A strange coincidence surprised me as I designed this spring’s course in Indian philosophy – but one that I suspect is quite significant. The coincidence resulted from three of my primary concerns in selecting content for the course syllabus, and I’ll start with those. One of those was, whenever possible, to focus on primary texts – texts actually written by Indian philosophers.
A second primary concern was to stress the connections between theoretical and practical philosophy. Too often, Indian epistemology and metaphysics are seen as purely abstract activities with little relation to one’s ethical conduct or even one’s ultimate liberation, and Indian reflection on practical matters is taken to have little background in that theoretical work (as in Damien Keown’s needlessly pessmistic reflection that there is no such thing as Buddhist normative ethics). It is no wonder that Indian philosophy is so little studied when even those who study it sometimes think its questions tend not to edification.
My reading of Śāntideva convinced me that this is absolutely not the case. Metaphysics is a pervasive concern of his most celebrated text (and one of the most widely read works of Buddhist ethics), the Bodhicaryāvatāra – not only in the ninth chapter, which focuses on it, but in the other more widely read chapters as well. (I gave a talk on this topic at the SACP a few years ago, and am planning on expanding it into a paper for publication soon.) I have come to believe that this is the case more widely in Indian philosophy as well. It’s not always easy to see what the practical implications of Indian theoretical thought are, but I think that they are there, and it was hugely important to me that my course bring them out.
My final primary concern was to bring in modern Indian philosophy, in order to excite student interest and let them know it is not a dead tradition. For this purpose I had students read the most widely read modern Indian thinkers – Aurobindo Ghose (Sri Aurobindo) and Mohandas Gandhi – as well as Paul Hacker’s provocative “Schopenhauer and Hindu ethics”, to let them know that the continuity between classical and modern Indian thought is not always as clear as it seems. (I read Andrew Nicholson’s Unifying Hinduism just before starting the course, and it occurred to me to try and have the students read some late medieval/early modern thinkers so they could have a chance to see where the real continuities are. But it was hard enough to find half-decent translations of celebrated thinkers like Śaṅkara and Rāmānuja; I couldn’t imagine trying to find something for the students to read from someone as obscure as Vijñānabhikṣu.)
Now to the apparent coincidence. When I had put together a set of readings according to these guidelines, it turned out that the second half of the course content all came back to the Bhagavad Gītā! And that even though I was going to teach the Gītā itself merely in the first half. More than half of the course would relate directly to the Gītā, without my planning this.
Gandhi’s love of the Gītā is well known, and Aurobindo wrote on it as well. Interpretations of the Gītā (especially in Vivekananda and Radhakrishnan play a major part in Hacker’s story of Schopenhauer’s reinterpretation of Hindu ethics. This part is perhaps not so surprising: it is well known that the Gītā has become one of the most prominent texts of modern Hinduism, perhaps the most prominent. (My surviving Indian uncle, an irrepressibly jovial man of whom I’ve always been fond, loves the text so deeply that he named his daughter after it.)
In the premodern setting I wanted to make sure students knew Śaṅkara and Rāmānuja, with their very different visions of human liberation. Both wrote commentaries on the Gītā. Rāmānuja’s theistic but worldly ethics seem like a relatively natural fit for the text. Śaṅkara’s view that the world is illusion seems less so. And yet, while searching for texts in which Śaṅkara most clearly articulates that view, I found it best expressed in his commentaries on the Gītā, on chapters 5 and 13. So, it turned out, we would read Śaṅkara, Rāmānuja, Hacker, Aurobindo and Gandhi, and all of them wrote on the Gītā – this right after reading the Gītā itself!
This all struck me because it has become a scholarly commonplace to say the Gītā is not as important as modern Hindus think it is. Anne Monius, for example, taught an entire course on “Hindu ethics” without any reference to it. But in my own investigation of what is interesting and accessible in Indian philosophy, it turned out that most roads led back to the Gītā. I think this matters.
The Gītā can be a hard text to love. Its most prominent message of “do your duty without concern for the consequences” is a hard sell in a utilitarian society like ours. Kant says something similar, of course, but Kant’s ideal of duty is closely tied to a similarly modern ideal of individual autonomy. The Gītā ties us to duties of caste and social station – and that’s to say nothing of the specific action being urged on Arjuna in the text, of going out and killing all his cousins. (I know one prominent professor, somewhat prone to hyperbole, who has described this as an act of genocide.)
And yet one mustn’t discount just how inspiring its message has been to so many. These days perhaps the most striking is Gandhi himself. Whatever one’s criticisms of Gandhi, one cannot exactly accuse him of being a warmonger. And yet somehow this text that advocates warlike acts was his favourite text and his inspiration. Perhaps more surprisingly yet, this wasn’t even a result of longstanding faith in the traditions he was raised in. He did not grow up with the Gītā; in his autobiography he notes he first read it in England, at the suggestion of the Theosophical Society. He was inspired by the Gītā when he encountered the ideas in the text itself. It seems clear to me that, however much we might disagree with this text, there is something in it well worth our paying attention to.