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 Upaniṣads. 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.