Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Indian philosophy and the quest for a beginning

The idea that the older the better is not epistemologically sound, unless one is ready to subscribe to the myth of a golden age, followed by decay. Nor can one postulate to be studying the beginning of something, I think. No matter how far we go, the history we will know will always remain the tip of the iceberg of the history of humankind.
Hence, I agree with many parts of the following statements (although not necessarily with their conclusions):

Early Western Indological studies were largely driven by the desire, typical of the Romantic Age, to learn about the 'beginnings' of things: the beginnings of religion, of philosophy, Sanskrit as one of the most ancient languages of the Indo-European family, etc. There is of course nothing wrong with such historical interests; but it is a bit odd that the classically oriented philologists rarely take an interest in the relevance of their studies for the present, and that many researchers who study contemporary culture are largely ignorant of the details of the historical roots of the culture (Robert Zydenbos, review of Mesquita's The concept of liberation while still alive in the Philosophy of Madhva, MIZ 1, pp.260-1).

This is the reason, maintains Zydenbos, why in "numerous Western universities" one finds a "very strong concentration" on

Buddhist studies or Advaita studies, which are of limited relevance for an understanding of Indian culture, if one considers that Buddhism virtually disappeared from India approximately a thousand years ago and Advaita never seems to have been popular with the masses (p.260).

This might be true, and I agree about the fact that it is a pity that scholars working on contemporary India often ignore its past. Nonetheless, personally I do not study Indian philosophy in order to better understand today's India.
And Buddhism is a sort of magnet that attracts students (and scholars), probably because it addresses them directly. Is not this also a way of being relevant?
What do you think? Why do you study what you study?

If you share my suspicions about the concept of "beginning", you might be interested in reading this post and this one (on IE reconstruction).


Anonymous said...

I understand your suspicion of "beginnings", but I think it needs to be qualified, because things do begin, and sometimes great ideas and works degrade with the passage of time. Not always, mind you, but sometimes.

Somdev Vasudeva's work on the "Synesthetic Iconography" of the Tantric goddess Malini comes immediately to mind. There was a brilliant system whose meaning became obscured and degraded over time until nobody bothered to even try to understand what it once was. The nadiphantakrama was deemed a non-order, random, and like so many tantric issues, relegated to the trash heap of mantra-tantra as mumbo-jumbo. In fact, there was a golden age of tantra with many brilliant expressions that can be recovered with careful work.

elisa freschi said...

Very interesting example, many thanks. And you are right, I have been too vague. What I meant was not a criticism of historical reconstructions like the one you mention (on the contrary: I firmly believe in history). Rather, I dislike sentences such as "Philosophy had its beginnings in Greece" (or in India or wherever else), since they regard a past which we cannot reconstruct and are animated by the myth of a "beginning" which can be "touched" and revered.
By the way: why not signing such an interesting comment?

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