Recently I have read two excellent books by Anthony Gottlieb on western philosophy titled ‘The Dream of Reason’ and ‘The Dream of Enlightenment’. And I must say that I enjoyed both of them thoroughly, and am waiting for the third one which will cover the development of philosophy in modern times, especially after enlightenment. Both the books read like a hugely entertaining and engaging novel, and Gottlieb is a terrific writer. Even the most difficult of the concepts from western philosophy have been so easily explained that I have no hesitation in accepting that some concepts of Plato and Aristotle which have not been clear to me for long, were for the first time illuminated by Gottlieb. Gottlieb was executive editor of The Economist, and was educated at Cambridge and has also held academic positions. An interesting feature of his book is that he has consciously refrained from referring to other secondary sources (books on western philosophy by other authors) and has only referred to the primary sources. This is especially true about the first volume, dealing with ancient and medieval periods.
While going through the second volume, I started thinking and wishing for a similar volume on Indian philosophy. As far as I knew, there was no such volume written for curious educated reader interested in getting introduced to Indian thought – ancient, medieval and modern. Then I thought of making a fresh search again and did so. The result largely remains the same. In the process, I also decided that it is something on which I should comment. So this piece in my blog!
Searching Modern Popular Books on Indian Philosophy and Thought
There are good numbers of books available on Indian Philosophy, and I had made attempts earlier also to make myself aware of this field, and had tried going through a couple of those books. I found most of them very dry, written not in an engaging style, often difficult to understand and haphazardly organized. Most easily available ones like many books by Y. Masih (this writer appears to be an assembly line producer of text books on all types of philosophies: eastern, western, Greek; you name it, perhaps he has written a book on it), book by Chandradhar Sharma and few others are typical Indian textbooks, which one would read only when one is forced to! So, for an educated, curious mind, looking for an interesting and engaging book, options are very limited.
The most popular and one of the classic book on Indian Philosophy available is the two volume set written by the thinker, statesman and president of India, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. These books were written well before independence (in fact, by 2022, they will be completing the centenary), and thus are very old, yet they serve as excellent introduction and an advanced look into the Indian philosophical tradition and thought. However, there are three main issues with these volumes. First, obviously, they are very old, and reflect the though and understanding of early twentieth century, and therefore, not updated with subsequent research, understanding and debates. Second, they are largely concerned with religious philosophy or with the problem and analysis of world in relation to God, largely ignoring other philosophical issues like questions relating to logic, science, mathematics, epistemology, language and ethics etc. Further, the first volume, which mostly discussed Vedic gods, rituals and worship practices, Vedas and Upanishads, including Buddhist and Jain thoughts is more pronounced in this regard. The second volume covers the six system of Indian philosophy, namely Nyaya, Vaisesika, Sankhya, Yoga, Mimansaa and Vedanta, but again, though analytical (and not critical) the coverage is limited mostly to metaphysical issues. Third, though it is an excellent source and reference, it is not as engaging and interesting as Gottlieb’s or some other books on western philosophy, and may not be of interest to a general reader.
There are few other books by Radhakrishnan on Indian thought and philosophy. Though I have not read them, but from what I know about them, they are very good. Two books worth noting are ‘An Idealist View of Life’ (published first time in 1931-32), and ‘The Hindu View of Life’ (published in 1926). Clearly, they were again written almost a century ago, and largely concerns themselves with question of God, religion etc, and in that sense are limited in their scope and coverage.
I remember reading another old book by Chatterjee and Dutta long back. It was than published by University of Calcutta. Originally published in 1939, it is a reasonably good book for having a meaningful introduction of Indian philosophy, the six systems, as well as Buddhist and Jain thoughts. However, it also suffers from the same shortcomings; being almost a century old, written in textbook style, and in a very traditional fashion. I found that it is still available, now in a paperback edition (2007) from Rupa Publications. While availability of Radhakrishnan’s books, considered classics, is understandable, the availability of this book even after almost a century, attests to the fact that there is acute dearth of reasonably good modern books (and textbooks) on Indian philosophy written in post-independence India.
There is another classic encyclopedic book of five volumes on Indian philosophy by Surendranath Dasgupta. However, as like other good books, it was written during the early period of 20th century (1922, to be precise), and due to its huge size (more than 2500 pages) does not serve the purpose of being a popular intelligent introduction to Indian philosophy and thought.
I should not be closing this section without mentioning a book by Late Heinrich Zimmer, professor of philosophy at Columbia University. The book titled ‘Philosophies of India’ was published posthumously in 1951, edited by Joseph Campbell based on Zimmer’s manuscripts and notes. Although it is also an old book, in the first glance, it appears to be more broad based discussing issues like philosophy of power, and of success, political geometry, universal king etc. However, the neglect of science and related explorations of Indian philosophy at the cost of focus on god, metaphysics and politics is present here too.
And none of the books I have found deals with medieval and late medieval philosophical developments, which was a syncretic process synthesizing ancient Indian and middle east/Arabic/Persian thoughts.
One qualification is required here. My survey and search is confined to the books available in English. However, in respect of Hindi, and other regional languages of India, I am reasonably certain that situation is not much better, perhaps worse than that found in English. The decline of Hindi language and literature in past century is well known and we are also well aware of the plight of Hindi language authors and academicians. Further, other regional languages have done better, and therefore, the situation there might be better.
Philosophy, Religion, ‘This Worldly’ Issues and Their Critical Analysis
I can be questioned on my wish of seeing philosophy divorced from religion and question of God. In all civilizations, philosophy originally developed within the confines of religious thought. The quest of human mind to understand and explain this world, the world beyond, the universe, and various phenomenon within all this led to development of philosophical enquiry (understood in broadest sense), and if I may say so, also led to the development of idea of God.
In this light, it is a fair claim that it may not be possible to meaningfully separate Indian thought and philosophy from ancient Indian religious thought.
Though I would agree to this claim at one level, I still think that it is possible to have understanding of philosophical issues by expanding our analysis beyond question of existence, purpose of this life and God. And it not the case that there is dearth of such ‘worldly’ ideas in our ancient thought. Ancient thinkers like Aryabhatt, Varahmihir, Chanakya, Shankarachaya, Nagarjuna, Bhaskaracharya, Charak and numerous others have made important contribution in the areas of science, mathematics, astronomy and astrology, system of thoughts, politics, money matters, and epistemology, and various other ‘this worldly’ practical questions.
In fact, if we look closely, the western tradition of philosophy was developed even more strongly within the confines and limitations of Greco-Roman religious tradition and subsequently within Christian religious worldview. Ideas of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Sophists, Stoics, Sceptics and others were developed within the boundaries of pagan world view of Greco-Roman religious thoughts. Similarly, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and other medieval philosophers were Christian priests and thinkers. And I would also like to point out that thinkers like Descartes, Galileo, Copernicus, Erasmus, Hypatia and many others have to suffer a lot (including death) for their inquisitive mind and unorthodox views, and often have to propound their theories as just imaginary tales to evade the ire and Inquisition of church. Such was the attitude of church towards non-conformist views during medieval and renaissance period, even during enlightenment and beyond. In comparison, Indian thought and philosophical tradition have always accommodated (and if I may also say, encouraged) all types of heterodox, non-conformist thinking, ideas and approaches. Indian pluralism has a very long and rich history. And therefore, I would say that it is very much possible to examine and analyse Indian philosophical ideas fruitfully too, largely divorcing it from the question of God.
And for the still sceptical, I would add that s/he only needs to read Gottlieb’s book to realize that it is possible to explain, examine and analyse philosophical thoughts, questions and developments without mixing it with religious themes.
A related idea is of critically analysing ancient (and not so ancient) thinkers and philosophers and commenting on their theories, worldview, metaphysics and philosophies. This is another area, where we need to learn from western liberal traditions. Even Gottlieb is not shying away from critically analyzing and examining various theories and ideas of earlier philosophers, at times, even inferring as to why and how they thought the way they thought, looking at historical, social, political and cultural factors. As far as my understanding goes, this kind of open analysis is yet to make a mark in Indian philosophical writings.
I also see a vacuum of research, analysis and literature in the areas of Indian thought and philosophies of medieval and modern periods. There is hardly any popular, or for that matter scholarly, book covering these period and thinkers from these eras. A book emphasizing Indian thought and philosophical development should tackle medieval time’s religious and other currents, like bhakti and sufi, development of puranic traditions and thoughts, ideas of Tulsidas, Kabir, Tukaram, Nanak, Chaitanya, Surdas and others, as well as philosophical engagement of Islamic thought in India influenced from Arbic/Persian/Middle eastern thoughts, including Buddhist and Jaina thinking. I feel myself too inadequate to elaborate it further as my knowledge is sketchy, but am sure that this is a hugely neglected area. There has been some good research and literature for this period, but that largely pertains to disciplinary areas of historical and social analysis.
Moving further to British period, I again hardly find popular or serious and scholarly books on philosophy and development of thought. Books for this period should include and analyse ideas of such thinkers like Ranade, Gokhle, Tilak, Gandhi, Tagore, Nehru, Periyar, Ambedkar, Patel, Bose, Ahmad Khan, Roy, Krishnamurthy, Radhakrishnan, Azad, Rajgopalachari, Phule, and many others, including Savarkar and Mukerjee. Whatever is available is again within the confines of historical and social analysis (and there is a rich literature here), where obviously, the emphasis in not on examining and critically analysing the thought process, writings, philosophical and scientific ideas ingrained therein, development of these ideas and thoughts, their inter-linkages – temporal and spatial.
Further, there are books on individual thinkers (most numerous on Mahatma Gandhi), analysis of their writing and thoughts, but again it is more historical-political and less philosophical, analytical and comparative. Another worrying trend is that of growing intolerance where supporters of different thinkers are not ready to have them analysed critically. Here again, Mahatma Gandhi, accompanied by Nehru (to a lesser extent) are the only thinkers who have been put through critical analysis since long. In fact, of late, criticizing Nehru seems to be becoming a fashion.
In any case, I see a huge gap here also in terms of unavailability of popular, scholarly yet interesting books covering Indian thought and philosophical process of medieval and modern period.
Whereas Many Options for Learning Western Philosophy
The contrast between books available for Indian and western philosophical tradition becomes sharper when I compare what is available on western philosophy. Apart from Gottlieb, there is one classic, hugely popular book by Will Durant. Though this too is an old one, again more than half a century old (last edition was in 1933); the style, the approach, the treatment and the prose, all are first rate. This was the first book I tried reading about western philosophy, around a decade ago (I don’t remember whether I could finish it or not).
Let me list three more, excellent books on western philosophy, which I plan to read. The first one is another classic, by the great philosopher of twentieth century; Bertrand Russel titled ‘History of Western Philosophy’, first published in 1945. The edition with me runs in to more than 750 pages and divided in to three parts; ancient, catholic and modern philosophy. It follows the traditional approach of tracing the development of philosophical thought through life, work and times of important philosophers and thinkers in western tradition. Another modern books is written by British Philosopher of Oxford University, Sir Anthony Kenny titled ‘A New History of Western Philosophy’, originally published in four volumes starting 2005. The combined volume with me is a tome of more than 1000 pages (first published in 2010) with rather small font. The treatment is primarily periodic with four parts dealing, in turn with ancient, medieval, early modern and modern times. However, within each of these periods, instead of analyzing ideas of great thinkers, Kenny prefers being thematic. Thus, we have discussion on knowledge and language, metaphysics, science, mathematics, ethics, god, mind and soul, logic, epistemology, truth etc., under each of the period. However, within these there is an attempt to analyse and synthesize the ideas of different thinkers too, making cross references and comparisons.
A similar approach has been taken by Roger Scruton, the British conservative firebrand philosopher in his book Modern Philosophy – An Introduction and Survey (first published in 1996). As the title makes it clear, Scruton is concerned with modern philosophy, mainly but not exclusively, the period from Enlightenment onward. His approach and coverage of ideas seems wider than Kenny in the sense that in addition to themes like ethics, mind and soul, knowledge, language etc, he also involves himself with more modern ideas like perception, imagination, paradox, objectivity, identity etc. However, it is good that he has eschewed himself from engaging in post-modern ideas.
I have only done ‘elementary’ and ‘inspectional’ reading (that there can be different approach to and types of reading has been beautifully described by Adler and Van Doren in their famous book, How to Read A Book) of Scruton and Russell book, yet it has given me the feeling that they are very interesting to read, and have been written with an intelligent lay reader in mind. However, I cannot very confidently claim the same about the book by Sir Anthony Kenny. In any case, its volume and weight itself is sufficient to deter any non-serious attempters.
And there are many, many more books on western philosophy if one wants to go further. But I will not go any further here.
The Troubling Question
Instead I will come back to my two main issues.
First, Why don’t we have similar engaging, popular books on Indian Philosophy? Especially books written after independence.
Or perhaps books are available; it is that I have not tried hard enough to find them.
Second, but equally important, why there is no worthwhile book to name, published after independence, which can be compared to the classics of Russell or Radhakrishnan?
I may not be fully correct in framing the second question. But first let me tackle the first question.
I think I have tired reasonably hard. Amazon, google and goodreads are now well endowed with extensive and comprehensive data base of books published, especially recent books. And I am, therefore, reasonably sure that my search have been rather comprehensive, and there is no popular book on Indian philosophy written after independence which is of the quality and calibre of Gottlieb, or Scruton or Durant.
On the second question, during my search, I came to know of Bimal Krishna Matilal, and books written by him. He was an Indian, professor of philosophy at Oxford, who died in 1991. Many of his essays have been published by Oxford University press in two volume (see reference) titled ‘Mind Language and World’, and ‘Ethics and Epics’. I have both these books, an ‘elementary’ reading/flipping makes it clear that he is discussing issues like conception of philosophy in India, knowledge, truth, skepticism, logic, simplicity and profundity etc. He has authored many other books too, presumably of high quality. So there is at least one post-independence Indian philosopher with some quality work. There might be few more, I suspect, not in India but abroad. Another name comes to my mind, that of Sheldon Pollock, of Columbia University. Obviously he is not Indian, but has worked extensively on Indian thought, language and philosophy. I still have to read his book titled ‘The Language of God in the World of Men’. Despite their quality and coverage, these books are not of the stature and standard of that of Bertrand Russell’s classic, but at least, they are there!!
Why No One Is Studying Philosophy in India
One obvious reason of absence of such books on Indian philosophy is that no one is writing such books. And why no one is writing such books? It is because no one (or very few) is studying Sanskrit and philosophy in India nowadays. As is the case, after independence, and gradually thereafter, there has been a steady decline in quality and quantity of people taking up arts, liberal arts (and few discipline of social sciences too) as a career. For most of the middle class and aspiring middle class citizens, career in technology, engineering, medicine, commerce and economics, and management was, and still is, the dream. Those few, who took social science and arts, mostly wanted to enter civil services, and continued in academic only as a residual choice.
A gross generalization may not be appropriate here. Indeed, there have been, and still are, few intelligent, highly motivated, dedicated individuals who took up academic and research careers in arts and philosophy, and whatever good quality work we find today, we need to be thankful to them for their passion and hard work. I would also like to mention that many such individuals found their calling and have opportunity of excellence in universities and research institutions abroad. Most of the Indian educational and research establishments in social science and arts (except few, again) have steadily deteriorated over the years. I would also say that universities in south and west India have fared much better in this regard.
In a sense, when there are very limited opportunities, and all kind of difficulties and struggle, and very low social and professional recognition in choosing philosophy/Sanskrit/liberal arts as a profession, it is understandable that most young people avoid such paths, unless someone is exceptionally motivated and passionate. To that extent, the way our educational system, especially higher educational structure has developed and taken shape since independence, where arts, liberal arts, and even social sciences have been neglected and under-funded vis-à-vis technology and professional program needs to share the blame. How many educational and research institutions of the standing and with the comparable infrastructure of IITs, IIMs, NITs (and now IISERs, IIITs, NLSUI) etc., can we boast of in the fields of arts and liberal arts? Not only the government but private charitable institutions too are to share the responsibility. Our prominent business philanthropies believe more in constructing temples then in establishing universities, research institutions, libraries and other centers of learning!
And let me make one more contrast here. Today, on the one hand, we are in a situation where we have completely neglected our actual ancient history, philosophy, knowledge and thought, where we have not bothered to promote the study and scholarships of these disciplines, where today most of the scholars choose to study Sanskrit/philosophy only because they could not get in to IIT/Medical or some other professional course; whereas on the other hand, we are increasingly becoming chest thumping chauvinists willing to fight (and even kill) in the name of some stupid, imaginary ancient cultural practices and (philosophical) ideas.
Who cares for what Aryabhatta or Nagarjuna thought and discovered, it is much more important to save the holy Cow, the lynchpin of our philosophically rich civilization!!!!
And it becomes all the more easy and natural to believe in sacredness of cow when we graduate from IITs/IIMs etc, specializing in dynamics, calculus, finance, computer coding and what not, but without even an iota of actual understanding of our rich, diverse yet syncretic, accommodating and adjusting cultural and philosophical heritage.
Children and Philosophy?
Let me end with talking about a philosophy book written exclusively for children! (Of course, we can equally be benefited by it)
I was much impressed by this superb book – Sophie’s World, a novel, a story, about history of philosophy by a Norwegian story writer, Jostein Gaarder, first published in 1994. It is actually written as a novel for children introducing them to the western philosophical thought. It has been a hugely popular book, has attained the status of a cult classic and has been translated in to more than 60 other languages with more than 40 million copies sold worldwide. I have the book, and I read few chapters. Sophie is a school going girl. The story starts one May afternoon, when she is returning home back from school with her friend. Her father periodically visits home as he works in an oil company; her mother has gone to work. She, at the gate of her home, in the letterbox, finds a white envelope addressed to her… and the story proceeds.
The novel is as interesting and engaging as Gottlieb book, and truly a golden treasure for all middle and high school children. It should be a required reading in school, as is ‘The Diary of A Young Girl’.
When are we going to have our own Sophie’s World?
I am waiting for a Gottlieb or a Durant or a Gaarder and dream of seeing popular intelligent books on Indian philosophy someday.
Main Books Referred Above:
- Adler Mortimer, Van Doren Charles: How to Read A Book (1940, 1972); Simon and Schuster, New York
- Chatterjee Satischandra, Datta Dhirendramohan: An Introduction to Indian Philosophy (1939, Reprinted 2007): Rupa Publications, New Delhi
- Dasgupta Surendranath: A History of Indian Philosophy (5 volume) (1922); Motilal Banarsidas, New Delhi
- Durant Will: The Story of Philosophy; (1961) Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, New York
- Gaarder Jostein: Sophie’s World – A Novel About the History of Philosophy; (1994) Orion Publishing Group, London
- Gottlieb Anthony: The Dream of Enlightenment – The Rise of Modern Philosophy; (2016) Penguin Books, New Delhi
- Gottlieb Anthony: The Dream of Reason – A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance; (2001, 2016) Penguin Books, New Delhi
- Kenny Anthony: A New History of Western Philosophy; (2010) Oxford University Press, UK (4 volumes published combined)
- Matilal Bimal Krishna: Ethics and Epics (Collected Essays, vol – 2); (2002) Oxford University Press, New Delhi
- Matilal Bimal Krishna: Mind, Language and World (Collected Essays, vol – 1); (2002) Oxford University Press, New Delhi
- Pollock Sheldon: The Language of God in the World of Men – Sanskrit, Culture and Power in Premodern India (2006); University of California Press, Berkeley
- Radhakrishnan Sarvepalli: Indian Philosophy (Vol -1); (1930); Second Edition, Oxford University Press, New Delhi
- Radhakrishnan Sarvepalli: Indian Philosophy (Vol – 2); (1930); Second Edition, Oxford University Press, New Delhi
- Russell Bertrand: History of Western Philosophy; (1946, 1996) Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, London, UK
- Scruton Roger: Modern Philosophy – An Introduction and Survey; (1996) Bloomsbury Reader, New York
- Zimmer Heinrich (Edited by Joseph Campbell): Philosophies of India (1951); Motilal Banarsidas, New Delhi