Indian philosophy has had a double life in America – a split identity which sheds much light on current state of philosophy overall.
The first wave of Indian philosophy in America was in the mid 1800s with the Transcendentalists such as Emerson and Thoreau who saw in The Bhagavad-Gita an affirmation of the mystical oneness in nature. Vivekananda’s visit to America in 1893 reaffirmed this vision of the Indian philosophy – which Vivekananda identified with Hindu philosophy, which he further identified with a version of Advaita philosophy. The foundations were laid for Indian philosophy being seen as essentially a spiritual, mystical view of oneness.
Of course, this view exploded in American culture in the 1960s, with many hippies seemingly abandoning not only their family’s Christianity but also, as they saw it, their society and education’s rationalist, imperialistic, false-universal, scientistic secularism. With the rise of gurus and swamis, transcendental meditation and the Hare Krishna movement, Indian philosophy became cool – the glorified, deified Other to hippi American youth’s disenchantment with Western culture.
This spiritual vision of Indian philosophy has so seeped into American culture that yoga, karma, meditation and reincarnation are common words that most people understand, however vaguely and incorrectly.
The academic version of this spiritual vision of Indian Philosphy was evident in thinkers such as Radhakrishnan, who presents Indian philosophy as essentially the spiritual yin to Western philosophy’s rationalist yang.
Anglo-American-Indian academic philosophers post 1960s, like Bimal Matilal and J.N. Mohanty, were explicitly reacting against this over spiritualized conception of Indian philosophy. And highlighted just how much of Indian philosophy included (a) great deal of rational argument, and (b) a great many different religious and even atheistic and materialistic traditions. Against the current of a 100 years of essentializing Indian philosophy as spiritualistic, Matilal and Mohanty wanted to set the record straight and reflect the genuine rationalism, secularism and diversity within Indian philosophy.
Now, as there is a push to make American academic philosophy more pluralistic, the push is to bring the Matilal and Mohanty conception of Indian philosophy into the curriculum. The idea being: “Look, it turns out Indian philosophy is as rationalistic as Western philosophy! In fact, they addressed the same questions in even the same, universal rationalistic way.”
There is a great deal of value and truth to this push in academic philosophy. Its great. But in a way, we are still stuck with the broad split in Indian philosophy. The Vivekananda – Matilal split.
The thrust of the split is obvious. Most people who want spiritual sustenance, who are trying to find meaning in their lives will turn to Vivekananda. They are not going to be reading Matilal’s Perception (which, in an academic context, is a pathbreaking text). And if someone wants to understand and dissect the arguments for and against Advaita and how it relates to arguments by Buddhist and Jain philosophers, they are not going to be reading Vivekananda.
In an important way, neither Vivekananda nor Matilal speaks to the wholeness of Indian philosophy, as captured in past Indian philosophers such as Shankara. Shankara is both a spiritual thinker and a rationalistic thinker who defended his ideas through reason and debate.
Like Aquinas, Shankara did not see spirituality and reason as opposed, but as altogether entirely compatible – and indeed – equally necessary modes of human flourishing. Or to put it differently: for Shankara, as for many ancient and Medieval philosophers in the West, spiritual Enlightenment was the telos of philosophy and rational debate and reflection was the mode of philosophy. One reasons in order to overcome conceptual illusions and limitations, and to widen one’s awareness into a more holistic and universal registry.
In the West, this spiritual-rational compatibilism was taken for granted, broadly, until the European Enlightenment of the 1600s. But the way secularism got interpreted at that time made it difficult to hold on to the compatibilism.
The Enlightenment secularism said that people of different religions can live together by not affirming their religion publicly – so religion can be practiced only in homes or churches, but not in the public domain of governance, and equally, in the public domain of science.
The point about separating religion from science was a brilliant insight. And even separating religion from public discourse was a great move, insofar as it helped reduce religious wars.
But in terms of overall human flourishing, separating religion, and spirituality, from public discourse was a disaster. It rendered religion and spirituality into a subjective key, contrasted with the supposedly objective key of reason, which is thereby rendered safe for public discourse.
The Enlightenment conception of secularism, therefore, rendered Aquinas and Shankara’s spiritual-rational compatibilism impossible by definition. And suggested instead that where for Aquinas and Shankara there was a union of spirituality and reason, now there can only be the split between two. An uneasy demarcation, which has set the terms for the faith versus reason debates ever since.
Vivekananda’s conception of Indian philosophy, and Matilal’s, are not reflecting some essence of Indian philosophy. Rather, each is reflecting just one half of the Indian philosophical tradition – with the broader holistic Indian tradition being cut in two by the Enlightenment secular model prevalent in Colonial England and in Enlightenment America.
What does it mean to do philosophy in America now the way Shankara did philosophy in India in the 8th century? What does it mean to continue that tradition?
This question cannot be answered separately from the analogous questions, “What does it mean to do philosophy now the way Aquinas did philosophy?” Or “What does it mean to do philosophy now the way Socrates or Sextus Empiricus did philosophy?”
There are emaciated conceptions of pluralism, which amounts to asking, either “How can we get Indian philosophy as reason, as opposed to spirituality, alongside Western philosophy understood just as rational?”, or “How can we get Indian philosophy as mystical spirituality, as opposed to reason, alongside Western spiritual traditions?”
But if we want a more robust pluralism, then we have to tackle the question of how a holistic philosophy which incorporates spirituality and reason is possible. For only in such a framework can we get beyond the Vivekananda-Matilal split, as well as a Kierkegaard-Quine split, and have a holistic pluralism.