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How And Why Did Indian Philosophy Get

Reduced To Words Like Meditation And

Harsh Trivedi
- May 12, 2017, 7:27 pm
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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 LOubli de lInde (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outdated, approximative English translations of Sanskrit texts.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

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 Leons) 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 Leons 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, Ina, 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

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 Gobineaus 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

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.