Book Announcement — Hinduism: A Contemporary Philosophical Investigation

Dear Indian Philosophy Bloggers and Readers

I would like to share with you news of my in-press book. It is scheduled to be out in July, which is late to be considered for September teaching and research, so I thought I would announce it now, in case it is relevant to your fall research or teaching work.

The book is called Hinduism: A Contemporary Philosophical Investigation (Routledge 2019).

Its part of a larger series, titled Investigating Philosophy of Religion. Each peer reviewed volume is dedicated to a single religion. So far the volumes for Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism are in-press or released.

Here is the publisher’s back of book blurb:

Hinduism: A Contemporary Philosophical Investigation explores Hinduism and the distinction between the secular and religious on a global scale. According to Ranganathan, a careful philosophical study of Hinduism reveals it as the microcosm of philosophical disagreements with Indian resources, across a variety of topics, including: ethics, logic, the philosophy of thought, epistemology, moral standing, metaphysics, and politics. This analysis offers an original and fresh diagnosis of studying Hinduism, colonialism and a global rise of hyper-nationalism, as well as the frequent acrimony between scholars and practitioners of Hindu traditions.

This text is appropriate for use in undergraduate and graduate courses on Hinduism, and Indian philosophy, and can be used as an advanced introduction to the problems of philosophy with South Asian resources.

Here is the TOC:


Chapter 1. Introduction
Chapter 2. Hinduism and the Limits of Interpretation
Chapter 3. Bhakti: the Fourth Moral Theory
Chapter 4. Logic: The Nectar of Immortality
Chapter 5. Subcontinent Dharma, the Global Alt-Right and the Philosophy of Thought
Chapter 6. Jñāna: Pramāṇa, Satya and Citta (Not: Justified, True, Belief)
Chapter 7. Moral Standing: Who Counts, Gods and the After Life
Chapter 8. Metaphysics: Two Truths
Chapter 9. The Politics of the Milk Ocean: Mokṣa
Chapter 10. Conclusion

Just to clarify: the book is not primarily about Hindu philosophy. It’s an account of Hinduism, the religion. Hence, to get to this point, I provide a general account of how something comes to be identified as a religion in our world (it is political and has to do with the tradition I call the West—italicized upper case “W”) and note that Hinduism is the odd member of this club: whereas most religions are identifiable with some minimal comprehensive view, figure, text, or doctrine, Hinduism is simply the microcosm of philosophical disagreements, with a South Asian twist. So in the end, I do review and explore Hindu philosophies but as a means of representing Hinduism in terms of its disagreements. The other topic of this book is the West, a tradition that identifies its cultural contingencies with the very content of thought itself, disappearing alien moral and political theorizing and in its place identifying religions to be studied social scientifically and not as a contribution to philosophy. The methodological distinction between interpretation (the method of the West) and explication (the method of philosophy) plays an important part in this argument too.

The project, while philosophical (focused on an analysis of Hinduism, the concept), is largely informed by scholars of Hinduism (who frequently take opposing views) whose contribution to the field informed my thinking about that massive religion called Hinduism.  Just when I thought I had some idea about what Hinduism is, a scholar would share their work and I would have to revise my conception of Hinduism, eventually leading me to the idea that it’s just more accurate to talk about Hinduism in terms of its disagreements than some common platform.


About Shyam Ranganathan

Shyam Ranganathan is a philosopher in the Department of Philosophy in York University, Toronto. His research interests cover ethics/political philosophy, the philosophy of thought, philosophy of language, and South Asian philosophy.

12 thoughts on “Book Announcement — Hinduism: A Contemporary Philosophical Investigation

  1. First, congratulations on your book! Having never written one, I suspect I envy those who do, but at least I’m a voracious reader and bibliophile.

    And although I am not one of the “Indian philosophy bloggers,” I’d like to respond to the following “clarification” of the book’s contents (an apologia?). Of course I’ve not read the book, thus I’m not privy to the full argument, but perhaps you can further clarify matters in light of my comment (if not here, at a later post).

    Re: “a general account of how something comes to be identified as a religion in our world (it is political and has to do with the tradition I call the West—italicized upper case ‘W’) and note that Hinduism is the odd member of this club…. [….] So in the end, I do review and explore Hindu philosophies but as a means of representing Hinduism in terms of its disagreements.”

    Of course that a concept arose in a field or fields of inquiry in “the West” does not mean that it can be reduced to a “political” phenomenon, even if it plays itself out, as it were, in political ways. Scholars may not always have “pure” motivations, but to assume such motivations are solely or primarily “political” (or that they’ve been simply harnessed to political purpose or ends) strikes me as prima facie implausible. In any case, we know that the “West” (or the ‘East’ for that matter) was rarely ever an accurate geo-political or geo-cultural or geo-civilizational phenomenon,* even if we find, say, striking differences between ancient Greek and Chinese medical traditions, between Indic philosophical logic and logic as it developed in “the West,” etc., etc. Perhaps you address these concerns in your book. I happen to be interested in the “differences” between worldviews of (largely) Eastern and Western provenance, but one has to keep in mind there was much cultural borrowing, stealing, trading, and learning that took place at this and that place and at this and that time which severely qualify these descriptive terms.

    I also think it is conspicuously false to claim that “whereas most religions are identifiable with some minimal comprehensive view, figure, text, or doctrine, Hinduism is simply the microcosm of philosophical disagreements, with a South Asian twist.” In fact, I think you’ve now provided us with a “minimal comprehensive view,” one in the form of “philosophical disagreements.” However interesting and provocative those disagreements happen to be, to single them out as the “essence” (not your word, but my description), is dramatically reductionist, and a reduction one could make with any number of other religions. I do believe our cultural biases, ignorance, prejudices, etc. have often distorted (not necessarily by design) our examination of various religious worldviews, but that is problem that is remediable, at least in principle (and often on the ground, as we see over time in the study of religious worldviews of Asian origin). Having studied religious traditions and worldviews (largely as an autodidact, to be sure, but I’ve published a little in ‘Islamic Studies’) for more than forty years (since taking an ‘independent studies’ course on religions of Asian provenance at a Catholic school), I cannot imagine singling out Hinduism as “an odd member” in the club of religions, particularly insofar as it shares, with all the “major” and some of the smaller religions, most if not all of the following characteristics we today identify as “religion-making:”

    1. Belief in supernatural beings (spirits, gods, etc.), God, or a supreme divine principle or force (in the latter case, comprehensive or ‘holistic’ in structure).
    2. A distinction between sacred and non-sacred (or ‘profane’) objects, space, and/or time. This distinction is effaced with some forms of mystical experience.
    3. Ritual acts centered upon or focused around sacred events, places, times, or objects. This includes such activities as worship, prayer, meditation, pilgrimage, sacrifice (vegetable, animal, or human; literal or figurative), sacramental rites, lifecycle rituals, and healing activities.
    4. A moral code (ethics) or “way of life” believed to be sanctioned by the gods or God, or (formally or informally) derived from adherence to the divine principle or force. (There need not be any assumption that morality must be religious, indeed, morality is conceptually and (today) empirically distinct from and thus independent of religion. On the other hand, we might view religious ethics as, in some sense, ‘supra-moral’ with regard to conventional morality.)
    5. Prayer, worship, meditation, and other forms of “communication” or attunement with the gods, God, or the divine principle or force.
    6. A worldview that situates, through (usually mythic) narrative, the individual and his/her community and tradition within the cosmos, world, and/or history. It is a significant, if not primary source of one’s identity, both in its individual form and group aspect. The worldview articulates the meaning—makes sense of—the group’s cultural traditions: its myths, history, rituals, and symbols. The worldview articulates the both the fundamental values of a religious community and its “ultimate value(s).”
    7. Characteristically religious emotions or attitudes associated with that thought to be of divine provenance or endowed with “spiritual” power: a peculiar form of awe and fear, “dread” or angst, existential anxiety, sense of mystery, adoration, reverence, love, devotion, hope, a sense of guilt or shame, serenity, trust, compassion, bliss, etc.
    8. A more or less total organization or structuring of one’s life or individual lifeworld based on an understanding (hence interpretation) of the religious worldview (the ‘lifeworld’ may include beliefs, values, and practices not directly linked to or associated with a religious worldview). This understanding does not necessarily coincide with the normative pictures painted by those with religious authority or the “official” worldview of the religion, indeed, it may be rather idiosyncratic or even cognitively crude or fairly sophisticated, psychologically and philosophically speaking. Prima facie evidence reveals the religious adherent believes in and is attempting to live in accordance with the worldview.
    9. A social group and its constructed norms and institutions wherein and whereby personal and collective—cultural—identity is forged by the aforementioned factors.
    10. Artistic or creative expressions related to any of the above characteristics.

    [This list of characteristics is inspired by and in part follows from that proffered by William P. Alston in the volume he edited, Religious Belief and Philosophical Thought: Readings in the Philosophy of Religion (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1963): 5.]

    Of course different religions will place emphasis or stress on this or that number of characteristics and the different religions appear to fall out along a spectrum with regard to a tendency toward orthodoxy or orthopraxy (I happen to think Islam is one of the few religious worldviews that is close to the center in this regard: I’m generalizing here), but I’m genuinely curious, even if extremely skeptical, as to how “Hinduism” (not the best term, to be sure, but as often happens, convention makes for de facto acceptance) proves itself to be an exception to the rule. For instance, one can speak of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, as well as the overlapping Chinese worldviews: Mohism, Confucianism, Daoism, for example, in terms of their “disagreements,” philosophical and otherwise. Indeed, with regard to the last, think of A.C. Graham’s Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China (Open Court, 1989). Think of the many philosophical and theological controversies in the history of Christianity, as well as the many sectarian divisions that were in part a result of some of these controversies. It would be tedious and redundant to illustrate this with any other number of religious worldviews.

    * See, for example, Thomas McEvilley’s The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies (Allworth Press, 2002).

    Again, congratulations, and I look forward to reading the book, even if I was a bit taken aback by the orientation of its “rationale.”

    • Hi Patrick,
      Thanks for your kind congrats, response and interest. You’ve made a lot of substantive claims, of the sort that I deal with extensively in the book. The point of the announcement was not to defend the claims I make in this book, but to give some indication of what to expect. I do talk about the West, but it’s a technical idea I define carefully in the book as something distinct from western ethnicity, linguistic or geographic identity. That’s why it’s “West” — it’s the “W” that leans on the “est.” Without recreating my book, I will respond generally with the following.

      (1) In response to the idea that there is some type of essential content to what counts as a religion, I would point you to:

      Harrison, V. S. (2006). The Pragmatics of Defining Religion in a Multi-Cultural World. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 59(3), 133-152.

      Harrison does a nice job of pointing out the problems with the conventional accounts of religion among theorists of religion. She concludes that it’s better understood as a Wittgensteinien family resemblance concept. The question I raise and answer is why is it that it is the set that includes things like Christianity, Islam and Hinduism that gets defined as a religion, but a set that includes Marxism or Liberalism does not. Liberalism and Marxism resemble other things we call religion, and yet no one thinks that they are examples of religion. And yet, as the category of religion has no essence, there is no intrinsic reason as to why Marxism and Liberalism can’t be categorized as religions.

      (2) The only things that we count as world religions are traditions with roots outside of Europe. This explains why Marxism and Liberalism are not religions, but why Christianity and Judaism are. My answer that the identification of what counts as religion is political and has to do with the West was not invented by me. See for instance:

      Cabezón, J. I. (2006). The Discipline and its Other: The Dialectic of Alterity in the Study of Religion. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 74(1), 21-38.

      Cabezón argues that religion, or the idea of religion, was part of how the West came to terms with the outside world. I think Cabezón’s point is simply obviously true for those of us who work on South Asia: religious identity in most cases was created by Western colonial bureaucracies in Asia. In the absence of this colonial intervention, you would simply have substantive philosophical disagreement.

      But what I do supply is an account of why it is that the West is the point of reference for what counts as a religion, and also why it is that it is the West (the intellectual tradition that traces its roots back to the Greek idea of logos — one word for thought, opinion and reason) has been prolific in its colonial escapades. This takes us into the philosophy of language, thought, and logic. A peculiar feature of my work is that I argue that the political history of the West is a direct outcome of its model of thought.

      (3) Hinduism is different from other religions because the very idea was coined not to identify some native tradition, text, or comprehensive doctrine, but as a catchall for everything South Asian with no common founder, under British Colonial rule: anything can be Hindu, and there is no essential Hindu philosophical outlook. That is not a substantive position. That is a lack of a substantive commonality. I argue that given that the range of possibilities for Hinduism are continuous with the range of possibilities of philosophy, the only way that Hindus can understand their religion is by way of its disagreements. But I use very traditional and orthodox Hindu positions to make this point. And the argument involves a careful distinction between thought (p) and beliefs (x believes that p)—exactly what is conflated in the West’s governing idea of logos. For Hindus and us to understand Hinduism, we have to understand it as a disagreement about philosophical propositions, not a shared collection of beliefs, like “we believe that we disagree.” So not only does coming to understand Hinduism involve rejecting the idea that it can be characterized by some shared set of beliefs that would constitute a comprehensive position, it also involves a careful philosophical approach to understanding that the idea of logos problematizes.

  2. Shyam, I appreciate the further clarification and will wait for an opportunity to read the book to respond in full, but I sense there is still much I will disagree with, given what is said here. I have found Ninian Smart’s use of (including his reasons for) the notion of “worldviews” sufficient to encompass, say, worldviews like Marxism and Liberalism, or Existentialism, or Pan-Africanism, scientism, and so forth. Religious worldviews, however, do more or less share common characteristics (in the family resemblance sense), even that which, for many of the wrong reasons, was termed by “outsiders,” Hinduism.

    The fact that the term religion was used by some to make sense of, or to come to terms with, the “outside” world, may be true, but I think one commits the genetic fallacy if one believes that fact need mark our concept or conceptions of religion with something like “original sin.” The fact that it encompasses religions outside the South Asian orbit should suffice to demonstrate the reasons for its theoretical or social scientific formulation need not be tied to anything of South Asian provenance.

    I understand the dissatisfaction with the term “Hinduism,” but the literature by scholars does seem to suggest that it more or less captures a religious worldview distinct from those around it or that grew from it (like Buddhism): there are always outliers, boundary questions, exceptions to the rule, so that is not surprising, nor should it suffice to jettison our working definitions and concepts. Hinduism as we use the term today displays the aforementioned “characteristics” as found in the Vedic worldview that settled on the Indian subcontinent and that soon mixed with indigenous belief system and “religious” practices, even if history obscures the precise nature of that mix, and even if there is much variety and difference within that rubric. To speak of “the only way that Hindus can understand their religion is by way of its disagreements” strikes me, frankly, as prescriptive if not intellectual or philosophical arrogance from on high, hardly the manner in which “Hindus” themselves speak of their tradition(s), in other words, it has little descriptive value, at least for those who self-identify with a tradition that are not philosophers (or would-be philosophers).
    Speaking for myself, I suspect there is much value (if not invaluable) in members of any religious tradition and worldview coming to understand their religious identity in terms of their tradition’s internal disagreements, and thus still don’t see how or why that should be a proprietary norm exclusive to Hindus. And the focus on either thoughts or beliefs, in this case or in the case of other religious worldviews (I suppose I don’t see the idea of ‘logos’ governing in quite the hegemonic way you suggest here …), is not what is distinctive, I think, about religious worldviews, but rather the dimensions of “experience” and “praxis” (that might be said on occasion to give rise or warrant to those beliefs), and there has been no little distortion of what religions are, so to speak, up to, with overweening focus on belief, dogma, orthodoxy, and so forth, which, it seems, is a distorting by-product of the influence of Christianity on those who study religion (here I would cite some arguments about the ‘priority’ of praxis in John Cottingham’s The Spiritual Dimension: Religion, Philosophy and Human Value (2005)).

    That will have to suffice for now. Thanks again: I do look forward to the opportunity to read your book.

    • Thanks Patrick.

      Two points.

      (1) Part of what we are running up against is the question of what counts as an objective explanation — a topic extensively explored in the book. I don’t dispute that we can draw a distinction between religion and something else. My point is that there is nothing objective about the distinction. It’s historical and political all the way back .Religion is like race or color: the only people who lack it are Europeans, while everyone else is colored or racialized. The point of marking something out as religion is to marginalize it from participating in philosophical conversations characterized as secular.

      (2) Of course, people should be open to disagreements within their tradition. The point about Hinduism is that there is no basic doctrine, tradition, text, of figure, to comprise the content of Hindu agreement. There is no basic holy book common to all Hindus, no founding figure etc., There is no Hindu world view as such. There are world views that can play a role in the disagreements of Hinduism—darsanas, but that is to note that there is no basic Hindu world view. This is different from every other religion I know of where there is some basic text, founding figure, or basic doctrine that defines the religion.

      Any ways, all of this and more is dealt with systematically in the book. Thanks for your interest!

      • Professor Ranganathan:

        I haven’t read your book. Still, I am wondering how someone could investigate the veracity of your take on the nature of Hinduism. Is your thesis susceptible to empirical testing (at least, in principle)?

        • Hi Kumar

          The book deals with these questions of truth and objectivity—in general—as it deals with questions about Hinduism. A full answer can be found there. But before that, and as a prelude, I think it’s worth noting that not every claim is empirical (philosophical claims are not) and while every empirical question might be open to investigation, they may not necessarily be amenable to testing and falsification. An area where these two concerns overlap is at the topic of the meaning of names. You might want to take a look at Kripke’s Naming and Necessity, if you are unfamiliar with it. Kripke notes that naming events fix the referent of what we are talking about, and moreover what we discover is a posteriori necessity. So for instance, the naming of clear, drinkable liquid as water by our ancestors fixes the referent, and when we investigate it, we discover that it is H20—but the identity is not contingent but necessary. So it’s not amenable to falsification. Nevertheless, it’s something we discover by empirical investigation. This book is an investigation into the consequences of the naming of South Asian religion as Hinduism. And it wasn’t Indians who did this as a matter of self identification, but outsiders, and one of the consequences of this naming is that it is a wide net (ranging over anything that is South Asian, with no common founder). We can investigate all the things that are called Hindu as a consequence of this naming. I investigate a representative sample and I show that what gets called Hindu ranges over the disagreements of philosophy. And of course, this would be, if “Hindu” just means “South Asian, no common founder.” One of the implications of this study is that even if Hindus were to converge on some type of shared belief system, it would still be the case that there is no essence to Hinduism and it is coextensive with the disagreements of philosophy for opinions do not fix the content of Hinduism: rather its history does.

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