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In studying Indian philosophy today one is often confronted with a question that can be surprisingly tricky: what counts as Indian philosophy, anyway? Sometimes what we think of as ancient Indian thought might be something quite different.

Perhaps the boldest statement of this point was the 1962 article “Schopenhauer and Hindu ethics,” by the late German Indologist Paul Hacker (now translated in a collection of Hacker’s writings by Hacker’s student Wilhelm Halbfass). Hacker is reacting against what was until that point a commonplace in the presentation of Indian philosophy – an interpretation presented as uncomplicated fact, for example, in Hajime Nakamura’s A Comparative History of Ideas – which turns out to have a far more modern provenance.

The commonplace in question is what Hacker calls the tat tvam asi ethic, an idea found above all in the works of Swami Vivekānanda. This ethic is Vivekānanda’s influential attempt to use Advaita Vedānta to support an altruistically engaged politics, closely parallel to what would come to be called Engaged Buddhism; it would later be picked up enthusiastically by other modern Hindu thinkers like Radhakrishnan. Tat tvam asi is the Chāndogya Upaniṣad’s famous teaching that “you are that,” that each of us individual people is ultimately identical to the supreme principle of the universe, brahman. This idea of personal identity with brahman is standard in the Advaita Vedānta tradition of Śaṅkara and others. (Joel Brereton argued, in an article helpfully reproduced here, that tat tvam asi‘s original meaning in the Chāndogya is actually quite different, but that’s another story.) But Vivekānanda adds something else: an ethics of altruism. Because each of us is identical with brahman, we are therefore also all each identical with everyone else. And therefore if we really understood how things were, we would help out everyone else:

There are moments when every man feels that he is one with the universe, and he rushes forth to express it, whether he knows it or not. This expression of oneness is what we call love and sympathy, and it is the basis of all our ethics and morality. This is summed up in the Vedånta philosophy by the celebrated aphorism, Tat Tvam Asi, “Thou art That.” To every man, this is taught: Thou art one with this Universal Being, and, as such, every soul that exists, is your soul; and every body that exists, is your body; and in hurting any one, you hurt yourself, in loving any one, you love yourself. (Collected Works of Swami Vivekānanda, Mayavati Memorial Edition, I.388-9)

Against this “tat tvam asi ethic,” Hacker thinks he has found a smoking gun of sorts. A scholar with a background in Engaged Buddhism and similar movements might expect that such political engagement is a modern Indian invention; but Hacker goes a step further. For him this ethic is not even Indian at all, but an invention of German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. In his 1841 work On the Basis of Morality, which identified compassion as the fundamental basis for morality, Schopenhauer claimed:

In Sanskrit tat tvam asi (this art thou) is the formula, the standing expression, for this knowledge. It is this that bursts forth as compassion on which all genuine, i.e. disinterested, virtue therefore depends, and whose real expression is every good deed. In the last resort, it is this knowledge to which every appeal to gentleness, leniency, loving-kindness, and mercy instead of justice, is directed. For such an appeal is a reminder of that respect in which we are all one and the same entity. (Schopenhauer, E.F.J. Payne translation, p. 210)

And according to Hacker, Vivekānanda only believed in the tat tvam asi ethic because he got it from Schopenhauer! It happened indirectly, through the well connected Indologist Paul Deussen – a mutual friend of Schopenhauer and Vivekānanda (and Nietzsche), who believed that tat tvam asi could be a strong support for compassion and activism (though it had not actually been such in Indian history). Looking through Vivekānanda’s writings, Hacker finds that before Vivekānanda met Deussen in September 1896, he lamented that Vedānta (specifically meaning Advaita) was an impediment to altruism and social service. Based on the journals of others present at the 1896 meeting, Deussen and Vivekānanda almost certainly discussed the tat tvam asi ethic there; and after that meeting, Vivekānanda began giving a great number of enthusiastic speeches proclaiming that Advaita Vedānta offered the highest support for compassion and social activism. (Both Hacker and Vivekānanda tend to use the concepts of morality, compassion, activism and social service almost interchangeably; I think my dissertation demonstrates that this is a great conflation, but that too is another story.) Hacker concludes that the link between Vedānta and compassion was effectively conjured up by Schopenhauer, and adopted by modern Indians only because Schopenhauer’s idea passed to Vivekānanda through Deussen.

Is Hacker’s account right? Dermot Killingley’s “Vivekānanda’s Western message from the East” (in William Radice’s unfortunately OOP Swami Vivekānanda and the Modernization of Hinduism) has demonstrated that it is likely overstated. Killingley shows that Vivekānanda had started making some claims similar to the tat tvam asi ethic before he had met Deussen. The encounter with Deussen probably crystallized the idea of the tat tvam asi ethic in Vivekānanda’s mind, but he had had most of the basic idea already. Like the Engaged Buddhists, Vivekānanda had already been searching for ways to bring together his ancient tradition with the modern Western idea of political engagement; his encounter with a Westerner helped him develop the idea, but the Westerner doesn’t deserve all the credit. And as with Yavanayāna Buddhism, the idea’s modern provenance should not necessarily discredit it.

The story Hacker tells is an interesting one. But from the point of view of my current philosophical interests, still more interesting are the reasons why he tells it. I will turn to that point next time.