“Is there Philosophy in India?” and what this question tells us, an essay by Ankur Barua

After many years, I am sort of fed up with having to answer the question above, and this is also why I had not read the essay by Barua (bearing the title Is there ‘Philosophy’ in India? An Exercise in Meta-Philosophy and available here) until he recommended it to me. In fact, the article tells more about what it means to ask the question, than about the answer (which is a straightforward “yes”).

First, the question bears on the distinction between faith and reason and theology and philosophy (and the consequent dismissal of Indian philosophy as a quest for liberation, mystical etc.):

[There is an] often-heard criticism that classical Indian thought cannot be characterised as an intellctually acceptable branch of ‘academic philosophy’ becayse it is entangled with ‘religion’ (p. 14).

And already on the first page, Barua speaks of the parallel condemnation of the medieval Scholasticism and of thinkers like Thomas Aquinas:

The Schoolmen are not ‘philosophers’ because they are Churchmen whose point of departure is a specific Christian world-view, and hence thier learned treatises are to be cognised, as David Hume famously put it, to the withering flames of logical analysis.


Anglophone philosophy’s rejection of its internal other, medieval Scholasticism, is paralleled by its suspicion of its external other, Indian darśana —both are supposed to be fatally implicated in Metaphysics, Authority and Tradition (pp. 14–15).

This conclusion supports the more general point that “philosophy is not a natural kind” (p. 6) and that, thus,

Any definition is controversial and already embodies a philosophic attitude (Russell 1975:7, quoted at p. 7).

In this sense, the question at the title of this post opens an exercise in meta-philosophy (“What do we expect ‘philosophy’ to mean?”). As for the possiblity of detecting “philosophy” in India,

as it often happens with the translation of terms which are richly woven into one specific cultural universe into those of another cultural universe, we may argue that terms such as darśana and ānvīkṣikī are ‘not the same, and yet not another’ from philosophia (p. 27).

But this by no means means that one should refrain from using the word “philosophy” while speaking of Indian schools and discussions. On the one hand, as shown by Barua, the soteriological commitment of several Indian schools does not mean that they did not engage in philosophical arguments about the issues deriving from such a commitment (e.g., the nature of reality and of the self). On the other (at last, in the present writer opinion),

As for western philosophers themselves, in the wake of Kuhn and other thinkers who have developed various froms of social epistemology, they have become less shy of speaking of authoritative testimony (pp. 27–28).

As for the sociality of the scientific enterprise, this article focusing on the Western scenario by Dominik Wujastyk is also worth mentioning, together with a post by our Amod Lele.

Beside the above, Barua’s essay also deals with several instances of debates both in India and in the West. Barua refers to J. Ganeri’s point that we have to “rescu[e] a story suppressed by Orientalism — the story of reason in a land too often defined as reason’s Other” (Ganeri 2001: 4, quoted at p. 26). Nonetheless, whereas Ganeri and Matilal dealt with the accusation that Indian thought is just mysticism by showing its rigour, Barua recurs to Hadot and shows that also in the West philosophy does not need to be disinterested and pure theoresis. Section “C” is in fact a long discussion of Augustine’s conception of time and of how his philosophical reflections are not “an exercise in idle speculation but are closely related to his exegetical struggles with the Biblical text” (p. 12).

A further, personal comment: Some time ago, a friend has been interviewed for a leader position in an institute for Asian thought. She said she would like the institute to have a “philosophical focus” and one of the people in the committee (who does not work on philosophy) rebutted that using the word “philosophy” could be suspected of a “colonialist attitude”, since “philosophy” is a Western concept. I am sure this objection was well-meant, but I am suspicious of its consequences, namely the implicit statement that only Westerners are able to think philosophically. While thinking we are fair and diversity-aware, we are in fact delegitimizing centuries of philosophical elaborations by refusing to call them “philosophy” just because they happened to take place East of Suez.

CAVEAT LECTOR: These are only my personal reflections on this topic and my reading of Barua’s article. Don’t read in the article anything but what is explicitly said in it.

(cross-posted on my personal blog)

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog: elisafreschi.com, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

7 thoughts on ““Is there Philosophy in India?” and what this question tells us, an essay by Ankur Barua

  1. Another approach to thinking about this question is to point out that this idea that Descartes and other early moderns are somehow entirely divorced from religion is absurd. Could you really make sense of figures like Descartes or Berkeley without Christianity? Descartes wasn’t a monk, but he did have Jesuit schooling and one of the main points of the Meditations is to argue for the existence of God and to please the Church (as he says in the introduction). Berkeley, of course, was a Bishop and similarly makes a central place for God. Even Kant is fairly religious (not only his own background, but the idea of a good will probably comes out of Christianity, as does the West’s extreme concern about issues of free will). You do have the gentle irreligion of Hume, but of course the Cārvākas have him beat there by a few thousand years.

    The idea that “philosophy” has to be entirely divorced from “religion” is I suspect a very new idea in the West, one that, with the exception of a few Enlightenment figures and reactionary irreligious philosophers (e.g., Nietzsche), didn’t dominate the field until the 20th century.

    Someday I’d like to try to claim that the Indian tradition is actually a great deal LESS religious than the Western tradition, especially in the diversity of religious and philosophical views and in the fact that the Cārvākas existed. I also think the comparison to Hellenistic philosophy is another way to challenge the religious dismissal of Indian thought.

    • Yes, I think the idea that philosophy must be separated from “religion” is really just silly. It’s typically very difficult to identify what the “religion” they reject is even supposed to be – often enough it seems to mean “any mode of thought held by people who are not 20th-century Westerners”.

      Even Hume and Nietzsche didn’t actually divorce philosophy from “religion”. Hume at least took deism quite seriously. Nietzsche not only has a qualified endorsement of some forms of Indian “religion”, he never says that people like Aquinas are “not really philosophers but theologians” or any such thing. The reason the death of God is so important for Nietzsche is it implies a rejection of most of the philosophy that comes before him – but as bad or false philosophy, not as non-philosophy.

      • In a very interesting little introduction to Medieval Philosophy, C. F. J. Martin pushes back against Russell’s claim that Aquinas, etc. weren’t philosophers because they start with something they already hold to be true, and are unwilling to follow the argument where it leads. Among other things, he notes that Russell himself wrote a book devoted to proving that 1 + 1 = 2.

  2. Both of Ethan’s points I to some extent addressed and endorsed in my post on “Śaṅkara: Philosopher or Theologian?,” to wit:

    [….] And why need our understanding of philosophy remain utterly dependent on the notion of philosophy as it developed in the West? Why cannot we modify our conception to embrace those like Śaṅkara and Rāmānuja, or Confucius, or Daoists (collectively, as represented for instance in the Daodejing, or individuals like Zhuangzi) as religious or spiritual philosophers, much in the manner that Plato might strike one as a spiritual philosopher (at the very least, his ‘metaphysics’ is rather different than the contemporary articulations of same). The significance of the distinction between theology and philosophy follows largely the modern professionalization of these intellectual enterprises and thus is not always essential to figures of Eastern provenance or even in the pre-modern West: is not the “therapy of desire” (after Nussbaum) of the Hellenistic philosophers closer to the soteriological and spiritual (emancipatory, therapeutic, developmental) aims of religious worldviews than the avowed subject matter of most contemporary professional philosophers? When eudaimonistic concerns and questions of human fulfillment provide the primary orientation of ancient Greek philosophers (after John M. Cooper), this strikes one as closer to the motivations of religious philosophers and theologians than what motivates the wide array of specialized topics found in “analytic” and “continental” traditions of philosophy (and to a lesser degree and in a different sense in the latter). In these cases we find ample reason to soften any hard and fast distinctions between “philosophy” and “theology.” The “spiritual exercises” of these philosophers resemble religious ascetic practices and is utterly foreign to contemporary professional philosophy. The relief of suffering, the change of heart, or transformation of one’s overall mental attitude or psyche is closer to religion and spiritual praxis than philosophy proper, yet we christen these remarkable thinkers—from Epictetus to Gaius Musonius Rufus among the Stoics for example—philosophers.

    Consider too, Islamic philosophy: it certainly has a religious or spiritual framework or accepts premises pivotal to classical Islamicate culture. Islamic philosophers, with varying degrees of success, endeavored to reconcile Greek philosophy with traditional Islamic sciences. Ibn Rushd (Averroës), for example, distinguished between philosophy and theology (kalam) yet saw these as compatible and different routes to the same truth(s). He viewed philosophy as beyond the reach of the common man and thus the prerogative of an epistemic elite in possession of that rare combination of virtue and wisdom. And then we have Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, a theologian who argued against the views of the Islamic philosophers yet defended Aristotelian logic for such purposes. Indeed, and further, Oliver Leaman states that “his arguments against philosophy are themselves philosophical.” While it is true that kalam and falsafa developed, as they did in the West generally, fairly independent of each other, periods of fertile conflict and constructive engagement might find value in looking beyond the distinctions between philosophy and theology. For instance, Mu῾tazilah, the first truly doctrinal school of theology in Islam, is invariably defined as based on reason and rational thought! [….]

    Let’s approach the claimed importance of the need to keep in mind this philosophy/theology distinction in Indian worldviews from another direction, one outside Indian philosophy. I suspect a close examination of the thought of Kierkegaard (or Pascal for that matter) would provide us with yet another example of why we need not police the borders between philosophy and theology, for in his case in particular it is often hard if not impossible (even if not always intentional on Kierkegaard’s part) to disentangle the two modes of thinking and believing (not to mention the consequences for how one lives one’s life), leaving us with religious insight useful to philosophy and philosophical arguments availing to the defense of (at least a certain kind of) religious life. [….]

    Consider too, by way of example, and after S.A. Lloyd’s remarkable studies of Hobbes’s moral and political thought, how Hobbes spent a considerable amount of effort to “rationalize [Christian] religion” rather than to attack it as fiction or undermine belief in it. In Lloyd’s words, “He speaks throughout Leviathan as if he thought they [i.e., the basic doctrines of Judeo-Christian tradition] were true, and Aubrey provides us with evidence that he was a Christian believer.” Hobbes appeared to appreciate the fact that religion has been and could be a mechanism for social order (in other words, it is not necessarily subversive of order, even if it was in the time of Hobbes). He also knew the prevailing worldview among his reading public, which was overwhelmingly Christian, so he had good rhetorical reasons to rationalize their beliefs in the context of his larger argument. And yet Hobbes proceeds in effect to argue for authoritarianism in religion rather than tolerance, which suggests in the first instance at least a theological rather than philosophical motivation. Hobbes in fact spends the bulk of the second half of Leviathan concerned with the details of Christianity, for he “thought scriptural exegesis [was] crucial to his project” (Lloyd writes that it was ‘necessary’ to Hobbes’s task). In addition,

    “Hobbes consistently presents the Laws of Nature, which he equates with ‘the true moral philosophy,’ as articulating those of God’s requirements most certain to all of us who have not enjoyed the benefit of a direct revelation from God Himself. The pronouncements of revealed religion we take on hearsay evidence [one form of testimony] or mere authority from those who claim that God spoke to them immediately; but God’s natural law is discoverable by each of us immediately through a mere exercise of our natural reason, allowing us to assure ourselves of its claim on our obedience. By attempting to claim God’s imprimatur on the conclusions of moral philosophy, Hobbes seeks to consolidate normative support for the principles of social stability uncovered by political philosophy. Political philosophy then completes the task of reconciliation by showing that Scripture, properly interpreted, confirms the conclusions of moral philosophy.”

    Indeed, he writes that the Laws of Nature can be captured by the Golden Rule formulation, “Do not that to another, which thou wouldest not have done to thyself.” (This is a ‘negative’ formulation of the Golden Rule, which goes back to Rabbi Hillel in the Judaic tradition, and is sometimes called a ‘Silver Rule’ to contrast it by way of Jesus’ formulation in the Gospels, which is found alongside the ‘double commandment of love’ with regard to God and neighbor.) Much more could be said here (e.g., what Lloyd terms Hobbes’s ‘reciprocity theorem’ does not capture the Golden Rule inasmuch as the latter goes beyond strict reciprocity) but is should suffice to make the point: I can’t recall anyone suggesting that the Leviathan might be considered a work of theology, or that we might entertain the thought of Hobbes as a theologian, or even both a philosopher and a theologian, as Hobbes’ (and not alone in the typical canonical list of Western philosophers: Descartes, Locke…) reveals the fact that, historically, the boundaries between religion and philosophy, or theology and philosophy, have been rather permeable if not porous (which is not to dismiss the distinction): it’s rather revealing and disconcerting that some refuse to appreciate the same holds in other traditions, in other parts of our planet.

  3. The titular question always struck me as strange, because anyone who bothered to read a book (or consult Wikipedia) would know that the answer is “yes.” Daya Krishna said this beautifully in response to a reviewer for “Three Myths”: whatever “philosophy proper” means in the West, you’ll find it that in India, too.

    The real question is, well, why we feel the need to ask and answer this question all the time. In part it’s because of the sneering ignorance of people like Anthony Flew. But what are the stakes of the question, really?

    Do we really want “Indian philosophy” as we define and practice it to be part of the discourse (and institutions) of “philosophy”? Well, probably yes, but: are there other conversations that “Indian philosophy” could contribute to outside of “philosophy”? What are they and where are they? Modernity, for example, is a big topic that dips its toe in philosophy but is primarily associated with Weberian sociology and its critics. Lots of people who work on “Indian philosophy” have found it necessary to say something about modernity, or premodernity, or early modernity. And, if you believe Ganeri, what happens in Navadvīpa in the centuries prior to colonialism completely disproves the self-satisfied narrative of modernity (expanding radially from Europe through European colonialism) that people still generally take for granted.

    I suppose it’s a question of choosing the conversations we want to have, and the interlocutors we want to have.

  4. Great post, Elisa, and much for thought.

    An addendum to your mention of Ganeri and Indian thought as “reason’s other”: In that very essay, Ganeri makes a point to say that the contribution of Indian thinkers themselves in creating that narrative, and not just Westerners, tends to be overlooked. But we need only read some of Vivekānānda, etc., to see an attempt to exhalt Indian thought as a-rational and intuitive, a counterbalance to Western rationality.

    And to Andrew’s, Ganeri also underscores the recent scholarship that shows that Descartes wasn’t doing much that was new, despite his claims to break from tradition.

    Mohanty had a good response to Rorty, whose relativism led him to associate “Philosophy” with a very European sort of practice: “So does this mean that there was no mathematics in India either?”

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