King Menander’s Chariot

How do we determine what is ultimately real? Conventionally, we could argue that we can use our common sense faculties to investigate empirical reality. The laptop I am writing this post on has to be real because I can feel the keys and hear them chatter away upon typing. For early Buddhists, however, reality was measured very differently. For something to be real, it cannot disappear under analysis. Simply put, the world does not exist of any ‘wholes’, only ‘parts’ – and this extended to notions of the self.

I’ll set the scene by taking us back to the second century BCE, in an Indo-Greek kingdom of Bactria, a vestige of Alexander the Great’s failed invasion of India. After introducing himself to king Menander I, the Buddhist monk Nāgasena insisted that he can be referred to by his name, but that this name was merely “a counter, an expression, a convenient designator, a mere name […] for there is no person to be found”. [1] In the monk’s view, the name ‘Nāgasena’ was a useful term to describe the way in which something is arranged based on its constituent parts; in this respect a seemingly conscious being with human body parts. In reality, the name was a placeholder, nothing more, and there wasn’t an enduring identity behind it. This led to a fascinating philosophical debate.

In response to Nāgasena’s introduction, the king mocked him, asking that if there were no persons, then who was it that patronised the priests with clothing, food and medication? In a further caustic attack the king asserted if Nāgasena were to kill another monk, there would be no one to accuse for the murder. The cross-examination continued as Menander asked in turn if Nāgasena was found in his body parts, his perception or his consciousness? Nāgasena declined each of these, leading to Menander  to conclude that the word ‘Nāgasena’ could only be an empty phrase, not a convenient designator as initially claimed.

In response, Nāgasena mirrored the king’s reasoning by pointing to the chariot which the king rode in. Could we identify the chariot in its axels, its wheels, the banner-staff, the yoke, or the reins? The monk declined to find the chariot in any one of its components. The king finally understood that analogously, one cannot find oneself in our constituent parts; neither body nor consciousness.

Let’s go back to our laptop. It comprises a screen, the keyboard, the motherboard, with an array of microchips among others. Yet, I would not equate any one component for the actual laptop itself. Therefore, the laptop is not ultimately real as it disappears under analysis. Wholes cannot exist because they ultimately can be broken down into parts. Our world is full of many parts, on whose specific configurations we give names to; whether it is laptops, pots, cars, cities, you and me. Yet, ultimately they are conceptual fictions, no different to Menander’s chariot.

References

Featured image: “Buddha panel from Afghanistan”, Asian Civilisations Museum (Singapore), courtesy of Vinayak Hegde, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons


[1] Siderits, Mark. Buddhism as philosophy: an introduction. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2007. p.51

Copper Cities and Glass Submarines

Sometimes we may read a history book and find ourselves thinking, “hang on, this doesn’t seem right”. Ibn Khaldūn, a 14th century historian born in what is now Tunisia, had similar thoughts when he evaluated mediaeval historical accounts. Historical works prior to Ibn Khaldūn were narrated through a process known as taqlīd, where reports were reproduced because the authors trusted the authority of the historians before them. Consequently, new historical works were mere repetitions, devoid of critical engagement with their sources.

In order to demonstrate the limitations of taqlīd, Ibn Khaldūn recalls the historian al-Mas’udi’s claim of a desert city gilded in copper. He reasons this would be impossible considering the metal’s scarcity would limit its usage to utensils and it would be unthinkable for copper to coat an entire settlement.[1]

Additionally, Al Mas’udi’s recounting of a 13th century retelling of Alexander the Great’s efforts to build Alexandria did not go unnoticed. When the city was under construction, monsters rose from the oceanic depths, causing a nuisance to the architects and builders. Alexander authorised a plan where he entered a glass box attached to a rope. With pen and papyrus in hand, the box containing Alexander was lowered to the bottom of the sea where he could accurately sketch the creatures. Using these illustrations as a blueprint, the king instructed the workers and magical jinn to build metallic replicas of the sea monsters. Acting as colossal scarecrows, these effigies scared off the sea monsters, making possible the establishment of Alexandria.

16th Century Islamic painting depicting Alexander the Great, lowered in a glass diving bell. OAR/National Undersea Research Program (NURP); “Seas, Maps and Men”

Ibn Khaldūn  pointed out the absurdities of Al Mas’udi’s story asserting Alexander would most likely have suffocated in a submerged glass box. Additionally, Ibn Khaldūn contends:

“Now, rulers would not take such a risk. Any ruler who would attempt such a thing would work his own undoing and provoke the outbreak of revolt against himself, and (he would) be replaced by the people with someone else.”[2]

By evaluating these supposed retellings it is clear why critical reflection of sources was necessary. For Ibn Khaldūn, in order to accurately understand history, it is not sufficient to merely criticise the personality of the historical transmitter, but also to have knowledge of the true nature of civilisation. This raises a plethora of questions which I will explore in greater detail in an upcoming post.


References

Featured image: William H. Johnson, ‘Landscape with Mosques, Tunis’. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


[1] Ibn Khaldūn, (2015). The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History-Abridged Edition; Translated by Franz Rosenthal; Abridged and Edited by NJ Dawood. Princeton University Press. 37.

[2] Ibid., 36.