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A Metaphorical Exploration into the Ideas on Inheritance and Progress

When we casually attempt to define modernity, words associated with temporality often find their place. For instance, ‘progress’, ‘change’, ‘movement’, ‘transformation’, etc, are some of the words often associated with it. These words are highly future-oriented, which is to say that there is an underlying implication involved stating any ‘change’, ‘movement’, ‘transformation' or such temporal shifts were necessary for anything good to happen. This way, modernity tends to be the standpoint(s) of an assumed present-future against an assumed past to produce ‘new’ and the ‘old’, while qualifying the former and disqualifying the latter. When we speak about time, it is about such orderings of past, present and future.  Time perception among cultures and societies varies  according to their narration about each of these temporal registers. In other words, each culture will have their own ways of looking at the past and future. These different ways would in turn influence how these cultures inherit a tradition and how they think about progress,  change, catastrophe and deterioration. 

As humanity goes through the tunnel of modernity, historicism and progressivism became the dominant way to approach our past and think about the future. In modernity, we are to experience time in terms of change and rupture over the flow of continuity. This is perhaps best expressed in our historical discourses, which bring in temporal registers like ancient, medieval and modern that tends to emphasize the break of ‘periods’ over continuity.  History is usually regarded as the study of the past and many historians assume that they work on the past. But the way we perceive the past is dependent on how we look at the future. This is to say that even the future that we are referring to is ‘historical’1.  Such a mode of inquiry about the past must be located as a construct of specific culture. Therefore, there is a need to locate the modern time regime as a construction of specific culture, provincializing it into a historical development of a specific period and space that we today call as ‘West’, rather than unmindfully considering it as a ‘universal’ ‘scientific’ paradigm. 

To articulate the dominance and implications of the modern perception of time in our thinking is a very delicate and complex endeavor. With an intention to simplify this discourse, in this article, I have taken the aid of a popular metaphor or figure of thought in English to unpack the modern temporal regime, and how the ‘ancient’ (Hindu) thinking would look at the same.

‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants’: A ‘Modern’ reflection of the Metaphor 

The age-old metaphor, ‘We stand on the shoulders of giants’ is a very prominent expression to show respect to the elders (past).  To give a popular  instance,  Sir Isaac Newton in a letter to his friend writes, “If I have seen further, it is only because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.”2. One of the earliest known attributions to this metaphor is given to a 12th-century neoplatonist philosopher, Bernard of Chartres. Arguably, we see a transition in the usage of this metaphor from traditional (pre-Christian) to its modern form. Knowing this transition helps us to understand how the idea of ‘progress’ was viewed differently in ancient and secular modern (Christian?) ways of thinking. 

Bishop of Chartres - John of Salisbury interprets the metaphor as, “We (the moderns) see more and further than our forebears did, not because we have better eyes or because we’re taller, but because we dwarfs are sitting on the shoulders of giants (the ancients).”3 In short, the interpretation tries to convey that we see more not because we are great but because our ancestors were giants. However, the underlying inference is that the dwarfs' vision (modern) is much more far-reaching than that of the historical giants. In spite of their physical limitations, the dwarfs benefit from additional historical support from the past to view more of the present.

The famous depiction of this metaphor appears to be at Chartres Cathedral, where the four apostles of the New Testament are standing on the shoulders of four prophets of the Old Testament looking up at the Messiah.

four prophets of the Old Testament looking up at the Messiah.

These images suggest to  us how the people of the New Testament (Christians) who are modern to the people of the Old Testament (Jews) relate to each other. In this framework, the Old Testament forms the ground basis for a new world to emerge, which is also detached from its foundations. The New Testament surpasses the other and grows beyond it. It is worth noting that the Old Testament isn't destroyed or rejected completely, but it is kept as having a pre-historic value, a necessary foundational step taken for the fulfillment of time. The Old Testament should stand as a monument for the New Testament to surpass, compare and contrast itself with. In other words, the register of ‘Old’ is maintained or preserved so that the ‘New’ could emerge and compare itself with, for its own self-positioning, and to measure how far it has seen better than the old one. The idea of the museum in modernity serves the same purpose of preserving what was destroyed. In the words of Bruno Latour, “Moderns are cut off from a past that is maintained in a state of artificial survival due only to historicism”.4

‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants’: A Hindu (‘ancient?’) reflection of the Metaphor

From an ‘ancient’ perspective, this metaphor aptly reveres the past, for it is the foundation of the tradition (just as Hindus may regard Vyāsa and Śaṅkarācarya as being the giants of Hinduism). It is not in the sense that the dwarfs supersede and get a better vision than their ancestor giants because of an added linear, chronological support. The Hindu wisdom does not allow room for such an interpretation, arguably because the axiom of Time’s arrow prevalent both in Biblical themes and Modernity makes no sense to the Hindu view on reality. The modern interpretation of the metaphor suggests discovering a new truth by building or adding on previous discoveries or testaments. On the other hand, the Hindu view on inheritance and civilizational progress would have more emphasis on constant reflection of the existing knowledge over endless ‘additions’. This thought would require a bit more explanation to gain clarity. 

For the Hindus, relearning the inherited knowledge doesn’t mean mere repetition of the same content. Rather, it is a new learning and application of knowledge to contemporary changes. While the traditional text inherited from the past stands as an everlasting normative reference point, each generation will have to locate it into their own actional framework and experience it, as these texts are designed in a way that they are timeless and could be applied to all relatable contexts.5 In simple words, it constantly trains us to become ‘contemporary’ rather than ‘modern’ or ‘ancient’.6

It could be misinterpreted that in the Hindu knowledge traditions, it was not encouraged to ask questions, critique, or disallow any ‘additions’. In other words, it is often classified as the Western notion of progress as ‘optimistic’ and the Indian notion of time as ‘pessimistic’, which does not plan for the future at all. But such an allegation can only emerge from the standpoint or assumption of a culture that completely marches ahead for ‘progress’, that cannot perceive change and continuity to be in harmony with each other. From an Indic way of thinking, it should not sound difficult to think about questioning the ancestors and yet revering them, as questioning itself is a part of the Hermeneutics of Śraddhā.7 In such a scenario, progress does not appear as a march towards a proposed utopian future; rather, progress seems to be about duties and responsibilities for contemporary times, which an individual and society accept by reflecting, contextualizing or expanding on what has been inherited. It is necessary to have a realistic understanding of the potential consequences of one's present actions on the future in order to act responsibly. Thus the Karma Yoga lesson tries to tell us that fulfillment of action (time) is not dependent on the result (future event); on the other hand, its fulfillment lies in performing the action itself, by being in the present, detached from the results or future.8 It acknowledges the uncertain nature of the future, which cannot be determined before performing the action. This notion emphasizes the present actions instead of taking bearing from the future (results). This way, it stands quite different from the teleological narrative embedded in early modernity, which constantly marches towards ‘utopian ends’ (results), expecting an ideal future that is different from the present.9

Henceforth, the Hindu Hermeneutics of  Śraddhā provides scope for inheriting from the past, allowing us to experience it in the present through experimenting, relating, contextualizing, regionalization, questioning and responding systematically. This riddle to re-learn that each individual and generation faces is what makes the tradition alive. From this standpoint, Vyāsa or Āḍi Śaṅkarācārya appear as ‘Giants’ not because they are foundational and took the ‘first step’ so that the succeeding masters could surpass them. The Hebrew Bible of the Jews, on the other hand, provides scope for an ‘addition’, as it takes its bearing from the future, anticipating the coming of the Messiah, which enables the ‘New’ to emerge from the foundation of an ‘Old’ in a linear, chronological ordering. From this standpoint, the ‘Giants’ are the ones who are to be surpassed because they are outdated but could be respected because they are ‘foundational’ or took the necessary first step.

As mentioned earlier, the different view of looking at the ‘Giants’ is related to a cultural difference between Hinduism and Semitic Religions/Secular Modernity. Being that said, though we may be able to interpret the metaphor and the ‘Giants’ (Past) in a Hindu way as mentioned above, the usage of the metaphor may not be acceptable for our cultural consciousness. Even with a Hindu understanding of what it means to be ‘Standing on the shoulders of Giants’, we may not prefer this metaphor to describe our reverence towards our Ṛṣis just because they don't carry our cultural experience.  

Though the metaphor ‘Standing on the shoulders of Giants’ could be interpreted positively by the Hindus (unlike the moderns), ‘Sitting at the feet of Giants’ remains a popular imagery of the Hindu traditions. This practical bodily action could better metaphorically convey the Hindu mode of reverence than the former. Here is an image of Swāmi Chinmayānanda, who sits at the feet of his Guru, Swāmi Tapovan Mahārāj, who in turn is sitting at an elevated position. 

Swāmi Chinmayānanda, who sits at the feet of his Guru, Swāmi Tapovan Mahārāj

This gesture conveys that the disciple is receiving the knowledge from his Guru, sitting on a ground which indicates a locale which is contemporary. Whereas the Guru speaks from the past which is elevated, as past is our normative reference point from which we inherit knowledge and experience it by contextualizing from the ground or the present. 

Om Tat Sat 


 1 ‘The past has had different possible futures’ is one of the key arguments that came about from Reinhart Koselleck’s work on history, in which he critiques the assumption that historians work on the past. Reinhart Koselleck, Future’s Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, trans. Keith Tribe (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).

2 See Robert King Merton, On the shoulders of Giants: A shandean Postscript, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985,p.1.

3 John of Salisbury, Metalogicon, Book III, Chapter 4. Cfr. Troyan, Scott D., Medieval Rhetoric: A Casebook, London, Routledge, 2004, p. 10.

4 Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, Harvard University Press, 2012, p.133. 

5 As an example, The major interpretation of the Bhagavad Gītā that came about during the freedom struggle by Gandhi, Tilak contained an expansion from the traditional Gītā, a cognitive/evaluative frame to their actional frame of freedom struggle, for a direct experience of the Gītā. See for instance, Vivek Dhareshwar, ‘Framing the Predicament of Indian Thought: Gandhi, the Gita, and Ethical Action’, An International Journal of the Philosophical Traditions of the East, 22:3, 257-274.

In the words of Latour, ‘Modernity’ is that which disables our ability to be ‘Contemporary’. See in, Latour, B. (2017). Anthropology at the Time of the Anthropocene: A Personal View of What Is to Be Studied. In: Brightman, M., Lewis, J. (eds) The Anthropology of Sustainability. Palgrave Studies in Anthropology of Sustainability. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

7 In fact, it is through constant questioning and argumentation that the Indian Knowledge Traditions have expanded themselves. See, Amartya Sen, The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity. United Kingdom: Penguin Adult, 2006.

8 The verse; ‘Karmaṇyevādhikāraste mā phaleṣu kadācana, mā karmaphalaheturbhūrmā te saṅgo’ stvakarmaṇi’ Bhagavad Gītā 2.47. “Thy right is to work only [in the ‘present’], but never to its fruits [results in ‘future’]; let not the fruit of action be thy motive, nor let thy attachment be to inaction.” (Translation: Swāmi Chinmayānanda)

9  Peter Sloterdijk, Infinite Mobilization: Towards a Critique of Political Kinetics, trans, Sandra Berjan, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2020, pp.1-3.

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