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
Tomorrow is the winter solstice: the shortest, darkest day of the year. After that, everything will slowly start getting lighter and brighter. And never in my lifetime has that felt like more of a perfect metaphor.
Christmas is perhaps the festival that most obviously commemorates the light in the darkness at this time of year, but it is not the only festival to acknowledge the darkest days and prepare for the light. Hanukkah is a smaller part of the Jewish ritual year than North Americans typically make it out to be – it is not nearly as important as Passover – but it is a real Jewish festival of light at the darkest time of the year. So too, Westerners mark a new year beginning just as the old year is at its darkest.
All these events happen every year. But this is a year like no other.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
Weterners who have studied Buddhist philosophy and ethics, even when we have done so at length, are often thrown for a loop when we read the Mahāvaṃsa. This text – one of the most historically oriented texts in premodern South Asia – has been a central part of the Theravāda Buddhist canon for over a thousand years, and played a central role in creating the very idea of “Theravāda” Buddhism.
It also looks very different from the Buddhism we constructive Western Buddhist scholars are accustomed to thinking about. 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
What name should we give the ethical ideal I spoke of last time, the pervasive idea that you should “be yourself, no matter what they say”? The answer to that question isn’t easy.
I initially started thinking of this ideal simply as “Romantic”. But “Romantic”, with a capital R let alone a small one, refers to a range of ideals considerably wider than this. I asked my friend Andrew Warren, a Romanticism expert, to define Romanticism, and he responded that Romanticism resists definition. (I recall him once having given the stronger answer that “Romanticism is that which resists definition”, though that isn’t his own recollection.) Continue reading
A little while ago I had the pleasure of giving a guest lecture on Buddhism to David Decosimo‘s class at the Boston University School of Theology. The students were a delight to teach – smart, actively engaged, asking many questions. One student’s question in particular stuck with me after the session. She had started to ask a long set of multiple questions, and then distilled it down to what she referred to as a simple question: “How would you describe the relation between Buddhism and science?”
My first response was: “That is not a simple question!” There is so much to say about it that there are now books written not merely on the actual relationship between Buddhism and science, but on the very idea of a relationship between Buddhism and science. I gave a relatively rambling answer. But after leaving the classroom it occurred to me that there was a relatively simple answer that I could have given – one that would have put a large part of the question’s complexity aside, but focused on something of particular relevance to students of Christian theology. Continue reading
I am an amateur at Indian aesthetic theory. I have not studied it much; I can read its Sanskrit source texts, but with some difficulty given how much they allude to literary and dramatic works I don’t know. As with Confucianism and Islamic Aristotelianism, it is a field where I cannot claim significant expertise. Yet I continue to find myself drawn to it, finding ideas that strike me as valuable and relevant – most recently reading Sheldon Pollock’s wonderful Rasa Reader, right from the first excerpt .
The earliest known extant text of Indian aesthetic theory is Bharata’s Nāṭya Śāstra. This text, circa 300 CE, sets out the concept of rasa, central to nearly all later Indian aesthetic thought. Rasa, roughly, refers to the emotion involved in a dramatic or literary work. The tradition often disagrees on where this rasa exists: the actor, the audience, the character, the author or even the work itself. But they all know that the Sanskrit word rasa literally means “taste”; it continues to refer to the sense of taste long after it has developed this more dramatic sense. And this meaning matters. Reading Pollock’s excerpt from Bharata, I am struck by the passage in Bharata’s chapter 6 where he defines rasa:
Here one might ask: What does ‘rasa’ actually mean? Our answer is that rasa is so called because it is something savored. And how can rasa be said to be ‘savored’? Just as discerning people relish tastes when eating food prepared with various condiments [vyañjana] and in doing so find pleasure, so discerning viewers relish the stable emotions when they are manifested by the acting out of various transitory emotions and reactions and accompanied by the other acting registers (the verbal, physical, and psychophysical), and they find pleasure in doing so. Continue reading
One of my greatest passions in life is food, trying out new cuisines and spices in unusual restaurants. In a certain way, a love of food was central to my philosophical development; part of the reason I went to work in Bangkok, where I discovered Buddhism, was my love of Thai food.
So I’m interested in philosophical treatments of food. Recent treatises on the subject, though, have proved disappointing. One of the worst is Leon Kass’s The Hungry Soul, a work that tries to think through just about every aspect of eating except for the pleasures of taste. He mentions them very briefly on pp. 90-91, where he dismisses them as ephemeral, disappearing once enjoyed, and therefore “closed to the permanent or the eternal” – just like music or drama, though this parallel goes curiously unmentioned. Kass admits that he “cooks little” and “has unsophisticated tastes” – basically, it would seem, he doesn’t enjoy food very much. Which makes The Hungry Soul comparable to a treatise on music written by the tone-deaf.
But Kass may be a bit too easy a target. He has already been the target of much ridicule on the Internet for his pompous pronouncements on food etiquette, most notoriously his condemnation of the act of licking an ice cream cone, as “a catlike activity that has been made acceptable in informal America but that still offends those who know eating in public is offensive.” I know few who take him seriously.
Far more of a hearing is given to Michael Pollan, whose recent work seems to echo Kass’s puritanism in language more acceptable to educated left-wingers. Especially, his work In Defense of Food seems rather to be an attack on it. Continue reading