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. Continue reading