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PRABUDDHA BHARATAIndian Philosophic Prose in English | Dr. Sumita Roy  



     Indian Philosophic Prose in English




     Dr. Sumita Roy


     The use of English for the exposition of Indian philosophy has opened up new avenues of interpretation involving pluralistic responses and redefinitions growing out of already existing tenets. Beginning as it does with the predominantly zealous missionary approach, which was an attempt by thinkers such as Carey, Marshman, Ward, Monier-Williams and others to find footholds for Christianity, through the memorable episode of European philosophical responses to India represented by Hegel, Schelling and Schopenhauer, followed by the Orientalists of the stature of Muller and Farquhar responding to the neo-Hindu inclusivism of Ramakrishna, Keshab Chandra Sen, Vivekananda and such others, to the later engagement and preoccupation with ideas of Indian philosophy by eminent Indians for social reform and national and cultural revival - the dimensions of Indian philosophic prose in English spread over areas as diverse and extensive as politics, religion, sociology, economics, ethics, culture, spirituality and so on, thus putting an end to narrow, authoritarian, critical tenets prescribed for the study of philosophy. Also, here the foregrounding of English as a language of discourse where the original Sanskrit is no longer privileged offers an important shift in the politics of Indian thought.


     The continuing tension between Western responses and indigenous interpretations, the conceptual frames formulated to accommodate Western assumptions in order to invest Indian thought with a sense of universal acceptability, the impact of Indian philosophic and religious texts on the Western consciousness, and their global dissemination due to the use of English have considerably altered the philosophic and religious maps of the world.


     Considering this, it is interesting to approach the issue in question from the perspective of New Historicism. In his seminal work The New Historicism Reader (published in 1994 by Routledge) Aram Veeser gives the five fundamental assumptions of New Historicism thus: 1) every expressive act is embedded in a network of material practices; 2) every act of unmasking, critique and opposition uses the tools it condemns and risks falling prey to the practice it exposes; 3) literary and non-literary texts circulate inseparably; 4) no discourse, imaginative or archival, gives access to unchanging truths or express unalterable human nature; and 5) a critical method and a language adequate to describe culture under capitalism together participate in the economy they describe.


     The present paper attempts a survey of the New Historicist perspective of Indian philosophic prose in English based on these assumptions.



     Embedded Texts: Written and Non-Written



     The expressive acts of Indian philosophy from its earliest oral tradition - the Vedas, Vedanta, Puranas, Itihasas, Yoga, Mimamsa, bhakti poetry and music - have been influenced by and in their turn have also influenced the dominant material practices of their respective ages. Coming to the origin and development of Indian philosophic prose in English over the last two centuries, the discussions generally begin with Raja Ram Mohan Roy, whose contribution most often acclaimed is largely restricted to the field of political and social activism. This marginalizes the fact that these had their foundation in his vast acquaintance with Hindu philosophic texts which he commented upon in English. Till recently his writings have failed to receive due recognition. The quality of embeddedness indicated by Roys Vedanta Chandrika and such other works is as obvious as it is in Vivekanandas thoughts on the Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita. Gandhis use of ahimsa, the dominant ideal of Jainism, to give direction to the nationalist movement, Tilaks reinterpretation of the Bhagavadgita in justification of the lesson of violence for justice taught to Arjuna, Dayananda Saraswatis purification of Vedic knowledge for inculcating a temper of self-confidence and his insistence on the universal global significance of the Vedic teachings are all illustrations of one crucial idea: in all of these philosophy was a response to the external challenges of life.


     Philosophy as an academic discipline was more or less the forte of British intellectuals teaching in India. One of the first notable Indian representatives of the academic aspect of philosophy and its concepts was K. C. Bhattacharya, who was followed in this task by his son Kalidas, his student R. V. Das and his admirers G. K. Malkani and T. R. V. Murti.



     Subversion and Conformity



     Though much of this early philosophic engagement was a subversion, directly or indirectly, of English hegemony, it is noteworthy that the basic act of condemnation also involved an act of conformity. For instance, European models of philosophic discourse were widely accepted and emulated. Ram Mohan Roys particular hermeneutic system appeals to and reflects upon different traditions, simultaneously appropriating the alien while he asserts himself to be against the alien.


     Though the terms Renaissance and Reformation/Revival have been commonly associated with the rise of Indian philosophic prose written in English, the term neo-Hinduism is preferred in academic contexts. This brings to the fore the debate about suitable terminology and lexicographic problems which received much attention from thinkers such as Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. The Sanskrit exclusivism and the vernacular popularized by the Pali canon brought out ideas such as Buddhism being the fulfilment of Hinduism and the approach to ancient systems through the concept of practical Vedanta. Similarly the support of Hindu orthodoxy by people like Madan Mohan Malaviya resulted in the uplift of untouchables, who were then designated as harijans, the people of God.



     Fluidity of Discursive Truth



     Philosophy was no longer merely metaphysical speculation aimed at bringing out the intellectual brilliance of thinkers; instead it gained ethical and social currency. It acquired an imaginative and symbolic dimension, became more descriptive and contemplative. For instance, the literary masterpieces of Bankim Chandra underlined the philosophic ideal of anushilana (repeated practice); Rabindranath Tagore, in his turn, advocated a personalistic absolutism and considered beauty and harmony of Gods creative act as a fitting subject for both literature and philosophy.


     The source of inspiration in the case of Devendranath Tagore was his own heart, in contradistinction to the privilege given to revelatory scriptures by other Brahmos. Here the fourth of Veesers assumptions comes into play because both imaginative and archival discourse shows the alterable nature of truth. Keshab Chandra Sen borrowed from Christianity, while Vivekananda categorized the West as materialistic/pragmatic and the East as spiritual/impractical. Aurobindo attempted to establish the identity of Hinduism not by return to the past nor by asserting its timeless validity; for him it was the source of vitality and change, openness for question and experiment. Coomaraswamy spoke in defence of tradition in Hinduism through his criticism of Radhakrishnan, who, he felt, had failed in the task of actualizing and modernizing the tradition, as had several others. Krishnamurti did not show allegiance to any particular philosophic system or tradition and spoke of spiritual truths as lying deep within oneself, to be realized by ones own effort. It was the unique privilege of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharshi to bring an experiential dimension to the expression of philosophic truths. The tolerance and universal dimension of Ramakrishnas spiritual message and the silence of Ramana, which is as eloquent as his words of wisdom, bring new levels of truth to philosophic discourse. But, of course, this was not the last word. It has been said that Vivekanandas use of the teachings of his guru Ramakrishna was styled in his own peculiar way to suit his purpose, for his ideas of mass-education and philanthropy were not directly mirrored in the teachings of Ramakrishna.



     Discourse as Participation



     Talking of the last of Veesers assumptions, the long engagement of thinkers all over the world with Indian philosophy imparts it a market value not far to seek. The appearance of Vivekananda at the Chicago Parliament of Religions in 1893 was the beginning of Indian thoughts taking root in American soil. At the outset it was Vedanta and the West but by the turn of the last century the juxtaposing conjunction and had been replaced significantly by a preposition of involvement - in - so that now one speaks of Vedanta in the West. Popular forms such as Transcendental Meditation, International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), and personalities like Rajneesh, Mahesh Yogi, Swami Rama and others have captured the Western imagination.


     Radhakrishnan, notwithstanding his alleged lack of originality, was one of the most successful spokespersons for neo-Hinduism in the West - as memorable as he was persuasive. His relentless crusade began with his objection to the European verdict of ethical deficiency in Hinduism in addition to its unsuitability to scientific progress. B N Seal went a step further and upheld the potential of Hinduism to bring about a European renaissance. Bhagavan Das articulated the opinion that philosophy should not be an end in itself as it was in Europe - a more or less intellectual engagement. He advocated the need for a practical philosophy helpful to man and society. P R Damle viewed the future of Indian philosophy as one of revival and constructive exposition of non-monistic and non-idealistic systems of thought. In all of these, the attempt is to make philosophy acquire a saleable value and the oft-repeated attempt to justify it in scientific terms of reference is just one more attempt in this direction.


     Finally, it is significant that the terms darshana and tattvajnana, which are often used synonymously for philosophy in India, are pointers to the fact that philosophy has always been a mode of living, viewed as a perception that gives life its balance. Since philosophy is only one of the modes of presenting Indian thought to the world, it has to be seen in conjunction with literature, art and other areas of intellectual endeavour. As the New Historicist contention underlines, literary and non-literary texts circulate inseparably and therefore a complete picture is one which keeps all modes of presentation in view before any conclusive documentation is given shape.

International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015








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