Monday, March 4, 2013

The study of Indian philosophy

Ever since my graduate days - and especially since the World Congress of Philosophy back in Boston in 1998 - I've had an interest in Indian philosophy - a sophisticated set of traditions, and a field of study from which those of us writing on Islamic philosophy can learn much. Since those days, first reading the works of the major figures such as the late Bimal Matilal (d. 1991), Jitendra Mohanty and Jay Garfield, and then benefitting from an excellent colleague at Bristol and specialist (perhaps the leading one anywhere) on Buddhist Philosophy Paul Williams, I've enjoyed and learnt much from the work of Jonardon Ganeri, now Professor of Philosophy at Sussex. Ganeri's work on Philosophy in Classical India is a great model for a textbook in philosophy and those writing such works on Islamic philosophy should pay attention: history is important for the context, but any such presentation needs to be problem-based and really address the question of the nature of philosophy, how it can conceived by its practitioners and its role in the society and culture.
One of Ganeri's recent works (he's quite prolific!) is his study of philosophy in early modern India - The Lost Age of Reason. Here is an excellent recent review. The main observation I took from this work was how best to study these texts, how to engage in the history of philosophy. Along the way Ganeri offers one of the best critiques of conventionalist approaches to texts (the 'Cambridge school'), as well as astute comments on the nature of commentary and its productive and creative nature - a point noticed by a number of recent studies on later Islamic philosophy, especially one significant article by Robert Wisnovsky. He also shows how interest in philosophy brought together people of different traditions - and certainly much recent work on Mughal and related Persianate cultures in South Asia demonstrates how rulers appropriated traditions and gathered thinkers at court.
His more recent work on selfhood and subjectivity is of great interest as I try to make sense of the noetics of Mullā Ṣadrā and after. His earlier work The Concealed Art of the Self examined notions of selfhood and epistemology in Indian philosophies (a review is here), while most recently - or actually forthcoming - his new book on The Self is one which I await and I will hopefully post some comments on it later. The former ties his approach to the recent trend towards considering philosophy as a way of life, no doubt somewhat inspired by the revival of the work of the late Pierre Hadot (d. 2010). Another recent work of his Identity as Reasoned Choice engages with some of the debates that arise from the South Asian context - another participant in that has been Akeel Bilgrami.
But returning to the work on early modern India. The intersection of some Muslim philosophies (one thinks of schools of Sufism such as the followers of Ibn ʿArabī and the ishrāqī school of illuminationist philosophy brought to India by students of Jalāl al-Dīn Davānī [d. 1502] and Fatḥullāh Shīrāzī [d. 1589]) interacted with the Yoga, Vedanta, and arguably the Navya Nyaya traditions. In the book, Ganeri discusses Dārā Shikoh, the Mughal prince whose works comparing the school of Vedanta with that of Ibn ʿArabī led to the writing of a classic work such as Majmaʿ al-baḥrayn (the Confluence of the Two Seas, i.e. Sufism and Vedanta). Dārā's circle included a number of significant figures - such as his scribe Chandar Bhan Brahman (d. 1663?) who seems to have been one of the first Indians to write on ishrāqī philosophy - and he continued the project of his great-grandfather Akbar in encouraging the translation of Sanskrit texts into Persian - in his case the Upanishads. That cultural project is now the subject of study of a new initiative at Paris called Perso-Indica.
Tying into the Sanskrit Knowledge-Systems project and the whole idea of making sense of what colonialism changed in the Asian world, any serious study of later Islamic philosophy needs to have a more joined up approach and look at trends in related cultures and epistemological productions in the Islamic east. Specialists in the study of Islamic intellectual history in South Asia need to engage more vigorously with Indian traditions of thought and argumentation - and I need to go back and continue studying Sanskrit!