I wish to thank the board of the Indian Philosophy Blog for the invitation to write postings this month. In this first posting I introduce my background and current project. I conclude this posting with questions about your research.
I initially encountered Indian philosophy in High School, as a junior I believe, when my English teacher, Mr. Potts, required Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854 AD). This led not only to many trips to Walden Pond in Massachusetts where Thoreau wrote and experimented in life, but also to an exploration of the books he so diligently and curiously studied by Greeks, Chinese, and Indians. Throughout High School I would go with my friend Chet to Borders Books in Framingham to read translations of the Taoteching, the Bhagavadgīta, the Republic, The Way of the Pilgrim, and others.
As an undergraduate I knew I wanted to complete a BA in Philosophy, which I did at the University of California in Santa Barbara. At that time it was strong in contemporary analytic philosophy. It was, however, in the Department of Religious Studies at UCSB that I first received a general education in Indian philosophy, like the Mūlamadhyakakārikā of Nāgārjuna, the Tantrasāra of Abhinavagupta, the Brahmasūtrabhāṣya of Śaṅkara, the Sāṃkhyakārikā of Īśvarakṛṣṇa, as well as the writings of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas like Rūpa and Jīva. I took general classes on Buddhism and was then introduced to the Dalai Lama’s work on consciousness in science and religion, which I found fascinating.
At UCSB I also met John H. Brooke from Oxford University when he visited to give a lecture and then I wanted to study Darwin and the larger philosophical issues that he raised. Thus, I went to Oxford to get an MA in Science and Religion and then a DPhil or PhD in Religious Studies and Theology. Therein I worked with Professors Brooke and Francis Clooney. At that time I got to see the larger issues in philosophy and science in the context of theology, and I began to study Indology and Hinduism with scholars in Oriental Studies and the Centre for Hindu Studies.
My first book, Hindu Theology and Biology: The Bhāgavata Purāṇa and Contemporary Theory (2012) was an attempt to think in philosophical and in philological ways about particular problems that arise when a religious tradition encounters and new school of thought. I had immersed myself in nineteenth and in early twentieth century Christian theological, philosophical, and scientific responses to emerging sciences like geology and biology. And I had immersed myself in a general study of the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas, and the Indian philosophy and grammar that was available. I focused on three areas: consciousness, or a comparison between the Sāṃkhya-yoga dualism of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, and contemporary theories of consciousness in science and philosophy; testimony, or the way authoritative language functions in scientific and Hindu discourses; and teleology, or the way scholars frame the goal of their work. This book is now going into a 2nd edition with OUP India.
As I was attempting to reconstruct the Bhāgavata Purāṇa for my first book I became aware at the larger commentarial traditions on the text. As I delved into them, largely due to the massive editorial project of Krishna Shankara Shastri starting in 1965, I became aware of how commentaries on the Bhāgavata Purāṇa had been a place in which philosophers and theologians had articulated their views on a wide range of intellectual topics since the 13th century.
Much of my teaching and research over the past eight years has focused on the intersection of philosophy and sacred text commentary. I am particularly interested in commentaries on the Bhāgavatapurāṇa starting in the early 15th century, but I often look at their arguments within a much larger swath of authors and texts. My focus is on the way arguments for bhakti led to an articulation of a theory of language, an epistemology, an ontology and aesthetics, and an ethics, and this was accomplished by the examination of authoritative texts that they interpreted with a host of commentarial predecessors. I am interested broadly in the way that authoritative text in the European traditions of Christianity and Judaism functions in similar and in different ways for the construction of tradition. I plan to look at important scholars within the Jesuit and Anglican traditions during the Reformation beginning around 500 years ago. The comparative aspect of this project is far less developed at this time.
I will conclude this first posting with a thesis and a question. To my knowledge most Indian philosophers and theologians proceed, to one degree or another, by articulating their views in and through commentary on older and authoritative texts. Do you find this to be true in your areas? If so, do you think this significantly impacts and distinguishes the way Indians think and resolve intellectual problems?
My thanks again to the IPB, and especially Professor Elisa Freschi, for this opportunity.