Ajnana Philosophy: Philosophical Skepticism in Ancient India

We are generally told that philosophical skepticism originated in ancient Greece. Two Greek schools of philosophy one of the Pyrrho and the other of the Archesilaus and Carneades are credited with coming up with the ideas of skepticism. What most people don’t know is that there has been a school of philosophical skepticism present in India much before these Greek gentlemen. In fact Pyrrho had visited India during the time of Alexander and it is very probable that he picked up his ideas from India. In any case the idea of skepticism was present in India centuries before the Greeks and the fact that Greeks are credited with coming up with it is another example of the bias we see again and again against Indian contributions in the popular media. There is philosophical skepticism present in major Indian philosophical schools such as Buddhism and Charavaka philosophies, but its main bastion was Ajnana Philosophy that we will discuss today.

There is not much direct literature surviving on the Ajnana philosophy, all that we know about them is through Jain and Buddhist texts who talk about Ajnana philosophy in their texts. Ajnana means lack of knowledge and in the modern times we have a negative associating with Ajnana, therefore many people might not take this philosophy very seriously, but if you think about things with an open mind you realize the benefit in such thinking. Such skeptical thinking is always needed to prove the validity of any theory. Some amount of skepticism has always been present in the Indian thought. Such as Maharishi Yajnavalkya doubting in early Upanishads on whether the ultimate truth of atman can ever be known. However this philosophy mainly came into forefront at the same time when other philosophies such as Jain and Buddhist philosophies were taking shape in India.

It is easy to see why ajnana philosophy came into prominence at such a time. 500BCE was a very exciting time in India in terms of philosophical development. During this time so many different philosophical sects sprouted all along India. All these sects had their own theory on the universe and our place in it. It is natural for some people to be skeptical of the theories being proposed and conclude that it is impossible to know the truth. This is why Ajnana philosophy came into existence. Now I do not want to go into the details on how Ajnana was skeptical of the other Indian philosophies as for that I will have to go into the proposition of all the individual Indian philosophies that Ajnanas were skeptical of and you guys will get bored. Instead let me make it more entertaining though analogy.

Let us take the example of string theory in the present times and use that as an analogy to describe criticism of Ajnana philosophers. String theory as you might know, right now is the most advanced theory that describes this universe. Modern physics tells us that this universe is made up of three families of particles called quarks, leptons and force particles. Each family consists of further particles, which have their distinct characteristics such as mass, charge and spin. Now, although physicists know that a certain particle has certain characteristics, they do not know why they have these characteristics. In comes the string theory, which tries to describe why these particles have these characteristics. Before string theory it was generally assumed that all the fundamental particles are point particles with no dimensions, but string theory says that the particles are in reality made up of tiny rubber band like strings vibrating in 10 spatial dimensions and one time dimension. All the physical properties of these particles such as their mass, charge and spin arise due to the difference in the vibration pattern of these strings. Physicists have gone through complicated calculations to come up with these vibration states to describe the physical properties of fundamental particles, however there is not much experimental evidence to support this theory. The main reason for lack of experimental evidence is because it is next to impossible for us to really test these theories with our current technology. The size of the strings in the string theory is roughly equal to 1.6*10–35m called a plank length, which is way too tiny for us to resolve. Moreover 7 of the 10 spatial dimensions that string theory assumes in its calculation are also of the order of the plank length and therefore cannot be observed by us. On top of all this there are now new concepts been introduced into string theory such as multiverse and super symmetry. In other words, string theory is way beyond our current technological capacity to be verified experimentally and is mostly based on theoretical predictions. No wonder many prominent physicists are skeptical of this theory, which included Richard Feynman a prominent figure in Quantum Field theory.

Now the situation of String theory as we have it right now is very similar to the situation we might have been in at the time when so many philosophical theories were been proposed. For example some philosophies claimed soul to not be made of matter, while other claimed it to be made of matter while some others claimed the soul to be not made of matter but then with bad karma it attracts matter. There were just too many theories out there and people were addressing questions way beyond their capacity. Under such a situation somebody with a practical mindset will be skeptical of all these theories and call them to be just an imagination, these were the Ajnanas. Ajnana philosophy argued that it is impossible for you to know the truth in these matters, therefore accept your ignorance and live with it until you have concrete evidence of your theory. In my opinion this is a very scientific thing to say.

Unfortunately most humans cannot live under such uncertainty. We find the state of non-knowledge or Ajnana so threatening that in order to avoid it we are ready to believe in a false statement. Therefore slowly as other philosophies gained more prominence Ajnana philosophy declined. But still the impact of this philosophy cannot be discounted on Indian thought as the skepticism of Ajnana Philosophy helped other philosophies to become stronger to be able to withstand the attack of the skeptics.

Originally published at https://stoicsadhu.com on July 20, 2019.

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