(Relatively) Recent History: E.B. Cowell’s Preface to the Kusumāñjali

In preparing for the fall term, I have been looking through translations of Udāyanācarya’s Kusumāñjali. The one excerpted in Radhakrishnan’s Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy (mentioned in some earlier posts here as not a good starting point) is by E.B. Cowell, translated in 1864. I checked out the entire book today for a closer look, and, upon opening to the preface, scowled. While perhaps it is possible for a translator to do justice to a text with low esteem for the author, I think it is unlikely that approaching a philosophical text with prejudice will allow a translator to do her best work.

So, while I will choose the translation I use on its merits, knowing what Cowell has to say about Indian philosophy in general is a red flag. After talking about the “quaint Oriental disguise” in which familiar (Western) arguments for the existence of God are found, he says,

The Kusumāñjali is as much inferior to the tenth book of Plato’s Laws or the twelfth of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, as Hindu philosophy itself is to that of Greece…

(I’ve attached a scan of the opening paragraph of the preface for fuller context if you want to get more annoyed.)

Why post this, other than to share my ire? Well, I think it’s an important reminder that not very long has passed–just over 150 years—since this kind of prejudice was accepted so openly that it could form the opening preface to a translation! We have developed new ways of talking about the quaintness and curiosity of Indian philosophy, but similar attitudes remain. One has only to take a look at the manner in which encyclopedias and survey articles treat Indian philosophy–as an aside to the Really Important Work done in Western philosophy.

Now, we owe a lot to scholars like E.B. Cowell, who was the first professor of Sanskrit at Cambridge, translated Persian as well as Sanskrit texts, and who is responsible for our having Fitzgerald’s English translations of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. So this is not to say that one cannot do excellent and even groundbreaking work in spite of one’s blind spots. However, as we have been recently discussing approaches to Indian philosophy as a whole, I thought this a relevant point of reflection.

A question for discussion, then–in giving texts to introductory students, would you include such prefatory material, and why/why not? I imagine the answer is, as in most things, that context is important. So perhaps explain when you might and when you might refrain?

(Cross-posted on my personal blog.)

About Malcolm Keating

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

17 thoughts on “(Relatively) Recent History: E.B. Cowell’s Preface to the Kusumāñjali

  1. Malcolm, thanks for this. One think to keep in mind is that he did not have the entirety of the text in front of him. Something like the Karikas written by Udayana with some extra material.

    And yes, there is bias there, but it’s pretty hard to avoid in work from a certain era. I guess you kind of expect it, much like you expect sexism from our own Brahmin philosophers of yore. I don’t get that worked up about it anymore. I’m much more annoyed with things like Anthony Flew’s ridiculous rationale for avoiding Asian Philosophy in his book on history of Philosophy.

    Please check out Chemparathy’s book on the Kusumanjali, which has solid translations. It is a real masterwork of quality scholarship.


    Regarding intros, like all else, it depends on quality and pedagogical need. I tend to find that I like to supply the introductory reflections myself to help students with primary materials unless there are time pressures involved. In general, in the undergraduate classroom, I like them to read primary sources (of course in translation, usually), and my job is to bridge the gap.

    Consider writing me offline if you are doing something on Indian arguments for God or something like that. I may have suggestions that could be of value.

  2. Matt, yes, I didn’t *not* expect that in the preface, and I do get more annoyed at contemporary folks doing it. Mostly, I thought it was a useful reminder that this kind of thing is pretty recent, relatively speaking–a few generations.

    I’ll look at Chemparathy for sure (it is one of those I’m trying to get from the library right now–for some reason, they’re all checked out except for Cowell!) and perhaps send you an email.

    To follow up on the intro material question–do you think your bridging the gap (rather than, say, Cowell and then you commenting on him) allows you to better address student misconceptions? One thought is bringing misconceptions into the open with these kinds of materials allows them to be refuted—but one might worry that it also introduces new ones that were not already there.

    • Honestly, I don’t think most students know enough to have certain misconceptions anymore. The only common misconception is the idea that all of Indian philosophy is somehow mystical, and we have both Europeans and Indians to blame for that. It’s not hard to remove that either, by actually reading a text or two!

      Also, and this is admittedly personal choice and sensibility: I am a bit wary of taking too much time away from discussing important Indian thinkers to engage in “shaming the West” sessions. Not that the latter aren’t warranted sometimes. I do point out to students how political and racial biases have prevented the full acceptance of Indian thinkers. (Incidentally, J. Barton Scott and Dan Flory have good papers on this on the APA Newsletter on Asian and Asian-American Philosophers that will be coming out soon, edited by Prasanta Bandyopadhyay and yours truly.) But, insofar as it is a course on Indian philosophy, I find off putting the idea that it is so important to systematically worry about Western misrepresentations that it warrants take time away from studying these great Indian thinkers on their own merits.

      I tend to talk about misrepresentations as needed, sure, to clear away mistakes, but of course, a serious study of the Indian thinkers will do that, and better, will help students gain the capacity to illustrate such mistakes as they confront them.

      Not sure if I really answered your question. If not, please push me on it.

      • I think you’re right, Matthew, that many students don’t really have the old “India as irrational/mystical” misconception anymore, since they often lack any conceptions at all (accurate or not) about India or other parts of the world. There are some New Age elements associated with whatever happens in Yoga studios (at least in North America), but that’s about it these days. The situation is likely very different in other parts of the world (like Singapore)!

  3. I’d discuss the preface in class, maybe as a handout or projection, but I wouldn’t assign it for students to read on their own without any context. I think orientalist attitudes (in the Edward Said sense) are worth discussing, since this gives a framework for understanding the attitude that studying these texts seriously ought to challenge. That can be a way of creating a more social/political hook for students who aren’t immediately hooked by the philosophical content. I had some success this term with discussions of ways in which Yoga is appropriated in the West in addition to actually reading Patañjali.

  4. “With regard to the scope of the work [i.e. Bendall’s Catalogue of 1883], the present volume deals, as I have said, with the most characteristic portion of the collection. This includes Buddhist literature i n the widest sense, so as to take i n on the one hand mystical or religious works of the tantric kind, where debased Buddhism is hardly distinguishable from Çivaism; and on the other, works of no special religious tendency, but merely the supposed products of Buddhistic civilization, e.g. the Amarakoça (though some suppose its author to have been a Jain), as well as the local Nepalese literature, some of which bears more on Hindu mythology than on the Buddhist system.”

    Dear Malcolm, you are a little unfair in your comment. You think what you think about Indian philosophy precisely because you write in 2015. Imagine yourself growing up and studying in the middle of the 19th century, and then tell me if you would think the same. Actually, I would say now you go with the stream pretty much as Cowell did in his time, or for what is worth Bendall did, when he talked of Tantric Buddhism as “debased” — which, by the way, is exactly what many Theravada followers thinks. When I read this remark by Bendall, well, I thought it was precisely in the spirit of the time. Yet, he worked extensively on this “debased” Buddhism, so I wonder why he did it, if the thought it was not Buddhism, but disguised Saivism. Well, maybe it’s because he was and outstanding scholar, pretty much like Cowell, and thought that Tantric Buddhism was culturally interesting. Why bother editing such texts? Maybe he was less biased than we like to think. A similar remark applies for many comments he made about the Sanskrit of Nepalese texts. Yes, it is broken Sanskrit according to Paninian rules, but alas, it is linguistically interesting. The only problem is that nowadays there are different trends in linguistics and it’s much easier for us to recognize the existence and importance of different types of Sanskrit. And yet, colleagues of mine still say that what I read is broken Sanskrit, as if only Paninian Sanskrit were the true language. Let’s face it: we are on the shoulder of these giants, and I bow before them.

    You might wonder why I wrote this comment defending Cowell and Bendall, and yes, it is because in the last years I worked in the same university where they taught. I had the privilege of reading their scholarly correspondence with other Indologists, and I could not refrain from thinking how modern they were for their time, how groundbreaking was their approach to the subjects they were focusing on.

  5. I find this interesting for one more reason – that the viewpoints of a person could change over time. This was translated in the 1860s while the preface to the Sarvadarsanasangraha was written (in collaboration with Gough in the 1870s). When I compare this to the preface of the Sarvadarsanasangraha, I don’t see any such narrowness of perspective at all.

  6. I am inclined to agree with Camillo’s remarks—not that I agree at all with Cowell’s blanket dismissal, but having reading parts of the Nyāyakusumāñjali and the Āgamaḍambara with my class recently, I was, well, outraged by what appear to this non-philosopher to be pretty rotten arguments. But I am not the most sympathetic reader of any “rational theology.” For an even more recent example, but one that resists being categorized and dismissed as “Orientalist condescension,” see D.D. Kosambi’s edition of Bhartṛhari’s Śatakatrayam in the Harvard Oriental Series—his introduction came so close to saying that all of Sanskrit literature is the legitimating fantasy of an unproductive ruling class that the series editor, Daniel Ingalls, had to write a short disclaimer at the end.

  7. Everyone, thanks for the replies. Briefly, two responses.
    1. Yes, surely we owe a great deal to Cowell and others like him. I said as much in my original post, noting that one can do excellent and groundbreaking work despite having some blind spots. And yes, my hypothetical temporal counterpart living in that time might well have been subject to those same blind spots (or worse!), and of course I am partly a product of my time.

    2. The major question for my post was about approaching the content of that preface from a pedagogical standpoint, a question distinct from those about Cowell’s personal development (as Vidya points out), his immense importance (as Camillo points out), and contemporary thinkers having similar views (as Andrew points out). I think that where some orientalist views are already common, as Ethan points out, making them explicit and addressing them can be useful. Even pointing out as Camillo does that it is not as simple as blanket condemnation can be a useful practice, since while we want our students to shake off mistaken notions, we also don’t want perfection to be the enemy of the good.

    But I do think Matt’s warning is apt. There is a sense in which giving too much attention to wrong-headed views or facile generalizations is to allow them to direct the conversation. It also takes valuable time from looking at the philosophical texts themselves. I am still thinking about how much meta-philosophy I want students to be doing (explicitly) in my courses.

    I think perhaps setting up an intro unit collecting some approaches to Indian philosophy (from within, without, and syntheses) might be a nice way to get the views on the table without the West getting to set the conversation. A preface like this could go in that, alongside other readings.

  8. “I think perhaps setting up an intro unit collecting some approaches to Indian philosophy (from within, without, and syntheses) might be a nice way to get the views on the table without the West getting to set the conversation. A preface like this could go in that, alongside other readings.”

    It would a great aid for students, experienced researchers, and the broader public. It’s needed, and I was wondering if there is already something along this line of thought that one could read.

    • Off the cuff, can think of some texts that treat the topic, but not a collection in the sense I was describing. I may be wrong, however–I’ll see if I can find something. If not, it would be a good project to come up with a representative bibliography, at least!

      • My next post will be about syllabi. It could be “Pedagogy 1: Syllabi on Indian Philosophy”, and if you want, you could do “Pedagogy 2: approaches to the subject”, even in an exploratory capacity.

        Just an idea.

  9. I think that my interest in the topic is because of Elisa’s [insidious 😉 ] influence on my view of our fields of study. I wonder why she hasn’t commented this post yet, I feel it goes to the heart of her attitude that “there is only one philosophy.”

    Anyway, it would be nice to include in a commented bibliography also references to other views about Indian philosophy — let’s say, from Muslim or Chinese or Tibetan sources, for instance. What do you think?

    • Thanks for dragging me in, Camillo. I have been carefully following the post and enjoying your comments. And I think that the idea of enlarging the perspective to other historiographical traditions about India could be an interesting antidote against the unreflected assumption that the Western (preconceived) judgements are just right.

  10. Pingback: Book Review of The Bhagavad Gita: A Biography. By Richard H. Davis. (Reviewed by Matthew R. Dasti)The Indian Philosophy Blog | The Indian Philosophy Blog

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