Another passage to India

His heart and mind seem to have travelled to some distant corner that is forever India. Yet when Kjell Madsen receives us at home, we are struck by the Nordic blend of his domestic choosing: Pine wood furniture indoor, Norwegian woods outdoors..Some artifacts of far eastern origin are scattered about at random to testify he has moved about. Madsen is an elastic vegetarian, known to bring out his household`s traditional speciality: Hawaii toast sounds grand, it is conveniently simple: Bread avec pineapple and some elusive extras on top, gently baked in the oven. Madsen may be inspired by the codex of the early Fabians in England: Plain living, high thinking. He feeds on Nordmarka first and foremost, on patient cross-country skiing in the hilly playgrounds surrounding the capitol. Madsen is not a man for all seasons, rather a sub zero temperature kind of fellow. At 53, Madsen looks weeks younger.

Marius Hauge: Kjell Madsen, your interest in Indian Thinking seems a quantum leap from the sturdy convictions of Norse democracy - a quantum leap also from your professional apprenticeship with German philosophy?

Kjell Madsen: You can put it that way, if you like. Indian spirituality, it`s true, does not belong to the world of academic philosophy, which can be found in India as well. Somehow I have learnt to appreciate the style of the gurus. This raises the big question of the limits of authority. "Guru addiction" is psycholocigally tricky, but as a rule it is not a dangerous thing. Mind you, there are some spectacular exceptions. Just think of the suicide sects. The best known example recently have occurred in the Western world. Sorry, this was not your question. Why do you mention German philosophy?

MH: You may well ask. It really touches on the same, key issue. What are - and ought to be - the limits of spiritual authority? I think we need to explore the depth of political disasters in the 20th century. German political thought has gone sadly astray in the past and brought terrible scenes to the European continent in the process. Is it fair to blame the idealist zest of German philosophy for the dark deeds perpetrated by German rules?
KM: If we go into this subject, we will not be able to return to India. Let me just say this. One cannot see Nazism and "German political thought" as one. Fascist movements existed in many countries in Europe in the 1920s and `30s. For historical reasons such movements grew particularly strong and managed to seize power in Italy and Germany; it would be a much too idealistic view of history to seek the explanation in the philosophical traditions of those countries. The most obvious connection to India one finds in the idea of the "Aryan race". Some people seem to believe that the very word "Aryan" is a nazi invention. This is not so. The term comes from the invaders into northern India in the second millennium BC, from the Sanskrit-speaking people. They called themselves "Aryans", meaning "the noble ones". Neither Sir William Jones in Calcutta, who first saw the link between Sanskrit, Greek and Latin, nor the other Englishmen who took a keen interest in Sanskrit literature, nor the German (Wilhelm v. Humboldt, Friedrich Schlegel, Schopenhauer, to mention a few) who were also fascinated by these texts, can be understood as early Nazi thinkers. The connection came into being decades later, after the rapid development of the racist ideologies in the late 19th century. An important figure is the Frenchman Joseph de Gobineau. He, if anyone, dreamed up the disastrous notion of the superior "Aryan Race". It is fair tosay that his totally unscientific " Essai sur l`inègalitè des races humaines" (4 vols., 1853 - 56) found more enthusiastic followers in Germany than in France.

MH: So you don't think that wicked men have acted upon a high spiritual impulse and sought justification for their policies in the grand abstract designs of Germany`s great minds, of any great mind for that matter?

KM: That is certainly part of the grand picture. One can find in Wagner and Nietzsche passages that could warm the heart of a Nazi, not to mention Martin Heidegger, who for some time thought of himself as the Thinker of the Nazi regime. Even worse, after the war this very influential philosopher was unable to express self-criticism on this point. But where is the link to India? Philosophers may show affinity to totalitarianism, yet such affinities are far removed from any "Asian roots" that can be found in their thinking.

MH: What about the Anglo-Saxon tradition? India for one was placed at the receiving end of British imperialism - another wicked force in world history, based on racial discrimination and economic exploitation. Nevertheless, modern Indians don't seem terribly angry with their past masters?

KM: You must remember that India is a country with a written history that goes back more than 3000 years. Compared to that, what are 90 years of the British Raj (1857-1947)? When Indians today contemplate "their past masters", they have more reason to dwell on great rulers like Ashoka and Akbar, who were Indians. Here comes empress Victoria! She was the one who lived in a far away country. But, to be sure, her viceroys and their staff members helped develop the Indian railway system. Thanks to their presence, some Indian gurus learned to speak English and so made themselves understandable to the world. For this we can be very grateful. Also, you must remember that most Indians living today have no personal experience with British masters. Travelling in India and meeting some of the older ones some years ago, I was told several times that things used to be much better during the British Raj. This, I think, is a local expression of universal nostalgia.

MH: We see such nostalgia all over the place, people longing for the order of the past. Isn't western enthusiasm for Indian
philosophy somewhat nostalgic also?

KM: Some of the motives, maybe. Since we never had anything quite like the teachings of the gurus, one cannot call it part of
the order of the past.

MH: East is east, and west is west. That was Kipling`s notion. However, in your book Flammen og hjulet ("The flame and the
wheel") you write that the two have long since met. Are you not contradicting yourself?

KM: Please remember the semantic Principle of Charity: Whatever they say, one must try to make the best of it. American
philosopher Donald Davidson.

MH: Can you say a little bit more about what you mean by East and west coming together?

KM: There was some knowledge of India in the ancient world. The Greeks referred to the yogis as "gymnosophists". They must have been struck by the bodily exercises performed by their exotic colleagues - like many in later times. The existence of the Indo-European language family makes us expect that these cultures have a lot in common. (Compare the distance to the Pre-Colombian cultures in the Americas.) But not much can be said with certainty. When talking about Indian influence on Greek Philosophy for instance, we are quickly moving into the world of speculation, based on the rumours that pythagoreans were vegetarians and believers in reincarnation, whatever that might mean. the encounter between East and West is old, beginning on the 16th. Century. But only its modern history is really known to us. The Jesuits went to China and made inquiries there; this was a major step. some of the Enlightenment thinkers developed a kind of Sinophilia, whereas India was the discovery of the romantics. Since 1893, which saw the first Parliament of Religions meet in Chicago, many Indian Swamis have found their way to the West. We live in a culture where the established religion is steadily on the decline. Other voices are being heard. So far, not by many.

MH: Please go on.

KM: Okay, pal. There is an interesting difference to be noted here. I think it is fair to say that Indian spirituality has been more widely appreciated in America than in Europe. For example: It is significant that Dr. Rudolf Steiner, then head of the Austro-German theosophists, could not accept the idea of "The Light of Asia," and so, when in 1910 they came up with young Krishnamurti as the new World Redeemer, he broke loose and funded his Anthroposophical Society. Steiner followed Hegel in this respect: the light of history is always moving from the East to the West, and therefore, a return to the East would be an intolerable scandal. Actually, by liberating himself from the crazy ideas of the theosophists, in my view Krishnamurti became a better teacher than Steiner ever was. The notion of the supremacy of Europe is representative for the age of imperialism. And so, in Europe one finds mostly academic interest in Indian Philosophy until the time of the hippies, in the 1960s. In America things looks a bit different. Maybe the so-called transcendentalists - Walt Whitman should be included among them - made the American mind more receptive. "Song of myself"! This title (of Whitman`s longest poem) is an almost word-to-word translation of "Bhagavad Gita". One of Emerson`s best known essays is " Self-Reliance". All of this is related to an important word of India - the self, the Atman.

MH: So an intellectual mind, fostered in a western tradition, invariably finds itself drawn to the great source of Indian wisdom. Tell us what are its core attractions?

KM: Carl Gustav Jung introduced the terms "introvert" and " extrovert" and then retold an old story about cultures: The Western Self is vast and extrovert, the Indian Self is vast and introvert. This is extremely simplified of course, but let us accept this broad picture for a while and again look to the US for an understanding of the full impact. The Americans were taught by Emerson and Whitman that they must dive deep into the Self to find all the riches they need. Now, since no "people" as such ever followed this advice - not the Indians either - the Americans went out and created a new world empire and began to see the world through a distorted and glorified image of the American Self: Self-reliance now meaning free marked, capitalism etc. Listen to Whitman writing in 1870:
"The United States are destined either to surmount to gorgeous history of feudalism, or else prove the most tremendous failure of time. Not the least doubtful am I on any prospect of their material success. The triumphant future of their business, geographic and productive departments, on larger scales and in more varieties than ever, is certain. In those respects the republic must soon (if she does not already) outstrip all examples hitherto afforded, and dominate the world." This is at the opening of his "Democratic Vistas", a rather pessimistic work. According to Whitman, the Americans in no way morally and spiritually mature fo their role as up and coming rulers of the world. (Which people ever was? Which people will ever be?) Anyway, that great sage Whitman saw a lot. Other sensitive and intelligent Americans were able to feel it too, this awareness was gaining ground. Was help to be found in Europe, where all the WASPs came from in the first place? Some help could have been found in the native traditions (of the Indians"), but as this culture had been looked down upon and suppressed for so long, that was not realistic. White Americans had to search elsewhere and so, for some, India became, not the promised land - that they had already back home in America - but the bringer of some relief from the burden of living in God`s own country, turned into the greatest power of geopolitics. When Swami Vivekananda spoke in Chicago in 1893, he met a stunned response. No wonder.
An extrovert culture needs an introvert counterpart. Indian philosophy, meaning the traditions based on the Upanishads, is a marvelous means to investigate the Self, far beyond personal identity. The western mind is stuck in questions of identity and authenticity. The development of a great personality, a great society and a perfect this and that is not a final goal in life. Listen to the magnificent opening of the Isa Upanishad: "Behold the universe in the glory of God: and all that lives and moves on earth. Leaving the transient, find joy in the Eternal: set not your heart on another`s possession. Working thus, a man may wish for a life of a hundred years. Only actions done in God bind not the soul of man. There are demon-haunted worlds, regions of utter darkness. Whoever in life denies the Spirit falls into that darkness of death." (A somewhat free translation), well, isn't this the kind of rhetoric that, among western peoples in recent times, especially Americans understand and appreciate? We find an interesting dialectic here: The fantastic idealisms of America have made American mind receptive to the emptiness of all their ideals. Europeans, with all their Realpolitik, can sense it less strongly perhaps.

MH: The ordinary western layman tends to think of India`s civilization as something fascinating and threatening - a massive pulse of conflicting multitude: strife and democracy, splendor and squalor, civil liberties and rampant injustice, all set in the context of Hindu vintage tradition. Do you Indian society itself does justice to the founding ideas of Indian philosophy?

KM: How could any society? According to an important trend in Indian philosophy, life in society will always be coloured by deep illusions, the
infinite veil of Maya. One must make the best of it, and seek the betterment of life for oneself and others. But for the real thing - final liberation - one has to withdraw from all that. To the western mind, indoctrinated as it is in the overriding importance of politics and social responsibility, this does not sound very attractive. We call it escapism. In India, on the other hand, you will find it stated by great activists and reformers, by Mahatma Gandhi himself

MH: Some of the manifestations of the Indian mind seem difficult to understand, let alone accept. For example, is the very nature of the Indian caste system at all philosophically tenable or is it pure aberration?

KM: The caste system is deeply rooted in tradition. Not invented by philosophers, but accepted by many of them. I assume Buddhism can be seen as the most radical and most successful protest against the caste system. You can spend a lifetime searching for the substantive difference between Hinduism and Buddhism. Yet, as long as you investigate teachings and doctrines only, you will search in vain. You have to look for it in society Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, was the greatest of yogis but the phenomenon of Buddhism, in old times and in modern, is best understood as a protest against Hindu (and other) hierarchies. Caste thinking probably stems from the Aryan invasion and is originally racist; the power of this system comes from the fact that fairskinned people took over the land of northern India more than 3000 years ago. The "tribals" tend to be more darkskinned even today. Over the centuries ideologies are developed to defend the system. In modern Hindu philosophy not even reforms like Gandhi breaks with it totally. In the Bhagavad Gita the caste system is proclaimed a creation of God. It is presented as an organic model of society, like the ideal state of Plato, each caste (or varna) being a necessary organ for the best possible functioning of the body as a whole.This is all premodern thinking. The questioning of legitimacy of the system is also very old, beginning in the earliest Upanishads (800-700 BC). In this questioning, and in the critique of Vedic ritualism, do we hear the voices of the aboriginals? This is a fascinating question. How wonderful if this was true! A people about which we know next to nothing, is articulating itself in the language of their conquerors and it is their voice that speaks most intimately and most dearly to us thousands of years later. Can this be? An answer will probably never be found.

MH: blowing in the wind forever?

KM: Another interesting point is this. Upanishadic criticism of the priests is the earliest written manifestation of a philosophy of cultural change.The direction is clea r: one should get away from outer rituals and move towards inner contemplation.

MH: And so: your quest is to move away from the life of a busybody and find peace of mind in its place - to enter the yogi tradition of contemplation and worldly abstentation. I ask this question because I have been inspired by social anthropologist Øyvind Jaer`s intriguing article in Norwegian periodicle Samtiden on the contemplative Yogi versus the western Actoman. I suppose it takes an effort to be a yogi amidst the noise and vigour of everyday India?

KM: I am glad to hear that you have read Øyvind, his writings on India have inspired me too. Now, talking about "everyday India", one should keep in mind that this general and popular notion is a product of journalism. Yes, India is very noisy.

MH: Do you have a comment on the image of India presented in the recently published novel Hvite dverger. Svarte hull (White dwarves. Black holes") by Norwegian author Sigmund Jensen?

KM: First of all, this book is very well written. But I was amazed - once again India stands forth as a mirror and raw material for the suffering
western man. It is a tale of an Englishman escaping from Scotland Yard after a fraud in the City, he is also a heavy drug consumer. Off to India. And there? He hardly meets Indian people, but sticks to his countrymen, some of them pornographic and sadistic hippies, others up-to-date and bizarre in other ways. India herself is madness, cruelty, misery. The old cliché used to be the three Ms, you know: Misery, Mysticism and Maharaj. In Jensen`s novel only the first one survives. But, mind you, it is clearly stated in the novel that the misery is that of the Englishman himself. His world is a place of condemnation. True, there are some good doctors in this hellish India of his. The country falls into two parts: a tiny compartment of good hospitals and a big component of good reasons to occupy one of the hospital beds, and stay there. India might have had a comment to make on the mental and spiritual suffering of this haunted English ego. That voice is not heard. Not being asked.

MH: and what if I may ask, would this comment be?

KM: I guess I find myself under an obligation to answer this question. Let me propose this: The road to truth does not necessarily bring you through hell. The Western mind is peculiarly hung on this idea: no pain, no hell? Then the truth must be superficial. The connection between suffering and profound knowledge is known to India also, but the western mind is wonderfully feeding on it. It has brought you much great literature.

MH: I am now coming to your interest in meditation. Your most recent book - Meditasjonens filosofi ("The Meditation of Philosophy" ) - deals with this subject, based in part on your own meditative experience both in India and here in Norway. What is the essence of meditation and its purpose?

KM: the essence and purpose of meditation is to be with your inner peace and freedom.

MH: Pity then that so few Norwegians practice meditation and enjoy its benefits. What is it that keeps them from trying? Does it require much prior knowledge and demanding skills?

KM: Motivation is all that is needed.

MH: And the aim is to help people be in their inner self. Very well. As I understand it, meditation makes us more detached, but not more passive. Rather, it makes the mind still, which is not a personal standstill. Through meditation we develop a new commitment to receptivity. Am I right?

KM: Yes. But I would drop the word "commitment". A new receptivity will do. An then, one must know that this kind of receptivity is really very old. Obscured by so many mental and social mechanisms - some of which are new.

MH: By way of a closing message, would you like to tell our readers?

KM: I will say this: Because optimism is badly needed in a depressing culture like ours, I would like to say that even the smallest glimpse of inner peace and freedom is a great help. And now, if you would care to join me, I have prepared something to still hour well known passion for eating. But you must believe me when I tell you, that there will be no carnivorous excesses in this house, no British beef served. Never!

MH: I am as elastic as you are. Strictly vegetarian Hawaii toast? Most delicious. Kjell Madsen, it has been food for thought.

KM: Thank you very much. God bless you.

- Marius Hauge