Some common prejudices about Indian Philosophy: It is time to give them up

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 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):

  1. “‘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’.
  2. 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.
  3. (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).
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

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12 thoughts on “Some common prejudices about Indian Philosophy: It is time to give them up

  1. Hi,

    With reference to you last paragraph, I am founder of Advaita Academy. ( I would like to chat with you on commissioning of a book/study/infographic series/documentary on highlighting various aspects of Indian Philosophy and need your guidance and help.

    Please do get in touch with me at your earliest convenience.


    Hari Kiran

  2. When I came to the second paragraph, I stopped reading:

    ”Unfortunately Indian philosophy is very rich. So I’ll quote only the barest essentials. (What follows are mostly quotations from the first two books I mentioned, without the quotation marks.)”

    I stopped reading as that is an obviously contemptuous abandonment of normal scholarly practice and is a hair’s breadth away from ‘blah, blah, blah’ and ‘lol’.

    Marxism at this stage of history is a quaint affectation. There yet remains a wan hope that somewhere it might be really really tried seriously. I met a man once from Kerala. We got to discussing the political situation there, the Communist Part in its two forms were in power and reports would have C.P. (Mos) and C.P. (Pek) appended to the names of the L.S. members. I asked:
    – How did that work out?
    – Difficulties are there.
    (You may add the body language yourself)

    • Michael, I was also tempted to stop reading, but then I noticed that other people were bookmarking that article and I started thinking that some outsiders might have found it reliable enough to get at least a basic knowledge of India out of it.
      Thanks for the anecdote about Marxism!

    • Michael, I deleted the name of the author of the Notes in your comment (see my reply to Jayarava below for my reasons for doing so). I hope you do not mind.

  3. WRT to the anātmavāda, it is still within a religious context.

    Re hīnayāna it does not literally mean “small vehicle”. This erroneous idea is probably influenced by Kumārajīva’s translation of hīna as Chinese 小乘 hsiao-sheng “little vehicle”. Hīna on the other hand means “discarded, inferior, defective”. It has caste prejudice overtones.

    The idea that Buddhism has no god is eminently disputable – this is a sanitised version of the religion for Western consumption. In fact in traditionally Buddhist countries of all kinds the Buddha is treated as a god, in the sense that he is a deity that interferes in the world to save beings from misfortune and suffering (even self-created suffering). The trouble is that Buddhism is almost always represented as some people would like it to be, rather than how it is. Most of the rest of the views expressed in these “Notes” on Buddhism are similarly distorted. General books on Indian philosophy are extremely unreliable guides to Buddhism I find.

    • Thanks for the comments, Jayarava! I updated my translation of hīna. I also slightly edited your comment since I omitted the name of the author of theses notes. After all, he defines himself as a “graduate student” (although he has published alreday three books) and will hopefully change his mind and might regret having written these Notes (and I do not want google search to find his name connected with a criticism also in a future in which he might no longer share the views expressed in the Notes). In other words, I think we are right in pointing to the factual mistakes in the Notes, so that no one takes them as a reliable source, but perhaps less right in pointing to their author. Hope you don’t mind.

  4. Sorry if people were offended by those notes I took on Indian philosophy, posted on They were from almost ten years ago, just notes to myself that I decided to post in case anyone would find them of interest. It wasn’t a “paper,” it wasn’t meant to be scholarly. So let’s put it in perspective, and not take it so seriously. I was only quoting books that seemed fairly comprehensive; so if you have problems with what was written, take it up with the authors. But a moment ago I did change a few minor things, made a few qualifications, in response to the rather spirited criticisms on this blog.

    As for misunderstandings: yes, of course every philosophical tradition, especially the Indian, is very rich and can’t be adequately summarized in a few pages. As I acknowledged. Nevertheless, the specialists who wrote the books I was quoting seem to have understood that there is always some truth to old understandings and even cliches, with regard to any society. Doubtless they have to be qualified. But that’s the task of specialists, which I am not (as regards Indian philosophy). Of course every specialist will find something wanting in any general treatment of anything, but that doesn’t mean general treatments are mostly false.

    Incidentally, it sounds like a few of us could afford to educate ourselves on Marxism, which is far from a “quaint affectation.” Its analysis of capitalism and history is as relevant as ever, as the dozens of Marxian books recently published (by David Harvey, Robert Brenner, John Bellamy Foster, etc.) attest to; and as for its theory of revolution and predictions for the future, I’ve revised and updated those here:

    In chapter 4.

    • Hi Chris, and thanks for your reply. I understand that those were just your notes and this is the reason which led me to avoid mentioning your name (so that the discussion would not turn out in searches and damage you indirectly) and to write you a personal note. In other words, I was trying to “hate the sin and yet love (or at least not dislike) the sinner”.
      You write that your notes were just “notes to myself” but, as mentioned in the post, I felt I had to write something about them when I noticed that —after you published them on— MANY people there had been reading and bookmarking them (thus, probably thinking they were at least a good starting point for their investigations into Indian Philosophy) (the paper is currently in the top 2% of the papers!). I am surprised that such old prejudices can still be found around and I am happy to do what I can to stop them. Is not this part of the responsibilities of whoever is doing philosophy?

      Now, as for the content of your reply: As already suggested by several commentors, here and on the Indian Philosophy Blog (here and here), one’s sources matter. Would you say that an Australian is not responsible if she claims that no holocaust happened, based on the work of David Irving? Or would not you say that she ought to look for more reliable sources? Please note that we are not just speaking of minor details, as your claim (“Of course every specialist will find something wanting in any general treatment of anything, but that doesn’t mean general treatment are mostly false”) seems to suggest.

      A last question: I am glad you added some comments in your notes. If I were at your place and I had published some notes on Marxism which you had proved to be factually wrong, I would have reacted in a different way, which makes me wonder: Did my (and the other posters’) comments fail to convince you of the unreliability of your notes? It would be important for me to understand which mountains of prejudice one has to face while trying to discuss Indian philosophy in this century.

      • Yeah, sorry, I do still think the “notes” are a decent starting point for an investigation of Indian philosophy, in part since they summarize books written by experts and which have gotten positive reviews, if one looks on the internet. And it does seem the criticisms are fairly minor, mostly addressing quite particular issues and interpretations, appropriate to a different level of analysis than a very broad and brief overview of Indian philosophy. (For instance, “Hinayana” is a very commonly used term. I don’t think I’m perpetuating ignorance by using it.)

        If someone wrote a summary of Marxism that had some inaccurate points in it, it wouldn’t bother me much. Unless the whole thing was wildly inaccurate and dismissive. But nothing that has been said in this blog post or the comments convinces me that the whole set of notes is wildly inaccurate–which, in fact, I doubt it is, since it bases itself on sympathetic and subtle accounts of Indian philosophy by specialists.

        • Chris, did you read my comments here and the others over at the Indian Philosophy Blog? The notes are not “a decent starting point” and they do not include only “some inaccurate points”, they are overall inaccurate and the criticisms are not at all “minor”. Last, getting positive reviews “on the internet” is not a strong test for a valid testimony, in an age in which one can find on the web almost everything (once again: Don’t you think that one could find several positive reviews of Irving on the web?). The reason for addressing the issue is exactly that your notes perpetuate the problem, since they will be used by future students to explain that this or that book is reliable, just like you are doing here.

          • Okay. So if one shouldn’t trust posts on the internet–and in many cases one shouldn’t–then the same logic goes here: a couple people on the internet criticizing a brief summary of two books written by specialists doesn’t count as proof that the summary is wholly useless. There are literally hundreds or even thousands of points made in those few pages of “notes”; your blog post and the commenters criticized maybe ten or fifteen. (Not all of which, in my opinion, are valid or interesting.)

            Which should I trust more: a book or two that have been republished on many occasions (latest in 2000), written by respected scholars, or a blog post and some commenters?

            I’d also remark that some people are a little too inclined to be overly sensitive. I CONSTANTLY am confronted with wild misunderstandings of Marxism and left-wing philosophies in general, sometimes truly offensive misunderstandings, but they don’t particularly upset me. If I see something partially ignorant about Marxism that at least shows interest in it, I’ll in fact be rather impressed, not hyper-sensitive to a few of the points. (Again, I corrected and/or qualified some of the claims in those “notes” that you found incorrect.) You should take it as a positive sign that someone whose studies have no relation to Indian philosophy is at least interested enough to read a few books about it (which he thought looked–and still thinks are–informative) and write a summary of them for general readers. Moreover, the summary is by no means insulting towards Indian philosophy as a whole.

            I hadn’t seen that other blog, since you hadn’t directed me to it. But I’ll post this comment there too. One of the commenters there refers dismissively to self-published books. Typical of the academic–the “institutional” way of thinking, that has contempt for non-academic ways of doing things. ‘If it’s self-published, it must be non-serious.’ Predictable indoctrinated thinking. Similarly, it doesn’t strike me as inappropriate to post unacademic papers or notes or articles on–as is frequently done–as long as it’s done in good faith, etc. I’m interested in spreading knowledge and curiosity–as the (partly dated but not thereby worthless) books I quote seem to be–and I think I’ve helped do that by posting those notes. People can follow up on their own, pursue their own investigations. It isn’t my responsibility to correct every misconception that exists about Indian philosophy or that a few bloggers want to quibble with. And yet, nevertheless, I did take seriously the criticisms you made that I thought were serious and worth engaging with. That’s enough, and I’m done with this.

  5. Chris, it is a pity I did not manage to convince you that I am seriously trying to improve things, not to condemn you. You raise an important argument, namely “Whom should we trust?”. The problem is that bad money drives out good and that the growth of unreliable information on the internet is in this sense extremely dangerous and demands from us an increased awareness of the epistemological issues at stake whenever we accept a given piece of testimony. Your reaction makes me think I will have to dedicate a separate post to this topic.