Part I of Bina Gupta’s An Introduction to Indian Philosophy is titled “The Foundations”, and it has chapters on the Vedas and the Upanishads. The main feeling I had when reading these chapters was that I was doing something illicit. The more I felt this, the more I understood why Indian philosophy is not taught more widely in American colleges.
Gupta in the book doesn’t address the elephant in the room: How can a philosophy which supposedly has its foundations in the Vedas and the Upanishads be taught in a public space in a secular society?
This leads to the feeling of illicitness, as if the proponent of Indian philosophy in academia is trying to sneak in something through the back door. This much we know: the Enlightenment values which are the basis of public discourse in America involve rendering religion and spirituality private. This we also know: this conception of the public domain has lead to deep quarrels about the role of religion in the public domain. Given this context, how can one read about the Vedas without feeling that a) the Enlightenment values are under attack, and b) the Christian theologians are getting the short end of the stick, since they are being asked, as theologians, to leave the public domain only to give minority “theologians” a voice?
One response is to say: the Vedas and the Upanishads are not at all like the Bible, and so neither (a) nor (b) is happening. Here is a typical instance from Gupta:
The Vedas are “apauruseya,” i.e., “not created by a human being”; they are eternal, authorless, without any beginning, which should not be taken to mean that the “srutis” were “revelations”, as many Indian and Western writers claim. Such a translation hides a deep prejudice deriving from the Judaic-Christian tradition, i.e., it attempts to understand the Vedic worldview with concepts appropriate to the Judaic-Christian tradition. The Vedas are not God’s word; at no time did God interrupt the course of history to reveal the Vedas. The sacred, even infallible, status of this literature is not due to its revealed character…, but rather to the fact that it is the source of the Hindu culture and civilization: everything begins there, including philosophy.
This is an important distinction, highlighting a significant difference between the Vedas and the Bible. Still, it feels like a cheat. If cars are prohibited in a town, and so people are not allowed to drive Buicks in town, it is no defense to driving a Honda that it is not a Buick.
Gupta implies that the Vedas are not a religious text at all, even though they are filled with talk of Gods and prayers to Gods. They are something else: they are the grounding text of “Hindu culture and civilization”. But here is the rub: in a secular context, such grounding is the essential feature of whether a text is seen to be analogous to religion. Given that America is not fundamentally a Hindu culture (and neither is India–that is a related but different story), in what way can a text which is fundamental to Hindu culture be discussed in the public domain?
It is amazing this question is not addressed in Gupta’s book. Neither is it addressed in most Indian philosophy books written for an American audience (including Indian-Americans like me).
A clue to why this is can be found in the Introduction. Gupta writes:
There are two kinds of position taken by my predecessors on the issue of how Indian philosophy is different from Western philosophy. One position, most prevalent in the generations of thinkers ending with Radhakrishnan as its high priest, may be articulated thus: in spite of superficial similarities, Indian and Western modes of thinking are fundamentally different, and this difference may be expressed in such binary oppositions as intellectual-intuition, discurvise/logical-spiritual, and theoretical-practical. This way of looking at the contrast is rejected by such philosophers as Matilal and Mohanty, who tend to see affinities between the Indian and Western modes of thinking, and argue that both traditions develop their own logic, epistemology, and metaphysics.
Neither Radhakrishnan nor Matilal deny Indian philosophy has both spiritual and intellectual dimensions. Their positions are defined by what they emphasize and what they are willing to put in the background.
The reason for their difference is obvious. Radhakrishnan was the Spalding Professor of Eastern Religion and Ethics at Oxford from 1936-52, and so at the time of the transition away from colonialism, when Indian self-confidence needed to see India as something different but equal to the West. Matilal held the same position at Oxford a generation later, from 1976-1991, at a time when Indians were trying to integrate into British and American societies without losing their Indian background. While Radhakrishnan was trying to “be true” to Indian philosophy within the British paradigm in India, Matilal was trying to “import” Indian philosophy into Western philosophy in Britain. This is a significant, and telling, difference.
Naturally, for Matilal and others like him, the way to make Indian philosophy accepted in the West was to have it fit into the Enlightenment model prevalent in the West. Hence the focus on Indian philosophy as analogous to Western, analytic philosophy. Unfortunately for this aim, there was a whole other way that Indian philosophy had immigrated to the West. This was starting with Vivekananda visiting Chicago in 1893, and of course the Indian swamis and spirituality during the 60s, and this approach emphasized the spiritual dimension.
Therefore in its transportation to the West, a rift developed in Indian philosophy which would have been unthinkable for a Buddha or a Shankara, or even lesser known greats such as Nagarjuna or Mandana Misra. This was a rift between the theoretical and spiritual dimensions of the subject. The lack of this rift is easiest to see in the case of the Buddha: he was both the founding figure of a philosophical tradition and was seen by many as an example of what a fully, flourishing human life looks like. This means that not only does one have to engage with the Buddha’s ideas, but such engagement happens in the context of living life as the Buddha did.
The whole point of the Enlightenment model of the public domain is to separate these two dimensions, so as to make philosophy separate from the idea of an objective sense of human flourishing. In the modern period this bifurcation happened with Christian philosophy, as well as with how Modern philosophers sought to appropriate ancient Greek philosophy. So no wonder that when philosophers like Matilal, and following him, Gupta, seek to make Indian philosophy a part of the West, they had to fit Indian philosophy into the narrow conception of philosophy which the West itself had already cultivated and embraced.
This is evident in the following fact: if you are looking for spiritual sustenance, Matilal or Mohanty’s books, nor Gupta’s book, might not be your best bet. They are far too academic for that. Not that they are not valuable. Nor that for some people academic philosophy might not itself be a mode of spiritual sustenance. But for the vast majority of people academic philosophers seem cut off from the old-fashioned sense of philosophers as paragons of human flourishing who provide examples of what flourishing looks like. Not surprisingly, since the Enlightenment philosophy thought that mode of philosophy had to be given up in order to create a secular society.
Hence the strangeness of reading in an academic philosophy text how central the Vedas and the Upanishads are to Indian philosophy. For those texts are all about public, objective modes of flourishing. Moreover, in the general American culture, after the 60s and now with people like Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle, these texts are the paradigm of what spirituality looks like shorn of any theoretical commitments. That is, a spirituality that is seen to fit into an Enlightenment secular model. In the current American society, the Vedas and the Upanishads are prototypical examples of new-Age, self-help literature.
Gupta often writes as if the very concepts of Indian philosophy – like karma or reincarnation or dharma – are foreign to the American reader, and that she has to provide a non-spiritual, philosophically pristine explanation of these concepts. In this, she seems to belong to an older generation. For in the current world, these originally Indian concepts have become a part of the cultural milieu, and as something essentially spiritual and non-academic.
Hence Gupta, like many academic authors on Indian philosophy, seems to be struggling on two fronts at once: against mainstream American academic philosophy in order to get Indian philosophy taken seriously as philosophy, and against the American cultural appropriation of Indian philosophy as something essentially spiritual, and so, it is assumed, not theoretically serious or contestable.
How can one make progress on both fronts at the same time? A fascinating and important question. At the very least it would have to involve openly stating the problem, and confronting head on the issue of how Indian philosophy, much like ancient Greek philosophy as articulated by a Hadot, can have a public voice in a secular society.