In Asia, therefore, ethics is based on the group and not on the individual. There are no moral laws for the individual.
The moral law in the West, on the other hand, is aimed at the individual as expressed in “Thou shalt...” and “Thou shalt not...” Individual conscience plays an important role. The natural moral law expressed in the dictum ‘Do good and avoid evil’ applies to everyone without regard to status, age, or colour.¹⁰
In Asia, no such law is impressed on the mind of man. Right and wrong depend on one’s status or caste. The brahmin¹¹ follows noblesse oblige as is demanded of royalty. The brahmin who does not act like a brahmin is doing evil; likewise for the other castes.
In the West, the eternal law is a universal mandate that commands everything. A specific law governs plants, animals, minerals, heavenly bodies, and so on. The eternal law is responsible for universal order. For Christian thinkers, the eternal law is the divine mind that sees to it that a semblance of order is maintained in the universe.
The Asian equivalent of the eternal law is Rta.¹² Like its Western counterpart, the Rta is an all-encompassing law covering all beings. However, it is not the mind of a divine being governing all beings since this idea is unacceptable in the East.
The ethics of the West considers freedom to be a sine qua non of culpability or responsibility. Without freedom a person cannot be blameworthy. Hence, freedom is heavily debated. Morality is an empty concept without freedom.
Asian ethics lacks the concept of freedom. This may be because man has no choice regarding the “soul” he will inherit in the cycle of rebirth. Without this choice, how can moral blame be imputed to him? Hence, responsibility in the East is based on a man’s caste, into which he is born according to the inexorable law of karma.
This may be the reason that, in the East, there is resignation to one’s fate and forbearance in suffering. Instead of griping over something that can’t be changed, the Easterner tries to live in harmony and quiet resignation. There is wisdom in this attitude that is often misunderstood in the West.
Since freedom is highly valued in the West, the individual takes it upon himself to assert, alter, or demolish it with impunity, which he considers his inalienable right. Concomitant with it is responsibility, which the Westerner assumes along with freedom. In the East, people do not even attempt to alter their destiny, which they believe is set and unalterable.
Easterners do not emphasise their rights but only their duties, for the simple reason that rights are based on freedom, which is not given due importance in the East. Westerners, on the other hand, insist on their rights more than their duties because rights are positively deduced from freedom, while duties are indirectly deduced from rights.
In view of the above considerations, it is not difficult to see why Asian philosophy developed the way it did. Man is reborn because he is but one link in a chain. If he has “sins” to pay for, he would, by applying the law of karma, compensate for them by prolonging his stay on earth, which for the Indians is hell itself.
In both East and West, almost all disciplines in philosophy are intimately linked with theodicy, the study of the Supreme Being. For instance, without the concept of the deity in the West being a personal God, ethics would have to conceive of a personal judge to mete out rewards and punishments.
In the East, the Supreme Being is impersonal, so that the idea of a personal judge is uncalled for. Who or what then determines guilt or culpability? It is Rta, the inexorable law and unforgiving wheel of justice ‘which grinds exceedingly slow but exceedingly fine.’¹³ There is no court of appeals possible in the East. This explains why there are higher moral standards there than in the West. Perhaps this is an inaccurate way of expressing this belief. Asians simply know that there are no alibis for doing evil, even if done accidentally or unintentionally.
In the West, one can bargain or plead mitigated guilt due to circumstances beyond one’s control. The same does not happen in the East.
Retribution also differs in East and West because of their divergent concepts of the Supreme Beings. With a personal judge, one’s guilt can be easily determined and condemnation or rewards swiftly meted out. That’s why, in the West, men go to heaven, hell, or the limbo called purgatory to be cleansed of the remaining dross of their guilt. In the East, the remaining guilt will automatically mean samsara or rebirth. Only the pure and cleansed will go to nirvana and be exempted from rebirth.
In epistemology or the science of knowledge, thinking in the East never fails to emphasise the spiritual and non-material manner of knowing. Whereas some Western thinkers over-emphasise the sense or material aspect of knowledge to the exclusion of the spiritual, in the East the material aspect is always coupled with the spiritual.
But it would be an oversimplification to presume that the West is materialistic, the East spiritualistic. The human being, both spirit and matter, cannot be sliced in half and neatly categorised into two rubrics. The human being is one. East and West agree on this much.
One wonders how the first Asian philosophers conceived of a pantheistic Supreme Being. Long before the dawn of civilisation, some Indian gurus who taught ancient wisdom to their selected pupils found unorthodox ways to communicate the idea of a Supreme Being as seen in the Upanishads. Upon being asked by a student what Brahman¹⁴ is, all the teacher could utter was silence. When the teacher finally spoke, he said, ‘There is no word to contain Brahman. Brahman is all and thou art that’.¹⁵ In this one statement the teacher was able to convey that Brahman is more than anyone can think, and that any word would fail to express Brahman.
By speculating that Brahman is everything, one does not have to confront the idea of creation. Brahman is really second to none—either at the beginning or at the end, neither a producer nor produced, but both or neither. At first blush, this concept may seem ridiculous. How can one be neither a producer nor produced and yet be both or neither? This idea goes against the cardinal rules of logic. And yet, did not Nicolas of Cusa, himself a cardinal of the Church, say that the Supreme Being is a coincidentia oppositorum, a coincidence of opposites?¹⁶
The Supreme Being therefore cannot be classified. He (or it) transcends all classifications. Did not Jean-Paul Sartre try to prove God’s non-existence by calling the Supreme Being an en-soi-pour-soi—that is, a contradictory being, because en-soi contradicts pour-soi?¹⁷ Sartre concluded that, not only did God not exist, but it was impossible for him to exist.
And yet, this contradiction seems to be the mark of a Supreme Being, which is the very argument laid down in the Upanishads. The Supreme Being can be all or none, or both or neither, even a coincidence of opposites. That is one way of saying that the Supreme Being is not arrived at by any process of human logic.
While the West fumbled in its use of the principle of causation, ‘Anything that comes into existence has a cause,’¹⁸ engendering all of its conceptual errors regarding the Supreme Being, the East wisely taught that cause and effect could be one and the same. By saying that Brahman was second to none, neither producer nor produced, these philosophers swept away all human categories of time, space, contraries, and contradictories.
In metaphysics or the study of being, Western thinkers put a great weight on the stamp of individuality since the individual has but one life. For the thinkers of the East, the individual is likened to a drop of water which merges with the ocean of being, evermore to be distinguished as a drop of water once the individual enters nirvana.
Eastern metaphysics does not bother with the minutiae and hairline distinctions which Western metaphysicians devote a lot of time to.¹⁹ While the West made a quasi-science out of metaphysics, the East dwelt on the religious aspects of all philosophy, such that, in Asia, philosophy is religion and religion is philosophy.
In cosmology or the study of the cosmos, the East considers the world to form part of the entire universe, in which rules or laws govern both the earth and human beings. In the West, the laws governing the earth are not the same as those that govern human beings, because the latter are considered free whereas the earth is not.
The Chinese speak of this earth in a respectful manner, owing to their being a this-worldly people. Their concept of the earth—along with that of heaven, tao, and the ruler—is based on their abiding faith in its permanence. Indeed, people come and go, but the earth remains forever. Since they are of the East, the Chinese do not meddle with the laws of the earth, but submit to them unconditionally.
In the West, the earth must accommodate man’s desires, otherwise what would being “master of the universe” be for? If night must be made day, let one light a million bulbs. If one must harvest three times a year, let the researchers look for ways and means to achieve it, even at the expense of nature.
Science is of supreme importance to the West because it values technological advancement, itself the fruit of the scientific method. The East has no philosophy of science and does not put any value on it.
In logic, the study of reasoning, both East and West subscribe to a sort of logic. The West is influenced to a great extent by Aristotelian logic, and Indian philosophy by Nyāya logic.²⁰
The Chinese have a special kind of logic known as the logic of the “white horse”.²¹ There was once a king who ordered that under no circumstances should any horse be allowed into the premises. But a white horse was allowed in under the excuse that the white horse was not any horse for three reasons:
1. “Horse” has no colour, form, or shape, while “white horse” has colour, form, and shape.
2. If I asked for any horse, I could be given a black, brown, or white horse. But if I asked for a white horse, I could not be given any other horse than a white one.
3. “Any horse” is only an idea in the mind, while “white horse” superimposes the colour white on “any horse”. There is thus a difference between “any horse” and “white horse”.
No matter how crude, Nyāya logic was still a kind of logic that antedated Aristotelian logic by several centuries. It is therefore not true that the East is merely intuitive and not rational. What the East insists upon is that logic and intuition have their own domains that need not overlap. But the West claims that ‘everything can be explained by logic’, that ‘everything must make sense’ by applying it.
The logic of the East is based on nature, which by all standards is the most logical because it is the most regular. Logic is natural and unforgiving. If one overindulges in food and drink, one gets sick; if one commits felonies, one suffers retribution; if one follows nature, one is in harmony.
Logic in the East is evidently not scientific. It has nothing to do with reasoning. Terms are not divided systematically into clearcut classifications. Logic in the West, meanwhile, is scientific.
Philosophy is ultimately human before it is Eastern or Western. It is the human being and not the Chinese, Indian, or Greek who philosophises. If a philosophical idea is truly universal, it will transcend boundaries.
But other human factors affect philosophy. Before the European invasions, philosophy was at its peak in China, India, and the Middle East. After these invasions, philosophy declined in these areas. An invasion does something to the psyche of a people. The philosophical thought of a nation influences its mores and values. It constitutes the spirit of a people.
To understand Asia, therefore, one must first understand its philosophy.
Emerita Quito, ‘On Asian and Western minds’, in Synkrētic №1 (Feb. 2022): 58-72.