- Indian Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction
In recent years there has been a renewed interest in classical Indian philosophy; it cannot be a coincidence that at least three short books on the subject were written for the lay reader between the year 2000 and 2002, and all published by Oxford University Press: one by the famous Indian philosopher J. N. Mohanty, Classical Indian Philosophy, and another by a bright, young Indian philosopher Jonardon Ganeri, Philosophy in Classical India: The Proper Work of Reason. The third volume on the topic is the book under review, Sue Hamilton's Indian Philosophy, in Oxford University Press' "Very Short Introductions" series. While Mohanty and Ganeri are formidable Indian philosophers, Hamilton was originally trained as a scholar of Buddhist religion and developed an interest in the philosophical side of India much later in her career, when she began to give courses on Indian philosophy at Kings College, London.
Hamilton opens her book by invoking India's past, which contains "a long, rich, and diverse tradition of philosophical thought," but hastens to remind us that the "role of philosophizing" in India is quite different from that of the West: India's is a philosophy of "personal destiny," "spiritual quest," and not a "professional intellectual pursuit." Hamilton echoes the Orientalists of the early twentieth century when she says that "what Westerners call religion and philosophy are combined in India": in other words, philosophy in India falls short of qualifying as an "academic discipline" (p. 1). Hamilton is probably right in pressing home the popular Western misconception [End Page 482] about Indian philosophy that it is nothing but a "mystical," "magical" tradition of the East, where some "poor" Indians masqueraded as philosophers by elucidating their theory of the universe in "stories about an elephant supporting the earth and a tortoise supporting the elephant."1 Although the renowned modern Indian philosopher B. K. Matilal has tried to remove such misconceptions in one of his pioneering works, the tradition still remains.2 Matilal was not only responding to the seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke (who, incidentally, had not read any text on Indian philosophy but had only heard of the philosophy of ancient India) but was also commenting on the prejudices of some twentieth-century Western philosophers, in particular one sweeping generalization about "philosophy" by Anthony Flew.3
Much water has flowed under the bridge since the time when such prejudices were warmly entertained, but the reluctance to pay due attention to rationality in Indian philosophy has not fully waned. It is a tribute to Indian philosophers like J. N. Mohanty and B. K. Matilal that Western philosophers have now begun to look at Indian philosophy beyond its "mystic" and "magical" charm.4 In her postscript (p. 139), Hamilton applauds those modern Indian scholars (read: Mohanty, Matilal, and Ganeri) who, owing to "the influence of Western ways of doing things," have tried, with the help of the Naiyāyikas and the Buddhists, to overcome Western misconceptions—for example, that Indian thought is "anything but rational"—by "promoting Indian philosophy strictly in the sense of logical argument," and thus, only in the specific sense of logic and linguistic analysis, has it come to be recognized as an "academic discipline." One must applaud Hamilton, too, for her excellent effort in covering such a large number of topics in just thirty-five thousand words!
The narrative of the book throughout suggests an attempt to contrast Indian philosophy with that of the West, and more often than not Western philosophy becomes a yardstick to evaluate "the role of philosophizing" in India in its "original" and "traditional" sense, that is, "religious" and "soteriological." Hamilton does acknowledge that, as in India so in the post-Greek West, too—at least until Immanuel Kant came on the scene—philosophers, namely Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, and Hegel, mainly sought "to understand more about 'God's world'" (pp. 5-6). But the difference between the philosophy of the Christian West and that of India was that while the former tried to understand "God's world" through "rational means" the latter...