In a previous post, Indian Philosophers in One Paragraph, we discussed who should be included in a list of India’s all time great philosophers. People like Śaṅkara and Rāmānuja were included. Here I wanted to raise an issue that has bothered me since the very first time I read Śaṅkara in a second year undergraduate Sanskrit course at the University of California in Santa Barbara, and about which I wrote an article for the Journal of the American Academy of Religion.
I think Indologists, philosophers and theologians who examine Indian texts, and religious studies scholars could more carefully distinguish philosophy from theology, even if the two are not mutually exclusive and have considerable overlap. This is especially true in a “Hindu” context (I acknowledge the difficulty of that word). The differences between philosophy and theology are generally well known and respected in the larger worlds of Christian theology and Western philosophy, yet such distinctions are less frequently known and respected among those who work on Indian texts.
In brief, philosophy uses anumāna and tarka in the course of argumentation, whereas theology engages and interprets śabda-pramāṇa (conceived of as a revealed source of knowledge) in the course of argumentation.
Philosophers like Udayana, Gaṅgeśa or the early Yogasūtra commentator Vyāsa, use anumāna and tarka as the primary methods for establishing their point. Śabda, conceived as an unauthored or a divinely authored śāstra, is quoted only after a position was argued for by means of anumāna or tarka, if at all. Scripture may motivate their reasoning, but it does not form the basis of their reasoning. On the other hand theologians like Śaṅkara, Rāmānuja, Kumārilabhaṭṭa, etc. see their roles as interpreting a revealed śāstra. Anumāna and tarka serve the purpose of illuminating a fault-free śāstra’s meaning, and using śabda to establish an interpretation of śabda is considered reasonable.
Whereas philosophy proceeds rationally, theology does so exegetically. In the West too (for at least 500 years), the word philosopher refers to people who use reason to think about epistemology, metaphysics, etc. and not to people who see their primary roles as that of a scriptural exegete. The words theology and theologian were reserved for that. These two very different approaches to the use of reason are often conflated by scholars work on Indian texts, and at great cost.
A disregard for the difference can mislead. While pursing a BA in (Western) Philosophy I took Sanskrit as well. Śaṅkara had been discussed as one of the most important Hindu philosophers. I felt like I had a pretty good idea of what philosophers did, having taken specialized courses on Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant and Quine. When I started reading Śaṅkara, however, it clearly was not philosophy and he was clearly not a philosopher. If Śaṅkara was a philosopher, he was unlike every philosopher I had studied. The text we read was, I believe, from his Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad Bhāṣya. Śaṅkara was trying to illuminate the meaning of the root text in light of his Advaitavāda. None of the philosophers I read spent any time carefully interpreting Biblical texts. It wasn’t until later when I read that Śaṅkara was a theologian – a scholar who accepts apauruṣeya-śabda as pramāṇa – that his project began to make sense.
If we don’t adequately distinguish the philosophers from the theologians we run the risk of confusing newcomers to the subject who already know about Western intellectual history.