Indian Philosophy in America

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 definitionAnd 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.

14 thoughts on “Indian Philosophy in America

  1. robertmwallace2

    I’m with you on this, and I wonder whether you have any contemporary writer or writers in mind who represent this unity of spirituality and reason. As you no doubt know, the “idealist” tradition by which Emerson was also inspired (Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Coleridge) tried to combine these, and was continued by Green, Bradley, Bosanquet, Collingwood in England and by Royce at Harvard. I myself am inclined to think that Hegel was more successful in this effort than his successors. But his present-day expositors are split between a secularist majority and a small “spiritual” minority (including myself), so that he isn’t yet playing the role that he should play as a model of rational spirituality. Similarly for Plato and Aristotle, both of whom have strong spiritual dimensions which, however, are badly neglected by current scholars. So the history of philosophy as taught at the Ivies etc. conveys the very misleading impression that the medievals were an anomaly in what was otherwise a largely “secular,” non-“spiritual” discipline.

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  2. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    Some contemporary writers I can think of who try to bring together spirituality and reason: Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Hadot, Aurobindo, Eknath Easwaran, Thomas Merton, Ken Wilber, Dalai Lama.

    This is one way in which academic philosophy (at Ivys and also more generally) is getting in the way of healing in our society, for the standard Gourmet report ranked departments reenforce the sharp sense of a divide between spirituality and reason – a divide which is tearing our society apart in many ways. To integrate spirituality and reason we have to connect reasoning not just to exercises of the mind and forms of dialogue, but also to modes of cultivated reasoned mindfulness and modes of living. None of that is taught in classes for fear that in that direction lies gurus and mysticism and mind control. All valid concerns, but it is to throw the baby out with the bath water to reduce reasoning to what happens in books, journals and conferences.

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  3. robertmwallace2

    Thanks, this is a good list. (Of course one may estimate the degree of success differently in different cases.) Regarding the Dalai Lama, I was at Cornell in 1993 or so when he made a several days visit there. He had a two-hour Q&A session with faculty and grad students, perhaps 60 or 70 of us. No faculty member from the philosophy department showed up. You’re right of course that people fear gurus, mysticism, and mind control. More important, I suspect, is a high degree of “status anxiety.” It’s rather striking that a discipline that has a more than two millenia history of involvement with “mysticism,” from Plato through FH Bradley, William James, and Henri Bergson, can’t even bring itself to mention this fact in its current syllabi and reference works. And now we have the bogeymen of Deconstruction etc. to contend with, as well. God forbid that the hard scientists or the administrators and funding agencies who worship STEM disciplines should hear that we are again discussing mysticism. No wonder we avoid these topics like the plague. Are you aware of the “online sadhu sanga” Google Group sponsored by Sri Chaitanya Saraswat Institute (which also organizes the “Science and the Scientist” international conferences in India)? Participants include quite a number of physicists, biologists and the like, some with a substantial interest in Vedanta, and a few western philosophers such as myself. The scientists have less anxiety about these “status” issues than we poor philosophers have.

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    1. Bharath Vallabha Post author

      I see from your website that you got your PhD from Cornell in 1994. That’s interesting. I started my BA at Cornell in 1995. That is very striking what you say about no one from the philosophy department showed up to talk to the Dalai Lama. Very telling.

      Another way to put the point about status anxiety is like this I think: there is the worry about what happens to secularism if philosophy and mysticism come together. The easy approach is to make philosophy seem secular just by making it seem like physics or logic. But the price of this approach is to mark a sharp separation between philosophy and spirituality, which ultimately ends up misconstruing, as you highlight, most of the history of philosophy and even many 20th century thinkers.

      The alternate is to embrace a spiritual-philosophical secularism, which enables a diversity of modes of living not because the philosophical foundations aim to be somehow abstract and neutral, but inclusive and pluralistic. I think articulating this conception of secularism, which brings together philosophy and spirituality, with global traditions, and which is in harmony with science is the great project of our time.

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      1. robertmwallace2

        Do you have good memories of Cornell philosophers? I learned a ton from Terry Irwin and Allen Wood, especially. … Regarding secularism: I personally have a lot of doubts about secularism as a program. It sounds reactive to me: we won’t be “religious,” we’ll be “secular.” The unstated assumption being that religion as such is in some way irrational and therefore to be rejected. I think this is (a) hasty, and unfair to millions of people who have considered themselves religious (one of whom for example would be Cornell’s Norman Kretzmann), and (b) un-free, insofar as it defines one’s position by what it rejects rather than by what it values (whereas Hegel correctly says, “flight is not a liberation, because the one that excludes still remains related to what it excludes”).

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  4. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    I have some good memories of Cornell philosophers, though I didn’t study much with Irwin, and Wood might have left Cornell a year or two after I was there. I took most of my classes with Shoemaker, Boyd, Sturgeon, Stanley, Szabo… I learnt a lot. But I also felt alienated from the department. Precisely on this issue of secularism and religion, and pluralism. I got interested in philosophy through Indian spiritual traditions, and philosophy at Cornell, when I was there, was neither spiritual nor pluralistic. There was this unremitting sense philosophy meant the Western, secular traditions. I tried to talk to the professors about this at the time, but in the mid to late 90s, the issues of pluralism were just not on the table as much. And any sense of spirituality I wanted to bring to the discussion was seen, I felt, like they were backward notions which I had to be cleansed of.

    I give an example of this in a blog post in a previous blog I had: http://theroughground.blogspot.com/2014/10/what-is-being.html

    Also, I agree that secular sounds reactive, as if it is something purged of the spiritual and religious. I normally use it in a more inclusive way, as in both religious and atheistic, an open space where all traditions are in dialogue with each other. Perhaps pluralism is a better word. I think of the contrast as between abstract secularism and pluralistic secularism.

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    1. robertmwallace2

      I’m glad you see my point about “secularism.” … You didn’t get a taste of Norman Kretzmann, then? He may have stopped teaching by your time; he died of cancer by ’96 or so, I think. I never took a course from him; I was too secure in my atheism, at the time, to feel that medieval philosophy or philosophy of religion would be worth my time. But at the same time, his mere existence in the department gave me a sense of inner liberation. I don’t think he would have given you anything like the answer that Stanley and Szabo gave you to your question about Being. He would have taken you seriously, in some way. To quote Quine is like the kiss of death, it seems to me. The death of the spirit. (I share your apparent dissatisfaction with Thomas Nagel. I love his independence, but his answers all seem painfully skeptical.) Did you find anyone at Harvard who was open to your concerns?

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  5. robertmwallace2

    Terry Irwin taught me how to take Plato very seriously, and when I went on to apply this approach to Plato’s spirituality (which Irwin downplays) and to Hegel, it paid great dividends.

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  6. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    I didn’t take any classes with Kretzmann. I did have the same sense, similar to yours perhaps, that it was interesting that the department had this expert in Medieval philosophy, and it gave a sense of an intriguing, inner garden in the department otherwise seemingly completely atheistic. Then again, I wasn’t so sure, since much of analytic philosophy of religion I also found off putting, and so I wasn’t sure how Kretzmann might be.

    Irwin always seemed to me very distant intellectually from where I was. He seemed really good at what he does, but I could never connect with what he does with my own interests. Your intellectual relation to Irwin seems similar to my intellectual relation to Goldfarb at Harvard re Wittgenstein. I got a lot of Goldfarb’s classes on Wittgenstein, though I took it in a very different, more pluralistic and spiritual, direction than Goldfarb himself cares to do.

    I had good teachers at Harvard, people I learned from a lot: Moran, Goldfarb, Korsgaard, Godfrey-Smith, Heck, Siegel, Kelly and others. But in a way it was the same as at Cornell. I was learning while basically hiding my pluralistic, spiritual interests. I never felt I found my voice back then, and it is easy now to see why: because I wasn’t being up front about my own background and how I became interested in philosophy, and how for me the Western philosophy I was learning was always only one half of my philosophical identity.

    The core misunderstanding between me and my teachers was just this: they assumed that my philosophical growth would reflect theirs. But no one, not them, not me, paused to reflect on how this can be possible when our philosophical backgrounds, and cultural backgrounds philosophically, were so different. This was altogether ignored, as if it doesn’t matter where one came from, as long as we all were nourished by, and only by, the universality of Plato, Kant and Russell.

    My academic philosophical education happened, I now think, near the end of an older America, one in which it was still possible to think of America was mainly a white country, whether religiously Christian or narrowly secular. There was a persistent sense of me having to leave large parts of myself behind to fit into the curriculum, the habits, the histories that were repeated for generations in the philosophy departments – as if in spite of all the changes in American culture in the last 100 years, the philosophy remains the same, and is what I was supposed to internalize.

    This complicit trajectory is reaching its end now. Not just because of all the pluralism issues being raised in academia now. That is but a sign of the times, I think. The real issue is that in America religious and racial tensions are bound to boil over again, and as they do, it will be obvious how much the academic philosophy of my education really has nothing to say to help, because it didn’t deal with the issues, but assumed and hoped that they were all already overcome.

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    1. robertmwallace2

      I share your reservations about analytic philosophy of religion, mainly because it takes its repertory of issues almost entirely from Christianity, and fails to address “religion” in any broader sense. … When you allude to “the universality of Plato, Kant, and Russell” as a “western” universality, I always want to say, but Plato isn’t just a “western” philosopher!! He and his contemporaries were deeply engaged with the “east,” in the form of Egypt, Persia, and the lands beyond them. See Thomas McEvilley, The Shape of Ancient Thought. Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Thought (2002). It’s no accident that India and Pythagoras and Plato are all deeply concerned with transcendence and with reincarnation. It was a worldwide discussion. Let’s make it that again!

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      1. Bharath Vallabha Post author

        I am all for the idea that Plato is not just a western philosopher. That sounds great. What I was alluding to was more how Plato is standardly taught in classes.

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