In studying Indian philosophy today one is often confronted with a question that can be surprisingly tricky: what counts as Indian philosophy, anyway? Sometimes what we think of as ancient Indian thought might be something quite different.
Perhaps the boldest statement of this point was the 1962 article “Schopenhauer and Hindu ethics,” by the late German Indologist Paul Hacker (now translated in a collection of Hacker’s writings by Hacker’s student Wilhelm Halbfass). Hacker is reacting against what was until that point a commonplace in the presentation of Indian philosophy – an interpretation presented as uncomplicated fact, for example, in Hajime Nakamura’s A Comparative History of Ideas – which turns out to have a far more modern provenance.
The commonplace in question is what Hacker calls the tat tvam asi ethic, an idea found above all in the works of Swami Vivekānanda. This ethic is Vivekānanda’s influential attempt to use Advaita Vedānta to support an altruistically engaged politics, closely parallel to what would come to be called Engaged Buddhism; it would later be picked up enthusiastically by other modern Hindu thinkers like Radhakrishnan. Continue reading