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  • The Peacock's Egg:Bhartṛhari on Language and Reality
  • Johannes Bronkhorst

Anyone who has ever opened a book on Indian philosophy will have been struck by the sometimes strange doctrines that were held by the different schools, and may have wondered to what extent it is possible really to understand Indian philosophy. And what do we mean when we say that we understand this or that Indian thinker, or Indian philosophy in general? Indeed, to what extent did individual philosophers themselves understand the philosophies they wrote about? The Sāṃkhya philosophy, to take an example, proclaims the existence of twenty-five factors (which they call tattvas) that somehow evolve out of each other so as to create the phenomenal world. Did individual Sāṃkhya thinkers know why exactly these twenty-five factors had to be accepted and not any others? Did they perhaps accept these factors simply because they had been sanctioned by their particular tradition, and because early exposure lent them a degree of plausibility that they are unlikely to acquire in the case of those who do not become acquainted with them until later in life? If this is so, how much understanding can we modern scholars ever hope to attain? Are we condemned merely to record what the Indian thinkers thought, perhaps adding a historical dimension by investigating how some of these ideas succeed more or less similar earlier ones? Or a social dimension by pointing out that this or that position served the interests of this or that particular philosopher and those of his group? Such investigations, which put Indian philosophy in its historical and social contexts, are, to be sure, possible and extremely important. Historical continuities have been studied and more will no doubt be discovered. But is this as far as we can go? If so, our understanding of Indian philosophy will not be very different from that of mythology: a number of just-so stories that we can study in their historical and social contexts.

Advocates of Indian philosophy will no doubt object that there is much more to Indian philosophy than just this. They will point out that some of the discussions and analyses resemble, sometimes anticipate, certain discussions and analyses found in Western philosophy. Such advocates often have a tendency to take these discussions and analyses out of their original context and concentrate, say, on the development of logic in the Indian schools. There can be no doubt that logic underwent a remarkable development in India that still draws far too little attention outside a limited group of experts. But this logic was used—and this is too easily overlooked—to defend the basic doctrinal positions of the schools concerned. These doctrinal positions themselves are often somehow taken for granted, or even played down, by modern investigators. If we wish to give these positions their due, we are back with our original question: to what extent can we understand the thought of an Indian [End Page 474] philosopher, not merely those aspects of it that we choose (and remove from their original context) because they remind us of issues in Western philosophy?

I will argue that a deeper understanding, one that goes beyond mere historical and sociological analyses, is possible in the case of an important part of Indian philosophy. This is due to a factor that too rarely draws the attention of modern scholars. I am speaking of the presence of a tradition of rational debate and inquiry. I use this expression to refer to a tradition that came to establish itself in India—or at least in the main philosophical schools—and that obliged thinkers to listen to the criticism of often unfriendly critics, even where it concerned their most sacred convictions, such as those supposedly based on revelation, tradition, or inspiration. Confrontations between thinkers so radically opposed to each other were no doubt facilitated by the debates organized from time to time by kings, about which we have some firsthand information from the pen of Chinese pilgrims visiting India in the middle centuries of the first millennium. Little is known about the reasons why, and the date when, this tradition of critical debate came to establish itself...


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