My Introduction to and Journeys in Indian Philosophy

Dear Indian Philosophy Blog readers,

The board of the Indian Philosophy Blog has asked me to contribute three or four posts within the span of a month here, in order to enhance discussions on the site. I will therefore begin with a post on my introduction to and journeys in the Indian philosophical tradition. I will follow up with a post on what I have learned and appreciate most from my explorations of Indian thought. My third post will then offer some of my ideas regarding challenges to this field in the modern academic environment and some of my ideas for meeting them.

I was born in a part of the United States which I always joke in “get-to-know-you” conversations as not exactly the likeliest place from which a fan of ancient India might hail. That was southwest North Dakota. No, not the state with Mt. Rushmore, the other Dakota. Anyway, my first encounters with ancient Indian religious and philosophical traditions occurred during the spring term of 1990, in a sophomore English literature class on mythology in which the instructor showed us the video series of Joseph Campbell’s interviews with Bill Moyers. I began reading what scant resources I could find in my tiny hometown university and public libraries. About a year later, in the midst of taking what few philosophy electives there were in my hometown, all of which were unsurprisingly focused on the West, I happened to read through the major works of Arthur Schopenhauer. I discovered what his own philosophical investments were in the early Brāhmiṇical and Buddhist traditions. I eventually decided to change college majors, first from computer science to history and literature, and then to philosophy and religion. For the latter double-major, I had to transfer to the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. There were no classes as such on Indian thought there, but I continued my own research nonetheless, with somewhat more plentiful library resources. I finished my undergraduate majors in May of 1993, and moved to the Religious Studies Department at Temple University in Philadelphia for my graduate work. Back then, there were only two places in the United States where one could study Asian thought in Philosophy departments at the graduate level, and due to financial shortfalls and failure of admission on my part, I had to opt to pursue philosophical work on Asia in a Religion program. As it happily turned out, Temple University was an outstanding place to do this.

As is clear to probably all the blog’s readers now but was hardly obvious to me at the time, my greatest obstacles to discovering the abundant treasures and diversity of the Indian tradition were the ways in which Indian thought, then and now, is often popularly presented in the West. Whether under the guise of Campbell’s mythological musings, Eliade’s comparative labyrinths or Schopenhauer’s projections, English language-only readers (well, ok, at this point I had German too) generally find themselves introduced to Indian thought either directly through scholarly works and translations that were produced by classical Western Orientalists or through works that were heavily influenced by them. Finding one’s way through the web of interpretive and political problems and complexities of the Orientalist frames of reference, and the influence of these same problems on the thinkers of the Bengali Renaissance and its intellectual and religious inheritors, was not easy. I could not honestly claim to be free of all of these legacies even today. But Temple University and the Philadelphia academic environment were incredible locales for ameliorating these challenges. Bibhuti Singh Yadav of Temple’s Religious Studies Department at once insisted that I dive into the details of the debates between the Buddhist schools of Madhyamaka, Vijńānavāda and the Brāhmiṇical lineages of Nyāya, Vedānta and Mimamsā as well as tackle the fraught relationship between Western Orientalist and modern neo-Vedāntic thinkers. He also challenged his students to immerse themselves in the modern critical and Buddhist writings of B.R. Ambedkar. Though he sadly passed away at the all-too-early age of 56, and only two and a half months before my dissertation defence, this brilliant, animated and generous teacher continues to inform my work. In the Philosophy program at Temple, one floor above the Religious Studies department, I had the absolute privilege of taking the classes of J.N. Mohanty for six years, as he masterfully discoursed on the debates between Nyāya, Buddhist and Vedāntic philosophers. Work outside of Temple, with Wilhelm Halbfass at the University of Pennsylvania and the scholar who patiently and skilfully tutored me in Sanskrit there also inspired and enabled me. I needed up doing a dissertation on the hermeneutic completes of Schopenhauer’s encounter with early Indian thought through the Orientalist literature he was familiar with, which turned into a first book. But the magnificent history of Nyāya-Buddhist debates on the nature of the world, knowledge and ethics became the lasting center of my scholarly work in the Indian tradition.

I moved though several different programs at Temple University, a small college in suburban Chicago and then started my eleven-year stint at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, In these places, I found that, while specialised expertise in Indian traditions was of course wanted and valued in the American academic environment, that value was persistently joined to the expectation that Indian thought would always be presented in a “comparative” light, so that it could remain accessible to students of Western thought. So, in the early years of my teaching and scholarly career, from 2000-2007, while I did write pieces that focused quite exclusively on traditional Indian philosophical debates, I also wrote essays about the hermeneutic reception of Indian thought by Western thinkers as well as comparative pieces in the “classical” style. For the latter, I began to become interested in possible areas of dialogue between classical Nyāya notions of mind and its relationship to bodily experience and the variety of views articulated in modern Western philosophy of mind. However, this fascination of mine was somewhat short-lived. In what I would describe as the next definitively transforming moment of my career, a paper I presented on Nyāya and emergentism at a conference in the fall of 2007 was roundly criticised by two senior scholars in the field, for whom I have enormous respect. Beyond the details of the comparative analysis I was offering, they lamented that the approach I was adopting had been tried by scholars for thirty to forty years without having made many inroads into Western philosophical interest. Though I was initially shaken by and somewhat indignant of this criticism, further calm reflection on it convinced me that, even with all my good training, I had not yet escaped the tentacles of Orientalist influence. I decided from that point on to, as much as I could, present ancient Indian ideas and debates in the categories and frameworks of those traditions themselves, rather than try to meld them into modern Western philosophical vocabulary. The philosophical riches, contributions and insights of a tradition, I thought, could only be gauged when first understood in their own terms.

Of course, the comparative bug has not left me entirely, but has instead taken on a different form. Though I had certainly attended ample courses in East Asian philosophical traditions at Temple University and taught a number of courses on Chinese philosophy in my early career, early Chinese philosophy and medieval Chinese Buddhist thought gripped me powerfully from 2003-2004. A whole new and exciting context for understanding personhood, bodily existence, social relatedness and the natural world was opened to me through these two years. I took it upon myself to learn how to read Classical Chinese, as I already had some familiarity with modern Chinese, and launched into a period of teaching advanced undergraduate and graduate courses and advising dissertations in the areas of Confucian, Mohist, Daoist and Chan Buddhist thought, and began to write my own essays in the field. As I became involved with the Board of the Society of Asian and Comparative Philosophy from 2009-2013, and served as its president from 2014-16, I became dedicated to the proposition that doing genuine comparative philosophy in the contemporary context requires that we not persist in considering the West as the center of philosophical gravity and compare other thinkers and traditions one-by-one with figureheads from the Western canon. Instead, philosophical traditions of the globe should be put into conversation with one another, creating a multi-polar and immeasurably enriched conversation. Within the SACP, I tried to accomplish this by re-arranging panel structures, making them, as often as I could, thematic discussions between scholarly representatives of different traditions. In my own work, I began to re-explore issues that continued to puzzle me about the transmission of Buddhism from South Asia to China, which found expression in my second independent monograph, Encounters of Mind.

In my next blog post, I will write in more detail about that philosophical developments I have made through my explorations in classical Indian thought. In the most significant of these transformations, my original quest for philosophical perspectives of unity and oneness in certain strands of Brāhmiṇical philosophy and certain interpretations of Buddhist thought has given way to a profound appreciation for classical arguments in both of these traditions for definitively existing plurality, heterogeneity and causal connectedness. But this brief retrospective at the three decades during which I have been drawn to and endlessly fascinated by Indian thought has put me in mind of a refrain that students in this tradition recite in honour of all those who have guided them. That is a refrain that I can say with complete honesty. In the work I have done in Indian thought so far, all of the virtues that can be found therein have come from my teachers, and all the mistakes are mine. I have been unusually blessed to have lived in a time when so much can be learned from Indian philosophy at the behest of so many gifted preceptors.

About Douglas Berger

Douglas Berger is Professor of Global and Comparative Philosophy at Leiden University in the Netherlands. He is also the former president of the Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy and the current chief editor of Dimensions of Asian Spirituality, a book series published by University of Hawai'i Press

20 Replies to “My Introduction to and Journeys in Indian Philosophy”

  1. Many thanks for this very fascinating biography from comparative philosophy to Sanskrit philosophy on its own terms to cross-cultural polylogues with no longer a single center. I look forward for the next steps. Meanwhile, and in case you don’t plan to address it in the next posts, could you tell us more about the reception of Sanskrit philosophy through your latter two phaes? (You spoke about how the first phase had been attempted for decades, but with little success).

    Just because I am going to point out this post to my students: How comes that you found the time to learn modern Chinese? And how long did it take for you to be able to know enough classical Chinese to supervise PhD thesis and do independent research in classical Chinese philosophy?

    Thanks again!

    • Thank you for the comments, Elisa. I will try to address the questions about Sanskrit and comparative philosophy and some of the challenges that face these fields in future posts. To answer you second question thought, it helps to have some familiarity with modern Chinese to start. But even if that is not there, I would say it took me about two years–mostly concentrated into two summers–, to learn a threshold number of Chinese characters by just copying them continuously–and keep in mind here that students will need to learn traditional Chinese characters and not modern simplified ones. Apart from that, I went through textbooks of Classical Chinese by Robert Fuller and Paul Rouzer, and looked through a Classical Chinese grammar by Pulleyblank. Those were the major texts available when I was studying the language, and having been through the ordeal of learning Sanskrit and German grammar, I did not find Classical Chinese grammar to be difficult. However, for students now who are brand new to Classical Chinese, Bryan van Norden’s introduction is great. There is another new one by my former colleague at SIUC, Wu Shuling, which I would also recommend. As with all languages, it takes practice and patience, but it is well-worth the effort.

    • Steven, consider looking at the rules for the blog above, including the rule “be scholarly.” This is a blog about scholarship on Indian philosophy. Your comments that I see here don’t contribute any scholarship, but are repeat appeals to deep practice and what it means to be a “real” practitioner. Banging your head against what we are doing here helps neither our readers nor you, and seems to misunderstand the point of the blog.

      If you want to express your point by appealing to the Buddha’s own warnings about the dangers of mere theory vs. deep practice, or by helping us to reflect on, say, Nagarjuna’s own attack on the Abhidharma theorizing (as illustrated by various studies in the last 50 years), then that’s a start, and actually helps us reflect on the tradition itself. But right now, you come off as preachy and perhaps even a little smug, with nothing but your sense of spiritual authority to support your posts. I’m not sure if that helps you or our readers.

  2. Thank you, Doug, this is great! I hope that comparative projects can move toward de-centering the West as you have done, although I admit the language skills needed are a bit daunting. I also wonder if co-authoring is a good idea as a way to get specialists in different areas to work together. Take care.

    • I think co-authoring is a great idea to bring specialists from different areas together to collaborate on comparative projects. When I was coming up through the tenure and promotion processes, co-authored projects were still not given as much credit as independent monographs, and this is unfortunate, precisely because of how much they can facilitate progress in comparative thought. That is one of the things we need institutionally to keep pushing on, I think.

      • Yes, good point. Those of us who are in the position to help can make clear how collaborative work is important and should be appreciated for what it is—often more difficult than working alone but a new and stimulating challenge.

  3. Thanks for this, Doug! It’s great to get a glimpse into the story that brought you where you are.

    I’m particularly curious about the early parts, and especially your own investment and motivation – how you went from someone who wasn’t interested in Indian philosophy to someone who was. What was it in Campbell and Schopenhauer that drew you to Indian philosophy? After all, they both talk about many other things! What lit the first sparks, in this North Dakota boy, for this field in particular? (Rather than, say, Gilgamesh or Kant?)

    • Hi Amod! I will try to cover that in a little more detail in the following post. But one thing I will say here in my legacy as a North Dakota boy is that one thing we had a lot of in relatively flat NoDak was horizon. The natural horizons, which allowed you to watch sunsets for more than an hour and storms rolling toward you for four hours, were beautiful in themselves. But I spent a lot of time imagining and thinking what might be beyond those horizons, and how other peoples and life- ways might view the world. I was certainly brought up within a very specific German-Catholic cultural environment, that had its own vision of the relationship between human beings and one another, human beings and nature, human beings and the divine. Initially encountering Indian thought through the admittedly problematic lenses of a Campbell and a Schopenhauer communicated something of the meaning of a religious sensibility highlighting the unity of the human and divine, indeed the unity of all things, over the heterogeneity of the divine and human realms as I understood them from my own background. That was, at any rate, the first spark that lit the fire. A lot has changed about my views since then of course, and I’ll talk about that more in the next post. But that was, for me, the original impetus. BTW, I liked Gilgamesh a lot too, but not as much as what I was learning about South and East Asian thought.

      • Thanks, Doug – missed this when you first wrote it. I appreciate it. It’s fascinating to me because it’s so different from my own first interest to Indian thought. The thing that first drew me to Buddhism was that it didn’t have a significant conception of the divine.

  4. Hey Doug, thanks for that! Very interesting!

    I have a question regarding ‘melding’ ideas expressed in Sanskrit into modern philosophical vocabulary. I’m also interested what others think too, of course, and sorry if I’m jumping ahead with this question.

    Is there an intellectually responsible way of expressing Sanskrit ideas in contemporary philosophical vocabulary?

    I’m studying in a very analytically oriented school (it’s not a complain, I love it!) and my colleagues are not interested in the history of philosophy at all, not only Indian. They’re interested in arguments for or against claims they recognize as broadly philosophical, independently of their origin. For example, they stop listening when I tell them that the liar sentence is a svavacanavirodha (a contradiction with own words) and so it’s a pakṣābhāsa (a fallacious thesis) — and I totally understand them, it’s so obscure! However, they listen when I tell them that the liar sentence malfunctions epistemologically in all argumentative contexts; which I believe amounts to the same thing as saying that it’s svavacanavirodha etc. But when I make my second claim, I no longer speak Dharmakīrti. I meld what he says into contemporary vocabulary and there’s no manual how to do it, so my question.

    • Hi Szymon! There are two things I’ll briefly say about this. First, I think for someone working in the field, in this case the general field of Indian philosophy, a responsible approach to understanding ideas is to, as much as is feasible, first understand them in their own frameworks and discursive contexts, and only then try to find vocabulary for them for a target audience of non-specialists. If we jump too quickly at the opportunity to characterise an idea or argument from one tradition in the terms of another, calling Vijńānavāda “idealism” or Vaiśeṣika “atomism” or whatever, we miss or are drawn into mistakes about important features of their own philosophical contours. We do our own investigations and evaluations first, and then decide, on the basis of our experience, what vocabulary to build and what vocabulary to emulate. Second, for communicating with non-specialists, I think it useful to remember the hermeneutic truism that one of the first learning strategies employed by anyone is make something unfamiliar intelligible by associating it with something familiar. That is the most natural thing in the world for anyone–it certainly was for me–in encountering new ideas. So the fact that audiences might first reach out for this strategy is entirely understandable. However, even though this is where almost all of is start from, it is important to continuously encourage people, as well as ourselves, not to remain at that point, but to push past it. My own experience with analytic philosophers when talking about ideas from Indian or Chinese traditions is mixed; some are quite remarkably open-minded and some tune out the moment one starts taking about different philosophical vocabulary or historical considerations. In a way, I think we need to expect that spectrum of reactions and keep moving forward. Whenever I feel some despair about how long it is taking for other traditions of thought to be incorporated into academic departments in the West, I have to remind myself that what we are doing is not easy. Buddhism, for instance, did eventually become a fully “mainstream” and integrated tradition into the Chinese cultural sphere–but that process did take about 600 years. It is difficult enough to get people to appreciate the full richness of their “own” philosophical traditions, not to mention others. And so we keep working and pushing and accept that we are participants in an ongoing challenge that was there before we came along and will remain for those who come after us. Hopefully, while we are here, we can move the ball further down the field.

      • Thanks for your answer, Doug, that’s very helpful!

        On your first point, I see how one needs to understand ideas in their own context before expressing them to others. But, so does someone who works on David Lewis or any other historical figure, I guess. The difference is, as I see it, how different Lewis’ vocabulary is from todays. Clearly, it’s less different than, say, Dharmakīrti’s. It looks to me that this difference is in scale and not in kind, but I might be wrong about it. What do you think? Can a difference between vocabularies become so big that melding them stops being worthwhile?

        Regarding incorporating Sanskrit and Chinese ideas into contemporary philosophical landscape. It would be great to know more about what it means to make others in the field *appreciate* Sanskrit ideas; what do you think is the endgame here? There’s something weird about a Lewis’ scholar, to stick with the example, whose purpose is to teach others about Lewis’ arguments and make them apricate his work. In my previous comment, I was thinking more about arguing for a Sanskrit view I think is right, rather than informing my colleagues that there’s such a view.

        • Szymon,
          I’m not immediately sure whether to call the difference between Lewis and Dharmakīrti one of scale or kind. Either way, I think the difference is still significant. I might have to rephrase some of Lewis’ technical vocabulary, and still have to explain the philosophical debates he was involved in to an English-speaking audience, but I don’t have to translate him into English. (Well, maybe. One of my former colleagues used to joke that the first problem with John Dewey’s writings is that you must translate him into English!). Plus the precise contours of the Sanskrit debates Dharmakīrti was involved in probably need more initial clarification. However one wants to classify things, I think the task with the latter is still more challenging.

          On the second question, I was talking at that point in my discussion in very broad terms about how hard it is to get people at large to take philosophy seriously, even when it comes from their own cultural traditions, not to mention from others. And in that broad context, I was using the term “appreciate” loosely. I do think, when I encounter an idea in another tradition I regard as true in some important ways, my goal is to communicate that truth as well as the arguments, evidence and considerations which support that truth.

          • Yes! And:
            1. it is not always easy that we are already in the position to distinguish the truth from the argument (research on Sanskrit philosophy is still in its infancy). Think of how some elements that may look only poetic embellishments in Plato have been interpreted philosophically by, e.g., Gadamer.
            2. Even only in order to find the core doctrine and be able to present it to an audience, one needs to be able to recognise it within its historical framework—and this requires incredible attention to the historical framework, to avoid confusing the one with the other.

    • Hi Szymon. You are facing a challenge that may of us have also faced. I was lucky in that my own analytic-heavy dept in grad school was encouraging me to find ways to help the two sides talk to each other. In any case, this old post I made here on the IPB may have something that speaks to your concern.

      IMHO, people who say they don’t care about history of philosophy are themselves prone to pragmatic self-contradiction as soon as they start doing philosophy.

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