The Indian philosophical tradition, as everyone familiar with it knows well, is abundant with robust and brilliantly defended metaphysical, epistemological and ethical positions of all varieties. Its several millennia of development have featured stalwart defenders and innovators of scholastic views, independent and encyclopedic thinkers, trenchant critics of established doctrines and assumptions, mystics, ritualists, grammarians and anti-religious, worldly sages. There may be many who, for good reasons, find themselves drawn to a particular school, thinker or persuasion in the rich spectrum of ideas in Indian thought, who then become compelled to embrace and enhance one of these available perspectives. Others may find room for great syntheses of views under a broadly overarching system, and indeed the penchant for synthesis is one of the powerful achievements of South Asian genius. Still others might, in the long course of exploring the contesting arguments of Indian thought, become “converts,” abandoning an initially favored philosophical orientation for another one that has become more convincing. I am one of those converts. In this second of my planned three posts this month to the Indian Philosophy Blog, I will briefly recall that process of conversion.
As noted in my last post, my initial draw toward the Indian philosophical tradition, during my undergraduate studies, was through the works of Schopenhauer. His own appropriation of 19th century Orientalist depictions of early and medieval Indian texts resulted in several major features of his system. First, his reading of the early Upaniṣads and some Vedāntic glosses inspired him to interpret Kantian transcendental idealism as the way our cognitive processes falsify our knowledge of the world, creating what he called a “veil of māyā.” Instead of being sensorally or conceptually aware of the unitary metaphysical nature of the world as one homogeneous will, we take the world to be filled with heterogeneous phenomena, individuated as “this and that” and “I’ and “other.” Second, his understanding of the formulations of tat tvam asi in the Upaniṣads and the Gitā impelled him to take it as an ethical maxim, a move that, as Paul Hacker showed, had much influence on Vivekanada through Paul Deussen. In this construal, genuine ethical motives are infused with the insight that we are not of different fundamental natures, but are all manifestations of one and the same will, and this insight fuels the compassion required to alleviate one another’s suffering. Third, Jain and Buddhist forms of renunciation were for Schopenhauer manifestations of the “denial of the will,” a final mystical turning away from the violence and conflict to which the will drives all individuated beings.
Though I had misgivings regarding Schopenhauer’s characterizations of renunciation from the start, I found, at first, his construal of idealism fascinating and his thematization of the “tat tvam asi” ethic moving. As I entered my graduate studies, I set out to learn in greater detail the schools, texts and arguments that I thought could bolster idealism, monism and an ethic of compassion akin to Schopenhauer’s. I dove into modern scholarly renditions and interpretations of the Upaniṣads themselves, as well as the rather wide-ranging classical and modern readings of Śańkara’s Advaita, early Buddhist texts and Vijńānavāda Buddhist thought. The overriding commitments which fired these early studies were a strong sense that our proclivities for drawing distinctions between things and self were shaped not by perceptual recognition but by our own cognitive processes and that we are fundamentally desirous beings who can only find solace in compassion and equanimity. I was following a path through Indian thought upon which many Westerners find themselves when they are given primarily Orientalist and Orientalist-inspired directions.
Over the course of my studies, these convictions began to loosen. Both hermeneutic criticism of Schopenhauer’s reception of Indian thought and well-considered Western philosophical critiques of Schopenhauer’s own system helped me to become more objective about this so-called “sage of Frankfurt” and his legacy. During the same period, the appeal of Śańkara’s Advaita to me was progressively undermined. The first weakening was facilitated for me by the 12th century’s Ramānuja and then the 20th century’s J.N. Mohanty and Sengaku Mayeda. Their analyses and critiques of the inconsistencies in Śańkara’s attempt to reconcile the unity of the ātman with his description of the perceptual process brought problems into sharp relief. Next came a brilliant short essay by Daya Krishna, making the case that Śańkara was not a monist at all, but more akin to a Sāḿkhya philosopher who believed in a single metaphysical self. Finally, 20th century critics of Advaita like B.S. Yadav and Francis Clooney revealed an extremely conservative positions on caste taken by Vedāntins, which threw into great question the entire supposition that anything like a modern tat tvam asi ethic prevailed among them. The withering Buddhist arguments against the notion of a fixed ātman as well as Nāgārjuna’s incisive analyses of causation, which seem to destroy both idealist or realist views, also dug the roots out of my youthful attraction to classical Indian “non-dualism.”
In my later graduate work under Mohanty and Yadav, and in the early years of my own teaching career, I began to study the classical Nyāya philosophers, primarily Gautama, Vātsyāyana, Uddyotakara, Udayana and the Nyāya commentary of Vācaspati Miśra. Initially, their texts needed to be understood in order to evaluate the centuries of debates over knowledge, metaphysics, logic and language that were waged against the Naiyāyikas by centuries of Buddhists. At the beginning, neither the Nyāya brand of realism, nor any brand of philosophical realism, were ever appealing to me. Though I have been a lifelong admirer or science, philosophical realism for the young me appeared unraveled by Hume’s skepticism, the verification debates of 20th century analytic thought and the findings of modern quantum theory itself, which suggest that, at the micro-level of reality, our acts of observation alter what we perceive and measure instead of reflecting a static reality. In the classical Indian context, the Vijńānavāda refutations of atomism and Śri Harṣa’s relation regress criticisms did not appear to leave much room for realism either. But then, something important happened. Two of my mentors strongly recommended that I read the late B.K. Matilal’s 1986 masterpiece, Perception: An Essay on Classical Indian Theories of Knowledge. To put the matter simply, Matilal made me into a realist. A qualified realist, to be sure, but a realist nonetheless.
In the years that have passed since my early career, my two main foci of interest in the Indian tradition have been classical Nyāya philosophers and the works of the Madhyamaka Buddhist preceptor Nāgārjuna. Ultimately, I think the formidable criticisms that Nāgārjuna brings against the Nyāya theory of knowing in his Vigrahavyāvartani are satisfactorily met by the ensuing centuries of Naiyāyikas. I am in no way committed to the larger Nyāya ontology, which is certainly too extravagantly furnished, nor to their intermittent theism. However, their characterizations of the perceptual and imaginative processes, their rebuttals of regress arguments, Buddhist part-whole analyses and attempts to destroy externalism still seem to me quite powerfully articulated, not just within the Indian context but beyond it. Nyāya stands as a robust defender, contra Buddhist forms of reductionism, of the view that compound phenomena need not be considered any less real than simple phenomena, and this vindicates the heterogeneity and complexity of existence. On the other hand, despite his epistemological vagueness and at times incomplete argumentation, Nāgārjuna offers us a profound understanding of interdependent causation. His notion of causation is one I consider to be an advancement on early Buddhist theories, to the degree that Nāgārjuna does not merely insist that every event must be causally conditioned, but that causality is multi- and not unu-directional. This has lasting implications not only for our understanding of reality, but for our orientations and responsibilities toward one another. Though Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka and classical Nyāya are fierce opponents of one another, I find in both systems of thought philosophical insights of lasting and shaping value.
To return to the larger topic of this review of my journeys in classical Indian thought, I can say that it is those journeys, primarily, that have facilitated one of the great “conversions” I have undergone in my philosophical career. I have in the course of my three decades of interest in Indian thought been changed from an idealist in search of an underlying metaphysical unity of all beings tino a qualified realist who values the heterogeneity and plurality of the world. But that heterogeneity and plurality is tied together not by a nebulous, mysterious unity, but instead by the complex but discernable bonds of causal inter-relation. That inter-relation can indeed be seen as an even stronger basis for compassion than an abstract fundamental unity. This is what I have learned, and continue to learn, from the Indian philosophical tradition.
But, happily, my journeys continue, and may easily lead to further realizations and conversions. Learning never ceases, and changing one’s mind is not a defect, but a sign of growth. And, even more happily, the Indian philosophical tradition is replete with incredible resources for a plethora of insightful philosophical debates and views. And that is why it will always remain a wellspring of ideas and practices for philosophers in the future.