An interview with Dr. Shalini Sinha, Lecturer in Non-Western Philosophy at Reading University about teaching Indian philosophy.
Indian philosophy is seldom found in the philosophy curricula in the Danish high schools. But why is it so? And is it actually a great deficiency in the Danish school system and in philosophical education in general that one cannot find Indian philosophy? One could argue that Western and Indian philosophy follow the same patterns. Both traditions have highly advanced philosophies of mind, metaphysics, epistemology and theory of ethics among others. At the core, the arguments are often the same and have much in common across history and geography.
Even Western theory of science is cross-fertilized by Indian philosophy, as Geraldine Hancock Forbes argues in “Positivism in Bengal: A Case Study in the Transmission and Assimilation of an Ideology” (1975). And in his seminal work “Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India” (1999), Gyan Prakash has investigated how “the colonized elite began to seek parallels and precedents for scientific thought in India’s own intellectual history, creating a hybrid form of knowledge that combined Western ideas with local cultural and religious understanding” (Prakash, web). Western and Indian philosophical traditions have probably never developed independently. Yet they are seldom found in each other’s core curriculum; neither in India, nor in the West, and why is that?
It is a well-established assumption that the Western philosophical traditions have borrowed much from non-Western traditions, especially Indian philosophy. Schopenhauer is well-known for having used Indian philosophy in his personal interpretation of Kant’s epistemology. Also, and that might be more controversial, David Hume is assumed to have been greatly inspired by Indian philosophy by some scholars. For example, Professor Alison Gopnik has pointed out the affinities between David Hume’s empiricism and the Buddhist philosophical tradition in her controversial Hume studies. She even argues that Hume could have learned about Buddhist philosophical views through Jesuit scholars at the Royal College of La Flèche when he stayed there in 1735-1737 (Gopnik 2009, 5). He had read the works by Pierre Bayle who had knowledge of Buddhist philosophy.
I have asked lecturer Dr. Shalini Sinha how Indian philosophy could be incorporated into the core curriculum in Western universities and high schools. Currently, she works as Lecturer of Non-Western Philosophy at Reading University near London. Lately she has contributed to the renowned Oxford Handbook of Indian Philosophy (Jonardon Ganeri ed.) with an essay on the metaphysics of self in Praśastapāda’s differential naturalism (the metaphysics of the Vaiśeṣika school of Indian philosophy).
Why Indian Philosophy?
PGW: Indian philosophies are not taught that much in the high schools in Denmark, nor at the philosophical departments at university. Traditionally Indian philosophy belongs to religious studies. But I cannot see why we should not also teach Indian philosophy in our philosophy classes? Why is it that Indian philosophy is not a part of the curriculum in the traditional history of philosophy?
– Actually, I think it is becoming more popular. Indian philosophy and other non-Western philosophies did originally come in through colonial history as a part of religious studies – in an imperial framework in which these were thought not to meet the ‘rational standards’ of Western philosophy. But as the populations of the colonies have come back to the colonial metropolis, their philosophies have started being incorporated very slowly into the philosophy curriculum; at first as ‘non-Western philosophies’ rather than philosophy, but hopefully as a part of mainstream philosophy in the not too far future. Increasingly, as the population in for example Britain or the European countries received people from the former colonies, we find a multicultural society and a student body and a population who wish to know much more about non-Western philosophies. There is a real demand, and a need, to incorporate these non-Western philosophies into the teaching of the history of philosophy in general. I was hired as a lecturer in non-Western Philosophy at Reading University, and this university was one of the first places that I know of which actually advertised such a position, says Dr. Sinha.
PGW: How do you move non-Western philosophy from just being a multicultural subject into being traditional philosophy?
– Philosophy departments are beginning to teach multicultural philosophy, so to incorporate it into the regular philosophy curriculum is actually not very difficult. For example, if you’re doing Descartes, you can do Indian dualism as well; for example, the Jain dualism of body and mind or dualist philosophies of the classical Hindu traditions, such as Vaiśeṣika, which has been an area of my research. This is one of the six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy (Veda-affiliated) from ancient India. They also have substance dualisms, but these are non-Cartesian and address some aspects of the mind-body problem we find in Descartes, says Dr. Sinha.
Descartes and Indian Philosophy
PGW: What are the differences and similarities between Descartes’ philosophy of mind and Indian philosophy of mind, as it is displayed in the Vaiśeṣika?
– The Vaiśeṣika is a little bit different from Descartes’ system because instead of Descartes’ idea of the pineal gland, as this connecting thing between res extensa and res cogitans, you have this idea for self-substance of an atomic particle (mind (manas)) which is a connector between the immaterial self (-substance) and the material body; a particle which acts as a signalling system and an information processor between self and body, says Dr. Sinha.
– Vaiśeṣika has a categorial metaphysics, like Aristotle, in which all things are either substances or properties/qualities of substances, and the categories include ’motion’, universals, particulars, and inherence (e.g. of properties in substances). The matter is what forms the body, and the self is the bearer of mental properties such as cognition, desire and aversion (will). What connects the self with the body is what is called mind which is a kind of an atomic particle. This atomic particle is not matter and nor consciousness or self because of its materiality. Yet it is not material but a particle. It is like an informational particle, and it is the conduit between the self and the body. You can only have mental states as long as this little particle is connected between the two, says Dr. Sinha.
– Furthermore, mind is an atomic substance that acts as a mental processor that causally connects mental states together and processes all mental activity. Mental states are actually events that arise and subside in the self as its properties, and one of these properties is consciousness or cognition which also arises as a series of events that, in turn, leads to feelings of pleasure or pain, and this instigates desire or aversion which lead to volitional effort which acts through the atomic ‘mind’ on the body to guide bodily action. Each of these mental properties can be an object of cognition and so of evaluation which can lead to restraining or engaging volitional effort towards actions that seek to gain desired objects and avoid undesired ones, says Dr. Sinha.
PGW: It sounds to me as if this philosophy is an explanation of ‘the hard problem of consciousness’, as David Chalmers defined it?
– Yes, it is very much so. The mind is physical in the sense that it’s not the self; it is not immaterial completely and yet it is not exactly matter either. It consists of this in-between information bearing thing and it processes mind. It also acts as a regulator and as the mechanism of attention when you are introspecting. The mind is like a point because when you are focusing, you are almost like one-pointed, especially if you are meditating or even if focusing. This philosophy is very directly a correlation to Cartesian philosophy, and yet it is not entirely Cartesian. Vaiśeṣika philosophy is a kind of non-Cartesian dualism, says Dr. Sinha.
PGW: What is the advantage of this theory in contrast to, for example, Descartes’?
– The interesting part is that you actually have a distinct substance which is a connector. In the way that I described it, this substance is actually not too different from a control module in a robot through which all the software runs and which is the controlling mechanism for the body. The modular system of the Vaiśeṣika is in a sense much more modern than, let us say, Descartes’ conception of the mind, says Dr. Sinha.
Philosophy of Mind
In his essay “What Is it Like to Be a Bat?”, Thomas Nagel has rejected materialism as well as behaviorism. He does not believe that consciousness or mind can be reduced to neurophysiological processes or explained by exterior behaviour. Instead, he claims a double aspect of consciousness. And according to Dr. Sinha you can find similar conceptions of mind in Indian philosophy.
PGW: Maybe you could tell me a little bit more about the different schools of metaphysics and philosophy of mind that you can meet in Indian philosophy, other than the Vaiśeṣika, which correlate with later Western philosophies of mind?
– Indian Philosophy of mind is embedded in metaphysics and also in ethics. This is a bit like the ancient Greeks in that we find an interlocking of metaphysics, ethics and even epistemology. In Indian philosophy, ultimately, the aim of life is to be free; that is, free from suffering. The Buddhist, Jain, and Brahmanic or Hindu philosophies have this as their common goal. That is the basic idea. This is also true of the dualist schools, the Vaiśeṣika, and the Buddhist and Jaina critics of the Brahmanic schools. Even though their metaphysics and even epistemology may be wholly different, they still share certain ethical values; the foremost of which is the pursuit of freedom or liberation, says Dr. Sinha.
– They often criticize each other’s metaphysical and epistemological principles not only in purely philosophical terms, but also with regard to whether a particular metaphysics or epistemology can possibly lead to freedom, says Dr. Sinha.
– Other dualists of the classical period are the Sāṃkhya for whom mind and matter belongs to the category of ‘natural activity’ or nature which ‘pro-create, whereas consciousness is non-active; a still, luminous background against which everything appears – these are two independent categories or principles. Their dualism develops its categories and concepts on a phenomenological basis, says Dr. Sinha.
– In contemporary Indian philosophy, one should read Arindam Chakrabarti, who has taught at University of Hawaii and the State University of New York at Stony Brook and has worked intensely in the fields of Indian philosophy of mind and metaphysics as well as epistemology. He interprets traditional Indian philosophies, but he does so in ways that are tremendously insightful and creative, making these fairly difficult philosophies intelligible in contemporary terms. Interpretations embed a great deal of the philosophical orientation and attitudes of their interpreters, and Chakrabarti is particularly creative here. A philosopher who uses modern Indian philosophy in a contemporary context is Akeel Bilgrami at Columbia University. He is trained in academic Western philosophy and is highly respected in the field of epistemology. He is an atheist and has worked on Gandhi and Nehru, says Dr. Sinha.
Gandhi, the Philosopher
PGW: What about Mahatma Gandhi? Maybe you could tell me why Mahatma Gandhi is looked upon as a philosopher, and what is his contribution to philosophy in general?
– One must first remember that Gandhi did not write anything as a philosopher. He was a practical man, engaged in the world; first as a lawyer and then as a political activist and freedom fighter against colonial rule. Yet he is very deeply steeped in the Indian tradition. He has also read Tolstoy and Ruskin and was influenced by various people and texts, including The Sermon on the Mount. He was quite ecumenical and in a way also very cosmopolitan, a cosmopolitan Hindu. Gandhi reflected very deeply on a lot of moral and metaphysical issues which shaped his philosophy of political action as non-violence which he equated with love and truth – the ‘truth of experience’ which was accessible to everyone – through their own experience. Much like the Buddhists, truth is that which knows the real, and the real is the true nature of one’s own consciousness or self, free of the obscurations that mental possessiveness brings. You can see a constant philosophical questioning in his writings; a questioning and criticism which he is trying to enact in this ethics of non-violent action, says Dr. Sinha.
– His notion, for example, of action and ethics is very sacrificial, which is a correlative with Buddhist philosophy, Hindu philosophies and the yogic traditions of India. His ethics consists in renunciation, non-possessiveness, letting go of our self-interested actions, and of all mental possessions. For Gandhi, freedom can only occur when you are free of all mental possessions, which is when you can love unconditionally and boundlessly; this is a compassion and care that comes when we stop clinging to things as ‘I’ and ‘mine’ very much like the Buddhist ideal of right action. For Gandhi, ideal action, action which is really free, is if you are like the Buddha, acting spontaneously without the intrusion and attachment of the egoic claims of ‘I’ and ‘mine’, says Dr. Sinha.
– Also for him, the political action is only a realization of personal freedom. Political freedom comes from individual freedom. You can only have sovereignty, independence, and freedom at a political level if you are also free as a person, and that means being free of the contents of the ‘I thought’, including all ethnic identities, etc. This idea of freedom is linked to an ethics of dying. We can only be truly free at an individual level, and so as a political collectivity if we are free of fear, the fear of loss and especially the fear of death which values the security of life and possessions above all else, says Dr. Sinha.
– This is thought to underpin political manipulation and control and undermine sovereignty, and arguably make us more susceptible to the manipulation of those fears, for example, by terrorism. This is also related to the Jaina philosophy of voluntary dying in full meditative awareness for those who are terminally ill or those who are living in ‘impossible circumstances’. This ethics of dying sheds light on issues such as dying with dignity/euthanasia, but is intimately linked to the ethics of action and conceptions of freedom which underpin all the above issues, says Dr. Sinha.
PGW: Could one also find other contemporary interpretations of Indian philosophy which are of value?
– There is Rajiv Bhargava who also writes in the newspapers in India. He is contemporary, and he is a philosopher and social commentator – a public intellectual. He lives in India, and he works there. He criticizes social and political issues philosophically and may draw on Ashoka or various ancient Hindu texts, says Dr. Sinha.
– I also think David Godman would be a very good place to start for contemporary Advaita Vedanta, because he is easy to comprehend, especially for high school students. David Godman has written a lot about the Indian sage, Ramana Maharshi from Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu. David Godman also has a website: https://davidgodman.org/newsite/wordpress/.
– Michael James is also very good as a secondary source. He spent 20 years in India, and he did a philosophy degree as well, and he has an excellent command of Indian languages and a very sharp, philosophical mind. He has a lot of articles analyze Ramana Maharshi’s philosophy very carefully: http://www.michaeljames.com.
– Finally, there is also a book by Evan Thompson called Waking Dreaming Being. Evan Thompson is a philosopher of mind from Canada. In the first chapter of Waking Dreaming Being he talks about the Upanishads and the four states of consciousness and how this underpins a substantial section of Indian Brahmanic and Buddhist Indian philosophy, says Dr. Shalini Sinha.
About Dr. Shalini Sinha
Dr. Shalini Sinha is a lecturer in Non-Western Philosophy at Reading University. She received her PhD from the University of Sussex and has also taught at the University of York and SOAS (University of London). Her research focuses on topics in Indian philosophy; primarily Hindu and Buddhist metaphysics and ethics, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of action. Currently, she is writing an introductory book on Indian philosophy and working on a large collaborative project on ‘Impersonal idealism: Platonism-Buddhist Dialogues’.
She became interested in philosophy in her early 20s at a time when she was finishing her undergraduate degree in economics, and although she continued to work in the economics area, and perhaps because of her Indian origin, she always felt that need to look at Indian and other non-Western paradigms as a way of questioning and developing new approaches to philosophical and social issues through cross-cultural conversations. She had a certain dissatisfaction with the Western paradigm she had been educated in and those she saw in her academic surroundings: liberal paradigms, Marxist paradigms, etc., and felt the need to develop new approaches to fundamental questions through intercultural philosophical conversations.
Bilgrami, Akeel. “Gandhi the Philosopher” in Secularism, Identity, Enchantment, Cambridge MA, USA: Harvard University Press, 2014)
Bhargava, Rajeev. “The roots of Indian pluralism: a reading of Asokan edicts” in Philosophy and Social Criticism 05/2015, volume 41, Issues 4-5.
Bhattacharya, Ramkrishna. “A History of Materialism from Ajita to Udbhaṭa” in Jonardon Ganeri (ed.) Oxford Handbook of Indian Philosophy, Oxford University Press, 2017.
Chakrabarti, Arindam. “Indian Philosophical Traditions” in Donald M. Borchet (ed.) Philosophy: Sources, Perspectives, and Methodologies, Macmillan Reference USA, 2016.
Forbes, Geraldine Hancock. “Positivism in Bengal: A Case Study in the Transmission and Assimilation of an Ideology” (1975) South Asia Books
Ganeri, J. (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Indian Philosophy. (2017). Oxford University Press
Godman, David. Website: https://davidgodman.org/newsite/wordpress/
Gopnik, Alison. “Could David Hume Have Known about Buddhism?” In: Hume Studies, Vol 35, Number 1&2, 2009, pp. 5–28.
James, Michael. Website: http://www.michaeljames.com
Prakash, Gyan. Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India” (1999). Princeton University Press. Intro web: https://press.princeton.edu/titles/6705.html
Radhakrishnan, Maya. “Indian Philosophy of Mind: A Comparative Study”.
(The interview was written by Peter Graarup Westergaard. Orginally published in Filosofi 19.2 Filosofilærerforeningens Medlemsblad 2019)