Indian Philosophers in One Paragraph

I like Matthew Dasti’s idea of describing “Indian Philosophy in One Paragraph,” and clearly it has generated a lot of interest and fruitful debate. I thought, however, of a different way of approaching the issue. Can we list the top twenty or thirty Indian philosophers, the ones that would be indispensable from, say, a general curriculum for the history of Indian philosophy? Another way of framing this is, If you haven’t read these philosophers, you don’t have general knowledge of Indian philosophy. It is bit like saying, If you haven’t read something of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Wittgenstein, etc., you haven’t really grappled with Western philosophy. I think the criteria ought to be the enduring impact, novelty and sophistication of the philosopher. I’ve listed a few people (Hindu, Buddhist and Jain, in no particular order), but I am curious who else should be on the list, or who should not. I admit that the list lacks any reference to contemporary philosophers.

  1. Praśastapāda
  2. Vātsyāyana
  3. Buddhaghoṣa
  4. Nāgārjuna
  5. Diṅnāga
  6. Ratnakīrti
  7. Śaṅkara
  8. Vācaspati
  9. Rāmānuja
  10. Śrīharṣa
  11. Yaśovijaya
  12. Gangeśa
  13. Vijñānabhikṣu
  14. Raghunāthaśiromaṇi
  15. Prabhākara
  16. Kumārilabhaṭṭa
  17. Pāṇini
  18. Bhartṛhari
  19. Ānandavardhana
  20. Abhinavagupta

About Jonathan Edelmann

Assistant Professor of Hinduism University of Florida

34 thoughts on “Indian Philosophers in One Paragraph

  1. Demarcation between philosophy proper and history of Indian philosophy has been deep since the arrival of Sri Aurobindo in the scene. This year marks the Centenary of his magnum opus “The Life Divine” and other original works like “The Secret of the Veda.” The Evolutionary dialectic of his Integral Ontology seeks to establish a universal template of philosophy that acts as applied psychology as well by suitably incorporating poetic aesthesis. So, not to include him in the list would be an injustice to the future of human civilization and education. [TNM55]

  2. My feeling is that Patañjali (in the sense of the author of the Mahābhāṣya, as many philosophical debates stem from the grammatical tradition, and especially in the light of this ‘Great Commentary’), Utpaladeva and Maṇḍana Miśra should also be on the list…but what about the ‘anonymous’ (or so) works (the Yuktidīpikā in the case of Sāṅkhya is the first one that comes to my mind, but I guess we might come up with some more, although not too many)?
    Ps. I love this game!

  3. I like how you framed this, Jonathan. In an undergraduate education with some focus on Indian philosophy, there’s only so much time. Given this, I would say you did a pretty good job. I am an Aurobindo fan, but imho, you can be considered literate, on an undergraduate level, in Indian philosophy without ever having read him (or others in his broad category), but not if you haven’t read Nagarjuna, Vatsyayana, or Dignaga, etc.

    I would also suggest one more criterion: if a certain school or tradition is deeply important, then one of it’s most important thinkers should be included, to allow for an appropriately wide coverage. On that score, is anybody missing?

    Also, you mentioned Vacaspati Mishra, but we don’t read him merely as Vacaspati, but as a commentator on various texts. Which ones were you thinking of?

  4. I think lists like this are a marvelous exercise, and I thank Jonathan for posting it. Having said that, I have a lot of problems with the list in its details.

    My biggest concern with the list is the relative absence of ethics, especially Buddhist ethics. I think Candrakīrti and Śāntideva need a place here. Which I suppose ties to a related point: that the “enduring impact” of Indian philosophers shouldn’t be judged only on their influence in India, but outside its borders as well. That can mean Tibet, China, Southeast Asia in the premodern period… and it’s another reason to include the likes of Aurobindo in the modern. (Śāntideva never amounted to much in India proper, but he’s among the most important of all philosophers in Tibet.)

    Also that this list is rather demanding and daunting if we’re talking about undergrads. Have all of these philosophers even been translated? (Or, I suppose, to highlight the assumption behind that question: can we reasonably expect that undergrads studying Indian philosophy will read more than one or two texts in the original?) Hell, I am tempted to ask: how many of us PhDs in the area have read a work (beyond, say, an excerpted paragraph) by all twenty thinkers on this list? I’ll stick my neck out and say I haven’t.

    And building off both Daniele’s point about anonymous texts and Matthew’s about Vacaspati… it seems to me that in a tradition so full of commentary, one needs to have a background in the texts that are being commented on. We can probably debate the extent that these texts are really philosophical, but I would say that at a minimum the Bṛhadāranyaka and Chāndogya Upaniṣads, the Yoga Sūtras and the Bhagavad Gītā need to be on this list as well. We would presumably also want to include the authors of the schools’ root texts with the authors of their commentaries – how can you know Śaṅkara and Rāmānuja without knowing Bādarāyana?

    To my mind, knowing these is far more important than knowing figures like Raghunāthaśiromaṇi or Yaśovijaya. The latter do matter in the history of Indian philosophy, of course, but it seems to me like knowing Vijñānabhikṣu without knowing the Yoga Sūtras is like knowing Fichte without knowing Descartes. If the idea of the list depends on it being “philosophers” (ie people’s names), then I would add the semi-mythical authors and/or characters responsible for these texts: Vyāsa, Yajñāvalkya, Patañjali – and I don’t mean the grammarian. Or, if one wishes to be more strictly accurate, include “the author of the Brahma Sūtras”, “the author of the Bhagavad Gītā”, etc.

    • While I see your point, I still think Siromani ought to be on any such list and not just because of how the later Nyayika’s view him, but for his sheer impact on the intellectual life of (the area now called) Bengal, which is important when you consider the history of the country as a whole.

      Btw, I am interested in whether the text ‘Nabodvip mahima’ by KC Rarhi available in the US (its written in old bengali)?

      • That’s fascinating, DS. I know pretty much nothing about Śiromaṇi’s influence in modern Bengal. Could you say more about that? (And do you know if it’s something Ganeri covers in The Lost Age of Reason?)

  5. More generally, I suppose one of the most important questions in building a list like this is asking “Who counts as a philosopher?” If someone were to ask me “Who is the most important Indian philosopher to know?” my answer would probably be Siddhattha Gotama himself. If we make the assumptions that a) he is himself a philosopher and b) we can form a reasonably educated idea of what he said and thought, then it would be tremendously hard to argue that any other Indian philosopher had more of an enduring impact than he. Assumptions a) and b) are both controversial – but if they hold, which is more or less to say if he’s anywhere in the list of top 500 Indian philosophers at all, then he’s #1.

    • For the purpose of generating a list of the top 20 or top 30 Indian philosophers, I think it would be helpful to deal only with philosophers for whom we have direct communications as opposed to early source material that attempts to explicate oral teachings. If, however, one were to make a list of 500, then certainly he should be there.

  6. Amod, good points, all. I do think that we could say “familiarity” or “acquaintance” could be what we are looking for, so minimally, it is reading a few passages in translation, or if not that, having a summary grasp of where they fit in the broad schema of things. In that sense, to give an example, I haven’t read much Spinoza, but I can contextualize him, given what I know, and that seems what is minimally required for a kind of basic literacy about early modern Western thought.

  7. Picking up from Amod’s concerns, if one wanted to make the list shorter rather than longer, you could make a list of authors of root texts and then maybe another list of systematizers or influential figures.

    The first list might include “the author of the Brahma Sūtras” while the second would include Śańkara and Rāmānuja. The first list would include Nāgārjuna, while the second list might include Candrakīrti and Śāntideva. Vasubandhu and Dignāga might be on the first list, while Dharmakīrti and Ratnakīrti might be on the second, and so forth.

    The advantage of splitting the lists is that the first list would at least be more manageable, but the disadvantage is that it might give people the idea that they have a relatively complete understanding of these traditions based on the root texts, which is probably not the case, since many of the root texts are difficult or impossible to understand on their own. Also, consider how much someone like Uddyotakara adds to his root text.

    Another problem is that many texts are lost. There probably was a Cārvāka Sūrtra, which I would put on the first list but that would be a bit odd without the text! I’d put Jayarāśi on the second list, since I think he represents the skeptical strain of Cārvāka, but there were other Cārvāka texts that have been lost.

    All of this raises a serious public relations problem for those of us who study of Indian philosophy: the tradition is incredibly vast and much of it is quite difficult to understand without serious background. Even when there are translations, many of them were created for Indologists or Buddhologists rather than general audiences. All those [square brackets] and mountains of footnotes make them tough to read the way that you can read translations of Plato without knowing Greek.

    So, maybe a better idea is to make a top 10 list that would reflect less concern for lineage and previous influence (which is hard, since the tradition itself is so concerned with that!). Maybe the real criterion of “importance” in the tradition is to be a touchstone for the major issues and concerns that set the agenda for later philosophers. You could do this for the Western tradition, even though it would would leave off a lot of people’s favorites. I love Montaigne and Berkeley, but I probably wouldn’t include them in a top 10 list. As interesting as I think Hellenistic schools like Stoicism and Pyrrhonism are, they wouldn’t make the list, either.

    My Top 10 list of Western philosophers might be: Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Wittgenstein, Heidegger.

    These are people who crystalized philosophical issues and problems that set agendas for those who came after them, but we don’t need to include all of the major influences on these people. Hume was influenced by Shaftesbury and Kant by Wolff, but it would be weird to say that Shaftesbury and Wolff deserve to be on the Top 10 list.

    Likewise, we could make a list that includes Śaṅkara without including the author of the Brahma Sūtras. In fact, this Top 10 list might have very few root texts on it, which would make it closer to the second list I referred to above. It would also leave out a lot of people’s personal favorites.

    So… what should the Top 10 list for Indian philosophy look like?

      • Yeah :-)

        But, it’d be great if someone were to write a trade book with a title like ‘Indian Philosophers from Aksapada to Yashovijaya’ or something similar. It’ll do a lot of good.

        I remember reading similar books (something like Russells’ history of western philosophy lite) on ‘western’ philosophers as a kid.

  8. Hello All,

    Thanks for this interesting and thought-provoking dialogue! Let me first respond to a few points:

    1. My knowledge of Jain philosophers is woefully scant, so I appreciate Patrick’s suggestions. My list was only meant to generate discussion. It was partial and surely needs refining. I also appreciate the other names mentioned.

    2. I do think there is a rationale for including philosophers like Sri Aurobindo. One might also mention Vivekananda, Ramakrishnan, and Matilal as well. Again, my list was partial. That also brings up another interesting question, however. Does one need to be Indian to be an Indian philosopher? Gerry Larson, for example, has recently published an article in the International J of Hindu Studies that attempts to do philosophy using Samkhya-Yoga philosophers. If we were to extend the list to include contemporary and living Indian philosophers, could people like Larson be included?

    3. This issue of root texts (e.g. the Yogasūtra, Brahmasūrta, key Upaniṣads, Gītā, Pāli text, etc.) raises an important pedagogical issue. I primarily teach Hinduism and Buddhism, not Indian philosophy. I have made a move away from the “root text” approach, one in which I ask students to read a translation of the Gītā, Pāli canon, etc. Now I’m using secondary and primary sources that ask students to read root texts through the eyes of Hindu and Buddhist thinkers. Bryant’s Yogasūtra and Siderits’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā are really good in this regard. Oddly, there is no usable Gītā out there like this, at least not that know of. I would say that there might be a strength in teaching root texts through particular thinkers, but of course a general knowledge of root texts (and maybe another list is needed!) might also be really important.

    4. The question of “which text(s) by X philosopher?” is also key. Surely the Meditations by Descartes is essential for general knowledge of Western philosophy, whereas his others books would only be appropriate for more advanced study.

    More later. This is really fun! It also seems really important for those of us in the academy trying to teach philosophy and religion from India to be able to present some of the key thinkers, their primary contributions, etc. to non-specialist colleagues.

    • Regarding root texts… I think that when one reads a root text with a commentary one is “covering” that root text – with a particular slant, for sure, but one always has some sort of slant. I tend to get a little irritated at the number of translations of the Yoga Sūtras out there that don’t include the Yoga Bhāṣya, when traditionally the two were together (to the point that Bronkhorst, if I recall, thought that the current arrangement of the Sūtras was basically put together by the bhāṣyakāra). If one reads Śaṅkara on the Brahma Sūtras then one has effectively covered the Brahma Sūtras – but not the Gītā or the Upaniṣads.

      On that note, does Bryant translate the bhāṣya?

      For what it’s worth, in my introductory class on Indian philosophy this semester I’m trying to give students selections from Sastri’s translation of Śaṅkara’s Gītā commentary. I suspect chapter 5 and the opening of chapter 13 to that text may be good intros to Śaṅkara’s own thought – he does a lot to explain māyā and avidyā in there – and they’re also interesting as “squirrelling” the meaning of the Gītā a bit.

      • Bryant’s book includes Vyasa, but it is not merely a translation. it is really a remarkable book. In essence, it is a meta-commentary which weaves together, in a very readable way, the various commentaries, modern scholarship, and, on occasion, his own scholarly reflections, in a very readable way. The introduction is superb and probably can’t be beat for a one-stop intro to the Yoga school.

        (FYI, here’s a preprint of a review I did for the book, if you’d like more detail:

        • I’m using Bryant’s Yogasūtra right now for my Hinduism & Buddhism class, and while he doesn’t provide translations of the commentators (aside from a few passages here and there), he does discuss their views in detail. It allows one to make sense of the root text through the commentators.

          I am also frustrated with the number of root text translations (whether it is x-millionth Gita, etc.) that separate the root text from its native commentators. Why can’t we read and teach texts as they were read by Indians?

          At the same time, I think there is a great value in reading the root texts from alternative perspectives, e.g. Indo-European philology, Jungian, etc. There are, however, a few usable texts, like Bryant’s, coming out that open the Indian tradition to new readers, and that is encouraging.

      • I don’t have Ganeri’s book on me right now, and to be honest I haven’t really read what he has to say about Navadvip. However, I was under the impression that its pretty well known that Siromani was the most important figure in the rise of Navya in Bengal (for instance: D.C. Bhattacharya, History of the Navyanyaya in Mithila) and Nyaya soon had a monoploly on the intellectual life of the region (Nadia becoming the new Mithila) till the establishment of western style universities.

        May I ask a question? What do you think of Aurobindo’s work? I have simply never been able to get myself to read him. The fact that he, like most of the initially anglicised rich bengalis during that period, entered sanskritic culture from an end, as it were, where his nationalism could mix with that certain complicated state of mind not too dissimilar from what is seen among many non-resident Indians today, makes me wary of reading him. Also, his reading of Darwin doesn’t fill one with confidence.

        Talking of modern indian philosophers, how about Krishan Chandra Bhattacharya

        • Bringing in other names while thinking of Sri Aurobindo is a real problem; so is the period during which he wrote. Most of his books, fortunately, allow us to concentrate on the subject proper and a slim volume like “The Problem of Rebirth” or “Heraclitus” can introduce one elegantly to his philosophical project that dovetails into poetry too.
          Though neither germane nor palatable, let me say as a nonspecialist here that it is Sri Aurobindo who has saved the modern day Indians from the tyranny of “Indian Philosophy” by offering an alternative set of literature in English reading which is transformative as well. [TNM55]

    • Re: “Does one need to be Indian to be an Indian philosopher? Gerry Larson, for example, has recently published an article in the International J of Hindu Studies that attempts to do philosophy using Samkhya-Yoga philosophers. If we were to extend the list to include contemporary and living Indian philosophers, could people like Larson be included?”

      This is a wonderful question. I think the answer is “yes” (and not just because Gerry was one of my favorite teachers and remains a friend). For example, we have philosophers today we call “Platonic” or “Aristotelian” (or ‘neo- ‘), because they work largely within the parameters of classical Greek philosophy (e.g., A.W. Price, Julia Annas, and John M. Cooper). They are not “Greek philosophers” although on can fairly say of them that they write in the tradition of “Greek philosophy.” So too Larson is not, strictly speaking, an Indian philosopher, although he “does” (writes in the concepts and categories of) Indian philosophy (Larson does not, however, write exclusively in Indian philosophy: consider his earlier fascination with Sartre evidenced in an article on the latter’s posthumously published Critique of Dialectical Reason). The term “Indian philosopher” is ambiguous insofar as it may refer to an Indian (someone born or raised in India), but need not mean that person also does “Indian philosophy:” he or she may be Indian by birth and live, say, in Canada, with training in the Western analytic tradition and happen to know very little Indian philosophy as such. So, one need not be an Indian philosopher to write Indian philosophy (particularly inasmuch as we envisage this to be a ‘living’ tradition), and not all Indian philosophers write Indian philosophy!

      • Excellent points. “Indian philosopher” as well as “Indian philosophy” are anachronistic too since “India” as such didn’t exist when most of these authors wrote. Pāṇini, for example, from what I understand, would have been an Afghan or Pakistani. I suppose what what we mean by Indian philosophy is participation in a larger Sanskritic or Sanskritic-derived discourse, but that could include Chinese, Tibetan, Cambodian, Srilankan, etc. sources. And likewise, it might include American and European work, e.g. Larson and many others, that also partakes in the Sanskritic discourse.

  9. One more thing about Bryant’s book. It is such a good example of a way to engage with a commentarial tradition upon a source text; one that is both erudite and accesible, that, as Jonathan alluded to with texts like the Gita, I think it could be a model of presenting the commentarial traditions to a certain readership. I have toyed with the idea of devoting a few years to doing something similar for the Nyaya-sutra and the early commentaries.

  10. Excellent post Jonathan and comments from all, sadly revealing just how ignorant of Indian Philosophy I am…

    I didn’t see Atiśa mentioned, so I’ll add him, under a similar caveat that Amod brought up, which is that his influence on Indian thought was negligible compared with his influence in Tibet. To that extent, I would add Śāntarakṣita and *maybe* Padmasambhava; though it would take someone more expert than myself to defend both his authentic historicity and the philosophical nature of his teachings. Similarly, there must be some Indian Buddhists who helped shape the emergence of Chinese Buddhism: Kumārajīva, for instance. In his case we stretch our geographical boundaries a bit, but in a way that can help us see the fluid nature of nation-states and national identities.

  11. Pingback: Philosophy and Theology – Let’s be clearerThe Indian Philosophy Blog | The Indian Philosophy Blog

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