The Descent of the Transcendent (Sibesh Bhattacharya)

The Descent of the Transcendent (from The Descent of the Transcendent: Viewing Culture with G.C. Pande, by Sibesh Bhattacharya, in Philosophy East and West, Honolulu, October 2013)

In [Govind Chandra] Pande’s [1923-2011] theory an unresolved ambiguity vis-à-vis the issue of the decline [of culture/civilization] can be perceived. He does not overtly raise or face the issue of decay. We can extrapolate from his core concept – the vision of the transcendent – the process of decline of a culture consistent with his theory. Could it be said, in keeping with the general tenor of his theory, that the process of culture is essentially a process of decline? The ultimate truth cannot be envisioned in totality; it is beyond human capacity. The full truth cannot be received however capacious may be the vessel of the receiver. At the very moment of its birth it has become diminished. Further shrinkage takes place in the process of communication. The received truth can be expressed inadequately through symbolic metaphorical language; a great deal of it is lost already in the very first stage of its communication.

The very first sermon is thus limited. There is a Buddhist tradition that after his enlightenment the Buddha hesitated for some time before delivering his first sermon because he had reservations about whether people would be able to understand the truth he had realized. With each new round of communication the truth loses more and more of its authenticity and power. Thus, the process of the spread of culture is in reality a process of the loss of the purity and strength of culture. But this line of interpretation does not provide answers to all the issues related to the decline of culture. Pande does seem to accept the fact of its physical growth. In his scheme a culture spreads over the population, taking more and more people within its fold. Similarly, it spreads spatially with new areas coming within its purview. The relationship between the process of decline of the purity of the vision on the one hand and the simultaneous process of physical growth on the other, that is, a simultaneity of two apparently contradictory processes of growth and decay, is an interesting phenomenon. Spengler and Toynbee resolve this contradiction by differentiating between the apparent and the real, that is, they identify one set of markers as the real and the other as apparent. Usually they consider some characteristics of growth at the physical level as useless or even negative. In their opinion technological advancement, an increase of military power, and imperial expansion are often signs of decay rather than growth. They distinguish between the body and the soul of a culture/civilization; the state of the soul is the real indicator of growth and not the fattening of the body.

Pande’s point of view seems different. The vision of the transcendent, enshrining the core value, loses its pristine luminescence in the very act of its transmission from the transcendent realm to the temporal, and the process of decline goes on. This happens in the case of religion: ritual, exegetical literature, philosophy, and the church and its following grow in volume and complexity, and under their mass and weight the original light becomes more and more dimmed and hidden. Pande, however, continues to emphasize that religion is not just a vision/teachings and a code delivered by a prophet; religion also is the realization of the truth in one’s innermost being. It is this ‘cave’ that is the eternal dwelling place of religion. And it is not subject to decay. Moreover, the process of culture is not exactly the same as that of religion. Culture is the texture of values that grow from the agama [source] through paryeSaNa [inquiry, investigation, delving]. But it continues to grow in and with the process of the transmission and propagation of the envisioned truth.