For past couple of decades, the idea of liberal arts in higher education in India is going through a process of churning. As a part of this a number of educational platforms, both public and private, have come to the forefront. One could not imagine exclusive world class universities only catering to liberal arts some twenty years back in India. But they are a reality now. One such experiment was made by the well-known philosopher and public intellectual Sundar Sarukkai at Manipal in 2010 where I teach now. His idea was to create a committed space for the study of philosophy, both eastern and western. Unfortunately, that did not happen. Sarrukai decided to leave the institution in 2016 and recently philosophy was also removed from the curriculum. The question is not about philosophy or not-philosophy. ‘Philosophy will survive far better outside these institutions’, as Sundar Sarukkai would put it. The question is why are institutions afraid of serious engagement with philosophy? Of course, the question could also be why are institutions vary of engaging with serious philosophy. Who are they afraid of? This question holds importance for me because I think our commitment, as academics, towards our disciplines should be over and above the allegiance we share towards an institution or an authoritative individual.
Philosophy is the backbone discipline for all other disciplines. All disciplines work under the rubrics of a philosophy. Thus, we have philosophy of history, philosophy of economics or philosophy of sociology etc. and when Philosophy itself is discussed as a discipline, we talk about the meta-philosophical investigations, in other words—how is the philosophy of philosophy done. I think a subject like philosophy is particularly seen as intimidating by institutions because it teaches us the art of questioning with rigour. Philosophical robustness, for instance, also teaches us how to question hegemony—that is traditionally so deeply ingrained in the ‘philosophy’ of educational institutions in India. A democratic institution is an organized idea in a structured form. Institutions should not be afraid of ideas, rather they should learn how to engage with ideas and also create opportunities for others for discussing ideas from different points of view.
Institutions need vision. And this vision is not cultivated overnight. A number of struggling minds over a longer period of time with the help of all like-minded supporters gradually develop into a vision that eventually takes the shape of an ideal institution. These institutions need to develop their own vision over a period of time without which they would be running a mindless mind. I recently took closer cognizance of this when I was invited for a lecture in Shimoga, a city in the central part of the Karnataka State. I was to speak on the ‘theories of knowledge in Indian philosophical traditions’ and I had to share the stage with none other than Ganesh Devy, the famous linguist who spoke about why and how certain languages become hegemonic over a period of time. The gathering, even though meant for local college students was also attended by some eminent Kannada writers and thinkers. By noon everyone knew I belonged to a place that Sarrukai had created. To my surprise during the lunch hour many scholars started asking me in a mild accusatory tone why was ‘philosophy’ shut in my center to which unfortunately I had no answer for I myself was clueless. Their concern, I felt, was genuine for the center was primarily established as a philosophy center.
What followed was more interesting. It was only after some time that a veteran local academic came to me and said: “there are no good institutions in Karnataka for doing good philosophy and philosophy program in Manipal did not come overnight. A lot of collective and constructive effort had gone into it over the years and it took people like U.R. Ananthamurthy and Sundar Sarrukai to work it out with the help of Manipal authorities. And you people got away with it in a few days.” Even though I remained silent with my head down in subtle sense of shame, I did begin to think what really solid places are there in India where one can do good philosophy. I kept thinking with no answers coming my way. Of course, I am talking about an institution and not individual scholars who, no doubt, one can find in great numbers.
Ganesh Devy kept talking about how because of the hegemonic status that many Indian languages enjoyed over a longer period of time, so many other (particularly the languages labelled as tribal) languages died a silent death. And I kept thinking about how disciplines like philosophy succumb to the petty power dynamics of institutions. Ironically, one clear example is that of the state of affairs of classical Indian philosophy in Indian universities. Or to go a step ahead and ask the question why is it that every discourse or any text book on ‘Indian philosophy’ ends up in Sanskrit sources alone as if there were no ‘patters of thinking’ being discussed in other South Asian languages. Even within the domains of each one of these linguistic cultures, there has been heterogeneity of thought, subject-matter and approach. It is not that the Sanskrit sources ‘are’ hegemonic, but we have supplied this hegemony to them very generously. And we have also done this rather by neglecting the non-Sanskrit sources for too long. After all, philosophy in South Asia, as Jonardon Ganeri would maintain, was also “written in many languages including Pali, Prakrit, Sanskrit, Malayalam, Urdu, Gujarati, Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, Marathi, Persian, Kannada, Punjabi, Hindi, Tibetan, Arabic, and Assamese. From the time of the British colonial occupation, it has also been written in English” (Jonardon Ganeri. (2017) The Oxford Handbook of Indian Philosophy, p. 1 (Introduction)). In fact, the Sanskrit sources themselves are hardly explored properly and many a times terribly misinterpreted in the popular discourse. This should call for more serious engagement with a subject like philosophy in Indian universities where emphasis should be laid on the robustness of curriculums rather than getting away with philosophy courses.
What the newly formed liberal arts institutions in the country should understand is how to learn to be self-critical. Many such private institutions are founded on such slippery grounds where disciplines are compromised at many levels because of the academic autonomy they are offered, yet others are making best use of such autonomy. Many others simply play with the category of interdisciplinarity in such a trivial manner that students are kept totally aloof from being trained in a certain one discipline rigorously. To add more to this, unfortunately, academics in many Indian institutions seem to be coming under the sway of ‘radical states of mind’ rather than ‘self-critical states of mind’. On the one hand where certain Indian academics are boasting (and rightly so) of bringing revolutionary changes to Indian academic system even if so far only at a minuscule level, yet on another hand what public institutions are facing at the hands of the Power they are tied up with, is something deeply to ponder over. And to ponder about this seriously and to think why philosophy courses are either being killed or not dealt with meaningfully in Indian academic institutions, we need a systematic way of critical thinking—Philosophy.