Some Reflections on the Field

In this final of my three installments to the Indian Philosophy Blog this month, I would like to address some general, and admittedly quite subjective, impressions I have about where the field of Indian Philosophy stands in English-language scholarship and discussion.  I will also offer some ideas about approaches that might be considered to present challenges. The reader will notice that suggestions both for greater specialisation and more broad-based general engagement are mentioned here, and I don’t think these approaches need to be considered at cross-purposes, but instead can be complimentary. I write this installment without necessarily believing that my impressions may all be justified nor that I have ready-at-hand solutions. The post is more about sharing my general impressions and sparking discussion among those wiser than I am, which, obviously, is a formidably large contingent.

When I was receiving my graduate education at Temple University in Philadelphia and partly at Tübingen University in Germany, there was a peculiarity about the secondary English-language scholarship on Indian philosophy that made it even more challenging to learn than it is via close textual analysis.  With the exception of some major, and at times “trendy” individual philosophes like Nāgārjuna, Śańkara and even Bhatṛhari, who received dedicated studies of their own thought, most of the secondary literature took broad-ranging “scholastic” approaches to classical Indian thought, which were then further generalized by focusing on thematic debates.  While many of these general and encyclopedic treatments were brilliant and insightful, one found oneself constantly navigating through narratives of what Nyāya held about this issue, what the Buddhists held about that issue, and Bhaṭṭa and Prabhākara Mimamsikas debated about the other issue. (I too often still write in such terms.)  And this tendency could at times become a criterion for whether or not something was published.  I once wrote a lengthy and detailed explication of classical Nyāya with some reference to innovations made by Gańgeṣa, an essay that was supposed to be a general introductory survey for non-specialists, but the piece was rejected because I did not follow up with coverage into the 17th century. As if writing an introductory essay on Nyāya had to explicate every thinker and text the tradition featured. To some degree, modern scholarship on Chinese thought has emulated habits along these lines–speaking of arguments between Confucians, Daoists, Mohists and Legalists, but that does not preclude the production of translations, commentaries and secondary focuses on individual texts and authors.  It seems to me we would do well in the field to produce more on individual texts or thinkers, giving a thorough explanation of their systematic ideas, whether in root text, commentarial or specialized treatise form.  No one would think the Western tradition could be adequately covered were the only pieces of scholarship to appear about it merely give broad overviews of debates between rationalists and empiricists, idealists and phenomenologists or virtue ethicists and utilitarians.  Individual philosophers deserve robust attention, even when they present themselves as commentators, for as we all know, a great deal of innovation takes place in the Indian tradition through commentary.  On top of this, translations of Indian philosophical primary literature tend to fall out of print very quickly, and so both up-to-date translations and explications of a wide variety of texts are sorely needed in the field.  And, as Ethan Mills quite rightly noted in response to my first post, these works on individual philosophers would often be most fruitful if they were collaborations involving at least one rigorous Sanskritist, for example, and another philosopher with investment in the material.  We should push our institutions in this field to extend to such collaborative projects full publication credit, for translations of these sorts are not only translations, but significantly are interpretive presentations too.  And, even regarding more general treatment for popular audiences, why should there not be a mini-series on major Indian philosophers in the Cambridge Companion series, or a comparable venue?  Happily, some of these glaring needs for focus on individual texts and commentarial material are being met through the Hackett series as well as through collaborative ventures such as those between Stephen Phillips and N.S. Ramanuja Tatacharya, Mark Siderits and Shoryu Katsura as well as others.  But we should continue the trend, I think.

In remembering the days of my graduate studies and early career, I can say that a young scholar coming up then had plenty of reasons to feel quite intimidated in Indian philosophical circles.  Trenchant debates tended to be dominated by a half-dozen or so major figures, who addressed only one another.  Listservs that combined religious and philosophical discussions were often highly charged because of the quite sensitive political character of many issues.  The best journals in the field had quite high standards for independent translation skills.  And conferences featuring panels or plenaries of Indian philosophy scholars often saw those discussions quickly turn sharp and polemical.  It is entirely possible that the sense of timidity I often felt in these circumstances was exclusively mine.  Still, there may have been other factors that contributed to the sharp-edged and somewhat cliquish nature of the environment I was experiencing.  Perhaps the long-term hermeneutic attempts to interpret Indian thought through Western analytic frameworks, the precision demanded by accurate Sanskrit grammatical analysis, and the increasingly technical fine-points of Indian philosophical debates as they developed and continue to develop all converge to create an exacting intellectual environment.  And, to be sure, there are advantages to this, not the least of which are that sort of environment’s incentives for participants to continually improve their skills and to mentally toughen up.  However, there are costs to this approach as well.  When I began to immerse myself into the study of Chinese thought about seventeen years ago, while there certainly were serious and sometimes cliquish encounters in that area too, on the whole, the intellectual environment was more inviting and the culture of Chinese philosophical societies tended to promote far easier interaction between new and veteran scholars in the field.  Perhaps because learning, xue, is an essential activity for philosophy in that environment, so the participants in it seemed to me to act more often like communities of learners.  As I became increasingly involved in the management of various professional societies in intercultural philosophy, I could not escape the distinct impression that, while all the economic and intellectual trends were helping Chinese philosophy rise with the tides, those of us in Indian philosophy could be working harder to make the intellectual environment more inviting and widely interactive.  Fortunately, from what I can tell, things have been improving on this front.  Younger scholars are taking up more active and prominent roles in Indian philosophical debate in a variety of forums, and in Europe, more solidarity fills the air of Indian philosophical events, perhaps because a united struggle is still necessary to win support for the entire field of research.  All the same, I think we need to continually find the right balance between lofty standards of philosophical debate and broader inclusiveness.  Just as prajńa and karuna work best together, so logical felicity and ahimsa are both intellectual virtues, and, functioning in partnership, they will make our field better.   

A third hope for the field in the future would of course be an ever-increasing inclusion of Islamic and Sikh thinkers, both traditional and modern, into the comprehensive treatment of Indian thought.  Both traditions are venerably Indian, and if we are to include studies of Navya-Nyāya, early modern Vedānta and neo-Vedāntic thinkers into our surveys and forums, than surely Islamic and Sikh thinkers belong fully in the discussion as well.  My own contributions in this area are quite modest, as I have published but one essay on Dārā Shikøh’s hermeneutic readings of the Upaniads.  But far more could be done with Indian Islamic thought, from the features of Din-i-Illahi of Akbar through its syncretic offshoots to the curricular developments of the eighteenth-century Shah Waliullah Dehlawi to the 17th and 18th century translation movements of Danishmand Khan and Tazzaful Hussein Khan and on through to important modern thinkers like Wahiduddin Khan, and many others.  In the Sikh tradition, though I am woefully less informed about philosophical works and commentaries here, what immediately come to mind are not merely the thought of some of the gurus but also the works of Teja Singh, Jaswant Singh Neki and Bhai Khan Singh and others.  Such broadening of inclusion would serve as yet another justification for more collaborative work.

And finally, recalling an earlier post advocating for the broadening of intercultural philosophy to make it more genuinely global in scope, I hope to see more engagement between the Indian philosophical tradition and other traditions throughout the world. Since the onset of Western colonization and even stretching into the so-called post-colonial period, the ventures of “comparative philosophy” have generally taken the guise of weighing Indian against predominantly Western philosophical thinkers and systems, which perpetuates the assumption that the standards of gravity of comparison emanate from the “West,” which itself is an overgeneralized category.  There have already been happy exceptions to this rule.  For decades, scholarship dealing with the relationships between South and East Asian Buddhisms has flourished.  More recently, a series of American Academy of Religion panels spearheaded by Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad and Jiang Tao has carved out more space for India-China dialogue, the journals Sophia and World Philosophies have opened environments for a wider range of intercultural philosophical debate, and the last decade of meetings of the Society of Asian and Comparative Philosophy have structurally tended in this direction as well.  And certainly the field of post-colonial studies itself has provided fruitful opportunities for mutual reinforcement between modern Indian, Global South and African perspectives.  While we are making slow but discernible progress in diversifying philosophy curricula, there remains stalwart institutional opposition or reluctance in many places to abandon the Western parochial domination of philosophical discourse, equating its quite modern conceptions of rationality with “cosmopolitan thinking.” While specilizations in other individual traditions is one effective way to address this persistent difficulty, another is a growing prevalence of multi-directional philosophical engagement. The latter can demonstrate to what extent philosophical reflection and debate are human, and not merely regional, activities

And with those reflections, I bring my three-post series for this month on the Indian Philosophy Blog to a close.  I would like to thank Elisa Freschi, Amod Lele, Ethan Mills and Matthew Dasti for their invitation to contribute to this month’s forums.  I also warmly thank those of you who have carried out most illuminating conversations about important topics and debates in Indian thought in reply to my posts.  Taking part in this exercise has given me the fortunate chance to learn from all of you. 

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

6 Replies to “Some Reflections on the Field”

  1. // A third hope for the field in the future would of course be an ever-increasing inclusion of Islamic and Sikh thinkers //

    It would only add to further problems already existing in debates regarding Indian history, philosophy etc.

    Adding Sikh thinkers might offend Sikhs because they have been trying to carve a separate identity & have largely succeeded in achieving that goal. They hence sees their Hindu connections suspiciously when Hindus use them or don’t like to acknowledge them due to political nature of them. Then there is politics where Right-wing Hindus along with a section of Hindus claim Sikhs as just another path akin to various other Hindu paths. Then there is internal Sikh politics of who has the right to represent the Sikh message & thus hold the post on Akal Takht. It is easier to deal with Sikh philosophy, history & religion as a separate entity & since it is a newly formed identity thus hence allows a great opportunity for scholars to understand how identity forms, transforms & evolves.

    On the other hand i oppose inclusion of Islamic thinkers because it then dissolves the distinctness of Indic traditions. Would you suggest to study indigenous studies by mixing them with Christian studies, the opposite is being done in academia to recognize indigenous regional traditions of pre-Abrahamic periods because non-recognition of distinctness has been the method of choice of authoritarians & it was the simplest method by which colonialists were able to claim legitimacy.

  2. Many thanks, Douglas, for your kindness and wisdom (very much in the sense of your plea for prajñā and karuṇā). I discussed this post on Twitter, in this thread:
    https://twitter.com/elisa_freschi/status/1253950537193701378
    Basically, I agree with most of your key points:
    1. We need to focus more on individual philosophers instead of speaking broadly of “Nyāya” or “Advaita Vedānta”
    2. We need more collaborative work with philosophers and Sanskritists producing translations together. The best example I know of is still Parimal Patil and Larry McCrea’s translation of Jñānaśrīmitra’s work on apoha, although Parimal and Larry are perhaps both too similar in their competences. I am not completely sure that Phillips’ work on Gaṅgeśa is readable for philosophers. It is not readable for me (I need to go back to the Sanskrit to understand the translation).
    3. We need to convince institutions to give credit to “these sorts of translations”. I would say “to translations” in general, since translations are interpretive philosophical enterprise (unless they are bad word-by-word translations). One just cannot translate a text one did not understand.
    4. We surely need to make the community of people working on Sanskrit philosophy more welcoming. (This is what we are trying through this blog, among other things.)
    5. We surely need philosophy to go global, instead of just comparing “our” immutable philosophical center with various peripheries.
    6. You raise the problem of including Sikh and Indian (syncretic) Islam. I am not surprised that this is the only point someone commented upon in the last days, since I have been part of many animated discussions about it. Basically, many of our Indian colleagues are convinced that there is a distinct opposition between the “Indic civilisations” and the “Abrahamic” ones. This leaves syncretic movements fatherless as for research on them —unless I am missing something. Some such colleagues seem to just deny the possibility of the existence of such syncretism. E.g., Dara Shikoh is only a translator, and therefore should be studied within the “Indic” field.

    • // opposition between the “Indic civilisations” and the “Abrahamic” ones. //

      Opposition is not between Indic Vs Abrahamic but about what kind of state of mind they create. What we mean by Indic is the acknowledgement of formalized & non-formalized beliefs from animism to monotheism esp. of Indian subcontinent & their ‘distinctness’ compared to Abrahamic beliefs.

      Let me try to problematize the idea of Abrahamic Vs Indic, Caste Vs Universal values etc. –

      https://www.academia.edu/35478540/_The_Bnei_Ephraim_Community_Judaisation_Social_Hierarchy_and_Caste_Reservation_The_Journal_of_Indo-Judaic_Studies_15_2017_59-71

      In the above paper [Bnei Ephraim Community: Judaization, Social Hierarchy and Caste Reservation] one may see untouchability as a great Hindu sin but it was because of such beliefs that Jewish communities were able to maintain their distinct beliefs & practices for centuries.

      Acknowledgement of distinctness is about formalizing ‘terms of engagement’ instead of using engagement as a way of harmonization of all forms of distinct beliefs.

      What syncretization {esp. in textual form} does is that it gives a leg up to Organized beliefs & thus forces people to give up on their archaic non-formalized beliefs. This also transforms political & social nature of groups or local communities which further transform & inform boundaries of each community & thus kills the diversity of beliefs in real world.

    • hank you Elisa, for all these wonderful points.

      I certainly agree that the Islamic and Sikh traditions are constituted in quite unique historical, textual and argumentative ways form other traditions. Since they did not arise in the discursive environments of older Indian traditions, that makes dialogue challenging in a number of respects. On top of that, I am by no means an expert in Indian Islamic or Sikh thought, and so I would not be capable of facilitating those particular philosophical dialogues in my own works.

      Nonetheless, I still want to advocate for such dialogues, and express hope that they can take place. And in doing that, I can’t help but respond to some general inclinations to dismiss such dialogue out of hand.

      For one thing, it is just not the case that Dara Shikoh was only a translator; he wrote independent works and engaged in dialogue with meditators outside of his own tradition. Even his translations of the Upaniṣads, which included interspersed Vedāntic commentary and which he had much help with from Brāhmiṇical collaborators, also included a brief, and quite controversial, interpretive introduction by him. The general Mughal syncretism of which he was an inheritor also had a history which goes back at least to Akbar, and perhaps even in loose ways to some predecessors in the period of the Delhi Sultanates who intermittantly wanted to extend “People of the Book” status to other Indian traditions.

      Furthermore, classifying the Indian Islamic and Sikh traditions as “Abrahamic” and not “Indic” strikes me as an all-too-curt way of “othering” them, as if there were not great Indian devotional influences that issued back and forth between groups of Muslims, Sikhs and “Hindus” over the centuries, when there clearly were.

      Even focusing on earlier periods, there were some fundamental philosophical differences between Brāhmiṇical worldviews and Buddhist ones and Jaina ones and Lokāyata ones before the 13th century, and after it, and often these South Asian communities wrote their texts in different languages. But, even with those differences, there was also syncretism between those traditions too. Why should fundamental philosophical differences and syncretic movements in one period of South Asian history be unbridgeably demarcated from philosophical differences and movements of syncretism in another period of South Asian history?

      So, even when looking at older “Indic” traditions, I just reject the notion that these traditions constitute some fixed and loosely homogenous cultural “essence” that can be placed behind some kind of fixed, invisible border and declared in principle incommensurate with other traditions. We find out about differences and residences by communicating, not be declaring communication out-of-bounds from the start. And perhaps, through talking, the boundaries of what we at first thought were differences or residences may change.

      Finally, even if one still wanted to insist that there were some fundamental distinctions between Muslim, Sikh and “Indic” beliefs, why would that mere fact preclude philosophical dialogue any more than the supposed sharp distinctions between “Western” and “Indic” ideas preclude philosophical conversations between those traditions?

      All this is just to say that I hope that more broadly inclusive intercultural philosophical dialogue can take place. I see no convincing reason to consider Indian Islamic thought or Sikh thought either “non-Indian” or void of important philosophical perspectives, insights and arguments. But these views and aspirations are just mine, and I am by no means myself capable of deciding by myself whether such aspiration can be broadly realised.

      • // Why should fundamental philosophical differences and syncretic movements in one period of South Asian history be unbridgeably demarcated from philosophical differences and movements of syncretism in another period of South Asian history? //

        The answer lies in your question i.e. Difference in periods, contexts, methods & objectives etc.

        Secondly one does not have to label engagement between different traditions as syncretism, let it remain engagement. Engagement creates & leaves memories which define people’s identity claims so to only consider one set of memories while denying others is wrong too. I don’t deny that a large section of Hindu/Buddhist/Jain/Sikh & Tantra practices are from tribal & other animastic practices which preceded them but modernism created a chasm between Hindu/Buddhist/Jain/Sikh & Tribals because it demands people to identify as one of these identities & state grants rights accordingly.

        Furthermore i did not classified any traditions as Abrahamic or Indic but rather i presented a paper to highlight why textual discussion, classification etc. creates new chasms among social communities.

        I made no claims regarding Dara Sikoh but what i would like to have are clear periodic demarcations regarding Subcontinent’s history within academia so that such works can be placed in correct cultural & contextual setting.

        Also I have deep problem how ‘othering’ is discussed within academia. Othering is a genuine survival tribalistic instinct & so to only paint it always in negative terms is what i have problems with. Othering is a sign of acknowledgement of Difference, so why not see benefits of acknowledging differences which informs ways & methods of engagement Vs Othering as way of non-engaement ?

        // We find out about differences and residences by communicating, not be declaring communication out-of-bounds from the start. And perhaps, through talking, the boundaries of what we at first thought were differences or residences may change. //

        Nobody is declaring communication out of bounds but what i am claiming is clarity about period, setting, context & agency for people labelled Hindus.

        // All this is just to say that I hope that more broadly inclusive intercultural philosophical dialogue can take place. //

        Nobody is opposing intercultural dialogue but since Hindu is now an identity & so without giving Hindus agency in such dialogues these claims are nothing more than attempts to take agency away from them or at worst authoritarian imposition of academic institution on a living tradition.

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