Buddhist vs. “Hindu” academic research

With this post, I’m asking for reflections, speculations, and even bare conjectures about an apparent asymmetry. As illustrated by some posts here recently, It seems like there has been something of an explosion of quality philosophical work on Buddhism and Buddhist traditions in recent times. While there has been a lot of really good work on the so called “Hindu” or Vaidika traditions as well it at least appears to lag behind a bit. So, I’m wondering:

1. Do you think this appearance tracks reality? Is it true?

2. If so, what are the reasons or causes for this situation?

Just to make sure: I’m not at all insinuating that if such asymmetry is there, it must be due to injustice or inherent failing of systems or individuals. But if it exists, it would be nice to understand why.

About Matthew Dasti

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

20 thoughts on “Buddhist vs. “Hindu” academic research

  1. There clearly is an asymmetry. The AAR, for example, has many research groups devoted to Buddhist philosophy and very few for Hinduism (most of the existing AAR Hinduism groups are now more focused on ethnographic, etc. issues than philosophy). I’ve never done a formal study, but it seems there are more positions in the USA, at least, for Buddhist studies than Hindu studies. Why? I know that Buddhism has benefited from external funding in ways Hinduism has not. Some Hindus are now stepping forward to provide funding for chairs, conferences, etc., but having worked in that area, I know it is always hard to come by and not enough. Buddhists have funded entire programs and colleges. Many Hindus are politically active, but not academically interested. Also, it seems there is a better “living tradition” of Buddhist scholarship. It is certainly there in Hinduism too, but not, in my view, to the same degree. Buddhist academics can and often have studied with Buddhist monks, but this is less frequent among scholars of Hinduism. Again, these are my observations, not quantified analysis.

    • I agree, with the additional observation that Buddhism in the West enjoys greater financial patronage both from people in the West + Japan/China, while Hinduism has most of its adherents in India which is more or less (on average) a poor country (percapita income = $1500 p.a.) so people are unwilling to let go of whatever little they have.

  2. This imbalance has existed since the very beginning–I am talking 1800’s. The simple explanation for this is that most western scholars of eastern religions were Christian in the beginning. Because of this, they had a fundamental aversion to what they repeatedly called the “abominations” of Hinduism, and a superficial attraction to the “values” of Buddhism (ie: universal compassion) which they felt resembled Christian notions of brotherly love. These prejudices have prevailed in the field of Eastern studies up through the 1970’s and beyond. This explains both the warm embrace of western scholars toward Buddhist idealogy and the at-a-distance approach that scholars take toward Hinduism. There continues to be an (unconscious?) sense that we can understand Buddhisms much more readily than we can Hinduisms.

    • The simple explanation is probably too simple. For one, I would think it should seem obvious to most impartial observers that bhakti movements like Rāmānuja’s – devotion to a theistic and personal God – are far more similar to most forms of Christianity than is an at least arguably atheistic tradition like Indian Buddhism. So to the extent that Christianity figures in the explanation, one would need to identify why Christians felt so much more sympathy for a tradition that is, at least on the face of it, so much less like their own. And then second, one would need to identify why that sympathy persists among scholars of the past fifty years who openly did not identify as Christian. (Or, for that matter, scholars like Olcott who ceased identifying as Christian and instead identified as Buddhist even at the time.)

      I can say for myself that when I first learned about Buddhism in my late teens, it seemed far more appealing to me than non-Buddhist traditions specifically because it wasn’t like Christianity: none of that god stuff.

      • Ideas about India and Hinduism in the West are still largely seen through the prism of ‘heirarchical caste system + temples + pūjās to idols’, whereas Buddhism (particularly Theravada) is more about a fixed set of philosophical texts and is seen as more internally-consistent & ‘intellectual’. I doubt if Pali texts are even 1% as big as the corpus of Sanskrit texts, though.

        However, if you note, the ‘Hindu’ texts between 5th century BCE and 5th century CE are virually silent about Buddhism and mention a great deal about Sāṃkhya. I find this very odd, and therefore believe that Early Buddhism = Sāṃkhya, and Buddha (born in kapila’s home i.e. Kapila-vāstu) = Kapila. Therefore for the first 10 centuries of Buddhism, Hinduism considered it its pre-eminent philosophy, while we today (in the West) mostly speak of Hinduism vs. Buddhism.

      • I agree with you, Amod. So far, some of the best work on Indian theism(s) has been done by pretty sympathetic Catholics looking for points of convergence. (Chemparathy, Clooney, recently Martin Ganeri)

  3. I think these things can wax and wane. In the days when Westerners were enthusiastic about mysticism and a philosophia perennis, there was an awful lot of interest in Advaita Vedānta, in a way that there isn’t now.

    We should also pay attention to the ideas actually found in the tradition. It seems to me hard to even imagine how a Westerner could adopt the worldview of Mīmāṃsā, where the truth of the universe is to befound in the Vedas. So to the extent that Westerners think with Mīmāṃsā philosophically it is likely to be on a piecemeal basis, drawing a few ideas as bricolage (as Frank Clooney or John Taber do), rather than actually becoming Mīmāṃsakas the way they might become Buddhists.

  4. I think it has to do with the popularity of Buddhism, real or imagined, with students when it comes to departments writing job ads.

    I also think that more women specialize in Hinduism in US grad programs than in Buddhism, and following on what Jonathan said, they seem to me most often combine ethnography with textual research in varying degrees. I only mention this because I am vaguely familiar with some recent discussions about how far fewer women than men train in philosophy.

  5. I agree that this picture probably tracks reality.

    As for the reasons, I’d add to what has already been said by focusing on the larger cultural context, limiting myself to North America (since that’s where I live – maybe others can speak to other parts of the world).

    In North America there is a cultural fascination with Buddhism that skews more philosophical especially among left-leaning middle class white people (i.e., the group from which most North American academics come). Plenty of North Americans do Yoga, but many think of Yoga as physical exercise or New Age spirituality, which is less likely to lead them to anything resembling academic philosophy. While there’s plenty of New Age-y Buddhism, along with Western Zen practitioners of an anti-intellectual bent, Buddhism is often thought of as a philosophy rather than a religion among many people in North America (I’ve heard this from students). Also, Hinduism has, whether fairly or unfairly, a reputation for a harmful caste system that most people think of as inherently unfair, which in their minds somehow makes the whole tradition suspect. Lastly, the idea that Brahmanical philosophers “accept the authority of the Veda” may sound too authoritarian. This may be odd considering Jewish and Christian attitudes toward the Bible, but the key is that we’re talking mostly about people who are more liberal and ecumenical and thus less likely to be drawn to religious views that appear conservative and authoritarian.

    The short version: in North America Buddhism is thought of as cool and philosophical, while Hinduism isn’t thought of as cool unless you’re doing Yoga, but that’s not usually thought of as philosophical.

    Of course this whole picture is spectacularly unfair. I think there are plenty of cool Hindu philosophers, not to mention cool Cārvākas, Jains, etc., but I had to read a fair amount of Indian philosophy to undo my typically North American attitudes. I’m not clear where these attitudes come from or how to move past them.

    • You are right. The centre of gravity of Hinduism is seen as being in the hands of Brahmins, who still exist as a distinct varṇa more or less, while all other varṇas have dissolved.

  6. I agree on there being an apparent asymmetry, but I think it’s rather between Buddhism-centric versus, say, Vaidika-centric approaches. A great deal of work on what some now call ‘analytic Buddhist philosophy’ does engage with Nyāya and Mīmāṃsā when the focus is on Indian Buddhism, but the reverse is not always the case. I’ll leave it to Elisa to remark on the situation in Europe, but it seems that a lot of work that has come out of the Vienna/Tokyo/Kyoto School undercuts this perceived asymmetry, as does work produced elsewhere on the continent.

    I think the reasons (and causes) for this apparent asymmetry are largely sociological (and perhaps involve a great deal of serendipity). I can think of a few:

    1. In the Anglophone world, more folks coming out of few philosophy programs with offerings in Indian and Buddhist philosophy have specialized in one field rather than the other. It makes perfect sense. Such programs have several experts in Buddhist philosophy to cover India, Tibet, and East Asia, but often only one or two for Indian philosophy.

    2. There are many more points of entry for Buddhist philosophy than for the various schools of Indian thought: you can come to it from, yes, philosophy (and, as with Indian philosophy, from religious studies), but also from Chinese, Japanese, and Korean studies, and increasingly from the sciences, particularly cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience.

    3. Buddhist philosophy has greater visibility and more representation both in Western academia and, for historical and cultural reasons, in Japan, China, South Korea, Singapore, etc., so inevitably there is a greater market for it.

    4. There is the perception that Buddhist philosophy is not tied to any particular ethnic group, geography or cultural agenda, in the same way that ‘Hindu’ philosophy reflects the inherited beliefs and concerns of the Hindus (and, thus, perceived attempts to police it). This is one place where heterodoxy wins.

    5. Lineage: those working on Buddhist philosophy have done a better job at training the next generation to carry on their legacy. Even those trained in the Vaidika have had to engage scholarship in Buddhist philosophy disproportionally, thus tilting the balance the other way.

    There are perhaps some philosophical reasons as well, having to do with trends and perceived affinities:

    1. Nyāya was better received when philosophy of language and Gettier problems were all the rage in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, much like Vedānta appealed to early generations still under the spell of Hegel and Bradley. Philosophy of religion has been on a decline for sometime (in philosophy programs), which might explain why it’s been hard to rally a lot of support for Mīmāṃsā scholarship. On the other hand, philosophy of mind and moral psychology have taken off, so studies in Buddhist Abhidharma and Buddhist theories of mind in general have found a niche.

    2. The sort of hybrid or fusion-philosophy championed by Matilal, it seems, has worked better for Buddhist than Vaidika philosophy, resulting in more representation and better reception in the mainstream for the former.

    3. Finally, philosophers trained in both the analytic and Continental traditions are therefore much more likely to engage with Buddhist or Chinese philosophy than with Indian/Vaidika philosophy.

    Speaking for myself, I don’t think one can engage effectively and constructively with Indian Buddhist philosophy without a great deal of familiarity with Nyāya, Mīmāṃsā, and the grammarians. But for all the reasons already mentioned, there is more scope, it seems, for branching out when one works on Nāgārjuna, Dharmakīrti or Dōgen, than when working on Gautama, Kumarīla or Gaṅgeśa––if ‘branching out’ stands for constructive engagement with contemporary debates in philosophy.

    • “Philosophy of religion has been on a decline for sometime (in philosophy programs), which might explain why it’s been hard to rally a lot of support for Mīmāṃsā scholarship.”

      I suspect there’s also the idea that Mīmāṃsā needs a treatment within philosophy of religion when Buddhism doesn’t (see your sociological reason #4). If philosophers can engage with Buddhist arguments about the self without having to do primarily philosophy of religion, why can’t they do the same for Mīmāṃsā arguments about language? In fact, some do this–Arnold, Siderits, Taber, etc. (and of course Freschi!) But there are not so many philosophers of language following in the steps of Siderits’ 1991 where he draws on Mīmāṃsā–they seem to have all decided to think about Buddhist apoha theory or, for a few, Nyāya.

      Perhaps with Mīmāṃsā it is the daunting task of learning about the Vedic sacrificial system in order to understand the arguments?

      “2. The sort of hybrid or fusion-philosophy championed by Matilal, it seems, has worked better for Buddhist than Vaidika philosophy.”

      Could you say more about why you think this is so? (And I’m curious about what sense of “worked better” you mean.)

  7. Good stuff, everybody, so far.

    When searching (grasping for?) some kind of explanatory reasons, it seems to me that certain deep trends in Buddhism–reductionism, anti-substantivalism, a certain distaste with metaphysical extravagance (though I get Amod’s point that this is overblown) comport with current attitudes and what is deemed to be scientifically respectable. This can’t but help in the attempts at fusion which move beyond “mere” historical or philological work.

    I think that Christian’s point about looking at -centric differences is apt. A good example is Mark Siderits; a “Buddhism scholar” to be sure, yet he’s been very concerned to understand and develop a clear account of important themes in Nyaya.

  8. Malcolm, by “worked better” I mean “has been a better fit for”: the presence in Buddhism of the familiar trope of ‘skill in means’ suggests flexibility and a pragmatic approach to resolving philosophical disputes (both intra- and extra-mural), and thus a willingness to innovate, adapt and evolve.

    The meeting of philosophical cultures seldom happens on equal footing: A hellenized Jew like Philo of Alexandria found new ways to articulate his ancestors’s lore in the language of Homer and Plato, just like Paramārtha learned to conceive of the phenomenology of first-person experience in the language of South China intellectual elites.

    Matilal stands in a long lineage of (mostly Bengali) intellectual elites re-conceiving their philosophical insights in the language of Hume and the lexicon of Western philosophy. Unfortunately (or, depending on your perspective, fortunately), a great deal of work in Indian philosophy has taken the Daya Krishna route, generating needless anxiety among those daring to do write in an ‘alien idiom’ (‘Anybody who is writing in English is not an Indian philosopher’). Contrast that with the Buddhist penchant for vernaculars and hybrids (from ‘Buddhist Sanskrit’ to ‘Buddhist English’). That’s why we now have ‘analytic Buddhist philosophy’ and ’Buddhist philosophy of mind’ and interesting neologisms like pramāṇavāda. If it were not for Matilal, Ganeri and a handful of others, we would not be talking about ‘analytic philosophy in early modern India’.

    • Thanks for clarifying, Christian! I don’t want to turn the thread into a debate on the relative philosophical values of Bauddha and Mīmāṃsā thought, I just wanted to get a sense of what you were thinking. I do think that (at least later) Mīmāṃsā is less monolithic and more flexible than is often recognized.

      However, the question of how we should view Mīmāṃsā commitment to the Vedas as apauruṣeya is an important one for the methodologies of fusion or comparative philosophy. Similarly, what should we do with the Buddhist concept of rebirth? How far can we go from these apparently foundational presuppositions and still be doing “Buddhist” or “Mīmāṃsā” philosophy? I think the perception of Buddhism’s flexibility (and maybe the reality of it, at least in some respects) is certainly responsible for its popularity. Of course, without more sustained work in the āstika traditions, it’s not yet clear how sharp the contrast is.

  9. Confirmation bias is a universal phenomenon manifested even by scientists as the numerous instances in psychology of evidence being massaged and manipulated in order to confirm some hypothesis; what matters is there is an external standard agreed upon by participants in some domain of inquiry which allows claims to adjudicated without having to already hold some sectarian presuppositions or inquire into motives. In other words, whether arguments meet some agreed upon criteria of validity and proper evidence is what matters. And it the existence of such a consensus is what allowed philosophical inquiry to emerge, for Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, materialists, skeptics to engage in intelligible and meaningful dialogue and not just argue past one another.

  10. Hinduism is complex to explain and can hardly be “scholarship” worthy when it is actually practiced by many people. Buddhism on the other hand has an eclectic feel to it. There seem to be no pagan rituals or mythological/historical characters to understand the philosophy of Hinduism.
    Buddhism on first look is about monks who have renounced few things in life and are scholars on mind. People would get attracted to study Buddhism over Hinduism especially for a Western mind which have trouble understanding multiple Gods.Buddhism has a founder Buddha and he has disciples and between all of them produced lot of literature . Sounds very familiar to what Westerners would describe as a religion and can safely add to their repertoire of different thoughts be it Judaism,Christianity or Islam. Coming to Hinduism no definition fits. There is no founder , there is no central text and to top it every one practices it in their own way. The only reaction to complexity is to either simplify it to known memes which some research on Hinduism does or ignore it. Hinduism is not about one person. We think of Sankara as the intellectual answer to Buddha from Hinduism but his thought system is not the dominant one , or of Ramanjuacharya and Madhvacharya. There is Bhakti school of thought which is the present dominant way of expression. If only Hinduism was about Sankaracharya as founder ,his Gita bhashya as main book and rest of his teachings like Vivekachudamani, Updesa Shasri as books to be read by serious followers. Hinduism would have had huge amount of modern scholarship. Unfortunately , that is just small part of it.

    Similar problem exists in the world of economics , people like the elegant perfect models and study so much on it. The real practical world never really fits those elegant definitions. Most economists ignore the real world but do continue adding to the elegant model world with wonderful, complex math producing hundreds of thesis. Buddhism produces such wonderful economists.Hinduism just lives.

  11. Thanks to you all for the interesting remarks. Since I come so late, I will just add some minor points (but please forgive me the length):

    1: “Hindu”) I see the reasons for using it, but let me say that the label “Hindu” is, in my opinion, to be used with at least some caution. While I believe that an “Indian Philosophy” existed (meaning a common arena of debate to which Carvākas, Buddhists, Jains, Mīmāṃsakas, Naiyāyikas, and so on participated), I would not think that the definition “Hindu Philosophy” makes much sense (Kumārila is better understood through Dignāga than through Śaṅkara, just to name an example).

    2: Europe) The situation in Europe is only slightly different. European scholars like Gnoli, Torella (I am especially thinking at their work on Abhinavagupta and on the Pratyabhijñā school), Sanderson (who is probably not directly a scholar of philosophy, but has been working continously on Śaivism, often with students who chose to focus on philosophical aspects of it), Preisendanz (Nyāya), Balcerowitz (Jainism) and many more have certainly produced invaluable scholarship and have contributed to a generation of scholars who worked or was at least acquainted with these topics. Nonetheless, each single class on a Buddhist-related topic attracts way more students than any other class on a “Hindu” topic. Buddhism is, as has been pointed out in this thread, perceived to be “cool” and “non-dogmatic”, whereas Mīmāṃsā, Advaita Vedānta, Nyāya etc. are considered “traditionalist” (and definitely “uncool”). Moreover, the depth achieved by the “Vienna school” in its analysis of the school of Pramāṇavāda Buddhism is beyond comparison (Kei Kataoka has written that it would be a dream if other fields of Indian Philosophy could ever achieve that level).

    3: No intrinsic reasons) I do not think that this is due to the thing itself. As indirectly suggested by Malcolm, one could have enough good reasons to consider Mīmāṃsā authors “non-dogmatic”, since they are atheists, falsificationists and empiricits (but for the Veda, but one could explain this point out). The same could apply to Nyāya and so on.

    4: socio-political reasons) It surely did not help that, after the numerical decline of the ISKCON movement (I hope no one feels offended, I am just referring to the decreasing number of members of the movement and most of all to the decreasing number of months they spend within the movement —which seem to be an evidence of the decrease of the propulsive force of the movement itself) “Hinduism” has often been construed as the “dharma of Indians” (everyone who has been at the last WSC can understand what I mean, and anyone else will have guessed it anyway). I do not know whether this strategy is succesfull among Indians, but it is surely counter-productive among non-Indians (and possibly also among progressist and anti-traditionalist Indians).

    5: academic reasons) I discussed with several of you in the past about the difference between the interest for Indian and Chinese philosophy (especially in North America), a difference which is IMHO not due to the superior quality of Chinese philosophy. I think that part of the arguments used to explain this difference can be applied to the present question. Scholars of Buddhist philosophy are more used (because of their education, in the case of Japanese scholars?) to work together and this has led to the establishment of schools working on a given aspect of Buddhist philosophy and, thus, of a “critical mass”. Whoever has been at one of the Dharmakīrti conferences will not be able to doubt of the philosophical sophistication of the Pramāṇavāda debates. By contrast, it would be easy to recommend, e.g., to prospective students of Advaita Vedānta to study with Ram-Prasad, or to prospective students of Nyāya to look for K.K. Chakrabarti or P.K. Sen, but I would not be able to say where to go to find a *school* of Nyāya or Advaita Vedānta studies which will survive its founder. (The situation is surely different in India, but this must be dealt with in a different thread.)

    p.s. (thanks for the mention, Malcolm!)

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