Philosophic Prose in English
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.
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.
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.
present paper attempts a survey of the New Historicist perspective
of Indian philosophic prose in English based on these assumptions.
Texts: Written and Non-Written
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 Roy’s Vedanta
Chandrika and such other works is as obvious as it is
in Vivekananda’s thoughts on the Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita.
Gandhi’s use of ahimsa, the dominant ideal of Jainism, to
give direction to the nationalist movement, Tilak’s reinterpretation
of the Bhagavadgita in justification of the lesson of violence
for justice taught to Arjuna, Dayananda Saraswati’s ‘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.
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.
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 Roy’s particular
hermeneutic system appeals to and reflects upon different
traditions, simultaneously appropriating the alien while he
asserts himself to be against the alien.
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.
of Discursive Truth
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 God’s creative
act as a fitting subject for both literature and philosophy.
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 Veeser’s 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 one’s 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 Ramakrishna’s 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 Vivekananda’s 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.
of the last of Veeser’s 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 thought’s 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
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.
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.