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March 17, 2008 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Victorian Theses

The doctrine of maya is a particular theory in the Advaita Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy. The doctrine explains the relationship between the material world, and brahman, which is the Sanskrit word for ‘the one’, or ‘the whole’.

There are two main interpretations of the doctrine of maya: That it shows that the material universe, as we perceive it, is an illusion; That it shows that the material universe is real.

Traditional scholarship, at least in the West, has taken the former interpretation. Parkin, however, argues for that latter. He explains that the word ‘maya’ which does not easily translate to English, has been translated as illusion’, or ‘unreality’.

The divergence arises over how the infinite ‘one’ relates to the finite ‘many’, comprising all the individual parts of the universe, and vice versa. Traditional Western scholarship says that we as individuals cannot actually see the infinite, so the finite world as we perceive it is not a true representation. The world has some sense of reality, but it’s not actually as it appears. But Parkin disagrees.

“One reason to argue against it is that it’s wrong,” he laughs. “It doesn’t fit with the evidence of the different philosophers. I’m looking at philosophers from more than 3000 years ago up [to] last century.” He has been looking at what these philosophers have said, and showing that it is consistent with the material universe being real.

“Another good reason to show that it’s real; this school of Indian philosophy has been interpreted as a kind of nihilistic philosophy, [and] nihilism’s not really very popular.” Parkin aims to show that the ‘nihilistic’ label has been misapplied. The ‘material universe as illusion’ picture that he is arguing against has always been dominant in the Western scholarship on the subject, and has been more popular in India in the past. But current scholarship in India is more in line with Parkin’s interpretation.

The next part of Parkin’s thesis is to show that the theory of maya is a plausible theory within modern metaphysics. To do this, he wants to show that the theory is consistent with a certain form of monism, priority monism (which holds that there is only one essential whole, and all parts within the whole are reflections of it), in opposition to the more common pluralistic understanding.

He uses the example of the Big Bang. He explains that from a pluralist perspective, the only way to conceive of the entire universe is to take all of its individual parts, and consider them all together. He argues that it’s possible to conceive of the universe in terms of ‘emergence’, where the universe is shown to be entangled, so that the whole has properties greater than the sum of its parts.

“It’s not that the whole causes the parts, it’s more the whole is the base of the parts, rather than vice versa.” He wants to move away from the nihilism that inherently follows when the observable parts do not in fact reflect the nature of the whole, which is an unacceptable conclusion to most people in the West.

The real purpose of Parkin’s thesis becomes apparent when his goals are understood. It’s not so much to answer an abstract question in a school of Indian philosophy most people have never heard of; it’s more to show that Eastern philosophy in general is consistent with our understanding of the world, instead of the ‘new age’ gloss that it normally receives.

“I think Eastern philosophy is underappreciated in the West. Like, you go into a bookshop, and there’s philosophy, and then there’s ‘spirituality’. And if you want to find a book on Eastern philosophy, it’s in the spirituality section rather than the philosophy section. There’s plenty of Eastern philosophy which is very analytic, very logical et cetera et cetera… In Eastern philosophy there’s a long history of debate, so I think it should be given more credit in the West.”

Parkin is philosophical about the question “What do you think the effect of this will be?”

“Oooh… It might not have much effect on anything,” he laughs. “But I guess you hope that someone will read it – an option would be to cut it down [and] try and get it published – but I think the more young people who study these old concepts the better.”

Nic Parkin is an MA student in the Philosophy programme, holding a BA in Philosophy and Religious Studies, with Honours in Philosophy. His thesis is on the doctrine of maya, and the ontological status of the material universe.

Victorian Theses Matthew Proctor Week two’s ‘Victorian Theses’ contained an inaccuracy, which may have misrepresented the position of the University in relation to Abu Conteh’s thesis. The University’s reaction has in fact been enthusiastic, and they wish him the best with his work. Matthew Proctor and Salient unreservedly apologise for any misrepresentation that ocurred.


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  1. Jebus says:

    that was boring.

  2. Much variety of Victorian thesis

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