Ashoka University – A Guest Post by Alex Watson

Hi Everyone. Elisa noted that in the Seminar article she recently blogged about, my job title is given as ‘Professor of Indian Philosophy at Ashoka University’, and asked me to write about Indian Philosophy here at Ashoka.

It was not an entirely straightforward decision to leave Harvard, but one of several factors weighing strongly in favour of Ashoka was that I will not just be teaching Sanskrit, but also – in fact mainly – courses on Indian Philosophy.  Ashoka University has only recently come into existence; last academic year was the first year.  It’s India’s first exclusively liberal arts University, and it promises ‘An Ivy League education, right here in India’.  It has attracted superb faculty and great students; every one of my colleagues and last year’s visiting faculty who I have spoken to about this say that they are the best students they have taught anywhere in the world.  It’s surprising that they managed to recruit such good students in their first year, before any reputation could be established.  Perhaps part of the reason is that students were attracted to the international faculty; and perhaps another factor was that the admissions team were picky.  1000 people applied last year and 133 were admitted.  2000 have applied for this academic year and somewhere between 160 and 300 will be admitted.  The fees are high for India, but the admission process is means-blind, and out of the 133 students in the first year, 88 are on some level of scholarship.

Undergraduates have to take all 12 of the ‘Foundation courses’ regardless of their major.  One of these is called ‘Indian Civilizations’ which is sometimes taught by me and sometimes by people in the History department.  I’m in the Philosophy department and so am responsible for the Indian Philosophy courses taken by those majoring in Philosophy, in PPE, or in an unrelated subject who choose to take an Indian Philosophy course as an elective.  I’m offering six courses in Indian Philosophy.  Neither the number six, nor the titles and content of these are in any way set in stone yet.  I’ll be rolling them out at the rate of one or two per term for the next two or three years.  But the titles (with course descriptions on the website) that I’ve come up with so far are:

Introduction to Indian Philosophy
Buddhist Philosophy
Vedānta
Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika
Indian Philosophy of Religion
Sāṅkhya, Yoga and Śaivism

As I say, I may decide to divide up the material differently, for example having more courses centered round issues than darśanas.  And I want to make room for more Mīmāṃsā and Jainism, which look to be too marginalized by that categorization.

Out of interest, does anyone know of other Philosophy departments where undergraduates can take as many as six courses in Indian Philosophy?

A great feature of Ashoka is that it is new enough and small enough that faculty have complete freedom in designing their courses and the paths that undergraduates in their subject can take.  I’ve been reading a lot recently about the ‘destruction’ (yes I’ve seen that word used!) of the academic profession in the UK as a result of takeover by management consultants and business ethos. It feels a long way from that here.
India is obviously a great place to study and work on Indian Philosophy.  I intermittently find myself pleasantly reminded of how much expertise in Indian Philosophy exists here. One recent example was the conference at IIAS, Shimla organized by Arindam Chakrabarti on ‘God, No-God and the Argumentative Indian.’

One of the things I’d like to do at Ashoka is organize workshops, seminars and conferences that bring together people working on Sanskrit/Indian Philosophy in India with those working on it in universities outside India.  It’s easy to forget how much expertise exists here, because of how rarely the two worlds overlap.  To give just one example, I wonder if there is anyone outside India who can read such a wide range of Indian philosophical texts in Sanskrit as quickly and accurately as Mani Dravida?

And Asia, incidentally, affords plenty of opportunity to interact with people working on Western Philosophy as well.  I enjoyed a great workshop at NYU Abu Dhabi in April organized by Jonardon and Gabe Rabin at which four members of the NYU Abu Dhabi philosophy department were joined by people working on Analytic Philosophy and History of Western Philosophy from Ashoka (Kranti Saran), Manipal (in Karnataka), Turkey and the Lebanon.  I was interested to read Malcolm’s post about Yale-NUS and I look forward to some tie-ups between them and Ashoka.

About Matthew Dasti

Matthew R. Dasti is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Bridgewater State University.

15 thoughts on “Ashoka University – A Guest Post by Alex Watson

  1. Alex, this sounds like a great situation. I’m glad to hear that humanistic studies, and the study of non-western philosophies in particular, are thriving somewhere. We have experienced a fair amount of “destruction” recently at my university too, especially in our humanities offerings. Perhaps schools like Ashoka and Yale-NUS can be examples of a new way forward.

  2. Hi Alex,

    This is a really interesting development. I didn’t expect you to leave Harvard, but now I can see why one would do so.

    I don’t think there is any place in the USA where undergraduates (and perhaps even graduates) have access to such a detailed curriculum of Indian philosophy.

    I think Elisa and Matthew had asked for us to share Indian philosophy syllabuses. I would be very curious how you are structuring the course, how you are mixing primary and secondary sources, who you think are the key figures that students must know, etc. If you are willing, I think we’d all like to see the details of the course of study. I have J Ganeri’s syllabus for Indian philosophy, but I think that was mainly for graduate students.

    Sincerely,
    Jonathan Edelmann
    University of Florida

  3. This sounds like an amazing opportunity both for faculty and students! My understanding (which may be incorrect) is that higher education in India has tended to downplay the humanities in recent decades, so it’s good to see a high quality liberal arts college like Ashoka.

    As Elisa wrote in a recent post (http://indianphilosophyblog.org/2015/07/20/if-you-work-on-indian-philosophy-in-north-america-in-europein-japanin-india/), we need more international mutual knowledge and cooperation. Conferences and workshops at Ashoka would be a great way to encourage this. Please be sure to post calls for papers and such here on the blog as you organize things.

    And I would second Jonathan Edelmann’s request to send some syllabi for the blog. I believe Matthew Dasti is collecting them.

    Good luck and best wishes!

  4. Hi!
    Happy to hear about developments at Ashoka University. I am Asstt. Professor at the philosophy department of Delhi University. I work in philosophy of cognitive science/mind and phenomenology, esp. interested in embodied cognition and its role in social cognition, language acquisition, autism. Also interested in relation between language and cognition, perception, problem of qualia and consciousness studies. Take meditation seriously as a tool for exploration into consciousness studies… i am also interested in Buddhism and Advait Vedanta.
    I will be happy to have collaborations with people at Ashoka!

  5. Dear Alex,
    I was very happy to know that you have changed the climate in both physical and metaphorical senses! I wanted to write to you about Piatigorsky project which is in progress, but I am not sure that your old address works. Please, send me your new e-mail address.
    In the new totaltarian situation which is developping actually in Russisa I am linking my future with India. In December I am coming to the NIAS international conference (Bangalore) on consciousness. By the same occasion I would like to visit Ashoka university and may be to give a talk there. What do you think about that?

  6. Alex, congratulations on the move! It sounds like with your “Foundations Courses” you are doing something similar to YNC’s Common Curriculum, perhaps? (https://www.yale-nus.edu.sg/curriculum/common-curriculum/) I think having some connections between Yale-NUS and Ashoka would be a great idea. I have a few thoughts, and would love to talk further about your experience of doing liberal arts in Asia. My email is (malcolm [dot] keating [at] yale-nus.edu.sg).

  7. I can’t think of another place I know of with so many regular undergraduate offerings. At Texas, one could maybe get 6 courses if one worked hard and paid careful attention to the offering of one-offs that may come up from time to time, also taking broader courses on Asian philosophy with an Indian component and availing themselves of textually-focused offerings in the Asian Studies dept that may involve philosophy from time to time. Does this sound right, Malcolm?

    • Matt, that sounds about right. In the philosophy department, Stephen usually offers a course or two each semester to undergrads, though they are not always exclusively Indian philosophy (he also teaches “World Philosophy” and general epistemology). Finding philosophically-focused courses in the South Asian studies department is easier if one has Sanskrit skills, as otherwise, the offerings may focus more on anthropology, sociology, etc.

  8. Many thanks for this interesting depiction of your University, Alex, and even more for your concluding remarks (I add myself to the praise of scholars like Mani Dravida).

    On a related vein: I missed completely Arindam’s conference on God, No God and the argumentative Indian? Would you (or someone else) be willing to post something about it?

  9. Pingback: New contributor: Alex WatsonThe Indian Philosophy Blog | The Indian Philosophy Blog

  10. Thanks Andrew and everyone else for all your replies.
    Jonathan, Ethan, and Matthew: see a separate post after this about my syllabus.
    Ethan: Indeed, the humanities are very much neglected in India – much more so than in the US or Europe. It is all about the ‘STEM’ subjects here: science, technology, engineering and medicine. They attract the bright students. The majority of students come to Ashoka saying they want to major in Economics or Computer Science (apart from those two subjects we offer only Humanities and Social Sciences); but because we have some very charismatic faculty teaching the Foundation Courses that students have to take at the beginning, many change their mind about their major!
    Navneet: hope to meet you in Delhi soon.
    Victoria: I’ve just sent you an email.
    Malcolm: yes uncannily similar to your Common Curriculum.
    Elisa: I’ll say something about the God, No-God conference in a separate post.

  11. About my syllabus.
    I’ll wait till after this term, when I’ve seen what worked and what didn’t and hence made some changes, to send the whole thing. But I can give lots of information about it here.

    So this is a course called ‘Introduction to Indian Philosophy’, and those who like the subject can go on to take 5 further courses in Indian Philosophy, so I’m perfectly happy to make a slow start and to not aim at any kind of comprehensive coverage (which would be impossible anyway of course). I’m also happy to include readings by two people who inspired me when I first encountered Indian Philosophy, even though they are considered rather out of date and unfashionable these days: Radhakrishnan and Conze. Another reading I assign which fits in this same category of the ‘inspiring’ is Joel Kupperman’s chapter on the Upanishads in his ‘Classic Asian Philosophy’. It’s a chapter I’m fond of, and I hope the students will be too, even though (perhaps to some extent *because*) he is not a specialist.

    I’ve divided the syllabus into three parts:
    1. Introducing the territory and the methodology
    2. Darśanas
    3. Issues

    In the first part, we will read the Introductory chapters of:
    – Chatterjee and Datta’s An Introduction to Indian Philosophy. Not particularly inspiring, but it has the virtue of being genuinely introductory; it shouldn’t present students with difficulty of understanding.
    – Frauwallner’s History of Indian Philosophy, Volume 1.
    – Radhakrishnan’s Indian Philosophy, Volume 1.

    Apart from giving a survey of the area, the point will be to introduce the question of whether Indian Philosophy is best seen as pragmatic, concerned not with truth/rationality/argument for its own sake, but rather for a particular purpose, namely the elimination of suffering and achievement of mokṣa. So in this vein, to round out Part I, we end with a lesson on
    – Halbfass’ ‘The Therapeutic Paradigm and the Search for Identity in Indian Philosophy,’ (Tradition and Reflection; Explorations in Indian Thought, Chapter 7)
    and one on
    – Matilal’s ‘Indian Philosophy: Is there a problem today?’ in Mind, Language and World, pp. 351–357.

    My original plan was, in Part 2, to spend a class each on each of the darśanas, but that wouldn’t have left me nearly enough time for Part 3 (and would perhaps have been boring), so Part 2 has been very compressed. It takes just a few darśanas, and doesn’t attempt overall surveys of them. All that determines that a reading goes in Part 2 is that it is concerned not with an issue and how it was treated by two or more traditions, but rather just with one tradition. So here for example for the week on Buddhism we read Conze’s two articles (in Philosophy East and West) (1) ‘Buddhist Philosophy and its European Parallels’; (2) ‘Spurious Parallels to Buddhist Philosophy’. And for the week on Mīmāṃsā we read John Taber’s ‘The Mīmāṃsā Theory of Self-Recognition’.

    I have included a lot of readings by Taber as he combines the triple virtues of being reliable, clear and philosophically interesting.

    In Part 3 here are some of the issues and readings:

    Mind-Body Problem

    Taber, John, ‘Dharmakīrti Against Physicalism’.

    Tillemans, Tom, How Do Mādhyamikas Think? And Other Essays on the Buddhist Philosophy of the Middle, Chapter 11: ‘On Minds, Dharmakīrti and Madhyamaka’, pp. 146–159.

    Ganeri, J. (2011). Emergentisms, ancient and modern. Mind, 120(479):671–703.

    God

    The rejection of God in the Nyāyamañjarī: (1) Translation by Watson, Alex and Kataoka, Kei; (2) Watson, Alex, ‘The Atheist Opponent in the Nyāyamañjarī’.

    Taber, John, ‘Utpaladeva’s Īśvarasiddhi’.

    Idealism versus Realism
    Kapstein, Matthew, ‘Mereological Considerations in Vasubandhu’s “Proof of Idealism” ’.

    Human Beings
    Halbfass, Chapter 8: ‘Man and Self in Traditional Indian Thought’.

    Karma
    Halbfass, Chapter 9: ‘Competing Causalities: Karma, Vedic Rituals and the Natural World.’

    Personal Identity
    Kapstein, Matthew, ‘Collins, Parfit, and the Problem of Personal Identity in Two Traditions.’ Philosophy East and West 36.3 (1986): 289–298.

    Conceptual and Non-Conceptual Perception
    Taber, John, A Hindu Critique of Buddhist Epistemology; Kumārila on Perception, Preface (pp. xi–xviii) and Introduction, pp. 22–43 (begin reading at ‘At this juncture, then, Kumārila begins to address …’).

    Means of Knowledge
    Phillips, Stephen, “Epistemology in Classical Indian Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/epistemology-india/

    It’s in many ways quite a soft Introduction to Indian Philosophy. Indeed the Halbfass chapters could be argued to be not very philosophical at all. But as I said above, there’s plenty of time for the students to progress further into the subject.

  12. Elisa asked me to write something about the seminar in July at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla, organized by Arindam Chakrabarti, entitled “God, No-God, and the Argumentative Indian”.

    I’m not sure I can send attachments to the blog, so I’m copying and pasting in the programme here.
    (And underneath I’ll write some brief comments.)

    International Seminar

    on

    “God, No-God, and the Argumentative Indian”
    21-23 July 2015
    Programme

    Day 1: 21 July 2015 (Tuesday)

    9.30-10.00 AM Registration

    10.00-11.00 AM Inaugural Session

    Welcome Address Professor Chetan Singh, Director
    Indian Institute of Advanced Study

    Introductory Remarks Professor Arindam Chakrabarti, Convener of the seminar.

    11.00-11.30 AM Tea Break and Group Photo

    Session I : 11.30 AM – 1.30 PM

    Chairperson: Dr. Pravesh Jung Golay
    Speakers: Professor Pradeep Gokhale
    Religious Egalitarianism without God
    Dr. Anuradha Veeravalli
    God/ No God, Ram Naam Satya Hai

    1.30 PM- 2.30 PM Lunch Break
    Session II: 2.30 PM – 4.30 PM
    Chairperson: Professor Alex Watson
    Speakers: Professor Amita Chatterjee
    ‘The Naiyayika and his Omniscient God’

    Dr. Devasia M. Antony
    The Dialectic of the Given and the Constructed: The Agony and Ecstasy of Acharya Udayana’s Theistic Argumentation.
    4.30 PM – 5.00 PM Tea-Break

    Session III: 5.00 PM- 6.00 PM

    Chairperson: Dr. R. Umamaheshwari
    Speakers: Ms. Surbhi Vohra
    Is there a God? – Another look into Findlay’s disproof for the existence of God.

    8.00 PM Director’s Dinner

    Day 2 : 22 July 2015 (Wednesday)

    Session IV: 10.00 AM – 11.00 AM
    Chairperson: Professor Gopal Guru
    Speakers: Professor Tridip Suhrud
    Brahmacharya is God

    11.00 AM – 11.30 AM Tea Break

    Session V: 11.30 AM –1.30 PM
    Chairperson: Professor Arindam Chakrabarti
    Speakers: Professor Alex Watson
    The Atheist Opponent in Jayanta Bhaṭṭa’s Nyāyamañjarī.

    Professor Nirmalya Narayan Chakraborty
    God as the Cause of Creation: The argumentative Indian.

    1.30 PM – 2.30 PM Lunch Break

    Session VI: 2.30 PM– 4.30 PM
    Chairperson: Dr. Anuradha Veeravalli
    Speakers: Dr. Ajay Verma
    The One who Started it All: Examining the Notion of God in the Cosmogonic Context.
    Professor Rakesh Chandra
    Yet to be announced

    4.30 PM- 5.00 PM Tea Break
    Session VII: 5.00 PM –6.00 PM
    Chairperson: Dr. Albeena Shakil
    Speakers: Professor Gopal Guru
    From Bhaktiyoga to Inanayoga: understanding continuity between Warkari and Neo-Buddhism.

    Day 3: 23 July 2015 (Thursday)

    Session VIII: 10.00 AM – 11.00 AM
    Chairperson: Professor Arindam Chakrabarti
    Speakers: Dr. Kranti Saran
    Comments on Is there a world out there?

    11.00 AM – 11.30 AM Tea Break

    Session V: 11.30 AM –12.30 PM
    Chairperson: Professor Amita Chatterjee
    Speakers: Professor Prabal Kumar Sen
    Some Anti-Theistic Arguments and their Refutations in Nyayamanjari and Nyayabhusana.
    General Discussion and Future Planning.

    12.30 PM Vote of Thanks


    So before the conference participants were sent a scan of Dummett’s chapter ‘God and the World’ (one of the last things he wrote). For those who don’t know it, it is often summarized as making the claim that realism requires God. In fact it could equally well be characterized as claiming that idealism (or anti-realism) requires God. Indeed Dummett reads there like somewhat of a modern-day Berkeley. Berkeley (to massively simplify) appealed to God as a way of enabling two things to be maintained:
    – to be is to be perceived
    – when we go out of the room the table stays there and does not disappear
    Given that no one seems to be perceiving the table when no one is in the room, and given that to be is to be perceived, it looks like the table will have to cease to exist when no one is in the room. But Berkeley is able to preserve the realist intuition that the table stays there, by claiming that it is perceived by the mind of God when no one is in the room.

    Similarly in Dummett we have an anti-realist challenge, a realist intuition, and God’s mind is brought in as the only way to hold on to both at the same time.
    We see the anti-realist streak in Dummett in claims he makes in this chapter such as:
    – for matter and radiation to exist is for it to be possible to perceive them or to infer them;
    – it is unintelligible to conceive of the universe as never having been observed.
    His argument is that in light of the strong claims of anti-realism, if we want nevertheless to cling to the realist intuition that there is a world as it is in itself, independent of the way that particular species happen to perceive it through their contingently constituted sensory apparatus, we have to postulate a mind that apprehends it as it is itself. I.e. we have to postulate an infinite mind, God’s mind. Only then will it make sense to talk of the world as it is in itself. The world as it is in itself will be the way that it is apprehended by God.

    Some papers tackled Dummett’s argument head-on (Kranti Saran). The remainder can be divided into three:
    1. Those papers which were exclusively concerned with the (Nyāya) inference of God’s existence and its refutation:
    Amita Chatterjee, Surbhi Vohra, Alex Watson, Prabal Kumar Sen
    2. Those papers which were partially concerned with this and partially concerned with the limits of logic and reason when dealing with God:
    Ajay Verma, Nirmalya Narayan Chakraborty, Devasia M. Antony
    3. Those papers that were concerned with God and Religion in Gandhi and Ambedkar:
    Anuradha Veeravalli, Tridip Suhrud, Gopal Guru.
    That leaves just one paper, Pradeep Gokhale’s, about whether/how religious believers and religious sceptics, despite inhabiting different intellectual universes, can come out of those universes and meet on neutral ground for the purposes of discussing important social issues.

  13. Dear Alex Watson,
    There are many scholars in India, who have in-depth knowledge of the original texts but lack the tools, of analysis and communication, that are used by most philosophy departments. So, efforts like that of Ashoka University is exactly what is needed. Keep up the good work you are doing. Would be happy to be of some help.

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