Exploring the History of Indian Philosophy

Purushottama Bilimoria (Principal Fellow in Philosophy) is co-editor (with Amy Rayner) of a major volume, History of Indian Philosophy. Covering three thousand years of Indian philosophy, with 58 contributors, the volume was published as part of the Routledge History of World Philosophies series in 2018 and recently re-issued in paperback. In this interview by Philosophy PhD candidate Henry Dobson, Purushottama discusses this book and its connections to a broader movement aimed at diversifying philosophy and exploring cross-cultural connections across the world’s philosophical traditions.

Your book History of Indian Philosophy covers a wide range of topics and debates in Indian philosophy. Is there a core theme or particular concern running through the book, or is it intended more so as a comprehensive overview?

The book indeed is comprehensive in its overview of the structure and patterns of Indian philosophy; however, there is a central theme that informs the raison d’être in undertaking this work, and that is to assuage people of two key perceptions prevalent in the Western world.

On the one hand, people often tend to assume that Indian philosophy is rooted solely in the mystical moorings of the Indian tradition since ancient times. Others go to the opposite extreme, viewing Indian philosophy as marked by a purely practical orientation, lacking thus in distinctively theoretical, discursive and intellectual concerns. In fact, the foundations of Indian philosophical thinking lie in both (and are a mix of) theoretical and practical rationality, not unlike the Greek idea of theoria as practical wisdom.

In the Indian case, in the minds of the ancients, the discussion of logic and epistemology preceded that of metaphysics. Classical Hindu, Buddhist and Jain philosophers devoted much attention to the art of debating, disputation and rules governing argumentation, adversarial critiques and methods for resolving contestations on the ‘Big Questions’. For example, Nāgārjuna (c150–250 CE) and Śrīharṣa (twelfth century) each developed critical thinking based on methods that people usually associate with the Western philosophical tradition, such as doubt, negation, fallibilism and reductio ad absurdum (or prasaga, in the Buddhist tradition). They were already practicing forms of logic that go beyond the strictures and limits of classical (Western) logic and entertain a broader domain and value of relevant non-consistent reasoning.

In recent times, Western logicians have been revisiting these methods and developing them in their own ways. At least four Australasian logicians, including Graham Priest, a former professor of philosophy with SHAPS, have been engaged in comparative work on Buddhist tetralemma. Also called catuṣkoti, the tetralemma is a four-cornered deconstructive reasoning mode that questions all essentialist suppositions such as ‘the self exists’ or ‘the self does not exist’ and further negations of such combinations. Graham Priest has traced the history of the tetralemma through a number of different traditions, linking it for example to the Jaina seven-step negation called Saptabhaṅgī.

Our volume’s 59 contributors cover a wide range of subjects, from Brāhmaṇic hermeneutics (grounded in interpreting ritual texts), through Jaina, Buddhist, Materialist-Skeptical, Grammarian, Logical (Nyāya), Ontological Sāṃkhya, Vedānta (Non-dualist) systems and an assortment of ‘esoteric’ (tantric) schools, down to Critical, Womenist and Postcolonial theorizing in contemporary times.

Nagarjuna with Thirty of the Eighty-four Mahasiddhas. Gelug lineage, c1700–1799. Rubin Museum of Art, New York, P2000.14.3 via Himalayan Art

In the introductory chapter, one thing I found particularly interesting to read about was the historical and cross-cultural tension between Eastern (Indian) and Western philosophy. Surely some Western ideas have their origin in Eastern thought, and vice versa. In what ways have both these philosophical traditions been shaped and influenced by the other?

This is a contentious and hotly debated issue among historians of ideas and classicists alike.

One school of thought has it that before the emergence of Europe (and the concomitant birth of what we might call Western thought in the post-Christian era), Greece was culturally, intellectually and commercially connected with Asia (from Central Asia, which is today partly connected with Russian cultural space, to the southwest to Persia and India).

Alexander the Great, it is said, was commissioned by Aristotle to bring back certain philosophical texts from India. Part of the evidence for this claim is the fact that the works of Pythagoras and some pre-Socratic thinkers contain a smattering of references to aspects of Indian natural philosophy (including cosmology and astrology).

There are even references of this kind in Plato (perhaps via Socrates?). When I was studying Plato’s Timaeus as an Honours student with a classicist, I was struck by how close his cosmogony was to the Hindu Upanishadic texts (although convergences and parallels in thinking do not necessarily mean there was direct influence).

The Alexandrian library was apparently filled with ancient Indian texts, though they did not survive following its destruction. However, at least three Greek historians – Megasthenes, Herodotus, and Pyrrho, who accompanied Alexander the Great’s army – left behind detailed accounts and analyses of Indian culture and thinking. Pyrrho studied with Gymnosophists (‘naked wisecracks’), members of an Indian sect of philosophers. A group of Gymnosophists accompanied the army back to Alexandria, and possibly informed Hellenistic scepticism.

The works of Arab writers on Indian thinking were accessible to the Greeks, from Ptolemy to Plotinus, Porphyry and Plutarch. Plutarch believed his master may have studied but also distanced himself from panentheistic views drawn from the central philosophical texts of the Upanishads. (Panentheists believe that the Spirit encompasses but exceeds the world, and this is connected to the concept of ‘The One = Brahman’ in the Upanishads).

Mandukya rishi memorial on Madku island, Chhattisgarh state, India, 2019. Two of the major Upanishads of the Hindu tradition – Mandukya and Mundaka – were composed here in ancient times. Photographer: Sarah Walsh via Wikimedia Commons

To give you another example: the Indo-Greek King Miliñda (Menander I) (ruled c155–130 BCE) conversed with Buddhist apologists. He left behind a moving dialogue with one Nāgasena on the question of the nature of the self, comparing it to the idea of a chariot, since it is a partite entity and is not grounded in an enduring substance such as soul or consciousness. This can in turn be seen as a precursor to Eliminativism, the twentieth-century school of thought, which holds that we should do away with talk of consciousness as a substantively existing entity and rework mental properties, such as qualia, as cognitive functions or embodied neural processes.

There are many other important examples that we might mention here too. For instance, the great-grandson of the tolerant Mughal Emperor Akbar (ruled 1556–1605), Dārā Shukoh, translated the Upanishads from Sanskrit into Persian, which in turn got translated into Latin, and came to the attention of European Orientalists and philologists, such as Deussen, Kraus and Schopenhauer. There was a great deal of interest in eighteenth- to nineteenth-century Europe in the philosophical texts being appropriated from Indian sources in Pāli and Sanskrit, the latter being regarded as the Ur-Sprache of the Indo-Euro-Iranian languages. These learnings made a deep impression on Herder, Hegel, Condillac, even Nietzsche and, certainly, Max Müller, who consequently came up with the idea of the ‘Āryan race’ as the Caucasian stock binding Central Asia, Indian and European peoples.

theology with Jesuits in the Ibadat Khana (House of Worship), Fatehpur Sikri, Uttar Pradesh, India. Illustration for the Akbarnama or Book of Akbar. Artist: Nar Singh, c1600–1603. Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, via Google Arts & Culture

But yes, the converse has also been suggested by another school of thought which argues that Indians borrowed a whole plethora of ideas from the Greeks, right up to Neo-Platonic thought, and the Arab scholar al-Bīrūni (973-c1050) brought some of these during his sojourn in India. On this view, even though Indian mathematicians might have invented the ‘zero’, the calculus genius of the Greeks advanced certain sciences, such as geometry, algebra, astronomy (at least the zodiac constellation) and anatomy.

I personally don’t doubt the veracity of the latter claim, though I would like to think that the intellectual world has inexorably been more global than parochial. Ideas and texts have always travelled across distant territories; this happened constantly between India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, China, Korea and Tibet, especially with Buddhist teachings (just as we cross borders easily in modern air- and ocean-crafts). It might be just a historical coincidence that four of the great world thinkers were more or less contemporaries, harnessing kindred wisdom teachings thousands of miles apart with no knowledge of each other: Socrates, the Buddha, Confucius, Mahārvīra (the systematiser of Jaina thought) and we may add Jesus Christ.

Buddha in meditation, second century CE. Indian Museum, Kolkata via Wikimedia Commons

Just as Leibniz was conversant with Confucian thinking, the Jesuits introduced aspects of medieval and Christian philosophical thinking into mainstream Chinese philosophy, and helped them sharpen their apparently ‘fuzzy’ logic that bore an excess of Buddhist dialectical influence.

Likewise in India, with the much earlier arrival, supposedly, of St Thomas and, later, St Xavier, but also of Portuguese legates and scholars working for the British East India Company who followed the Mills’ (James and John Stuart) recommendations for modernising India (a ‘Utilitarian India’ as Edmund Burke ruefully quipped). Hegel, following Herder, chartered Indian thinking as a kindred of the early semi-evolved stages of Western thought; he nevertheless had considerable influence in that period on the Indian turn towards (or revival of nativist-nationalist) ‘idealism’.

By the time of the Enlightenment, the historical connections between the East and the (ancient to medieval) West were severed and the West claimed its own unique roots in Hellenic-Roman-Jerusalem intellectual culture. For all of Kant’s cosmopolitan oeuvres, he was fervently opposed to taking philosophies of the East seriously, except to fill certain gaps in the accounts in philosophical anthropology, but not in the work of pure, practical or aesthetic reason. Such sentiments have been resoundingly echoed in mainstream Anglo-American-Australasian philosophy, more or less.

Chapter One of your book explains how Western philosophy began “in wonder about the natural world and the reach of reason”, whereas Indian philosophy “begins in speculation about the origins, nature, and function of language as a vehicle of philosophical insight”. In your view, how have these two different philosophical beginnings influenced and shaped the course of Eastern and Western society, culture and science throughout history? 

With all due respect, I would have to say in hindsight that Indian philosophers also speculated about the natural world and its origins (vide earlier comment on cosmogony in the Upanishads); but the reach of reason, or theoretical rationality as I called it earlier, is articulated through the all-pervasive theory of the pramāṇas (sources or conditions of true cognition and justification).


Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo Ghose, c1900. Via Wikimedia Commons

The primary objective of pramāṇa theory is to provide an account of when an instrument properly functions to deliver true cognition. The classical list of possible types of valid means of cognition variously included perception, inference, counterfactual conditional, testimony, speech-act (including gesture, as in drama), analogy, presumption, comparison, memory, and absence (or negation).

Some schools, such as the materialist Cārvāka, argued that only perception is valid; the Buddhists with reluctance accepted perception and inference, while others, such as the Mīmāṃsā, considered testimony and inference to be also valid kinds of cognition.

There are two linguistic components to the overall theory.

First, is the claim that all cognition comes as it were ‘shot through’ (to use Bimal Matilal’s adage) with language, that is to say, cognition is a language-generated awareness. This view has ramifications for the relation between language and mind, and the express claims of cognition in the form of propositional awareness. Many tomes have been written in Sanskrit investigating this linguistic structure and phenomenological contents of consciousness in the formation of cognition, wherein some accept an indeterminate, inchoate phase (more like Kant’s intuition) in the episodic awareness prior to the formation of judgment which takes a propositional form, such as “I see a blob qualified by tree-ness.” The potentia for the latter is inherent in the former; thus the qualia ‘tree-ness’ or ‘blob’ [shape] are never free-floating and detached from the qualificandum but, rather, they bear an intrinsic relation, according to the realist Nyāya.

The second is straightforwardly connected with testimony as a viable means of knowledge. Western theories tend to ignore the linguistic component of testimony, while the Indians pay a great deal of attention to that component both in respect of the speaker’s utterance and the hearer’s understanding of that which is to be conveyed (which the Buddhists use to dismantle the theory on the grounds that language as a set of concepts in the mind fails, in causal terms, to ‘grasp’ direct reference to things in the world): hence affording us neither a presentational nor a representational ‘mirror of nature’.

A whole separate pramāṇa is devoted to this mode of deriving knowledge, called Śabdapramāṇa (on which I have also written a whole book). It begins with positing an originary or primordial relation (autpattika) between word and meaning (signifier and signified, as de Saussure renamed them), and thereby building up a whole theory of sentential understanding and textual hermeneutics, informed by Indian grammarians, incorporating theories of inclusion-exclusion, intension-extension, and conditions of truth and falsity of verbal understanding. Testimony, then, falls in the interstices of word and knowing, of philosophy of language and the epistemic drive.

Vedic teacher and scholar Adi Shankaracharya surrounded by four disciples in the early eighth century CE, c1904. Artist: Raja Ravi Varma. Ganesha Shivaswamy Foundation, Bengaluru, India via Google Arts & Culture

For someone unfamiliar with Indian philosophy, where would you recommend starting? Which author or text?

Good question. I have been asked this question so many times, and when I myself turned at the graduate level to study Indian (and comparative) philosophy, I was hampered by not being able to find a single volume – rather than ploughing through 10-12 volumes – on a quick guide with an analytic lens through Indian philosophy. That is the reason this book was conceived, with stalwarts such as Bimal Matilal, who taught in Oxford’s All Souls College, and J N Mohanty, the Husserlian phenomenologist who doubles up as an Indian philosopher in his other moments. Without seeming to plug my own work, this volume could be a helpful source; and indeed it is being used widely in introductory courses in Indian philosophy (e.g., in Princeton, San Francisco State University, IIT-Mumbai and Ashoka University in Delhi, among other places).

Have you found yourself reading more philosophy as a source of hope and consolation throughout COVID-19? If so, who have you been reading and why?

I never stop reading philosophy – it is an obsession! But yes, seriously, I was asked to write an article on Hindu response to death and dying in the time of COVID-19 pandemic, and I had to reach out to my bookshelf in Venus Bay (where I spent much time during the endless lockdowns).

While editing the journal Sophia (based in SHAPS), I have learned a great deal also from Western philosophy of religion – such as arguments for the existence or non-existence of God, the problem of evil (theodicy), and the meaning and end-goal of life – which I have been able to bounce off against Indian philosophical theosophy, if you will, suggesting novel ways to approach the age-old problems from a comparative, or ‘cross-cultural’ and ‘subaltern’ perspectives. Sophia has earned the recognition (by the American Philosophical Association and the Birmingham-Templeton Project on Global Philosophy of Religion) of being a lead journal in diversifying philosophy.

I have also been writing on Jaina practice of voluntarily fasting to death when, for example, a member of the community is burdened by terminal disability. The Jaina approach is something of an antidote or corrective with a spiritual twist to the more clinically-legally-aligned argument for euthanasia in Western bioethics. 

Veyagana, Book of Chants of the Liturgical Kauthuma Samhita of the Samaveda, written c1200–1000BCE. Manuscript copied on paper in 1672 CE, Toddapur, India. Schoyen Collection, Oslo, MS 5293

Who is your favourite Indian poet?

The twelfth century Indian nondualist philosopher, Abhinavagupta, who wrote on aesthetics and theory of poesies; he also composed poetry. Although it has a devotional/spiritual ring to it, the immaculate Sanskrit in which the verses are rendered evokes a sense of the sublime. It is informed by his belief in the unity of the Absolute, and his longing for a direct vision of that splendour. There aren’t good translations of it around, unfortunately.

Do you have a particular aim or goal in mind with this book? Are you hoping the book will advance or resolve some contemporary issues in either Indian and/or Western philosophy?

My only wish that is that students introduced to or studying Western (ancient, analytic and Continental) philosophies do not take it as a default that there aren’t other approaches to philosophy in a world where the sheer demography and plurality of cultures would belie that anyway. That they take a bold step and seek to inform themselves even if the philosophers plead – as they often do apologetically – ignorance of ‘non-Western’ philosophy, and read as they do ancient and medieval philosophy (which itself is an exercise in comparative philosophy of sorts).

Looking to the future, are you hopeful that Indian and Western philosophy can work together and merge into a “confluence of perspectives” so as to discover greater knowledge and wisdom for us all? 

I do hope so; the world is shrinking in many respects as travel and information media expand our vistas into other worlds, so to speak, or the world of others, who are more our neighbours and we are rather the strangers on the borderlands of their world.

The American Philosophical Association (APA) (including the Canadian counterpart) and, in no small way, the Australasian Association of Philosophy (AAP) for some time now, have been striving towards what they call ‘diversity in philosophy’ – and concomitantly, diversity in philosophy journals, as I mentioned in reference to Sophia above. The APA has a dedicated newsletter, a blog, and a resource portal (where sample syllabi are posted) that give voice to diversification of philosophy, with the aim also of bringing to close attention of mainstream philosophy departments and faculty, the virtue of going ‘Eastie-Westie’ (a descriptor coined by Ian Hinckfus, formerly of UQ Philosophy) in a growing pluralist-multicultural and diversifying world.

We might call it a comparative mode of philosophising, or ‘fusion philosophy’. Others have called it ‘cross-cultural philosophy’, or ‘world philosophies’, though this is better rendered as ‘cosmopolis philosophy’, as the title of the book’s Introduction suggests.

That kind of cosmopolis endures today among traditionally trained scholars in India and the diaspora. Cross-cultural philosophy is being practiced increasingly in a few centres of East-West philosophy, such as the University of Hawai’i, Smith College, CUNY, the Dutch universities of Amsterdam and Leiden, Lancaster University, Kyoto University, at least four Departments of Philosophy in the San Francisco Bay Area, RUDN University of Moscow, the University of Toronto, and even Oxford University as of this year. At one time the Universities of Wellington and Auckland, and indeed Melbourne Philosophy (among the four major universities) led the way in Oceania in the field of cross-cultural philosophy; perhaps we might return one day to that acclaimed grandeur!

Purushottama Bilimoria is Principal Fellow in SHAPS and Senior Fellow with the Australia India Institute at the University of Melbourne. He is a recent Fulbright-Nehru Distinguished Fellow and Visiting Faculty at Ashoka University in Delhi. A former Fellow of the College of the All Souls of the Faithfully Departed (Oxford), he is now a permanent senior fellow at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies at the University of Oxford. He is CEO and co-editor-in-chief of Sophia, International Journal in Philosophy and Traditions, based at SHAPS, and also the founder-co-editor of Sophia Studies in Cross-Cultural Philosophy of Traditions and Culture(both published by Springer). He teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and San Francisco State University, while also acting as ‘Lead Scientist’ of the Russian Federation Megagrant Project in Philosophy & Culture at RUDN University of Moscow. Purushottama has a strong interest in comparative philosophy and, in particular, the historical and intellectual intersection between Eastern and Western philosophies and philosophy of religion.

Henry Dobson is a current PhD candidate in Philosophy at the University of Melbourne, focusing on the ethics of artificial intelligence (or AI Ethics).


Feature image: Vedic teacher and scholar Adi Shankaracharya surrounded by four disciples in the early eighth century CE (detail), c1904. Artist: Raja Ravi Varma. Ganesha Shivaswamy Foundation, Bengaluru, India via Google Arts & Culture

One Response to “Exploring the History of Indian Philosophy”

  1. William J. Jackson says:

    A wonderful interview. Interesting to hear about these sides of the thinker, writer, editor so active on the international stage. Great work Professor B! Congratulations!