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A little while ago on the Indian Philosophy Blog, Matthew Dasti provided a fascinating glimpse into the recent, 20th-century history of “Indian philosophy” – not the doing of it but the studying of it, the history of “secondary work” into Indian philosophy. Since Westerners have been studying Indian philosophy for literally hundreds of years now, there is a significant history there. And it is hardly new to take this second-order focus. It is old news that the way we (Indians as well as Westerners) now think about Indian traditions in general has been deeply, perhaps irrevocably, shaped by the 19th-century Orientalists. But where Matthew’s comment goes deeper is to look specifically at the discipline of philosophy – and at the 20th century, not the 19th.

I had been speaking of a key design principle for my course in Indian philosophy this past spring: I wanted students to see Indian philosophy as a practical field, not merely theoretical. I wanted them to learn both about the overarching ideals of liberation from suffering, and the practical ethical worldview to be found in texts like Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra. (This was a key part of what led me to an accidental focus on the Bhagavad Gītā.) I contrasted this approach to what I took to be a prevailing view: “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…”

Matthew responded with a brilliant speculation about why this view would have prevailed. He noted an earlier comment by Patrick O’Donnell had referred to Bimal Krishna Matilal, one of the 20th century’s leading scholars of Indian philosophy and the founder of the Journal of Indian Philosophy. And he suggested that Matilal’s view might have been something of a backlash against its predecessors:

I wonder if the apparent divorce of metaphysics and epistemology from ethics, as you note, has to do with an attempt to push back against the “Indian philosophy as a (mere) path of wisdom” approach that Matilal and others wanted to escape. This is a musing and not a claim. I’d need to think about it some more, but some of the pioneers in our field were really fighting against this sort of thing, which may have led them to perhaps go too far in the other direction. Matilal said in his editorial vision for the Journal of Indian Philosophy that “The field of our contributions will be bound by the limits of rational inquiry; we will avoid questions that lie in the fields of theology and mystical experience.”

Matthew’s musing seems extremely plausible to me. One may note that Matilal occupied the Spalding Chair of Eastern Religions and Ethics at Oxford, an endowed position first held by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. In his day Radhakrishnan was probably the world’s most esteemed writer on Indian philosophy. It was startling to me to find that the sourcebook of readings in Indian philosophy he wrote in 1967 really has yet to be surpassed. Deepak Sarma’s more recent sourcebook, most notably, retains many of the original’s weaknesses while adding additional weaknesses of its own, as Andrew Nicholson notes in his review (unfortunately behind a pay wall). It seems to me that when Matilal began to make his mark on the field of Indian philosophy, he did it in Radhakrishnan’s shadow. And if there is anyone who exemplifies an approach to Indian philosophy characterized by a focus on “theology and mystical experience”, it is Radhakrishnan.

The contrasts between Radhakrishnan and Matilal could not have been starker, with Matilal’s dry technical approach seemingly aimed at making Indian philosophy respectable to an analytical audience. But the criticisms of Radhakrishnan’s approach came from a less analytical direction as well. One may note that while Paul Hacker’s attempted takedown of the tat tvam asi ethic focuses on Vivekananda as the ethic’s main Indian popularizer, he spends significant time arguing that Radhakrishnan got it even more wrong than Vivekananda did – basically that Radhakrishnan took a mistake original to Vivekananda and repeated it uncritically. Wilhelm Halbfass’s subtle and detailed histories of the Indian encounter with the West – clearly influenced by Hacker – take Radhakrishnan as a key exemplar of those who overemphasize “mystical experience” in a way that misinterprets the earlier texts.

The critique of Radhakrishnan was right about many things. I pursued that line of critique myself in my article on Ken Wilber. But it only goes so far. Matthew pointed to an excellent article by Stephen Phillips, pointing out that while Matilal’s technical analytic emphasis may have done justice to his own specialty of Nyāya (and especially Navya-Nyāya), it would poorly serve traditions like Madhyamaka and Yogācāra and Advaita, where there is an inescapable emphasis on soteriology – the study of liberation from suffering. (Unfortunately, the link to Phillips’s article is currently broken.) More fundamentally, Phillips points out that there is no reason to think (as Matlial’s programmatic statement for the journal would imply) that “theology and mystical experience” are somehow “beyond the limits of rational inquiry”. Thomas Aquinas would be bewildered by such a claim – as, indeed, would be most of the Indians that Matilal studied.

I am hoping that the time has now come where we can again honour Radhakrishnan’s approach while acknowledging its flaws – and for that matter, honour Matilal’s approach while acknowledging its flaws. How might we do that? To my mind, the most important thing is to take apologetics seriously. We must not accept the perennialism that tempted Radhakrishnan (and Wilber), to think that “all religious traditions” (or even all Indian traditions) derive from a similar category of “mystical experience”. That cannot do justice to the ideas found in the traditions themselves. But we must also recognize that the Indian philosophical traditions thought deeply about the practical importance of their ideas to the quest for liberation for suffering. Which is to say nothing less than that those traditions believed their ideas to matter. If we scholars of Indian philosophy want our own work to matter, we should acknowledge their point.