Six reasons why the West, and a popular discourse driven by it, engages with Indian philosophy at a dangerously superficial level
In the preface to his monumental work L’Oubli de l’Inde (roughly translated as ‘The Oblivion of India’), the French philosopher Roger-Pol Droit recounts an anecdote that is telling of the state of research and study of Indian philosophy in our premier academic institutes. During his visits to the universities of Delhi, Mumbai and Varanasi to participate in various conferences, he was surprised to observe that most of the scholars in the philosophy departments were invested in research and teaching of the works of Quine, Russel, Wittgenstein, Hegel and Marx. What he found even more unusual was that almost all of the academicians that he met were ignorant of the Sanskrit corpus of Indian philosophical texts. At the end of one such conference, he was taken aback at the request of one professor who wanted him to write the names of the various Indic schools of thought for her.
While this may come as a surprise to some, any student of humanities at an Indian university would be familiar with the fact that teaching of Indian philosophy (even in dedicated graduate and post-graduate philosophy programmes) has been reduced to an odd module that involves the reading of basic introductions by Dr S Radhakrishnan, or at best, the study of extracts of outdated, approximative English translations of Sanskrit texts.
One need not even belong to the academic world to experience the gross discrimination meted out to the study of texts on Indian philosophy. The next time you walk into a bookstore in India, try and have a look at the ‘Philosophy’ section and compare it to the ‘Indian Philosophy’ section. While the former will have innumerable volumes, meticulously stacked from Aristotle to Heidegger, from Sartre to Foucault, the majority of the books in the latter section would have the word ‘Spiritual’ or ‘Meditation’ in their titles.
This is what the Indian philosophical tradition has been reduced to in the popular perception, a bazaar of spirituality and breathing exercises that provide quick-fix solutions to stress induced by the ‘hectic modern lifestyle’. Sprinkle in a sitar melody, throw in a long-bearded guru, add a couple of words like atman and dhyaan, and you have the whole picture. Rarely would one come across the immense treasure of argumentative Sanskrit texts pertaining to phenomenology, theogony, anthropology, existentialism and political science in the modern Indian cultural discourse.
Sadly, even in the age of internet, digitisation and extensive academic scholarship, accessing the entire Indian canon of philosophical texts in a systematically compiled and annotated anthologies remains a distant dream for any young Indian scholar who might want to take an interest in their philosophical heritage.
This epistemological vacuum cannot be comprehended without historical context. As surprising as it may seem, given the stark absence of references to Indian philosophical texts in the majority of European philosophical works of the twentieth century, there was a time when the Indic tradition of thought threatened to overshadow the entirety of Western history of ideas. There was abundant speculation among European philosophers and scholars of the early and mid-nineteenth century that an ‘Oriental Renaissance’ was inevitable.
Victor Cousin, the French philosopher (founder of ‘eclecticism’ school of philosophy) of the early nineteenth century, who is still considered to be a major influence on French education policy, declared during one of his famous lectures at the Sorbonne (compiled into a book in 1929 under the title of Leçons) that
“We must kneel before the Oriental philosophy and see it as the birth place of the highest expression of philosophy. Compared to the insignificant results to which the Occidental genius often limits itself to, India is a whole new philosophical world. All the philosophical systems conjoin here, we can say that history of Indian philosophy is a concentrated expression of the history of philosophy itself.”
He went on to dedicate the fifth and sixth lecture of Leçons entirely to the various systems of Indian philosophy.
A quarter of a century before the apparently imminent ‘Oriental Renaissance’ was mentioned in France, German thinkers in Heidelberg, Iéna, Bonn and Berlin were already projecting a romantic ideal of sorts through their interpretations of certain Indian philosophical texts. The aspect of starting afresh, without losing common Aryan origins and antiquity, was appealing indeed.
Herder was undoubtedly one of the first to share this peculiar perspective, and he declared the Indian texts to be representative of a sublime moral. His student, Frederic Schlegel, propagated this romantic idealism in a more direct and radical fashion. Declaring that India was the source of all languages, thoughts and history of the human spirit, Schlegel constructed an idea of India that was like an all-comprehensive, all-inclusive ‘mother’.
So how did, one may enquire at this point, this immense popularity of Indian philosophical tradition subside so briskly and end up in complete oblivion?
The answer to this question is multifaceted. Many academic, intellectual and political developments led to the premature demise of the renaissance of Indian philosophy.
First, European interest towards Indian philosophy in the nineteenth century was more of a romantic obsession than a scholarly discovery. A multitude of prevalent ideas about Indian philosophy in that epoch had originated from bits and pieces of roughly translated extracts from the Vedas and the Upanishads. Some of these romanticised myths about Indian philosophy were gradually debunked by scholars like Colebrooke, who, in 1824, discovered the ‘material’ aspects of Samkhya and thus started on a long process of disillusionment with the purely pious, spiritual and ‘most primitive’ status of Indian texts.
Secondly and similarly, the translation of the Vedas by Rosen in 1830 revealed the polytheism of Indian religious and philosophical systems, thus destroying the wrongly construed beliefs of an original, primary monotheism which could correspond and be linked to the theory of emanation.
Third, the notion of Sanskrit being the mother of all languages was dispelled by Bopp who, through his linguistic research, destroyed the myth of Sanskrit as the mother of all European languages, and managed to show that although they are certainly related, the tag of the ‘universal’ mother language was erroneous.
Fourth, other terms related to ‘primitivity’ and ‘pureness’ of Indian traditions and the ‘Aryan’ tribes began to acquire new and not always positive significations. ‘Aryan’, signifying ‘noble’ in Sanskrit, was a term employed many a time in Arthur de Gobineau’s racist 1853 text ‘An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races’. And we are all aware of how the term would be eventually employed in Nazi propaganda.
But the loss of a sense of ‘primitivity’ or the distinction to be the ‘first’ text could not be the only reasons for this disenchantment with Indian philosophy. At the time when Schlegel and his brethren had been delighting over the universality and primitivity of Indian thought, a very few Indian texts had actually been translated from Sanskrit to European languages. Hence, (and here is the fifth reason) placing Indian thought on such a high pedestal of perfect totality, perfect divinity, perfect spirituality did more harm than good to the reputation of Indian philosophy in Europe.
Sixth, one must not forget the role played by the rise of the Buddhist school of thought in the Western cultural sphere. A brief study of the Indian history of ideas would clearly reveal the important dialectics that runs through it. The Hindu and the Buddhist traditions, if to be understood in a philosophical context, must be viewed as the constituting entities of this dialectics and not as contrasting religious and social categories of ‘orthodox’ and ‘reformation’ (as was the case with the Catholic and Protestant doctrines).
It can be argued that Europe, accustomed to understanding foreign cultures only by appropriation, failed to comprehend this crucial Hindu-Buddhist dichotomy and accepted Buddhism as a ‘reformed’ Hindu tradition (purged of ‘social evils’ like the caste system), while failing to acknowledge the clearly distinctive philosophical stand-points of the two very different schools of thought and, in the process, terminated its engagement with Indian philosophy.
It is hardly surprising that the Orientalist tradition of Europe failed Indian philosophy. What is of greater importance and deserving of our attention is the fact that this oblivion of Indian philosophy has become a norm in India itself. This is where the debate acquires a predominantly social, political and ideological colour. It is an almost established fact that the Left has won the culture war in India. From the advent of Nehruvian socialism to the romanticising of the Naxalbari movement, and the more recent azadi campaign, leftist intellectuals of India have established a strong footing in premier academic institutions and the cultural sphere. This has resulted in a prolonged, unopposed demonisation of the Indian philosophical tradition.
Unfortunately, the arguments proposed by the left-liberal intelligentsia for the advancement of their political ideologies have been heavily anachronistic. A very common and simplistic example would be the burning of the ancient Hindu text of Manusmriti. The burning of this particular text by political and student organisations has become almost ritualistic in many educational institutes. While the intellectual discourse opposing the ideas of Manusmriti, namely the Ambedkarite canon, is widely taught, distributed and celebrated as the flag-bearer of progressive and intellectual discourse, the original texts which are constantly opposed therein are either burnt or forced to dwell in obscurity, without any possibility of an academic defence.
One may, for the sake of argument, accept the commonly offered explanation by the left that ancient Indian philosophical texts are not the subject of research and academic attention because of their inherently racist, casteist and sexist tones. But how do we then reconcile this logic with the fact that the same educational institutes prescribe to their students the texts of philosophers like Aristotle, who said that ‘a woman is nothing but a deformed male’, like Hegel, who said ‘women regulate their actions not by the demands of universality but by arbitrary inclinations’, and like Nietzsche, who declared that ‘when women turn to scholarship there is usually something wrong with their sexual apparatus’? The argument is, as quite evident, ridiculously anachronistic. By allowing this propagandist discrimination towards the study of Indian philosophical texts, we have forced the study of these texts to recede into religious and spiritual organisations, into the hands of priests and gurus, which has further diminished the credibility of the Indian philosophical tradition.
If there is any chance of its rescue from the dark pit of oblivion, from the extremist ideologues and from the merchandise stores of spiritual bazaars, the effort must come from within Indian academia, or else we must concede once and for all, to live with the disappointment of the aborted renaissance of Indian philosophy.