As my doctoral studies were in Indian philosophy and my ethnic background is part Indian, I was often asked whether my studies had to do with exploring my own heritage. The answer is basically no.
As I noted in telling my story, I came to the study of Asian philosophy through Thai Buddhism, which is not at all part of my ethnic background. I learned Sanskrit and Pali because it seemed to me that most of what was philosophically interesting in Thai Buddhism had come from its Indian heritage – even though Buddhism in India had all but died out.
If I ever thought my heritage would play a major role in the process, such thoughts stopped in my first-year Sanskrit class. My teacher, Stephanie Jamison, was explaining the rules of caste in traditional dharmaśāstra (ethical-legal texts), and how the brahmins were the ones expected to do all the thinking. I wondered whether I counted as a brahmin by this standard, so I asked: how would they count the offspring of a brahmin and an outsider, a yavana?
She answered: caste mixing is always viewed as an evil, so the offspring of any mix would be counted as the lower of the two – at the very best. In other words, according to the Laws of Manu, I’m a white boy. (If not an outright abomination.)
Which doesn’t really bother me. I was born and raised in Canada. I travelled to India with my parents many times as a child, but only every few years and rarely for more than a couple months at a time. When I first travelled around India by myself I had long hippie hair; nobody thought I was Indian then. India, for me, is a part of my ethnic background, but that’s a relatively small part of who I am. I’m a seeker, just like the people with paler skin.
Does that skin colour have any significance? My skin is indeed noticeably darker than that of, say, an olive-skinned Italian. I do self-identify as “brown” for that reason, when these issues come up. In this I am different from my nephew and niece, who, despite being of the same “racial background” – an ethnically Indian father and a white mother – are light enough to look white. This fact has mattered in my life; my being brown has led people to discriminate against me, though as I noted last week, it’s also (combined with my Indian name) led people to discriminate in my favour. But both of these have been pretty minor factors in my life, all told, and I’m happy about that. I understand that some people feel the need to promote their ancestors’ traditions in order to respond to slights they have received in their life. I am not one of those people.
I don’t say any of this to pretend that I am some sort of universal being who has transcended his historical particularity, as Westerners have often been said to fancy themselves. I am no such thing, and neither is anyone else. But my historical context is the context of Canada and the United States in the 20th and 21st centuries, perhaps especially their academic institutions. (I’m not sure I’ve ever lived more than a mile from a university campus.) It’s that context, much more than India, that has made me who I am.
With all that said, I have gone to India every few years of my life, and that does make an impact; its role in my life and thought is not zero. Having an Indian background was particularly helpful in my former teaching career, where it helped me find ways to introduce students to Indian traditions. For example, without the time I spent in India as a child, I would never have had the idea of introducing students to the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyana via the wonderful Amar Chitra Katha comics that I grew up with.
But then, there are also places where my visits to India have impeded my understanding. It took me far too long to see the integrity orientation of classical Indian philosophy, because I had spent too long understanding classical India through the lens of my modern experiences. What I had seen in modern India was what Louis Dumont and Max Weber saw: tightly knit communities where family counts more than individual preferences, contrasted to the individualism of the modern Western world where I grew up. Now, no doubt much or even most of classical Indian society fit this description just as well, in practice. What didn’t fit it was the theory, the ideas: the Jains, the Buddhists, the Yogins, the Advaitins sought to separate themselves from this communal world and transcend it. They were not individualists in the Western sense, but individualists they were. And I might have had an easier time of seeing that if I had been confronted with their ideas before encountering the modern Indian world.
Moreover, it was never my intention to limit my studies to India. As Jeffery Long said last week: “My main interest, whatever the historical genealogy of my access to these teachings, is in whether they are true.” I do think the historical provenance of various ideas has an important bearing on our understanding of them and their truth, but it is the truth that I seek. Readers will have seen that Western philosophy plays as large a role on this blog as does Indian, and lately I have been trying to think more with East Asian thought as well. If I did not have Indian heritage, my quest for truth would probably have taken some different twists and turns. But that quest would still likely have ended – and even begun – in the same places it actually has.