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Indian Philosophy

February 25, 2012
Krishna and Arjun on the chariot, Mahabharata,...

Krishna and Arjuna

Even professional philosophers usually don’t know that Indian philosophy even exists. They may think that the Bhagavad Gita is an example of it, so they get the impression Indian philosophy isn’t all that rigorous or deep. (The Bhagavad Gita is not un-philosophical, but it’s really just an episode in the Mahabharata, an enormous literary epic.) Or they read some Chinese philosophy, get the same impression, and just write off all of Eastern philosophy. (Chinese philosophy is philosophy only in a loose sense.)

Real Indian philosophy looks like this:

If it be asked: how the rememberance of an existent object be said to have an object, and how its rememberance can be without it, it is replied that it is so because of having that form. And the form also is possible because of latent impression even without the sense-object relation.

If it be said: since the remembrance is observed even when the object is extinct, remembrance cannot be said to have an object; how can the remembrance of that object arise without it? Because of being of that form. If it be asked: How can it have that form without sense-object contact? Because of mere latent impression.

The object in the remembrance is only the form of knowledge and it is experienced by witness-intelligence, and not by empirical knowledge. Since the witness is not perceptible like empirical knowledge, there is no infinite regress, nor self-dependence.

I chose this passage at random (from Deutsch and van Buitenen’s Source Book of Advaita Vedanta; it’s Vimuktatman’s 12-century criticism of the Prabhakara theory of perceptual illusion), but it perfectly illustrates why nobody reads, or even knows about, Indian philosophy: it’s too damn hard. Unless you already know all the schools, and all the classic positions and terminology, and all the standard moves, it’s extremely hard to tell what’s happening. You’re not even supposed to read this stuff so much as to memorize it and then get oral instruction.

Nevertheless, any philosophy student will be able to tell that there’s some serious philosophical work happening here, and the fact that Western philosophers don’t know anything about this stuff is an embarrassment.

There’s a play by Bhatta Jayanta, a 9th-century philosopher, recently released in translation by the Clay Sanskrit Library as Much Ado About Religion, which features a series of debates between members of different philosophical schools. The book is a good way to get a glimpse into the culture and methods of Indian philosophy. (But it’s still hard to follow the arguments.)

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Indians are famously good memorizers. Part of the reason that so many Western philosophers know nothing about Indian philosphy may be that we’re unwilling or unable to attain the level of textual mastery you really need to engage with it.

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Thomas McEvilley’s Shape of Ancient Thought explores the historical relationship between Greek and Indian thought. Any philosopher with even a passing interest in the history of their field should take a look at it.

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Skarphedin has a new post up about the Greek influence on Indian astronomy.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Gunn permalink
    March 11, 2012 11:54 am

    As an aside, the Bhagavad Gita is not intended to be philosophical in nature; rather, it is a summary of the essential points of vedanta (i.e. the vedas and the upanishads) that provides practical guidance on how to realise godhead – with a focus on bhakti, salvation through personal devotion to God (e.g. worshipping say Krishna as a Hare Krishna). Its more like a ‘how to’ manual, and it doesn’t get into the why.

    Part of the reason why Indians can memorise the vedas et. al. is that Sanskrit was specifically designed with this objective in mind; it is a highly structured language with close to zero ambiguity in semantics; this allowed the vedas to be transmitted from teacher to pupil in oral form over centuries with perfect fidelity.

    • March 12, 2012 2:17 pm

      A lot of intellectual work is done in compressed stanzas as well, which aids memorization.

      I hadn’t realized that about sanskrit. Is what you’re describing is an effect of how sanskrit became a strictly technical and scholarly language?

      • Gunn permalink
        March 18, 2012 12:34 pm

        Tbh, I don’t think Sanskrit has ever been anything other than a technical and sacerdotal language. Even in India, only a very small percentage of the population speaks and understands sanskrit fluently today, and its doubtful the situation was much different in the past.

        I’m not an expert on sanskrit at all, but from what I’ve read, the early western scholars who were introduced to the language often considered its structure to be superior to latin or greek, which was high praise indeed considering that the classics were the foundation of western education at the time.

        I recall reading something about how Panini ( ) basically reformulated modern sanskrit deliberately to improve its technical framework (and because it hadn’t been codified before his time).

        However, its worth bearing in mind that even with a very conservative dating of the vedas (say 1500 BC) that would have still left a period of 1000 years where the only transmission was oral tradition. To preserve fidelity over that period of time requires that the language you use is fit for the task.

        Its also worth noting that many Indian sanskrit scholars consider the vedas to be considerably older than the 1500 BC dating, which makes the fact that they were passed from one generation to the next in hymn form only even more impressive.

  2. Gunn permalink
    March 18, 2012 12:39 pm

    No idea how reliable the above link is (as I’m not an expert in the language), but its fair to say that many Indians consider sanskrit to be technically very precise. The linked article above even makes the claim that its close to modern computer languages in terms of the precision of its syntax, however I’m not fully convinced about that statement to be honest.

    • March 19, 2012 11:51 am

      My assumption is that sanskrit must at some point have been a reasonably ordinary vernacular language which slowly morphed into a more technical language. I could easily believe that it went further in that process (and over a much longer period of time) than any other natural language.

      What you say about Panini makes sense, and it’s quite possible that to some extent he was codifying work that had been been done earlier—maybe even much earlier. That’s true of a lot of these founding texts.

      Some languages certainly do have more sophisticated vocabularies or conceptual schemes—Cicero creates a bunch of latin terms in order to discuss Greek philosophy, and he’s explicitly responding to a general feeling that Latin was, at the time, unfit for scholarly purposes. And languages definitely change in these respects. Medieval Latin tends to be simpler grammatically than ancient Latin, but also more technical.

  3. Gunn permalink
    March 21, 2012 5:30 am

    Whilst unprovable in the empirical sense, its quite possible that modern day languages are much less structured and rigid (and more malleable) than those used by our ancestors in pre-literate times. The argument would run something like this:

    Before writing, the only way to preserve history was through an oral tradition. Languages used for those purposes (i.e. passed on between the wise men of the tribe and the younger generation) by necessity would require features to assist rote memorisation. Such features would include unambiguous vocabulary, structured grammar, and possibly even grammatical superstructures (such as verse formats or music). Vernacular in this context would represent a divergence from the sacerdotal pure language, as people would not care so much about fidelity of transmission where precise meaning could be queried. However, the presence of a sacerdotal language, particularly in a tribal structure where specialisation of labour was not as fully developed as in modern, literate, civilisations, would act as a stabiliser for the evolution of vernacular speech.

    In other words, its logical that prehistoric languages were more ‘technical’ and more stable over time. The flexibility of modern languages and their propensity to evolve is a feature made possible only because we are able to offload preservation of fidelity to technology (whether its stone tablets, paper, or 0s and 1s on magnetic media).

    • March 24, 2012 2:59 pm

      That’s an interesting line of thought.

      On the other hand, mass reproduction means that language is preserved, and often standardized to some extent—think eg BBC English vs regional dialects.

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