Hindu and Buddhist Thought in Western Philosophy

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HINDU AND BUDDHIST THOUGHT IN WESTERN PHILOSOPHY Europe's encounter with the Brahmanical and Buddhist traditions of philosophy in India has been imbued at once by two simultaneous, and contradictory, tendencies. The first has been a fascination with the unique sophistication and profundity of the classical Indian darshanas (visions), and the other a relentless search for self-understanding through comparisons and contrasts with South Asian thought. Each tendency has exhibited both awed appreciation of the insights and trajectories of Brahmanical and Buddhist systems as well as self-absorbed reactions and even contemptuous denigration and dismissal under the banner of European philosophical exceptionalism.

For two and a half centuries, these tendencies of the European reception of classical Indian philosophical thought have followed several distinct phases, which are for the most part chronological but which sometimes overlap. The first phase, that of Orientalism and Romanticism, corresponding with the end of the eighteenth and the greater part of the nineteenth centuries, witnesses an ongoing attempt by European thinkers to familiarize themselves with Indian systems and to assess their meaning and significance for European self-understanding. The second phase, which roughly extends from the end of the nineteenth to the middle of the twentieth centuries, displays a growing ambivalence with and widening rejection of Indian thought from "proper" philosophical contemplation and history. The third phase, running from the middle of the twentieth century to the present, has seen a much more hermeneutically sensitive and professional treatment of classical Indian thought and a concerted attempt, significantly on the part of both Indians trained in European thought and Western philosophers, to incorporate Vedic and Buddhist traditions into analytic and continental paradigms.

Orientalism and Romanticism: The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

Alexander the Great's brief conquest of the Punjab brought early contact between Greco-Roman philosophical traditions, such as Stoicism, and Indian darshanas, such as yoga and Theravada Buddhism, as early as the fourth century b.c. However, no positive evidence of extensive contact and interchange between the South Asian and Western intellectual worlds can be traced back farther than the aggressive Jesuit missionary ventures into India in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. An increasing number of missionary reports, however, sparked enough interest to prompt Voltaire (1694–1778) to unabashedly proclaim that India, and not Mesopotamia, was the birthplace of both the world's civilizations and its core—and more or less universal—religious doctrines. It was at this moment in the eighteenth century that the new European "science" of Indology was inaugurated, taking root in the direct and indirect translation of Sanskrit literary, religious, and philosophical classics, such as Khalidasa's Shakuntala, the Bhagavad Gītā, the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyan. a, and the Upanishads, by such figures as William Jones (1746–1794), Charles Wilkins (1749–1836), H. Thomas Colebrooke (1765–1837) and A. H. Anquetil Duperron (1731–1805). Common to these pioneers of Indian studies in Great Britain and on the Continent were the convictions that the Sanskrit language was the earliest manifestation of a "common source" of all European languages and an insistence that the study of classical Indian philosophy could enhance and renew the European philosophical tradition.

These convictions were embraced by early nineteenth-century Romantic philosophers, specifically J. G. Herder (1744–1803) and Friedrich Schlegel (1772–1829). While each of their cumulative views on early Hinduism were revised over their decades of study, both enthusiastically proclaimed immersion into ancient India's civilization to their philosophical contemporaries. Though both were committed Christians, they warned against the biased penchant of Europeans to see themselves as the standard of all culture, citing the antiquity and "pure theism" of the Vedic worldview. Their excitement was, however, tempered by skepticism over the removal of theistic associations from idea of brahman, which in their views led to a nihilistic mysticism and dangerous moral indifference. This latter was for Herder and Schlegel exemplified by India's caste hierarchy, which, along with pantheism, represented the tragically "degenerate" state into which India's religions had fallen from their "pristine" early truth. Despite these reservations, both philosophers thought that the oldest forms of Vedic religious symbols and ethical "compassion" could serve as a remedy for what they perceived as the artificial and arid technicalism of Enlightenment post-Kantian Idealism and the mechanization of European society at large, set in motion by the industrial revolution.

Without question the most fascinating contrast of receptions of Indian thought in nineteenth-century European philosophy can be found in G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831) and Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860). Hegel, whose philosophical progressivism depicted Europe, with its new democratic monarchies and "social" consciousness or spirit, as the culmination of both philosophy and civilization, rejected the common Romantic notion of India as some ideal "birthplace" of humanity from whose perfection society had long since strayed. Taking up Schlegel's critique of the "empty substantialism" of the Upanishadic concept of brahman, Hegel could discern no possibility for either dialectical development or socioethical advancement on the basis of such an abstract universal notion. While readings late in his life of Colebrooke's essays on the classical schools such as Nyāya, Vaisheshika, Sām. khya, and Buddhism convinced him that "genuine philosophical systems" did indeed exist in India, Hegel retained his adherence to the commitment that India's place at the "beginning of history" relegated whatever philosophical truth could be found there to the "poorest" kind, and while, even if philosophy had been born in the East, it reached its maturity and fruition in Europe. India was a place where "substance" never became "subject," where brahman never became individuated, and consequently spirit never became social in Indian civilization.

Schopenhauer was openly contemptuous of this philosophical Eurocentrism. Deeply moved early in his career by Duperron's 1801–1802 secondhand translations of the Upanishads and an ever-widening expertise in secondary literature on Buddhism, Schopenhauer framed parts of his own philosophical system around core concepts of Advaita Vedānta and Theravada and Mahayana Buddism. He posited that human consciousness was deluded by its inbuilt Kantian schematization of experience (what he labeled "the veil of maya") into the false metaphysical presumption of seeing the world as a collection of heterogeneous individualities rather than the unitary ground of being (what he styled "Will"). Concomitantly, rather than castigating yogic samyasins and Buddhist ascetics as nihilists, as earlier Romantics had, Schopenhauer hailed the "renunciation of Will" and "perspective of nirvana" that they attained as making possible true ethical selflessness and compassion. With this stance, Schopenhauer fully embraced the Romantic view of India so sharply challenged by Hegel, celebrating it as the birthplace of "perennial philosophy." Schopenhauer expected the study of India and Asian thought generally to be the greatest boon imaginable to nineteenth-century Europe, promising it an intellectual "Renaissance" comparable to the one prompted by the fifteenth-century rediscovery of classical Greco-Roman thought.

Perhaps predictably, it was Schopenhauer's enthusiasm that immediately spilled over into the field of Indological studies. The late-nineteenth-century Schopenhauerian enthusiast and Indologist Paul Deussen (1845–1919), a former classmate of Friedrich Nietzsche's, became at once the translator of sixty Upanishads, the editor of the first critical edition of Schopenhauer's works, and president of the German Schopenhauer Society. Wholeheartedly dedicated to Sanskrit studies, he was confident that Advaita Vedānta (and particularly Schopenhauer's spin on it) represented the culmination of philosophical truth, far surpassing all systems from "a-psychic and atheistic" Buddhism to modern Enlightenment thought. This confidence led him to write Indian thought into the larger history of world philosophy; half of the six volumes of his General History of Philosophy (1894–1917) were devoted to the schools of the Indian tradition as these were categorized through the fifteenth-century Advaita doxography, the Sarvadarshanasamgraha.

In the Romantic period then, we find a remarkable fascination with the histories and core concepts of Brahmanical and Buddhist thought. Nonetheless, this fascination seems firmly located within a larger self-reflection that, rather than investigating the treasures of classical Indian philosophical thought for their own sake, always took stock of the latter in view of a self-preoccupied assessment of the current state of philosophical affairs in Europe. Through studying Indian thought, Europe could learn more about its own origins, identity, and destiny.

Rejection and Dismissal: The Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) was the first major Western philosopher since Hegel to cast serious aspersions and skeptical doubt at the value of Indian philosophy for European thought, although for markedly different reasons than Hegel's. Nietzsche learned and accepted most of what he knew of Indian culture and thought from Schopenhauer and his personal friend Deussen, but suspended his early approbation for Schopenhauerian "pessimism" in search of a philosophical formula for the "affirmation" of both individual life and the rational and spiritually independent Übermensch of high culture. Ironically, while Nietzsche found one prototype for the Übermensch in the Brahmans of Manu's social order, who legitimated their cultural authority through the establishment of caste hierarchy, he found one of the most formidable threats to the coming Übermensch in the onset of a "European Buddhism," which he equated with nihilism. While admiring Gautama Buddha for his unrelenting "honesty" in denying God's existence in the determination to accept life for its inevitable suffering, Nietzsche saw the Buddha's nirvāna and the practices that led to its attainment as the ultimate manifestation of "the denial and hatred of life," the "decadence" of fleeing the world in the face of its meaninglessness and terror. Buddhist nihilism was for Nietzsche too "passive," and it represented a spiritual tendency that might appear to a European to be opposed to Christianity, but at its heart is at one with it. Only the "Dionysian spirit" of the Übermensch, which embraced life in amor fati and dedicated itself to the "Will to Power," could ward off that attitude toward the body and life as valueless, an attitude of which Buddhism was in his eyes the most perfected manifestation.

Despite the enthusiasm of the Romantic sensibility and Deussen's later efforts, several fateful turns led to the relative eclipse of Indian thought in the reflection of Western philosophers for approximately half a century. One factor was the influence of Hegel on late-nineteenth-century historians of philosophy. While the most popular textbooks of the history of philosophy from mid-century all had chapters on Indian thought, the textbooks from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries omit it. The Hegelian contention that the dialectic of Being had its origins in Greek thought began to find its way into more and more late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century histories of philosophy, which led their authors to foregone conclusions that Asian and pre-Thalic Greek thought should be excluded from a historic appreciation of their topic. On the other hand, those historians who did not ascribe to Hegel's vision of a universal history of philosophy were driven by a professionalization, or specialization in historical research, which left the field of Indian studies to the professional Indologist and thus outside the scope of Western intellectual historiography.

These presumptions can be found in the passing mention made of Asian and Indian thought in some of the twentieth century's most prominent European philosophers. Edmund Husserl (1859–1938), the renowned founder of phenomenology, identified the single most characteristic mark of philosophy as its purely theoretical orientation; philosophy arose out of Aristotelian wonder, not from practical concerns, and its possibilities as a pure eidetic "science" were the legacies of Greek thought. For him, no traditions, such as the Indian or Chinese, where intellectual speculation was so closely tied to soteriological dogmas and concerns, could possibly give rise to genuinely philosophical reflection. While Husserl's early student and "path-clearer" for "hermeneutic ontology," Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), drew much inspiration for his later thought from Chinese Daoist and Japanese Buddhist traditions, he was always careful to qualify this fascination with the recognition that Asian thought had its abode in another "house of Being." It was Greek philosophy that "uniquely and univocally" made the fundamental concern of Western thought a search for the Being of things, and as such "Being" could not be imagined to be the "basic concept" of any other tradition, philosophy is for him "Western philosophy—there is no other kind, neither a Chinese nor an Indian philosophy" (1968, 224). Thinking could certainly take "other paths" in other traditions, but not the distinctly European philosophical path. In the end, Western philosophy proper is actually a tradition of which the cultures of the world should, in his eyes, beware in the face of the progressive intellectual colonization by the West, "the Europeanization of the Earth."

The second phase of European philosophical reflection on the Brahmanical and Buddhist traditions then mixes ambivalent rejection with dismissal. Reasons for such dismissal were both historiographic and ideological. Ironically, however, the neglect to regard Indian thought as a genuine philosophical tradition was sparked in this phase by a motivation strangely similar to that which attracted Romantic Europeans of the first phase to either appropriate or take special note of it. This motivation was a preoccupation with the necessity of Europe to isolate the essence and fulfill the mission of its own philosophical tradition, or at least a particular and historically conditioned self-understanding of that tradition.

Reincorporation through the Analytic and Continental Divide

Against this onslaught of skepticism about the worth of Indian thought for Western philosophical reflection, translations and commentaries on the Brahmanical Buddhist traditions, openly advocating a rekindling of cross-cultural philosophical engagement, began to renew interest. Foremost among the early translators were Theodore Stcherbatsky (1886–1942), who interpreted the Buddhist epistemologies of Dignaga and Dharmakirti through Kantian categories, and Erich Frauwallner (1898–1974), whose treatments of scholastic Buddhism and even Vaisheshika insisted that both could, for at least certain periods in their histories, be considered purely theoretical and nonsoteriological systems. Running alongside these more Continental appropriations were receptions of Brahmanical Nyāya logic as fully compatible with the contemporary formalism of symbolic logic, so much so that the former can be paraphrased into the latter, which we find in Stanislaw Schayer (1899–1941), Daniel Ingalls (1916–1999) and Frits Staal (b. 1930).

Perhaps the most exemplary contrast between the analytic and phenomenological appropriations of Indian thought can be found in two contemporary Indian philosophers trained by both native pandits and European professors, Bimal Krishna Matilal (1935–1991) and Jitendranath Mohanty (b. 1924). Former colleagues at the Sanskrit College in Kolkata, both set themselves the task of ensuring that the classical darshanas of India receive proper acknowledgment among modern thinkers, though their approaches varied. Matilal began his career as a Sankritist in Kolkata but then studied under Ingalls and W. V. Quine at Harvard. He vigorously defended Hindu Nyāya realism against Vedantic and Buddhist "idealist" objections, giving the ancient debates lucid expositions to English audiences, notably against the backdrop of more contemporary debates in logic and theory of knowledge. More importantly, he demonstrated how, whether in the guise of the worldly Lokayatikas and Vaisheshikas or under the rubric of "mystical" strands of Mahayana Buddhism or Vedānta, philosophy in India was always undertaken with serious examinations of pramaashastra (epistemology), logic comparable in its analytical insight to contemporary symbolic logic and considerations of the philosophy of language. Mohanty for his part became an avid student of Immanuel Kant in Göttingen and later of Husserl in Kolkata before turning his attention to the study of Nyāya and Vedānta. His representations of the classical scholastic debates in India schematized them according to more phenomenological themes. Nyāya, Vedanta and Yogacara-Sautrantika Buddhism were played off against one another based on their differing theories of consciousness, truth, and language. Mohanty came to the conclusion that the presence of the Husserlian concept of the "intentionality" of consciousness could be found to enhance the positions of Nyāya and Buddhism in various contexts, while its lack in some Advaita teachings could be taken to compromise the integrity of the latter. Striking in the cases of both Matilal and Mohanty is the extent to which the analytic and phenomenological debates are replayed in their respective presentations of classical Indian thought, but in addition how each of their presentations suggested native Indian rapprochements in this debate. Each brought vastly improved methodological and hermeneutic tools to bear on the explication of Indian philosophers. Neither saw hermeneutic implications to these presentations that should cause over-much concern, for while it is true, Mohanty concedes, that the Indian and Western philosophical traditions exhibit important differences, their many historical inquiries and debates "overlap" in profoundly significant ways.

The most recent reincorporations of Brahmanical and Buddhist thought into Western philosophy can be found in the works of scholars such as Harold Coward (b. 1936) and David Loy (b. 1947). Reviewing the skeptical traditions of Bhatrhari's Grammar and Mādhyamika Buddhism, these scholars have found parallels between modern Derridian "deconstruction" and antiessentialist tendencies within the Indian tradition. Just as twentieth-century Anglo-European thought seeks to shed the heritage of "Being"-centered metaphysics and the hierarchical, exclusivist, and imperialistic society it has fostered, so too, they suggest, did exemplary figures such as Bhartrhari, Nagarjuna, and Shankara challenge dualistic and socially corrupting ontologies, along with artificial intellectual boundaries, within their own heritage. Indian thought once again offers a corrective alternative, in a fashion reminiscent, though in a much modified tone, of the Romantics, to the wayward trajectories of Europe's intellectual legacy.

Thus in the contemporary period of reincorporation, we see the many strands of thought in the West converging around the twin themes of deep appreciation for India's philosophical contributions and an abiding desire to make those contributions speak to their own philosophical problematics. Despite all the interpretive and cultural pitfalls against which such "comparative" or "cross-cultural" philosophy is constantly warned by its critics, however, it was under the circumstances perhaps inevitable that over the past two and a half centuries India has been gradually accepted as a major "conversation partner" for European thought.

Douglas L. Berger

See alsoBuddhism in Ancient India ; Hinduism (Dharma)


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