Friends, as researchers and teachers of Indian thought, from time to time we’ve been called upon to put Indian philosophy on the map, so to speak, in a simple, accessible way, whether in classrooms, talks, or papers directed to non-specialist readers. It’s a fun exercise to try to think through what are to us the well-worn paths of Indian thought through the eyes of a newcomer, yet I’ve always found it mildly frustrating, as the communicator in me fears alienating my audience by talking over them, while the scholar fears offending the nuanced sensibility of my colleagues in the inevitable act of oversimplification.
In discussing the classical period, what I’ve tended to use is something like the following (I’ve basically adapted this this from things I’ve written):
For our purposes, “classical Indian philosophy” refers to the philosophical developments in and around India from roughly 100 to 1800 CE. This period is bracketed on one side by the earlier proto-philosophical period centered on the late Vedic culture and its discontents (in the form of the Buddhist and Jaina revolts and the other śramaṇa movements of first millennium BCE), and on the other side, the modern period, characterized by a self-conscious attempt to reconsider and rearticulate Indian tradition in response to Western culture and science, and the problems of modernity more generally. Classical philosophers inherit questions and a wide-range of precursor views from the proto-philosophical period, including reflections on the way in which human action tends to entangle us in a complicated sequence of consequence and conditioning, responses to the problem of suffering,which include meditative praxis and liberating gnosis, and a general sensitivity to the relation between cognition and reality. Responses to these sorts of questions become distinctly “philosophical” in the classical period as our thinkers become explicitly concerned with both system-building and defending their holdings through dialectical engagement with rivals. Features which distinguish classical Indian philosophy include the common (though not exclusive) use of Sanskrit as the philosophical lingua franca; the consolidation of various schools of systematic thought (typically called darśanas, “viewpoints”) with burgeoning commentarial traditions upon the ur-texts of each school; and a concern with the rational justification of one’s beliefs or the holdings of one’s school, which in turn hinges on examinations of legitimate sources of knowledge (pramāṇas).
As you can see, I have tried a historically-oriented approach rather than a purely topical or conceptual introduction. I also know that we can problematize the classical period, and as Ganeri has recently argued, insert a distinctive “early modern” period (Phillips has simply called this the “late classical period”, but that’s another discussion). There are also those thinkers who are modern in chronology, yet still deeply classical in their sensibility. But, in any case, you must carve out the main contours before you can file away at the nuances, and this is my small attempt.
So what would you add? What would you change? Even better, what’s your introductory paragraph? The guidelines are (i) assume that the audience consists in “intelligent/educated non-specialists” and (ii) you get one paragraph.