Clerestory

Indian Philosophy

November 25, 2021

Part 15 of a series on Whether There Was a West.

Yesterday I introduced the philosopher and historian of philosophy Surendranath Dasgupta (1887–1952). Today I want to look at his Preface to the History of Indian Philosophy, to which he devoted thirty years of his life (1921–1952). You can find the first volume on Project Gutenberg.1

Dasgupta begins his Preface by arguing that philosophy in India was regarded as the highest form of art and the highest calling (my emphasis):

The old civilisation of India was a concrete unity of many-sided developments in art, architecture, literature, religion, morals, and science so far as it was understood in those days. But the most important achievement of Indian thought was philosophy. It was regarded as the goal of all the highest practical and theoretical activities, and it indicated the point of unity amidst all the apparent diversities which the complex growth of culture over a vast area inhabited by different peoples produced.

It was held in much higher regard than politics:

It is not in the history of foreign invasions, in the rise of independent kingdoms at different times, in the empires of this or that great monarch that the unity of India is to be sought. It is essentially one of spiritual aspirations and obedience to the law of the spirit, which were regarded as superior to everything else, and it has outlived all the political changes through which India passed.

Dasgupta believes that this was true to such an extent that India could even regard invasions with indifference:

The Greeks, the Huns, the Scythians, the Pathans and the Moguls who occupied the land and controlled the political machinery never ruled the minds of the people, for these political events were like hurricanes or the changes of season, mere phenomena of a natural or physical order which never affected the spiritual integrity of Hindu culture.

In Chapter I, “Introductory,” Dasgupta begins with a lament. Not just for “Western” ignorance of Indian philosophy, but for the ignorance in its birthplace, already in 1921:

The achievements of the ancient Indians in the field of philosophy are but very imperfectly known to the world at large, and it is unfortunate that the condition is no better even in India. There is a small body of Hindu scholars and ascetics living a retired life in solitude, who are well acquainted with the subject, but they do not know English and are not used to modern ways of thinking, and the idea that they ought to write books in vernaculars in order to popularize the subject does not appeal to them. Through the activity of various learned bodies and private individuals both in Europe and in India large numbers of philosophical works in Sanskrit and Pâli have been published, as well as translations of a few of them, but there has been as yet little systematic attempt on the part of scholars to study them and judge their value. There are hundreds of Sanskrit works on most of the systems of Indian thought and scarcely a hundredth part of them has been translated.

This, however, is perhaps unsurprising, given how hard philosophy is to study. Dasgupta describes the insane level of difficulty in understanding any of it for one “unacquainted with Sanskrit.” Worse, it turns out that it’s quite difficult even for those who do know Sanskrit:

It is therefore very difficult for a person unacquainted with Sanskrit to understand Indian philosophical thought in its true bearing from translations. Pâli is a much easier language than Sanskrit, but a knowledge of Pâli is helpful in understanding only the earliest school of Buddhism, when it was in its semi-philosophical stage. Sanskrit is generally regarded as a difficult language. But no one from an acquaintance with Vedic or ordinary literary Sanskrit can have any idea of the difficulty of the logical and abstruse parts of Sanskrit philosophical literature. A man who can easily understand the Vedas, the Upaniṣads, the Purânas, the Law Books and the literary works, and is also well acquainted with European philosophical thought, may find it literally impossible to understand even small portions of a work of advanced Indian logic, or the dialectical Vedânta.

There are two reasons for this, he argues. The first is that it uses extensive technical terms. This complexity begins to explode in the 9th Century:

The tendency to conceiving philosophical problems in a clear and unambiguous manner is an important feature of Sanskrit thought, but from the ninth century onwards, the habit of using clear, definite, and precise expressions, began to develop in a very striking manner, and as a result of that a large number of technical terms began to be invented.

The ninth century is also when the Buddhist Nalanda university was founded. In Baghdad, the House of Wisdom is well underway, collecting scholarship from Greek, Persian, Indian, and Arabic sources; it may be the “greatest repository of books inn the world” until the Mongols sack Baghdad in 1258.

Europe, by contrast, is not exactly experiencing a philosophical explosion during this period. I noted here how Columbia’s archetypal “Contemporary Civilization” course jumps awkwardly from Augustine (398) to Dante (1321).

Returning to Dasgupta, despite the definite, precise, technical meanings of Indian philosophical terms, they are very rarely defined. How can this be?

This is because we’re talking here about living systems of philosophy:

These terms are seldom properly explained, and it is presupposed that the reader who wants to read the works should have a knowledge of them. Anyone in olden times who took to the study of any system of philosophy, had to do so with a teacher, who explained those terms to him. The teacher himself had got it from his teacher, and he from his. There was no tendency to popularize philosophy, for the idea then prevalent was that only the chosen few who had otherwise shown their fitness, deserved to become fit students (adhikârî) of philosophy, under the direction of a teacher. Only those who had the grit and high moral strength to devote their whole life to the true understanding of philosophy and the rebuilding of life in accordance with the high truths of philosophy were allowed to study it.

This situation is not entirely different from that of the Greek schools (which, as I’ve discussed, may not be as different as popularly imagined). The Greek schools, too, were once living schools, which competed with each other, and (at times at least) jealously guarded their secrets. I’ll come back to that claim later (I promise; I’m tracking reminders here).

Suffice it now to say that what’s left of Greek philosophy is not living, and much of what we know is second- or third-hand; we know of thinkers whose work is lost. The Indian philosophies are living philosophies. Notice, for example, how long it takes for the wikipedia article on Vedanta to use the word “was,” as compared to, e.g., Epicureanism.

Unhelpfully, many of the Indian systems also reuse the same terms with completely different meanings:

Another difficulty which a beginner will meet is this, that sometimes the same technical terms are used in extremely different senses in different systems.

Yesterday I discussed G. E. Moore’s scorn for Dasgupta. Here’s Dasgupta writing on the Western view, specifically that of Frank Tilly’s 1914 History of Philosophy:

But is it necessary that a history of Indian philosophy should be written? There are some people who think that the Indians never rose beyond the stage of simple faith and that therefore they cannot have any philosophy at all in the proper sense of the term. Thus Professor Frank Thilly of the Cornell University says in his History of Philosophy, “A universal history of philosophy would include the philosophies of all peoples. Not all peoples, however have produced real systems of thought, and the speculations of only a few can be said to have had a history. Many do not rise beyond the mythological stage. Even the theories of Oriental peoples, the Hindus, Egyptians, Chinese, consist, in the main, of mythological and ethical doctrines, and are not thoroughgoing systems of thought: they are shot through with poetry and faith. We shall, therefore, limit ourselves to the study of the Western countries, and begin with the philosophy of the ancient Greeks, on whose culture our own civilization in part, rests.” There are doubtless many other people who hold such uninformed and untrue beliefs, which only show their ignorance of Indian matters.

Interesting! So Tilly mentions “Western countries” in the modern sense, before Spengler. Perhaps “Western civilization” goes a step further than “Western countries” though?

Tilly’s assumption that India has no thorough system of thought is astonishing. Recall the “hundreds of Sanskrit works” Dasgupta mentioned. The philosophies are divided into two classes, the nâstika (“it is not”) and the âstika (“it is”, presumably). The former, which neither regard the Vedas as infallible nor attempt to establish their own atuhority, include three schools: Buddhism, Jainism, and Charvaka. The latter do regard the Vedas as infallible, and include six schools (Yoga and Vedanta among them).

Dasgupta continues, contrasting the early stabilization of these nine Indian schools of philosophy with the unstable, even “revolutionary” progression of “Western” philosophy.

Most of the systems had very early beginnings and a continuous course of development through the succeeding centuries, and it is not possible to take the state of the philosophy of a particular system at a particular time and contrast it with the state of that system at a later time; for the later state did not supersede the previous state, but only showed a more coherent form of it, which was generally true to the original system but was more determinate. Evolution through history has in Western countries often brought forth the development of more coherent types of philosophic thought, but in India, though the types remained the same, their development through history made them more and more coherent and determinate. Most of the parts were probably existent in the earlier stages, but they were in an undifferentiated state; through the criticism and conflict of the different schools existing side by side the parts of each of the systems of thought became more and more differentiated, determinate, and coherent.

Yes, I’m thinking here of Kuhn’s idea of scientific revolutions:

If the condition of the development of philosophy in India had been the same as in Europe, definite chronological knowledge would be considered much more indispensable. For, when one system supersedes another, it is indispensably necessary that we should know which preceded and which succeeded. But when the systems are developing side by side, and when we are getting them in their richer and better forms, the interest with regard to the conditions, nature and environment of their early origin has rather a historical than a philosophical interest. I have tried as best I could to form certain general notions as regards the earlier stages of some of the systems, but though the various features of these systems at these stages in detail may not be ascertainable, yet this, I think, could never be considered as invalidating the whole programme. Moreover, even if we knew definitely the correct dates of the thinkers of the same system we could not treat them separately, as is done in European philosophy, without unnecessarily repeating the same thing twenty times over; for they all dealt with the same system, and tried to bring out the same type of thought in more and more determinate forms.

Although I’ve kept my commentary limited today, I hope that some of the above gives an indication as to where I want to go in comparing India’s intellectual history to that of Europe.


  1. As a disclaimer, although I’ve learned a bit about Buddhism over the years, I know much less about Indian philosophy than I know about Greek or Chinese philosophy, though I’m far from an expert in either of those either. Please read this page as an instance of “learning in public.”

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.