Gracious Gurus and Super Stars

I was talking to Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad about various issues in the embodiment and enaction of knowledge. As we all know, western philosophy has a hard time acknowledging that knowledge is embodied — read this insightful if somewhat bloated book by Lakoff and Johnson to get a cognitive science critique of classical western approaches to knowledge. Anyway, I am not going to gripe about Plato et. al. this time. Ram and I agreed that in the Indian traditions embodiment is quite well accepted — in fact it is enshrined in the pedagogical process itself, for we say that without a Guru, there is no hope for the seeker to get knowledge. Unlike the modern person (including me), who can just pick up a book and try to learn Advaita or Nyaya or whatever, the traditional student would have been forced to study with a Pandit. Of course, even a book is embodied, but its not the same as sitting, discussing and arguing with a qualified teacher.

Be that as it may, one could say that the Indian traditions fetishize the role of the teacher, leading to all kinds of abuse etc — more on that topic in a bit. After all, why is a teacher necessary for getting knowledge qua knowledge? This is too long a topic to address in one blogpost but here is a hint: the need for a Guru is related to the relationship between reason and emotion. In particular, it is related to the relationship between Trust, which is an emotional virtue, and Truth, which is a epistemic virtue. A Guru is one whom the student trusts with his entire being, and that faith (combined with a healthy skepticism) is necessary in order to grasp the truth. The Guru legitimizes the students understanding — so while the western philosopher may define knowledge as “justified true belief”, I might counter by saying that one might as well define knowledge as “legitimized true belief”. 

Coming back to Gurus — Ram and I were wondering why is it that when a Guru is accused of financial or sexual excesses, newspapers, magazines and websites are full of articles talking about the cult-like character of the Guru’s following and by association, of all of Hinduism (doesnt happen to Buddhist teachers as much, but the accusation of cultism is always in the background in the Buddhist case as well), while the shenanigans of Sports, Business and Movie Stars in the west are seen as failings of egoistic humans? Here’s an answer: Guru’s are seen as being central to the epistemic claims of Hinduism while they are not so in the Super Star case supposedly.

Well, here’s a thought — have you considered the possibility that in this entertainment saturated age, Super Stars are absolutely necessary in order to legitimize the knowledge produced in modern society, so that they perform exactly the same epistemic function in the modern west as Guru’s do in India? Why else do you think we see posters of Wittgenstein (captured staring intensely here) in philosophy graduate student apartments? And unlike Guru’s there are no cultural norms regulating Super Star tantrums. So who’s the real cult follower?

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