Dear Indian Philosophy Blog readers,
The board of the Indian Philosophy Blog has asked me to contribute three or four posts within the span of a month here, in order to enhance discussions on the site. I will therefore begin with a post on my introduction to and journeys in the Indian philosophical tradition. I will follow up with a post on what I have learned and appreciate most from my explorations of Indian thought. My third post will then offer some of my ideas regarding challenges to this field in the modern academic environment and some of my ideas for meeting them.
I was born in a part of the United States which I always joke in “get-to-know-you” conversations as not exactly the likeliest place from which a fan of ancient India might hail. That was southwest North Dakota. No, not the state with Mt. Rushmore, the other Dakota. Anyway, my first encounters with ancient Indian religious and philosophical traditions occurred during the spring term of 1990, in a sophomore English literature class on mythology in which the instructor showed us the video series of Joseph Campbell’s interviews with Bill Moyers. I began reading what scant resources I could find in my tiny hometown university and public libraries. About a year later, in the midst of taking what few philosophy electives there were in my hometown, all of which were unsurprisingly focused on the West, I happened to read through the major works of Arthur Schopenhauer. I discovered what his own philosophical investments were in the early Brāhmiṇical and Buddhist traditions. I eventually decided to change college majors, first from computer science to history and literature, and then to philosophy and religion. For the latter double-major, I had to transfer to the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. There were no classes as such on Indian thought there, but I continued my own research nonetheless, with somewhat more plentiful library resources. I finished my undergraduate majors in May of 1993, and moved to the Religious Studies Department at Temple University in Philadelphia for my graduate work. Back then, there were only two places in the United States where one could study Asian thought in Philosophy departments at the graduate level, and due to financial shortfalls and failure of admission on my part, I had to opt to pursue philosophical work on Asia in a Religion program. As it happily turned out, Temple University was an outstanding place to do this.
As is clear to probably all the blog’s readers now but was hardly obvious to me at the time, my greatest obstacles to discovering the abundant treasures and diversity of the Indian tradition were the ways in which Indian thought, then and now, is often popularly presented in the West. Whether under the guise of Campbell’s mythological musings, Eliade’s comparative labyrinths or Schopenhauer’s projections, English language-only readers (well, ok, at this point I had German too) generally find themselves introduced to Indian thought either directly through scholarly works and translations that were produced by classical Western Orientalists or through works that were heavily influenced by them. Finding one’s way through the web of interpretive and political problems and complexities of the Orientalist frames of reference, and the influence of these same problems on the thinkers of the Bengali Renaissance and its intellectual and religious inheritors, was not easy. I could not honestly claim to be free of all of these legacies even today. But Temple University and the Philadelphia academic environment were incredible locales for ameliorating these challenges. Bibhuti Singh Yadav of Temple’s Religious Studies Department at once insisted that I dive into the details of the debates between the Buddhist schools of Madhyamaka, Vijńānavāda and the Brāhmiṇical lineages of Nyāya, Vedānta and Mimamsā as well as tackle the fraught relationship between Western Orientalist and modern neo-Vedāntic thinkers. He also challenged his students to immerse themselves in the modern critical and Buddhist writings of B.R. Ambedkar. Though he sadly passed away at the all-too-early age of 56, and only two and a half months before my dissertation defence, this brilliant, animated and generous teacher continues to inform my work. In the Philosophy program at Temple, one floor above the Religious Studies department, I had the absolute privilege of taking the classes of J.N. Mohanty for six years, as he masterfully discoursed on the debates between Nyāya, Buddhist and Vedāntic philosophers. Work outside of Temple, with Wilhelm Halbfass at the University of Pennsylvania and the scholar who patiently and skilfully tutored me in Sanskrit there also inspired and enabled me. I needed up doing a dissertation on the hermeneutic completes of Schopenhauer’s encounter with early Indian thought through the Orientalist literature he was familiar with, which turned into a first book. But the magnificent history of Nyāya-Buddhist debates on the nature of the world, knowledge and ethics became the lasting center of my scholarly work in the Indian tradition.
I moved though several different programs at Temple University, a small college in suburban Chicago and then started my eleven-year stint at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, In these places, I found that, while specialised expertise in Indian traditions was of course wanted and valued in the American academic environment, that value was persistently joined to the expectation that Indian thought would always be presented in a “comparative” light, so that it could remain accessible to students of Western thought. So, in the early years of my teaching and scholarly career, from 2000-2007, while I did write pieces that focused quite exclusively on traditional Indian philosophical debates, I also wrote essays about the hermeneutic reception of Indian thought by Western thinkers as well as comparative pieces in the “classical” style. For the latter, I began to become interested in possible areas of dialogue between classical Nyāya notions of mind and its relationship to bodily experience and the variety of views articulated in modern Western philosophy of mind. However, this fascination of mine was somewhat short-lived. In what I would describe as the next definitively transforming moment of my career, a paper I presented on Nyāya and emergentism at a conference in the fall of 2007 was roundly criticised by two senior scholars in the field, for whom I have enormous respect. Beyond the details of the comparative analysis I was offering, they lamented that the approach I was adopting had been tried by scholars for thirty to forty years without having made many inroads into Western philosophical interest. Though I was initially shaken by and somewhat indignant of this criticism, further calm reflection on it convinced me that, even with all my good training, I had not yet escaped the tentacles of Orientalist influence. I decided from that point on to, as much as I could, present ancient Indian ideas and debates in the categories and frameworks of those traditions themselves, rather than try to meld them into modern Western philosophical vocabulary. The philosophical riches, contributions and insights of a tradition, I thought, could only be gauged when first understood in their own terms.
Of course, the comparative bug has not left me entirely, but has instead taken on a different form. Though I had certainly attended ample courses in East Asian philosophical traditions at Temple University and taught a number of courses on Chinese philosophy in my early career, early Chinese philosophy and medieval Chinese Buddhist thought gripped me powerfully from 2003-2004. A whole new and exciting context for understanding personhood, bodily existence, social relatedness and the natural world was opened to me through these two years. I took it upon myself to learn how to read Classical Chinese, as I already had some familiarity with modern Chinese, and launched into a period of teaching advanced undergraduate and graduate courses and advising dissertations in the areas of Confucian, Mohist, Daoist and Chan Buddhist thought, and began to write my own essays in the field. As I became involved with the Board of the Society of Asian and Comparative Philosophy from 2009-2013, and served as its president from 2014-16, I became dedicated to the proposition that doing genuine comparative philosophy in the contemporary context requires that we not persist in considering the West as the center of philosophical gravity and compare other thinkers and traditions one-by-one with figureheads from the Western canon. Instead, philosophical traditions of the globe should be put into conversation with one another, creating a multi-polar and immeasurably enriched conversation. Within the SACP, I tried to accomplish this by re-arranging panel structures, making them, as often as I could, thematic discussions between scholarly representatives of different traditions. In my own work, I began to re-explore issues that continued to puzzle me about the transmission of Buddhism from South Asia to China, which found expression in my second independent monograph, Encounters of Mind.
In my next blog post, I will write in more detail about that philosophical developments I have made through my explorations in classical Indian thought. In the most significant of these transformations, my original quest for philosophical perspectives of unity and oneness in certain strands of Brāhmiṇical philosophy and certain interpretations of Buddhist thought has given way to a profound appreciation for classical arguments in both of these traditions for definitively existing plurality, heterogeneity and causal connectedness. But this brief retrospective at the three decades during which I have been drawn to and endlessly fascinated by Indian thought has put me in mind of a refrain that students in this tradition recite in honour of all those who have guided them. That is a refrain that I can say with complete honesty. In the work I have done in Indian thought so far, all of the virtues that can be found therein have come from my teachers, and all the mistakes are mine. I have been unusually blessed to have lived in a time when so much can be learned from Indian philosophy at the behest of so many gifted preceptors.