Saturday, January 19, 2013

Is the Academia the best place to study Indian philosophy?

A recent post by Aleix Ruiz-Falqués has gone back to an issue I had dealt with years ago, because of a post by Amod Lele, i.e., does it make sense to remain in the Academia? Are Universities (Academies and similar institutions) the best place to persue one's interest for Sanskrit (and) Philosophy?

The pros and cons usually mentioned in this connection are:

  1. 1. Time: if you work 8 hours a day at something else, you will have much less time and energy to focus on Sanskrit (and) Philosophy. However, University staff often laments the fact that they have to focus on different aims, such as teaching undergraduate classes on "Introduction to South Asian studies", writing projects, dealing with administrative problems, etc.
  2. 2. Reunification of Career and Hobby (again, see this post by Amod Lele): officially working on the topics you love may make you more responsible towards them. However, if you a rebel or a procrastinator (i.e., someone who is ready to do whatever, in order to avoid fulfilling her primary duty), you might end up noticing that you spent more time on research when you were not officially researching.
  3. 3. Money: Many would say that the fact of being paid is in itself something more than pleasant and that during the present crisis, it is very difficult to find jobs at PhD level. However, I am assuming here that the ultimate goal is one's happiness and that money plays a noteworthy, but not exclusive role, for it. Moreover, in the present crisis, one (almost) only finds temporary positions which are not particularly well-paid.
  4. 4. Students: I tend to think that the pleasure of interacting with students is an end in itself. However, people engaged in undergraduate curricula in the US often hate their dull students, who come to the class only because they have to.
  5. 5. Colleagues: Working on the Academia may mean having many interesting colleagues with whom you can discuss and share ideas. However, this is often not the case, and one may happen to share more gossip than research ideas, whereas the web is often a great place to virtually meet people with similar aims.

Long story short: The Academia is part of the world and it is not intrinsically better, nor worse than it. Working in it or outside it have both advantages and disadvantages and choosing for the one or the other must ultimately depend on an accurate self analysis: is one a rebel or an obliger? Does one appreciate having to do what one loves? Can one be in love with one's wife/hisband? If the answer to the latter two questions is no, it is probably better for one's happiness to work outside the Academia.

What has been your experience, within or without Universities (etc.)? 


Jayarava said...

The academy also offers resources and instruction that are difficult to find elsewhere. More and more resources are coming online however.

Sanskrit is difficult for the auto-didact, but I know at least two people who have worked through Coulson on their own.

I've done OK educating myself and writing, but making a living has become the issue. The only thing I want to do these days is research, writing and a little bit of teaching. But how to do that?

elisa freschi said...

This is a good question. I tried to answer here:

Eisel Mazard said...


Strangely, this discussion began with me (although I was being interviewed about an unrelated subject...) via Aleix's blog, and so on.

Among the things that people never seem to guess from my writing (neither from articles nor from personal e-mails) is that I'm neither cynical nor fatalistic about these things. Many of the career academics whom I spoke to expected me to have purely cynical (mercenary and/or careerist) considerations in applying for a PhD --and they were shocked when I asked open-minded questions about what I could learn, what they would teach me, and what would be most productive (mutually) for me to research, and so on. Although there are subjects that I know more about than anyone with a PhD, the world also contains an infinite number of subjects that I have no expertise in whatsoever: I always approached academia with the non-cynical attitude that I had a lot to learn (and, as you can imagine, this was not what professors were expecting of me, because I'm so much more advanced than the usual applicants, etc.).

It was partly to make my supervisors more comfortable that I was willing to work on subjects as diverse as Hokkien and Cree --i.e., languages that I had no expertise in whatsoever (unlike Pali, Lao, etc.). However, even this did not get results (as you may now know from reading the interview).

Academia is not seeking applicants: they are only seeking supplicants. No matter how friendly I may be (and no matter how willing I may be to start in a new language, etc.) my existence is profoundly unsettling to the sense of authority of most of these professors. They are accustomed to lecturing a completely uncritical audience.

Again, I do not say this in a cynical manner: these are simply the facts my life has revealed to me, and that I've dealt with in a practical sense.

I would also note that you are still linking to my old blog (in your blog-roll). I'm now in France, and blogging at:

elisa freschi said...

Hi Eisel,
I understand that you are saying something like "I just want/wanted to learn and I am/was ready to undertake new paths in order to achieve this goal, but yet I did not encounter teachers". Am I correct? If so, I am not sure why you never met a teacher. My experience is that most people in fact NEVER/hardly have students (I mean realy students) and desperately look for them. As already hinted at in various other blogposts of mine, I wonder if it is a question of offer and demand which do not get to know about each other. For instance, many people ask prof. X to write their PhD with her, because she is well-known. But they neglect her colleague who has no students (and, hence, no one who can advertise for her). Perhaps X will have to decline, whereas her colleague would have been happy to accept a student?

(I changed the link to your blog.)

Eisel Mazard said...

Hi Elisa,

I just noticed this because of an obliquely related word-search: the last time I was on this page I asked you to update your link to my work, but now (sadly) the link you've got leads to a plain white screen!

You can link directly to my blog at:

Or you can get links to my web-presence (all over the place) via:

It's sort of strange and wonderful that you've had a link to a blank, white page (with my name on it!) for these few years!

To return to the topic being discussed (if you're still interested, and I suspect that you are), I've had many, many invitations to get PhDs with professors (all over the world, in a variety of disciplines)... the problem is precisely the aspect of language.

The world is densely populated with people who have PhDs; the number of these people who actually have advanced command of an obscure language (like Pali, Lao or Cree) is very few --and an even smaller number can really offer language-education (i.e., lessons) in the language concerned. You could end up (e.g.) in a situation where you really just get distant "supervision" for self-study… and you may be getting supervision from someone with no salient language-ability.

When I talked to the famous Univ. of Hawai'i, they admitted that this was all they could offer me: working in complete isolation, with some professor who has credentials in general linguistics (but not in the particular language) nodding at my work. Of course, this is also part of the pattern of why so many professor who claim credentials in Pali (and other obscure languages) really have shockingly little ability (I recall, e.g., a new textbook on Cambodian Buddhism written by a man who had zero comprehension of Cambodian, and also zero Comprehension of Pali... with predictable results).

I could offer numerous examples, for Pali in specific, or for various other languages.

Re, your comment: "My experience is that most people in fact NEVER/hardly have students (I mean realy students) and desperately look for them."

There are, obviously, important aspects of religion and culture here, and we can't really make the same generalizations about Hinduism as Buddhism (let alone other religions) here. I do assume, e.g., that it would have been vastly easier for me to acquire a real teacher for Greek or Hebrew than it was for Pali (not to mention Lao, Cree, etc.).

In many cases, I would arrive in a hierarchical situation, where I knew more Pali than the professor in charge of teaching Pali (this is not a boast, but a real experience I've had, several times over); this creates a kind of crisis within the authoritarian attitudes that tend to prevail in Buddhism, and so, no, a professor in this situation would not be happy to have me (as a "real student", as you say) because my presence in the institution is a threat to the professor's authority.

As you may imagine, these issues (of attitudes toward authority) are very different just in contrasting China to Taiwan, not to mention in contrasting Taiwan to Sri Lanka, or Thailand to Japan, etc. --issues very different from those faced by Hindu Sanskritists within India.

Some anecdotes of this kind are rolled into my youtube videos, discussing my experience in Buddhist Studies (that may or may not amuse you to hear).

elisa freschi said...

Thank you, Eisel. I updated the link and will listen to the videos before replying. I can easily understand that finding a good teacher for, say, Latin is easy and that finding one for, say, Cree is almost impossible (your words are very telling about that). But Pāli… should not it lie in an area in which teachers are still possible?

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