The Vedas and the Upanishads

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.

4 thoughts on “The Vedas and the Upanishads

  1. Alex Scott

    Richard King, in a book entitled Indian Philosophy: An Introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press, 1999), also has some interesting things to say about the issues you’re discussing. King says,
    “The idea that Indian philosophy is too ‘religious’ or theological to be considered ‘properly philosophical’ is misleading for a number of reasons. Firstly, such a view involves the projection of Western notions of ‘religion’ onto Indian culture and is often accompanied by a residue of anti-clerical feeling that ultimately derives from the secular displacement of the Church during the Enlightenment period. In Western culture, religion is usually associated with theistic belief, but many schools of thought of ‘Indian philosophy’ are explicitly non-theistic (Carvaka, Mimamsa, Samkhya, Buddhism) and the relationship of the other schools to theistic belief is a matter of some debate. Indeed, …there is much that is discussed in Indian philosophical texts that is not specifically ‘religious’ in nature. Furthermore, why would adherence to a religious tradition make one any less philosophical or open-minded then adherence to a secular or humanistic world view? The idea then that ancient Indian thought is essentially theological in nature is somewhat misleading.”
    King also explains that Indian philosophy is concerned with many of the same questions that Western philosophy is concerned with, such as: What really exists? How do we know what we know? Do we see things as they really are? What is the relation between the mind (or consciousness) and the body? Are external objects real? Does the self really exist?
    Thus, there isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) any conflict between reading texts such as the Vedas and Upanishads as practically guiding and spiritually enlightening texts and reading them as important and profound works of philosophy.


    1. Bharath Vallabha Post author

      Certainly l agree with what King writes. But it is also a good example of the kind of hand waving which is not enough. In the quote he first contests that Indian philosophy is religious, and then he says that it’s not a problem even if it is religious. This sentiment, though it is meant well, seems to me disconnected from our daily lives. Given the wars going on, how can religions be as opened minded as secularism? How can religions and secularism coexist? It is not enough to assert this. It has to be elaborated on and justified, and for that it is not enough to put Western and Indian philosophy on the same page.

      The problem traces to the fact that Gupta and King, like other scholars, are writing with the tone of experts, as if the uninitiated have to just listen to them about what is and what is Indian philosophy, and whether it is compatible with secularism. It reads to me as if they are reassuring the reader of the compatibility rather than dealing openly with the worries about the compatibility.

      In this they face a similar problem to academics who focus on Western philosophy. The Enlightenment structures of our current society have rendered philosophy itself out of the public domain. Any philosophical view in the public domain robust enough to contest religion is seen as being similar in form to religion, and so seen as illicit. In trying to make religion private, philosophy itself has been made mainly private. This is why it is losing funding.

      Where in this dynamic can Indian philosophy fit? If it is nonreligious, it faces the same troubles currently afflicting Western departments. If it is religious, it faces the same troubles as any religious discourse in the public domain. This is the first thing philosophers of Indian thought, whether they are Indian or not, need to confront. So far I haven’t seen them confronting it. This problem is overlooked as long as the narrative is that not being open to Indian philosophy is implicit racism. Beyond the racism, there is explicit confusion about what it means to bring traditions together. That has to be addressed. It is not that Gupta or King, anymore than a scholar of Kant, has to first settle all that before writing about their interests. But it is the shared problem of all philosophers now, no matter what their particular area of expertise.


  2. Dylan


    Thank you for this thought provoking post. Reading it led me to reflect that for a long time I have been struggling (not until recently with much self-awareness) to identify the core ideas from my Buddhist upbringing, study, and practice that stand the best chance of having a place in the conversations of mainstream academic philosophy. Although I feel that a part of my experience with Buddhism is too personal and idiosyncratic to helpfully enter into those conversations, I also know that my practice has guided me in asking and answering many of the same questions often under dispute in my department. (In fact I have sometimes found myself completely uninvested in a particular branch of academic philosophy—for example, much of normative ethics—because I feel that my lived experience informed by practice embodies answers to the relevant questions that I feel convinced are good ones but just don’t have the conceptual resources or intellectual wherewithal to satisfactorily articulate in the analytic idiom.) I have often felt that if I could only find a way to abstract out these answers from the rest of my spiritual experience, I could be defending philosophical ideas that I genuinely believed were true, not just ideas that had cool applications or a certain intellectual aesthetic appeal.

    If I ask myself right now, what are the most philosophically contentious and distinctive commitments of Buddhism as I understand and practice it, two answers come to mind.

    The first is, I think, an answer that the Buddhist tradition endorses alongside many other Indian traditions: the possibility of a kind of knowing or understanding that can be systematically pursued, but not via adherence to anything like the norms of rationality whose discovery is the aim of projects in epistemology and normative ethics (especially the formal branches of these sub-disciplines). The methodology for achieving such insight in the Buddhist tradition essentially involves meditative practice. Not only is there is no framework for the epistemology of meditative practice in the Western tradition; the very possibility of cognitive or epistemic achievement through the utilization of such methods is itself a contentious and interesting philosophical issue. And this question, it seems to me, can be debated in abstraction from the more `theological’ commitments of Buddhism like reincarnation.

    The second answer that comes to mind is a definite position on what human flourishing fundamentally consists in. According to that answer, flourishing is a matter of liberating oneself from habitual psychological tendencies by cultivating certain kinds of familiarity with and control over mental processes such as the direction of attention. How is this familiarity and control possible and what does it consist in? How does it contribute to human flourishing, and what exactly does the resulting conception of flourishing look like? These seem like philosophically respectable questions whose pursuit doesn’t need to presuppose anything theological.

    As I write I am realizing that much of the discussion of meditative insight and flourishing within traditional Buddhist texts perhaps does not fall under the heading of philosophy as the Buddhist traditions themselves use that term. Distinctive views surrounding these issues are perhaps instead most frequently discernible as tacit presuppositions of instructional manuals for meditation and expository spiritual texts. And conversely, much self-consciously philosophical inquiry perhaps presupposes commitments that contemporary western philosophers would regard as theological. I do think it would be problematic for a Western philosophical engagement with Buddhism simply to look past what the Buddhist tradition itself considers philosophical. But it may be that the positions of greatest relevance to contemporary western philosophical discussions are found elsewhere.


  3. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    Dylan, There is much I agree with in your comment. The epistemology and ethics of meditative practice is a great way to link Buddhist philosophy with Western philosophy. It is a good example of how a framework can first be set up for such a link without just starting with philosophical theses about self, causation, and so on.

    I think the issue of theology tends to confuse more than it clarifies. The most pressing question isn’t how can one do philosophy with a framework that assumes reincarnation, etc. Rather, it is: in a secular society, how does one talk publicly about cultivating a flourishing life, and the kind of objectivity that implies across cultures? This applies as much to engaging publicly with the practices of a Sextus Empiricus or a Marcus Aurelius, as it does with engaging publicly with the practices of an Aquinas or a Buddha.

    Often when the question “How can Eastern and Western philosophy be integrated?” is posed, it is treated as if Western philosophy is monolithic, in that it is scientist or rational or free of practices of mindful living. I don’t think this is true. Since the Enlightenment, Western philosophy has been divided about itself: one side saying that philosophy has to be free of any practices (other than explicit reasoning) of cultivating excellence or flourishing in order for it to be neutral, and the other side saying that there in no such neutrality to be found, and that flourishing essentially involves practices that involve more than explicit reasoning. Existentialism, as in Kierkegaard or Sartre, is a strained middle view, which says that flourishing requires more than explicit reasoning, but then renders that more into an arbitrary freedom of choice.

    This connects to normative ethics. As a field right now, the aim there is to figure out what is right conduct without invoking practices of developing modes of habit. As if the issue is that there are some abstract principles (deontology, utilitarianism, etc.) from which have to be derived particular conclusions about actions; and so the conversation is just about what the principles are, and what conclusions about particular actions follow. What this overlooks is the possibility that there is a mediating link between principles and right action in a given instance: namely, the cultivation of character or good habits. What is more: that such cultivation of character is an essentially social phenomenon of like minded people integrating discursive and non-discursive practices to create a deep, shared, practical background of trust and community such that only within that background does it become possible to cultivate the ability to do, without much reflection in the moment, the right thing in the right moment. On this view the connecting link between theory and practice is community.

    This is thrown into question in a secular society. What does a community in this sense look like in a secular society? What we have are philosophical traditions, Western and non-Western, which have developed various senses of community. But how can they come together into a more integrated community? If community is rendered private, it cannot play the mediating role between public principles and public actions. For that there has to be a public community. I think philosophy is not just about debating ideas, nor even of an individual flourishing on one’s own. It is about contributing to creating and sustaining a public sense of community. If the importance of community in this sense is lost sight of, as it is in much of contemporary philosophy, then this task of philosophy is lost sight of as well.



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