Is Indian Philosophy “caste-ish”? Yes and no, in the sense that each philosophy is also the result of its sociological milieu, but it is not only that.
Is Indian Philosophy only focused on “the Self”? Surely not.
Why am I asking these questions? Because —no matter how sophisticated our discussions of specific topics of philosophy can be— one still encounters these prejudices in secondary literature…and consequently also in the writings of many colleagues who do not have access to direct sources. They cannot be blamed for that, but I hope that they will be grateful to receive some advice concerning what they believe on the basis of surpassed or unreliable sources. The last example for me was a collection of notes on Academia.edu. Its author starts with the good intention “I’ve had enough of ignorance about Indian philosophy” and overall he sounds engaged and interesting. Unfortunately, however, he has received bad advices and/or chose badly among them. The result is a short summary of the usual suspects, with a strong bias in favour of Advaita Vedānta mistaken to be “Indian Philosophy” sic et simpliciter (bold passages are the author’s ones, followed by my comments):
- “‘See the Self’ is the keynote of all schools of Indian philosophy. And this is the reason why most of the schools are also religious sects” (p. 1). I thought that B.K. Matilal had done enough to defeat this prejudice, but this seems not to be the case. Thus, I am afraid I will not be able to defeat it myself. Let me just note that this is a short summary of what some schools of Vedānta could be said to do but it has little or nothing to do with the vast majority of Indian philosophers. There is no “religious sect” called “Mīmāṃsā” or “Nyāya” or “Vaiśeṣika” and so on. Not to speak of Buddhist schools of philosophy, who tend to be anātmavādin `deniers of the existence of a [permanent] Self’.
- Self-forgetful service of others is a Christian, not a Hindu idea (p. 1). Well, one might argue that self-forgetful service of others is difficult to attain for human beings. And one is reminded of Hegel’s critique of Kant’s concept of morality. Moreover, self-forgetful service of others is exactly the Bodhisattva ideal —which the author himself mentions at p. 9.
- (Evidently all the life-denying aspects of Indian tradition, as well as the superstitious and degrading religious practices, proceed largely from the caste system, its lack of dynamism, its oppressive structure, its eternal unchangingness. A society that worships Hanuman the monkey and Sabbala the cow, that countenances the burning of wives after their husband’s death, is an inhuman one, in which man is subjugated both by the earth and especially by a caste-structured povert) (pp.1–2). My personal position is not consistent with strict Marxism as for the idea that philosophy were only a superstructure of economic relationships. But in any case, I am strongly suspicious about such summaries highlighting an a-historical laundry list of shameful acts of Indians (not Indian philosophers) without any effort to understand (worshipping Hanuman is not like worshipping a monkey, just like believing in St. Mary does not amount to beliving that virginal births are possible in general).
- Hegel, Hegel, Hegel (except for the mysticism) (p.3). No, thanks. Again, the author is speaking of Advaita Vedānta and thinks of “Indian Philosophy” as if Advaita Vedānta were its only representative. In fact, Advaita Vedānta, as discussed by Daya Krishna (Three Myths of Indian Philosophy), is virtually absent from the philosophical arena until almost the end of the first Millennium AD. And, one might add, its role in the second Millennium AD has been possibly overemphasised by well-known activists of Advaita Vedānta such as Vivekānanda who looked at Indian Philosophy through these lenses.
- Hinayana, a religion without a God, emphasizes self-help […]. Mahayana, on the other hand, is less egoistic and negative […]. In this sect Buddha is transformed into God and worshipped as such. […] The Mahayana religion has more missionary zeal than the Hinayana; it is more progressive and dynamic (p. 9). “Hinayana” is already a bad start, since it is a pejorative term (literally meaning ‘deminished* vehicle’, opposed to Mahāyāna ‘big vehicle’) applied by Mahāyāna Buddhists to their forerunners. “God” seems to me here a misleading category. If one thinks at the Western and Indian concept of God as creator of the world, dispenser of mercy, etc., then the Buddha is surely not a God, not even in Mahāyāna. And so on.
- The original teachings of Buddha were not incompatible with the Upanishads—for instance, he emphasized Atman, the Great Self, and encouraged people to act under the light of that Self, to seek union with it—but his early Hinayana disciples (of the Sarvastivada, or Vaibhasika, school) changed that (p. 9). This is a neo-Vedāntic interpretation of Buddhism, which uses a fundamentalistic device (“the origins were good, the successors mixed all up”) in order to suggest that the Buddha was in fact a crypto Vedāntin.
- Idealism is obviously the philosophy of choice for most Indian thinkers (p. 10). This is not so, and surely not “obviously” so. Which schools would one count among the Idealist ones? I can only think of Advaita Vedānta, Yogācāra and perhaps some trends of Pratyabhijñā philosophy. Which schools are closer to Realism, Representationalism, etc.? Mīmāṃsā, Vaiśeṣika, Sāṅkhya, Śaivasiddhānta, Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta, Dvaita Vedānta… (all of them are never mentioned in the “Notes”), Nyāya, Yoga, both schools of Jaina philosophy, most schools of Buddhist Philosophy, Cārvākas, and so on.
Long story short: Perhaps we have really to do something to spread some better-funded knowledge on Indian Philosophy (and perhaps interested scholars should make some efforts in selecting their sources). Which misconceptions do you encounter more frequently?
*translation improved thanks to Jayarava’s comment (see below).
Should you have arrived here for the first time: Please read this page about the purposes of this blog before feeling offended. I want to initiate discussions, not to offend anyone.