Thursday, 22 July 2010

Indian Philosophy

Indian philosophy is a variegated phenomenon. Clarifications are needed in this field. One is faced with several types of Indian philosophy in the historical record. For instance, there is the early Upanishadic phase, and the subsequent growth of Hinduism associated with the “six systems of philosophy.” Those systems are a specialist study in their own right. Moreover, we have the Buddhist and Jainist rivals to the Hindu formats. Again, these are specialist studies in their own field of research.

With regard to religion, there are complex extensions in the medieval period that are not mainline Hinduism at all, but something quite different. I am referring here to the Sant phenomenon and the creation of Sikhism, trends which were strongly opposed to caste practices and concepts.

In addition to these factors, there are latter day manifestations of diverse Hindu and neo-Hindu sects and exegeses. In contrast, there is now the radical development of contemporary Indian Rationalism, to some extent allied with Western concepts in science, and railing against traditional religion and attendant superstitions.

To get a bearing in these diverse channels is not straightforward. Much of this panorama can be brought under the classification of “Indian philosophy,” but the differences in emphasis are substantial. The copious textual studies, plus the sociological documentation, is beyond the reach of most citizen investigators.

My independent research into Indian philosophy eventually gained expression in the book Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One: Zoroastrianism and the Indian Religions (1995), pp. 389-825. I might at least claim some familiarity with the works mentioned in the annotations, though I do not profess to be an expert.

Three diverse figures active in the introduction of Indian philosophy to the West were the university scholars Friedrich Max Muller and Sir Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975), and the Vedanta interpreter Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), who established a monastic order.

Professor Max Muller (1823-1900) effectively became the founder of comparative religion, in the sense of a scholarly discipline. His major achievement is sometimes considered to have been his editorship of Sacred Books of the East, a fifty volume series encompassing diverse religions and published during the period 1876-1904. That milestone series was published by Oxford University Press, in the country which became the headquarters for studies in Indian religion and philosophy. Those studies became known as Indology.

Max Muller early studied in his native Germany with the philosopher Friedrich Schelling, at whose request he translated passages from the Upanishads. Max Muller became a pioneer in RigVeda studies, and was a linguistic professor at Oxford University from 1851. One of his best known works is The Six Systems of Indian Philosophy (1899). See the online biography.

Some critics have complained that classical Indian philosophy generally converges with Indian religion. The historical context becomes important, wherever this can be reconstructed. The approach of the investigator can be relevant in this respect. Indology avoids sectarian affiliations, which have posed a drawback in the popular Western enthusiasm for Hinduism that commenced in the 1960s. Failure to grasp the necessity for critical evaluation has caused many disillusionments.

Indology became a discipline of repute at several major European universities. Hindu scholars came to study Sanskrit in European universities, assimilating the scholarly exegesis developing in the West, and which was quite different to the pundit method of assessment. In America meanwhile, Sanskrit was introduced at Yale University in 1841, and the American Oriental Society became a signpost to Indological researches. There were initially some Christian biases discernible in Sanskritist studies (from which Max Muller was not exempt).

Professors Surendra Nath Dasgupta (1887-1952) and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan are perhaps the two best known Hindu commentators. The former studied and lectured at Cambridge and composed his five-volume History of Indian Philosophy (Cambridge, 1922-55). Radhakrishnan composed his two-volume Indian Philosophy (London, 1923-27), a well known work that became widely cited, and the author becoming celebrated at Oxford.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
July 22nd 2010

ENTRY no. 26

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