Diamonds in the Rough

Diamonds in the Rough

The Study of the Philosophical Traditions of India

Shishir Saxena

Shishir Saxena

Assistant Professor, School of Arts and Sciences

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What contributions has the Indian civilisation made to philosophical thought? Does the tradition of rational argumentation, which many consider as being a prerequisite for “doing philosophy”, find any place in the intellectual history of India? Or is it the case that the history of Indian philosophical thought is characterized entirely by what many believe are the possible drawbacks of modern Hinduism today?

If all one knows about the Indian past is that which has been learnt through school textbooks or disseminated in popular media, then one ought to be prepared for a succession of gasps and shocks which certainly accompany even a remotely serious inquiry into Indian Philosophy (I know, I’ve had my share… and I still do!). Consider for instance one of twentieth century’s most prominent poets, T.S. Eliot, who studied Indian Philosophy and Sanskrit at Harvard University and famously proclaimed once that the great philosophers of India “make most of the great European philosophers look like schoolboys”. Or even Erwin Schrödinger, the renowned physicist who developed several foundational concepts of quantum field theory (and the thought experiment widely known as ‘Schrödinger’s Cat’), who wrote in his book ‘My View of the World’ a chapter called ‘The Vedantic Vision’. 

There are of course countless such examples of eminent intellectuals who have spoken (and continue to) about being influenced by Indian philosophical doctrines, and I of course do not intend to list here these. What I’m trying to demonstrate is simply that our understanding of the Indian past is unfortunately overly simplistic today and riddled with far too many opinions – ironically, without much access to facts. This problem becomes compounded further given the increasingly polarized times that we are living in, where rhetoric often reigns supreme and the past is more often than not a political tool, to be wielded as one may find convenient. 

I teach courses on Indian Philosophy and scholastic Sanskrit at Ahmedabad University and one of the aims in my courses is to acquaint students with some of the major intellectual achievements of the Indian civilisation – with recourse only to facts, not rhetoric. In the philosophy courses, students are introduced to the Indian philosophical tradition of dar?ana-?ãstra and taught about the several schools (dar?ana) that comprise the tradition as well as some of their important doctrines, texts and thinkers. In doing so, I demonstrate the acute heterogeneity and sophistication of concepts developed within the tradition, and thereby help students understand what Amartya Sen means when he writes about ‘The Argumentative Indian’. 

Moreover, the courses on scholastic Sanskrit are intended to enable students to gradually read such philosophical texts in the original. These courses on philosophy and Sanskrit tie in with one another and thereby enable students to learn all three aspects about the tradition: philosophical, historical and philological. These courses are part of the Philosophy, History and Languages (PHL) Major of the School of Arts and Sciences, a unique program which is not simply a case of bringing together three disparate disciplines. Rather, the program unambiguously emphasizes how interdisciplinary study is a prerequisite for building serious scholarship of these valuable traditions. In some measure at least, my courses thus aim to demonstrate one of the most unique things about the Indian civilisation: the continuity of several vital strands of Indian thought over multiple millennia and their foundational presence in the daily life of countless individuals even today.
 

Author's Profile

Shishir Saxena

Assistant Professor, School of Arts and Sciences

Shishir Saxena obtained his PhD at the University of Cambridge. He is a scholar of Indian Philosophy and Sanskrit and he pursued his post-doctoral research at the Institute for the Cultural and Intellectual History of Asia (IKGA) in Vienna, Austria. His research focuses on the epistemological debates within the Indian philosophical tradition, especially those on the nature of language.

Tags

Philosophy, Sanskrit, languages, Indian civilisation, History, Interdisciplinary


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