Ultimate reality in Hinduism, Buddhism (etc.): Some suggestions for a possible syllabus

A reader (Robert Gressis) asked me to give him some advice for a class on philosophy of religion in which he would (admirably) like to insert something more than “the typical western philosophy of religion”. He would be interested in primary and secondary literature on the following topics:

  1. What is the nature of the ultimate reality (from Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic and Jewish perspectives)
  2. Why should we believe that that is what the ultimate reality is like (from the above perspectives again)
  3. Is there a non-rational means of coming to know the nature of ultimate reality? (I’m asking here about attitudes like faith in the above traditions)
  4. What are persons like, and what will happen when we die? (from all the above perspectives)
  5. Given what ultimate reality is like, and given what we’re like, how should we conduct ourselves?

Ad 1: My first reaction is that it is quite difficult to speak of a “Buddhist” answer (since, to begin with, Theravāda Buddhists would speak of nirvāṇa or bodhi as the summum bonum, whereas Indian Mahāyana Buddhists would rather emphasise the Bodhisattva-path and Pure-Land Buddhists would again emphasise Avalokiteśvara’s Paradise), and it is surely impossible to speak of a “Hindu” one. I do not want to enter into the moot issue of whether “Hinduism” exists, but even if it does, it is surely not a unitary tradition. I know, Western scholars are often used to read about an impersonal brahman as the “Hindu” answer to 1., but this is only due to the fact that Advaita Vedānta thinkers (upholding the theory of brahman as the ultimate reality) reached the West before others (and possibly also to their gaining a predominant position during the Vijayanagara empire). Śaiva authors of the Pratyabhijñā school, for instance (about which you can refer to Raffaele Torella’s and Isabelle Ratié’s studies, to begin with), speak of a personal ultimate reality, namely Parameśvara Himself.

I have anticipated my general perplexity to Robert, who has answered as follows:

I should have said that I’m interested in a representative perspective from these four traditions. I realize that in some cases there is no representative perspective, but what would you be pleased if an undergraduate learned, given that they could only learn 1 or 2 perspectives on these topics?

This being said, I would suggest Theravāda and Yogācāra for Buddhism (the reason for the choice of the latter is that Madhyamaka is really hard to deal with in terms of “Absolute reality”) and two among Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta (personal God of which all the world, we included, are specifications), Advaita Vedānta (impersonal brahman, all the rest is only illusion, māyā), Acintya Bhedābhedavāda —aka Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism— (personal God, who is paradoxically distinct and non-distinct from the world, see this article by Graheli), Nyāya (God as ontological foundation of the metaphysics) or Pratyabhijñā (personal God, all the rest is His conscious play, līlā) for the so-called Hinduism. The choice would depend on one’s further choices (see below). I would nonetheless be clear about the problems entailed by the term “Hinduism”.

This is known (2) through recognising (pratyabhijñā-) oneself as part of it (see Ratié’s Le Soi et l’Autre, in case you read French). Also most Buddhist schools uphold that it is possible to achieve knowledge of the Four Noble Truths through some sort of intellectual intuition (yogipratyakṣa, about which you can read this essay by Torella available on line). Nyāya authors, especially from Uddyotakara onwards, will rather stress that the Ultimate (=God understood in an Aristotelian way, that is, as the Metaphysic entity which makes sense of the world) can be achieved thorugh inferential reasoning (see Chemparathy’s 1972 work on the Rational Theology of Udayana). And Śaiva authors of the Śaivasiddhānta school followed this path (I have dealt with that in my thesis, but it is unfortunately in Italian).
By contrast, Pūrva and Uttara Mīmāṃsā authors firmly deny that the Ultimate can be accessed through anything but the Sacred Texts.

Ad 3: Pūrva Mīmāṃsā author would claim that their attitude in this sense is purely rational and not fideistic, whereas Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava authors explicitly acknowledge the value of śraddhā ‘faith’. Interestingly enough, faith is recognised as a distinct topic also in Theravāda Buddhist texts (see this study by Giuliano Giustarini).

Ad 4: There is a very interesting book edited by Kuznetsova, Ganeri and Ram-Prasad on the concept of “subject” in “Hinduism” you might want to have a look at. “Our” Matthew Dasti edited with Edwin Bryant a related book on Free Will, Agency, and Selfhood in Indian Philosophy, which is very interesting and at the same time probably also accessible to a non-specialised public.

Ad 5: This is, again, a very vast question, whose answers range from ascetism (especially in Jainism —although you did not mention it in your original query— and some trends of Buddhism and Yoga) to the traditional acknowledged mārgas ‘paths’. These were originally the path of (ritual) action, upheld by the thinkers of Pūrva Mīmāṃsā on the basis of the prescriptive portions of the Vedas (called Brāhmaṇas) and also on the ethics of the Bhagavadgītā, and the path of knowledge (of the ultimate non-distinction between oneself and the brahman; or of the nature of the brahman and of oneself), upheld by Vedāntic schools. To those two, the path of devotion (bhakti) (to God, or to the brahman seen as God) was added, for those for whom the first two were too hard. Within Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta (see the book by Mumme reviewed here) a forth path was added, namely that of surrender (prapatti) to God, for those (probably all human beings) who were unable even to be selfless devotees.

Now, I am perhaps not the best candidate to answer (also insofar as have I never taught in the US and may, thus, not be able to assess the expectations of US students), thus, “the floor is open” for further suggestions.

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.

13 thoughts on “Ultimate reality in Hinduism, Buddhism (etc.): Some suggestions for a possible syllabus

  1. Robert, a few years ago, I was asked to write a paper for The Routledge Companion to Theism, from the perspective of the philosophies of India. It’s accessible, and may speak to a number of your questions. Here’s a google books sample of the content:

    It should be easy to find through ILL, but let me know if you have a hard time and I could send you a soft copy. I’ve probably got some other accessible items I could send you, too, that I use in my own Phil Religion classes.

  2. Let me also say that I absolutely love Kuznetsova, Ganeri, and Ram-Prasad’s volume. I don’t know if students would be ready for it in an introductory class, but it is worth reading by anyone seriously interested in Indian philosophy.

    And a small quibble (that’s what we do here): i’d edit your sentence above as follows: “for Nyāya authors, especially from UDDYOTAKARA onwards, will rather stress that the Ultimate (=God understood in an Aristotelian way, that is, as the Metaphysic entity which makes sense of the world) can be achieved thorugh inferential reasoning (see Chemparathy’s 1972 work on the Rational Theology of Udayana).”

  3. I taught a lower level Philosophy of Religion course for a few years at a large American university (University of Arizona). First of all, a lot of the “general issues” in philosophy of religion admit of easy inclusion of non-Western sources. If you use William James on mysticism, for example (which touches on questions two and three in the original post), he discusses Buddhist, Hindu, and Islamic sources (although James’s understanding of these traditions isn’t up to rigorous present day academic standards, it’s fine for a lower level course). Likewise, when discussing definitions of religion, I like to bring up Buddhism as a counterpoint to the heavily theistic notions of religion common in the West.

    Second, I like to introduce students to Buddhism with the first chapter of Mark Siderits’s Buddhism as Philosophy. It’s a good introduction for a philosophy course that touches on the first three questions of the original post. He also has a chapter on ethics and a lengthy chapter on non-self, including a discussion of how it relates to rebirth (to answer questions four and five of the original post). Siderits wouldn’t be as good for a more religion focused course (for that maybe Rupert Gethin’s Foundations of Buddhism might be better), but I think it works well for people who are interested more in the philosophical issues than history or details of doctrine.

    Third, although representing “Hinduism” isn’t really possible in a single course, to touch on the ultimate reality issues, I would usually cover the Chāndogya Upandiṣad with an Advaita reading (while making sure students realized this was merely one of many interpretations).

    Lastly, even though theism wasn’t nearly the preoccupation for philosophers in classical India that it has been in the West (a point which is itself worth making in a philosophy of religion course), I used two articles on the debate between Nyāya and Buddhism: Arindam Chakrabarti’s “From the Fabric to the Weaver?” and Richard Hayes’s “Principled Atheism in the Buddhist Scholastic Tradition.” This allowed interesting discussions on whether the Nyāya arguments in favor of theism are versions of cosmological and teleological arguments and why so many Buddhists found theism to be incompatible with Buddhist philosophical positions.

    Good luck! I’d be happy to share my syllabus if anyone’s interested.

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

    • I think the reason is easier than you might think: the person who asked the question, as most of his colleagues in Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, Latin America, etc., knows or is convinced to know good enough the Christian side of the question.

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