Some common prejudices about Indian Philosophy: It is time to give them up

Is Indian Philosophy “caste-ish”? Yes and no, in the sense that each philosophy is also the result of its sociological milieu, but it is not only that.
Is Indian Philosophy only focused on “the Self”? Surely not.

Why am I asking these questions? Because —no matter how sophisticated our discussions of specific topics of philosophy can be— one still encounters these prejudices in secondary literature…and consequently also in the writings of many colleagues who do not have access to direct sources. They cannot be blamed for that, but I hope that they will be grateful to receive some advice concerning what they believe on the basis of surpassed or unreliable sources. The last example for me was a collection of notes on Academia.edu. Its author starts with the good intention “I’ve had enough of ignorance about Indian philosophy” and overall he sounds engaged and interesting. Unfortunately, however, he has received bad advices and/or chose badly among them. The result is a short summary of the usual suspects, with a strong bias in favour of Advaita Vedānta mistaken to be “Indian Philosophy” sic et simpliciter (bold passages are the author’s ones, followed by my comments):

  1. “‘See the Self’ is the keynote of all schools of Indian philosophy. And this is the reason why most of the schools are also religious sects” (p. 1). I thought that B.K. Matilal had done enough to defeat this prejudice, but this seems not to be the case. Thus, I am afraid I will not be able to defeat it myself. Let me just note that this is a short summary of what some schools of Vedānta could be said to do but it has little or nothing to do with the vast majority of Indian philosophers. There is no “religious sect” called “Mīmāṃsā” or “Nyāya” or “Vaiśeṣika” and so on. Not to speak of Buddhist schools of philosophy, who tend to be anātmavādin `deniers of the existence of a [permanent] Self’.
  2. Self-forgetful service of others is a Christian, not a Hindu idea (p. 1). Well, one might argue that self-forgetful service of others is difficult to attain for human beings. And one is reminded of Hegel’s critique of Kant’s concept of morality. Moreover, self-forgetful service of others is exactly the Bodhisattva ideal —which the author himself mentions at p. 9.
  3. (Evidently all the life-denying aspects of Indian tradition, as well as the superstitious and degrading religious practices, proceed largely from the caste system, its lack of dynamism, its oppressive structure, its eternal unchangingness. A society that worships Hanuman the monkey and Sabbala the cow, that countenances the burning of wives after their husband’s death, is an inhuman one, in which man is subjugated both by the earth and especially by a caste-structured povert) (pp.1–2). My personal position is not consistent with strict Marxism as for the idea that philosophy were only a superstructure of economic relationships. But in any case, I am strongly suspicious about such summaries highlighting an a-historical laundry list of shameful acts of Indians (not Indian philosophers) without any effort to understand (worshipping Hanuman is not like worshipping a monkey, just like believing in St. Mary does not amount to beliving that virginal births are possible in general).
  4. Hegel, Hegel, Hegel (except for the mysticism) (p.3). No, thanks. Again, the author is speaking of Advaita Vedānta and thinks of “Indian Philosophy” as if Advaita Vedānta were its only representative. In fact, Advaita Vedānta, as discussed by Daya Krishna (Three Myths of Indian Philosophy), is virtually absent from the philosophical arena until almost the end of the first Millennium AD. And, one might add, its role in the second Millennium AD has been possibly overemphasised by well-known activists of Advaita Vedānta such as Vivekānanda who looked at Indian Philosophy through these lenses.
  5. Hinayana, a religion without a God, emphasizes self-help […]. Mahayana, on the other hand, is less egoistic and negative […]. In this sect Buddha is transformed into God and worshipped as such. […] The Mahayana religion has more missionary zeal than the Hinayana; it is more progressive and dynamic (p. 9). “Hinayana” is already a bad start, since it is a pejorative term (literally meaning ‘small vehicle’, opposed to Mahāyāna ‘big vehicle’) applied by Mahāyāna Buddhists to their forerunners. “God” seems to me here a misleading category. If one thinks at the Western and Indian concept of God as creator of the world, dispenser of mercy, etc., then the Buddha is surely not a God, not even in Mahāyāna. And so on.
  6. The original teachings of Buddha were not incompatible with the Upanishads—for instance, he emphasized Atman, the Great Self, and encouraged people to act under the light of that Self, to seek union with it—but his early Hinayana disciples (of the Sarvastivada, or Vaibhasika, school) changed that (p. 9). This is a neo-Vedāntic interpretation of Buddhism, which uses a fundamentalistic device (“the origins were good, the successors mixed all up”) in order to suggest that the Buddha was in fact a crypto Vedāntin.
  7. Idealism is obviously the philosophy of choice for most Indian thinkers (p. 10). This is not so, and surely not “obviously” so. Which schools would one count among the Idealist ones? I can only think of Advaita Vedānta, Yogācāra and perhaps some trends of Pratyabhijñā philosophy. Which schools are closer to Realism, Representationalism, etc.? Mīmāṃsā, Vaiśeṣika, Sāṅkhya, Śaivasiddhānta, Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta, Dvaita Vedānta… (all of them are never mentioned in the “Notes”), Nyāya, Yoga both schools of Jaina philosophy, most schools of Buddhist Philosophy, Cārvākas, and so on.

Long story short: Perhaps we have really to do something to spread some better-funded knowledge on Indian Philosophy (and perhaps interested scholars should make some efforts in selecting their sources). Which misconceptions do you encounter more frequently?

Should you have arrived here for the first time: Please read this page about the purposes of this blog before feeling offended. I want to initiate discussions, not to offend anyone.

(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.

16 thoughts on “Some common prejudices about Indian Philosophy: It is time to give them up

  1. The Hegel comment struck me especially because Advaita is also not very much like Hegel – that “except for the mysticism” is a very big “except”. Advaita says the world is ultimately a nondifferentiated unity, which is a conception Hegel rails against all the time (“the night in which all cows are black”). There are much closer parallels to Hegel in Viśiṣṭādvaita, where the One has parts.

  2. It’s also worth noting the author’s approach to his research: “I’ve had enough of ignorance about Indian philosophy. I’m going to read (skim) three books about it—Indian Philosophy: A Critical Survey (by Chandradhar Sharma), Comparative Religion (by A. C. Bouquet), and A Source Book in Indian Philosophy—and summarize what I read.”

    In fairness, I think this document was written while the author was an MA student, but still, it reflects an approach that I find fairly common: skimming just a few sources and thinking one has enough grasp of the literature to write as an expert.

    • Yes, Malcolm, I also think that the author is young and unexperienced and not to blame in himself. However:
      1) the Notes are a sum of prejudices which I thought had long been eradicated and are in this sense an interesting litmus test of the “average” view of Indian philosophy among philosophers,
      2) I started noting that some people had bookmarked the Notes on Academia and this made me think that they need to be warned.

    • The author says this explicitly: ” I’m not really interested in these philosophies for their own sake anyway, but only as manifestations of the human spirit and symptoms of a caste-ish social organization.”

      So, he is not trying to understand Indian philosophers on their own terms. It’s too bad he says this at the end of his notes. If they were placed earlier, people could have understood his motivations at the beginning (and hence, stopped reading, maybe?)

  3. There’s a lot to say about this, but one thing might even be the specific sources the author was relying on. I haven’t read the other two, but if one were, for example, to read just the introduction to Radhakrishnan and Moore, I can understand why a person might think some of these things. Since that introduction was written in the 1950’s, I would assume that scholarship had evolved since then, but maybe a lack of evolving scholarship is another prejudice about the field that outsiders have.

    Speaking of Radhakrishnan and Moore, what texts do people use for teaching Indian philosophy or to recommend to beginners? I’ve been using Sarma’s Classical Indian Philosophy: A Reader with limited success (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/11345986-classical-indian-philosophy?ac=1). We had a post on this issue recently, but maybe I’ll do a follow up soon (http://indianphilosophyblog.org/2015/02/20/getting-started-in-indian-philosophy-query-for-readers/).

    Also, I should remind everyone that I’m looking for book reviews! If you want to discuss the issue of sources for introductions to Indian philosophy, book reviews would be a great way to do so! Reviews need not be excessively long or formal, and they can be on something you’re reading anyway. See the “Book Reviews” link on the top of the page for details. (http://indianphilosophyblog.org/book-reviews/)

    • Yes, you are right. The initial choice already points to the wrong direction (if you want to know about Western Philosophy, you are unlikely to pick up a book like “Comparative Religion”). However, I wonder whether the prejudice you mention (thinking that reading a book written in the Fifties is OK, although you haven’t investigated further on whether the book is still up to date) only regards “non-Western philosophy”. Perhaps some people would use the same kind of books for any branch of philosophy written until, say, 1800 or 1900 or 1975…

    • Sarma’s anthology is… not an improvement over Radhakrishnan and Moore. That’s probably the shortest way to say it.

  4. I put up a post on my blog continuing some thoughts on this case and others like it. I gave comments today on a paper from a grad student who is just starting to study Buddhist philosophy, and so was thinking about how to give strategic advice beyond which texts to read. I could cross-post it here if people would like? (I am always hesitant about being too vocal on shared platforms!)

    Link: http://malcolmkeating.blogspot.com/2015/03/getting-started-indian-philosophy-part-2.html

    • Why “too vocal”? It is a shared platform in the sense that it belong to us all, isn’t it? In this connection, I read and enjoyed your post, but I wonder: Would people who are only superficially interested in the topic be willing to follow your advice? I do not have an easy answer, but perhaps I would recommend them to read primers on the subfield they are interested in (say “Indian Logic”). What do you think?

      • Elisa, fair enough. I’ve put up the post.

        I’m not sure about people who are just superficially interested following the advice. Perhaps it would dissuade people in such a position from thinking that they can become experts merely by reading some introductory material? If so, then I think that’s a good outcome.

        On the other hand, they may realize that Indian philosophy is just that–philosophy–and requires the same kind of diligence they would (hopefully) put into their other areas of research. In that case, they may embark on a lifelong project that is fruitful personally and perhaps professionally.

  5. Pingback: Getting Started in Indian Philosophy: Part 2The Indian Philosophy Blog | The Indian Philosophy Blog

    • Very disappointing. I hope, though, that his response is atypical for philosophers genuinely interested in Indian philosophy. Surely no one I know would respond to criticisms by specialists by saying that the books they read were well-reviewed “on the Internet.”

      Also, I’m not sure of his age, but there may be a generational divide about what publishing personal notes online amounts to? I would think that there is a distinction between Academia.edu and my own blog–I post things on the latter I would not on the former. (Although I try not to put anything online that I would not want associated with me publicly and professionally!) However, given this individual’s predilection for self-publishing (their books, for example) they may not make such a distinction, nor take seriously the idea of peer-review.

  6. Okay. So if one shouldn’t trust posts on the internet–and in many cases one shouldn’t–then the same logic goes here: a couple people on the internet criticizing a brief summary of two books written by specialists doesn’t count as proof that the summary is wholly useless. There are literally hundreds or even thousands of points made in those few pages of “notes”; your blog post and the commenters criticized maybe ten or fifteen. (Not all of which, in my opinion, are valid or interesting.)

    Which should I trust more: a book or two that have been republished on many occasions (latest in 2000), written by respected scholars, or a blog post and some commenters?

    I’d also remark that some people are a little too inclined to be overly sensitive. I CONSTANTLY am confronted with wild misunderstandings of Marxism and left-wing philosophies in general, sometimes truly offensive misunderstandings, but they don’t particularly upset me. If I see something partially ignorant about Marxism that at least shows interest in it, I’ll in fact be rather impressed, not hyper-sensitive to a few of the points made. (Again, I corrected and/or qualified some of the claims in those “notes” that you found incorrect.) You should take it as a positive sign that someone whose studies have absolutely no relation to Indian philosophy is at least interested enough to read a few books about it (which he thought looked–and still thinks are–informative) and write a summary of them for general readers. Moreover, the summary is by no means insulting towards Indian philosophy as a whole. It acknowledges the richness and apologizes for the inability to portray that richness, etc.

    I hadn’t seen that other blog, since you hadn’t directed me to it. But I’ll post this comment there too. One of the commenters there refers dismissively to self-published books. Typical of the academic–the “institutional” way of thinking, that has contempt for non-academic ways of doing things. ‘If it’s self-published, it must be non-serious.’ Predictable indoctrinated thinking. Similarly, it doesn’t strike me as inappropriate to post unacademic papers or notes or articles on academia.edu–as is frequently done–as long as it’s done in good faith, etc. I’m interested in spreading knowledge and curiosity–as the (partly dated but not thereby worthless) books I quote seem to be–and I think I’ve helped do that by posting those notes. People can follow up on their own, pursue their own investigations. It isn’t my responsibility to correct every misconception that exists about Indian philosophy or that a few bloggers want to quibble with. And yet, nevertheless, I did take seriously the criticisms you made that I thought were serious and worth engaging with. That’s enough, and I’m done with this.

    • Chris, I do take it as a positive sign that you are interested in Indian philosophy! I think everyone here is glad to see Western scholars learning about the Indian intellectual tradition.

      However, as you published remarks online in an academic context, don’t be surprised that academics who have expertise in that area may have thoughts in response. Further, one of these experts that you have been having conversations with (no one blogging here is just “some commenter” by the way) pointed out that the worry she had is that since there are misleading generalizations in the notes, generalizations already rampant in society at large, it ought to be at least corrected. I doubt very much that if you had published the notes on your personal blog any of us would have gone out to find it and correct you (there’s too little time to play ““Someone is Wrong on the Internet”

      I’d say more but it seems like you’ve either been really personally hurt by this conversation or do not want to read the critical comments in a charitable light. Or something else? But if you really do want to understand why the experts here think the authors you cite are wrong, I suggest you browse through this blog and the books and articles written by its contributors. There have been a few posts recently about where to start in learning about Indian philosophy.

      Oh, one last thing about the “self-publishing” remark. I have a blog, a decent-sized presence on social media, and I think self-publishing can be a great way to get one’s ideas out quickly. My remark in the context of a speculation: that perhaps you do not see any important difference between peer-reviewed published work and self-published work. If so (and here I thought the fact that you promote your books on an academic website might be evidence of that), then that says something about possible differences in how you and I may understand the roles of testimony, expertise, the academic community, and so on. That would, I thought, also explain why you might publish those notes as you did and be surprised at the response.

    • Chris, it is a pity I did not manage to convince you that I am seriously trying to improve things, not to condemn you. You raise an important argument, namely “Whom should we trust?”. The problem is that bad money drives out good and that the growth of unreliable information on the internet is in this sense extremely dangerous and demands from us an increased awareness of the epistemological issues at stake whenever we accept a given piece of testimony. Your reaction makes me think I will have to dedicate a separate post to this topic.

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