Sumana Roy, a professor of literature at Ashoka University near Delhi, wrote a wonderful recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education identifying significant problems with the way Indian literature is taught, in both American and Indian universities. In American universities Indian literature is expected to represent India, to provide a moral or political message about the country and its political life – and, Roy thinks, this American understanding has then been imported into India itself. When Indian universities teach English-language Indian literature, they are asked questions like “Analyze Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines as a critique of the nation-state” and “Write a note on Velutha as a Dalit character in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things”. Yet in the same departments John Donne is studied as “a metaphysical poet”, Virginia Woolf as “a stream-of-consciousness novelist” and so on. European and American writers, Roy thinks, can be appreciated and enjoyed for their aesthetic qualities; Indian writers are supposed to send a message.Continue reading
A while ago I was contacted by an academic publisher asking me to review a new introductory textbook on philosophy of religion. I didn’t do so, even though the publisher offered me a stipend. The main reason was just that I didn’t have the time for it. But the more interesting reason was my objections to the work’s entire project.
The book’s proposed table of contents spoke of a work devoted entirely to God: the concept of God, and arguments for and against his existence. That is not an idiosyncratic approach; there are many existing textbooks in “philosophy of religion” that take the same approach. So there was nothing especially or unusually outrageous about this textbook and its other. And that is exactly the problem.Continue reading
I don’t believe in God. But if I did, that God might need to be Krishna.
I have come to believe that the problem of suffering is effectively insurmountable. That is, the vast suffering in the world clearly implies that there cannot be an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God, as the God of the Abrahamic traditions is generally supposed to be.
But what about a god who isn’t omnipotent or omnibenevolent?Continue reading
Evan Thompson has made his last statement in our correspondence. Before I make mine, a personal note: our series of responses to date has become increasingly confrontational in tone, in a way I imagine our readers have noticed. Thompson and I have spoken about that tone in private and we agreed that it is not where either of us had hoped or intended for this conversation to go. I hope to end this series on a note of gentler and friendlier disagreement, one that invites both of us and our readers to new avenues of inquiry that the dialogue has opened up. For one thing, from the beginning, I have appreciated Thompson’s willingness to take Buddhist thought seriously by acknowledging where he finds it inadequate; this is a valuable and refreshing contrast to the kind of kid-glove treatment that it is too often given in religious studies. I think that this aspect of Thompson’s approach is very helpful for advancing contemporary discussions of Buddhist thought, and I think I should have led my opening review post with my appreciation of his work on that point.
Now to recap the state of our debate. Thompson, in his June reply, had stood his ground on the claim that karma is fundamentally about why bad things happen to good people. My ensuing July-August round of posts addressed in detail why I think he is wrong about this. While I think it was important to go into those details, I think I didn’t spend enough time on the big-picture questions that motivated them, which remain important to both Thompson and myself. So, while I didn’t think the wordplay in his June title was accurate, I think the current one was. That is, I did, to some extent at least, “lose the thread”. I am happy that the final exchange can now take us back to those larger questions.Continue reading
Advaita Vedānta, Dara Shukoh, Muhyiddin ibn 'Arabī, mystical experience, Nishida Kitarō, nondualism, perennialism, Plotinus, Rāmānuja, Ron Purser, Śaṅkara, Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindī, Upaniṣads, Wilhelm Halbfass, Yogācāra
I have spent a good deal of time criticizing the idea of a “perennial philosophy”, the idea (expressed by Ken Wilber and others before him) that the great sages of the world have always basically agreed on the really important things. In the past I had said there were perennial questions but with different answers; now I’m not even sure whether that is the case.
And yet I am struck by a particular phenomenon from which the perennialists draw a great deal of inspiration – and that is the pervasive influence of nondualism. “Nondual” is a literal English translation of the Sanskrit a-dvaita, the name of Śaṅkara’s school of Vedānta philosophy. But the core idea of nondualism has been asserted by a very wide range of philosophers around the world – from people who could never have heard of Śaṅkara, to Śaṅkara’s enemies.Continue reading
Last time I explained why I think a constructive modern Buddhist philosophy should indeed focus on Buddhist philosophical texts as its sources for karma, and I stand by that. Yet ironically, even if we were to turn away from philosophy to karma’s functioning in society, as Thompson now recommends, we would then notice that even his sources for that point themselves do not establish what he claims they do: i.e. that “the concept is fundamentally a way to handle the problem of why bad things happen to good people and vice-versa”. Just as Obeyesekere never made that claim historically, these sources do not make the claim sociologically.
The sources in question are three articles about karma, all by his UBC colleague Cindel White with some coauthors. Contra Thompson’s claim, these studies do not indicate that the Buddhist concept of karma “is fundamentally a way to handle the problem of why bad things happen to good people and vice-versa”, even in the sociological context of everyday Buddhism. This is for two key reasons.Continue reading
Continuing my reply to Evan Thompson, I will focus next on karma, because the reinterpretation of karma is central to my own eudaimonist Buddhism, and therefore it forms a focal point in Thompson’s critique. Karma is Thompson’s example of how I and other Buddhist modernists “recast Buddhist concepts in a way that makes them incongruent with their traditional meanings and functions.” Why? Thompson asserts that eudaimonism is not the core idea of karma, “if ‘core’ means what lies at the heart of the concept’s formation. On the contrary, the core problem, which drove the formation of the concept, is to explain why bad things happen to good people.”
I disagree entirely with this assertion.Continue reading
As I write this post, I, probably along with most of my readers, face severe restrictions on normal human social activity, in order to limit the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus. Electronic communications have made it possible to continue a social life despite these restrictions – but much of this conversation tends to focus on the virus and the limitations of life under it. I find myself yearning for more conversations about other things, and you may be as well. I also do not think I have anything particularly profound to say about the virus so far. For these reasons, I am not going to write here about the virus, at least for now. Instead, for the next little while I’m going to write about other topics that I’d been planning to write about anyway, but on an increased frequency to suit my and others’ changed schedules: every Sunday rather than every alternate Sunday. This is the first such post. I was not thinking about the virus when I originally wrote it, but perhaps it takes on a different resonance now.
A good human life, in general, requires living with other human beings. Some would take this claim as a truism, but I think it’s important to establish it. The ideal of the autonomous, independent individual is not merely a modern Western conceit, as is usually thought; this ideal is held up as a high ideal by monastic traditions in ancient India, perhaps most prominently in the Yoga Sūtras and Jain Tattvārtha Sūtra which describe their highest ideal as kaivalya, aloneness.Continue reading
Studies of Indian philosophy often rightly call attention to the varied genres in which they are composed: the sparse pith of the Yoga Sūtras, Śaṅkara’s expositing his own views as commentary on someone else’s, the Milindapañhā’s dialogue evocative of Plato’s Socrates. Such differences call to mind Martha Nussbaum’s famous claim in Love’s Knowledge that “Style itself makes its claims, expresses its own sense of what matters.”
As is far too often the case, though, the gaze that modern Western academics apply to distant places and times is one they steadfastly avoid turning on themselves. We are far too reluctant to think about differences of genre in our own composition.
Most notably: the venues of scholarly productivity come in at least two completely different genres. There is the written article or book, subjected to peer review and editorship, with its hypertextual infrastructure of footnotes and its bibliography. And there is the oral presentation, at a conference or workshop, of a work-in-progress with that citation infrastructure omitted, delivered to a room at a single time and place who can then begin a Socratic and dialogical back-and-forth.
So why do we insist on acting as if these two venues are the same? Continue reading
Last time I expressed my gratitude and praise for Matthew Dasti and Stephen Phillips’s much-needed recent selective translation of the Nyāya Sūtras and commentaries. I stand by all of it – and also noted that the book drives me crazy.
Why? Dasti and Phillips made two decisions that I think are characteristic of an analytic approach to Indian texts. One was to publish selections and excerpts – probably the right choice, as discussed last time. The second one, however, was to publish those selections entirely out of order. Continue reading