Participatory Spirituality for the 21st Century
I have at times referred to Kenny's use of hyperbole when referring to other individuals or their teachings. I take it that Kenny has picked up this particular rhetorical modality from the materials he uses, and that these materials in turn derive their attitude from tradition itself which has set certain precedents. In other words, my sense is that this curious penchant for hyperbole derives, at least in part, from tradition itself, specifically from the attitiude toward the "great sage" or "holy sant" that we find in traditional hagiographical materials.
We find, for example, in Sankara Dig Vijaya, loosely, Shankara Conquers the World, several depictions of Shankara that approach the hyperbolic. There we find the suggestion that Shankara went about India, defeating everyone he met in debate and virtually converting the entire subcontinent to Vedanta. It is story that is repeated often. But this idea is a 14th century construct. For it is evident that Shankara was not well known in his day and even in the centuries that followed, since we find no mention of him in the works of other major scholars and philosophers. There is every indication that his teaching was meant only for the few qualified wandering samnyasins he encounted in the countryside. The Vedanta itself was an esoteric teaching, as is evident from the fact that the Brahma Sutras themselves make no sense without their commentarial tradition.
The idea, found in popular contemporary scholarly material, that Shankara was India's "greatest philosopher" is largely based upon this hagiographical tradition, and on the fact that Advaita Vedanta is the last of the classical Indian traditions to survive and that most of the writers of this material are Vedantins. Even the idea that Shankara is India's "greatest philosopher" is not entirely accurate. For one, Shankara was primarily an exegete and not a philosopher.
We find similar a exageration involved in the depictions of Nagarjuna, whom Kalupahana has argued was also primarily an exegete. According to Mahayana tradition Nagarjuna is accorded the status of almost a "second Buddha." Murti goes so far as to say that Nagarjuna's teaching offered a "corrective" to that of the Buddha. In his introduction to his translation of the Karikas, Kennneth Inada states that Nagarjuna's veneration, "at times reached such ridiculous heights that his name was sanctified and stamped everywhere with reckless abandon..."
We find hyperbolic estimations of the philosophical importance of Shankara, Nagarjuna and Plotinus throughout the works of Wilber. Not only hyperbole, but inaccuracies.
As for Plotinus, Ken does not appear to be aware of the fact that Plotinus' "great philosophical work," the Enneads, was in fact a collection of notes cobbled together and scribbled down by his closest disciple, Porphyry, to be used by his own students. In this sense, Porphyry, and not Plotinus, is the real "founder" of the school of Neo-Platonism. The irony here is that Wilber says that Plotinus was the "greatest pundit ever." Presumably, it is "book-learning" that characterizes the pundit. But Plotinus never wrote the Enneads. And what of Shankara? At times Wilber says that Shankara was a "sage," or "India's greatest realizer." And yet, unlike Plotinus, Shankara is best known for his various written commentaries on the Upanishads, and he even referred to himself as a pandita.
What is also odd about the exaggerated claims Ken attaches to certain individuals from history is that they so often do not appear to involve any consideration of other great luminaries. Where, for example, do we find a similar consideration of Abhinavagupta in Ken's works? Or the master, Shri Harsha? Like Da's collection of "seventh stage texts" (where is the Vimalakirtinirdesha Sutra?), Ken bases his judgements upon his own limited encounter with dated translations of Asian texts -- basically those that were available to him in the 70's.
I will close with one other precedent, a modern one -- that of Swami Vivekananda. Throughout his various "biographies," which are better labeled hagiographies, we find several exagerated depictions of Vivekananda's spiritual and intellectual attainments. For example, we read in such accounts that Vivekananda was a "multi-faceted genius." According to one account, The Life of Swami Vivekananda, by his Disciples Eastern and Western, the principal of the college Vivekananda attended, William Hastie, had said that Vivekananda (then called Naren) was "a genius" and that "he never saw such a one even among philosophy students in German univeristies!" And yet, we also find out from R. Chattopadhyaya's book, Swami Vivekananda in India: A Corrective Biography that the following were Vivekananda's grades during his graduating year of college:
These, it goes without saying, are hardly the grades of a "multifacted genius." Chattopadhyaya opines that this anecdote was probably concocted by Haramohan Mitra and disseminated via his many pamphlets.
My sense is that it is precisely this same sort of hyperbole that is at work in Ken's own estimation of the work and stature of certain of other personages.