Getting Started in Indian Philosophy: Query for Readers

This is somewhat related to Matt Dasti’s last call-for-papers post, but more geared towards philosophy colleagues, not philosophy courses. If you’re like me, you occasionally have peers saying that they’re interested in Indian philosophy but overwhelmed, and don’t know where to start. What advice do you give them? I’m curious what people recommend as entryways into Indian philosophies, and why. Do you suggest they start with a primary text in translation? With a secondary text that’s a historical overview? With a favorite syllabus you’ve come across online or developed yourself?

About Malcolm Keating

Malcolm Keating is Assistant Professor of Humanities (Philosophy) at Yale-NUS College, Singapore.

13 thoughts on “Getting Started in Indian Philosophy: Query for Readers

  1. The Life Divine by Sri Aurobindo is the most comprehensive book as an entry point to Indian Philosophy. Many older philosophical strands, though sophisticated, bear serious deficiencies and Sri Aurobindo offers a modern Ontological framework incorporating Evolution. The book has countless references to earlier concepts and schools by way of allusions and comparisons useful for the new entrants. Secondary literature available on the book are also diverse as well as interdisciplinary. [TNM55]

  2. I think Buddhism as Philosophy by Mark Siderits would fit the bill. I’ve used it in a few courses. It would be especially good for readers with backgrounds in analytic philosophy. It focuses on Indian Buddhist philosophy, but there is a chapter on Nyāya and other non-Buddhist schools are occasionally mentioned.

    Jonardon Ganeri’s Philosophy in Classical India would be similarly appropriate for analytic types. I also like Richard King’s Indian Philosophy: An Introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought, which is probably more accessible to people without an analytic background.

  3. I would second all of Ethan’s book recommendations. In addition, and depending on the individual making the query, I would consider B.K. Matilal’s Perception: An Essay on Classical Indian Theories of Knowledge (Oxford University Press, 1986), Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad’s Knowledge and Liberation in Classical Indian Thought (Palgrave, 2001), and Ninian Smart’s Doctrine and Argument in Indian Philosophy (E.J. Brill, second ed., 1992).

  4. Malcolm, in some ways it’s hard to give an answer because people have different needs. In my experience, the times colleagues have asked about Indian philosophy has been either out of an interest to incorporate relevant points of connection in their teaching, or maybe to see if something specific in their research has an analogue in Indian philosophy (one professor we both knew at UT as a graduate student contacted me with such a request). But it’s hard to give a general prescription. Does this make sense?

    Personally, what I’m most interested in is your last point about syllabi. Why not have a collection of syllabi as a kind of idea-starter on the Blog. We can all post what we use in an Indian phil. course or something akin. What do you think?

  5. Everyone, thanks for the thoughts. I’ve recommended many of these books myself, depending on (as Matthew points out) the needs of the person asking. I was curious to see whether there were other directions that people were going.

    I think that a collection of syllabi here would be an excellent idea. There are at least a couple of resources online that we could link to (and probably there are others): the AAR has a syllabus project and the APA has a “diversity in philosophy” syllabus project, which has some syllabi for Indian philosophy. (Please note that the link to the underrepresented philosophers database there is old–there is a new one, called the UP Directory.)

    I’m still interested in stories people have of sharing entry-points into Indian philosophy, even if they’re fairly specific (say, your friend with interests in aesthetics wanted to know if Indian philosophy has anything on the topic).

  6. I would say that Amber Carpenter’s new book, *Indian Buddhist Philosophy* is really good for somebody who wants to know more about Buddhist philosophy, as is Mark Siderits’ book mentioned above.

    Here are a few general ideas based on topics or concerns.

    Metaphysics of personal identity: Translations of selections from the Sermons of the Buddha and Questions of King Milinda, along with passages from Vasubandhu denying any genuine self vs. early Nyāya arguments that a self is needed to account for synchronic and diachronic synthesis of experience (NS 1.1.10 and 3.1.1-4 or so with short passages from the commentarial literature).

    Epistemology: passages from “knowledge-source” (pramāṇa) epistemology in, again, Nyāya and Buddhist sources. There are enough snippets of primary materials in translation that could be given to someone in small doses, supported by Matilal’s *Perception* above, and Stephen Phillips’ recent book *Epistemology in Classical India* (the latter two are more Nyāya-focused, though.)

    Philosophy of Religion, Eric Lott’s *Vedantic Approaches to God* is something that would naturally resonate with people familiar with or practicing Western forms of monotheism. I’ve also written a chapter, “Theism in Asian Philosophy” (really “Indian Philosophy”) that I think is a good introduction to the subject, in the *Routledge Companion to Theism*.

    These are all really just initial ideas, and slightly arbitrary.

    Malcolm, mind if I make another post with the idea that people could link Syllabi? I am interested in people’s own syllabi, but things culled from the internet may work as well.

  7. Matt, please do make another post. Maybe we could add it to the “resources” page eventually?

    And great suggestions, thanks! It’s interesting to me that no one has of yet mentioned either the SEP or IEP entries on Indian philosophy. I wonder if that’s because these seem to be obvious starting-points, or if they are found lacking in some ways? (For instance, despite my respect and appreciation for Madhav Deshpande’s entry on language and testimony, it is better titled “Language and Testimony in Classical (Āstika) Indian Philosophy” as it largely excludes Buddhism and Jainism.)

  8. Thanks, Amod! One last thought as I’ve been reflecting on the resources listed: there is only one woman represented (Amber Carpenter) in all these texts so far. When compiling these resources, there are a lot of–often conflicting–desiderata, but I think it’s worth keeping an eye out for articles and books by women to add to the frequently male-dominated lists of resources.

    • Good point, Malcolm, and thanks for keeping it in mind. I am not impartial here, so that I will start with a few men:
      —John Taber, Kumārila on Perception is a great way to read directly a text of Indian epistemology within the context of the contemporary debate on perception. Highly recommended if one wants to read Indian philosophy.
      —Arindam Chakrabarti, B.K. Matilal (eds.), Knowing from words, is an excellent example of how Indian and Western philosophy *can* indeed enter into a fruitful dialogue. [Note that a contribution by a woman, E. Fricker, has perhaps been the most-quoted one among the essays of this collection]
      —Raffaele Torella’s The Philosophical Traditions of India. An Appraisal is not an easy introduction to Indian Philosophy, but it engages philosophically with the topics they deal with while at the same time *not* presupposing an Analytic background (as it is instead the case in most of the other texts mentioned by me and by others).

      As for women who have written texts accessible enough for non-specialists in Indian philosophy (please note the restrictive clause):
      —Viktoria Lysenko has written a lot in this vein, in Russian, French and English (
      —Marzenna Jakubczak is also able to discuss topics of Indian philosophy within a broader philosophical scenario. Check her list of publications (unfortunately, her books on the sense of the Self in Indian philosophy and on Sāṅkhya are in Polish) here:
      —Madeleine Biardeau’s Théorie de la connaissance et philosophie de la parole dans le brahmanisme classique has the only disadvantage of being in French, but is an intriguing discussion, always based on primary sources, of issues in philosophy of language and epistemology.

      CAVEAT: I am only mentioning the few titles which immediately come to my mind, this is by no means an exhaustive list. Please do not feel offended if I have forgotten you.

  9. In which case…Miri Albahari’s Analytical Buddhism: The Two-Tiered Illusion of Self (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006) is, by my lights, an excellent book.

  10. Pingback: Soliciting syllabi for courses on Indian philosophyThe Indian Philosophy Blog | The Indian Philosophy Blog

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