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I attended a great panel yesterday at the Eastern APA. Two of the presentations addressed each other directly on a topic I’ve discussed before: skepticism in Indian thought. The presenters, Ethan Mills and Laura Guererro of the University of New Mexico, had clearly been engaged in a longstanding debate with each other on the subject beforehand, which I think helped sharpen their thoughts nicely for the talk.

Mills presented on Jayarāśi, whose Tattvopaplavasiṃha (“The Lion that Afflicts Categories”) is the only extant full text attributed to a member of the Cārvāka-Lokāyata, the atheist and materialist school of ancient Indian thought. But Jayarāśi takes the Cārvāka school’s thought much further than it is usually thought to go. Whereas this materialist school is normally understood to merely deny the existence of gods and karma, Jayarāśi denies the existence of pretty much everything. Previous Cārvākas were said to believe that the world was made up entirely of the four elements; Jayarāśi says, “Even the view of world as elements is not well established. How much less are all the others?” He is, in short, a skeptic.

A much better known form of Indian skepticism belongs to the Prāsaṅgika Madhyamaka Buddhists like Candrakīrti; but as it turns out, the similarities between Candrakīrti and Jayarāśi run deep. According to Mills, Jayarāśi is a vaitaṇḍika, one who relies entirely on vitaṇḍā arguments. And as Mills explained it, a vitanda is exactly the same as a prasaṅga – the kind of argument from which the Prāsaṅgikas take their name, where one knocks down others’ positions but (one claims) does not establish a position of one’s own. Jayarāśi claims to do the exact same thing, to have no position. In effect, Jayarāśi is a Prāsaṅgika – but not a Prāsaṅgika Buddhist. And this distinction is crucially important.

For there is a drastic distinction between Jayarāśi and Candrakīrti, which lies in the question: what is this skepticism supposed to accomplish? Both Jayarāśi and Candrakīrti state firmly that one who becomes a skeptic will reap marvelous beneficial spiritual consequences. The problem, I noted to Mills, is that these claimed beneficial consequences are exactly the opposite of one another! For Jayarāśi, skepticism is valuable because it gets rid of our theoretical natterings and leaves us to enjoy everyday life: “When knowledge is destroyed in this way, everyday practices are made delightful because they are not deliberated.” Practically speaking, it leaves us merely with common sense, in the basic and problematic sense of the prejudices with which we began our inquiries. But for Candrakīrti, everyday life is itself part of the harmful conduct that skepticism allows us to transcend.

Guerrero’s talk took a similar general direction. Guerrero made a constructive argument that Buddhists should properly not be skeptics. In a certain respect she agreed with Jayarāśi: skepticism leads us to accept everyday practice, our conventional inclinations and habits. But the whole point of Buddhism, she pointed out – I think rightly – is to get us out of those everyday inclinations and habits, which mire us in suffering. Buddhism is a critique of the very everyday life, the very common sense, that Jayarāśi’s skepticism enshrines.

Here, I offered an account of how one might defend a Buddhist skepticism – developing the ideas at the end of my previous post on skepticism. I based the account on Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra, which was the topic of another presenter (Stephen Harris). In Śāntideva, the skeptical Prāsaṅgika epistemology comes near the end of the text, after all the chapters on ethical self-cultivation. This isn’t the connection we expect in Western philosophy: one would think that you start with epistemology as a foundation on which you later establish ethics. But I suspect that for Śāntideva (as for Nāgārjuna), skepticism without prior habits of self-cultivation – probably going all the way to monasticism – is a snake wrongly grasped. Because what skepticism does, it seems to me, is enshrine one’s existing habits. Without beliefs, one has no way to challenge one’s existing practices; skepticism enshrines what one is already doing. And so the matter of utmost importance to any prospective skeptic is: what kind of life is one living when one becomes a skeptic? If one adopts skeptical beliefs without a change in habit, one winds up permanently where Jayarāśi is – something that Śāntideva and Candrakīrti would consider a disaster. But if one has already been carefully practising the bodhisattva path and then becomes a skeptic, then skepticism can keep one on that habitual path.

As well as this practical difference, there’s also a strong theoretical difference between the skepticisms of Candrakīrti and Jayarāśi. I think the difference ties closely to a distinction, made popular by the Tibetan Gelug school of Tsong kha pa, between theoretical ignorance (kun brtags kyi ma rig pa) and innate ignorance (lhan skyes ma rig pa). Tsong kha pa tells us that whatever theoretical misconceptions might be given us by our philosophical systems (like the Upaniṣads’ eternal ātman), there is a deeper misconception we always grow up with (like the everyday belief in a self). Jayarāśi’s skepticism is targeted only at theoretical ignorance, and thereby comes all too close to a certain kind of contemporary know-nothingism: if only we could shut up the ramblings of those idiot philosophers, we could just get on with our commonsense everyday lives. Candrakīrti’s, on the other hand, critiques innate ignorance. In doing so, he acknowledges backhandedly (and appropriately) that his philosophical opponents have some sort of point: whatever misconceptions they might be spread, the misconceptions spread by “common sense” are at least as bad. Without philosophy, we are mired in ignorance far more deeply than we are with it.