Chance events and Indian Philosophy

Jain version Game of Snakes & Ladders called jnana bazi or Gyan bazi, India, 19th century, Gouache on cloth – Wikimedia Commons

Encountering reality as radically singular, unique and ineffable

Modern humans have an ever-increasing range of very sophisticated conceptual tools and mental models to deploy to understand our world and to understand the human condition.  As a result, an ever-broader range of phenomena are brought under human control through the ever-greater reach of rational and scientific explanation.  Our understanding of and mastery over natural phenomena as well as the familiar experiences of human life grows ever-stronger.  This shapes our understanding of our own place in the world of nature, in the world of technology and in the world of social interaction.

By contrast, ancient peoples had far less rational purchase on the world in which we live.  Their powers of explanation and prediction were much inferior to those of people today.  Finding themselves lacking methodologies to yield really effective intellectual and practical mastery over the world is certain to have shaped their fundamental understanding of the human condition.  Indeed, in this predicament, philosophical models of human experience were formulated which differed in significant ways from contemporary ideas about the human condition.

The lives of ancient peoples would have been radically vulnerable to events outside of their control, including negative experiences such as death, disease, psychological trauma etc.  Conversely, the opportunities to flourish and thrive in life would have also hard to obtain and hard to maintain.  Precisely for this reason, perhaps, ancient peoples were more alive to the element of chance and unpredictability in the human condition.

In works of Sanskrit literature, we find many characters whose destinies are changed completely by a chance encounter.  For example, the chance encounter of Śakuntalā with Duṣyanta led to a radical transformation in Śakuntalā’s life-story, and, by leading to the birth of Bharata, shaping the destiny of India itself as a nation.

Likewise, in the Mahābhārata, the pivotal event of the story is a game of dice, which is emblematic of the role of chance in human life.  The stake in the dice game is the highest stake imaginable, that of wealth and power versus exile and obscurity for the Pāṇḍavas.  By agreeing to play and then losing the game of dice, Yudhisthira manages to set in train a series of events leading to the downfall of both the Pāṇḍdavas and the Kauravas, and thus again to shape the destiny of India as a nation.

Indeed, even today, we can relate to these feelings.  Whilst the macro-course of human history has at least a superficial semblance of stability and predictability, our own individual life-courses seem to be full of uncertainty and chance elements.  As our societies grow more complex, again the ability to exercise control over our own destinies starts to become more tendentious.  The major turning points or momentous life events may be chance meetings with other or chance discoveries that may easily not have happened.  Contemporary story-telling, too, often features a chance event which alters the destinies of the main protagonists.

The 6th century Indian Buddhist philosopher Dignāga raised an important question about the nature of reality in his work, Ᾱlambana-parīkṣā.  He asked what reason we have for believing that reality is anything like the way we describe it subjectively.   Dignāga himself, observing that all conceptualisation happens in the mind, believed that reality itself must be completely unlike the we describe it linguistically. Whereas our description of reality is in terms of stable concepts, regular processes and causal connections, in reality reality itself is composed of events that are non-conceptual, hence radically singular, unique and ineffable.

Dignāga’s question, by distinguishing between reality as it is objectively, in itself, and reality as we describe it subjectively, has something in common with scientific methodology, which also enquires into the nature of an observer-independent reality.  However, whereas modern science seeks to describe this objective world through laws, causal regularities and fundamental scientific concepts, by contrast, Dignāga’s view is that all such conceptualisation is on the side of subjectivity.  Dignāga in fact believes that we do experience reality as it itself, radically singular, unique and ineffable, yet when we come to process it mentally, we falsify it to ourselves through the act of thinking.

Thus, when we are repeating habitual patterns of routine thought and action, the world itself shines forth less brightly in our imaginations.  When we are attempting something genuinely new and creative, our minds are more alive and our bodies are more truly responsive to the immediacy of the experience, and we respond with spontaneity and improvisation.  Indeed, though we set plans, goals and milestones in different aspects of our life, it is often in the chance deviations from these pre-set expectations that we find value and meaning in our lived experience.

Indeed, if the transcendent lies in that dimension of reality which is forever outside our grasp, then it may lie in this non-conceptual and non-linguisitc dimension to our experience.  Perhaps reality itself lies precisely in those facets of our experience which constitute some kind of genuine encounter with the unknown.  This seems to be have been the view of one group of ancient Indian philosophers who held svabhāva or chance to be the ultimate principle of reality.  Such encounters with the unknown perhaps necessarily triggers some kind of distinctive emotional response.  These emotional responses engage where our habitual patterns of though and action break down, and can manifest in positive or negative forms, as a sense of wonder, a surge of anger, an attitude of humour etc.

In such a situation, calling upon the Gods to support us and strengthen us against unpredictability, in the manner of many Vedic verses, appears quite an appropriate response to our human situation.  We may conclude with the following sentiment –

Let us hear with our ears what is good, O gods!

Let us see with our eyes what is good, protectors of the sacrifice!

Standing with stable bodies and limbs,

Let us attain the duration of life set by the gods!

Having a hundred autumns before us, O gods,

In which space is the ageing of our bodies,

In which our sons become fathers,

Do not destroy us mid-way through our journey!

[Rig Veda Book 1 Verse 89 lines 8-9; गोतमो राहूगणः; my own translation]

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