- Gerald James Larson, 1938–2019
The community of scholars in Asian and Comparative Philosophy recently lost one of its leading lights. Gerald James Larson, known more widely as Gerry Larson, passed away suddenly on April 27, 2019 at the age of 81. His death was unexpected because he was just getting ready to leave for India in connection with a meeting centered on his recently published magnum opus Classical Yoga Philosophy and the Legacy of Sāṁkhya. Sadly, he experienced some sharp abdominal pain and passed away two weeks later.
Larson's academic, institutional, and organizational contributions were many. While mentioning some of them, I will, in the context of this journal, focus more on his contributions to his field of academic specialization, Sāṁkhya and Yoga; to the discipline of comparative philosophy; and to the building and nurturing of the Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy (SACP) as avenues and instruments for the discussion of issues in Asian and comparative philosophy.
He was best known for his pioneering contributions in the fields of Indian philosophy and religion, particularly in the philosophical areas of classical Yoga and Sāṁkhya, in which he was a world-renowned expert. He had studied the sources carefully and was therefore able to present a solid exposition of these philosophies both in their origins and in their subsequent development. Yoga, in particular, has undergone remarkable transformations as it has traveled in both time and space and become a familiar form of practice both in India and the West, and it is in significant part thanks to Larson that we can trace these transformations. The crowning achievement of his long career was the publication in 2018 of Classical Yoga Philosophy and the Legacy of Sāṁkhya, a work of over one thousand pages, which serves as a book-end to his Classical Sāṁkhya: An Interpretation of its History and Meaning, published in 1969.
Yoga in recent times is seen more as an experiential practice and discipline than as a philosophy in the strict sense. The questions that Larson probed in his research in this area are fundamental ones about the nature of philosophy, spanning a more theoretical and/or contemplative understanding on the one [End Page 261]
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hand and a more practical and engaged one on the other. There is no question that Sāṁkhya is philosophical in the conventional sense, with a metaphysics, an epistemology, a theory of value, and a particular soteriology, and Larson provided one of the most thorough and detailed accounts of Sāṁkhya, both historically and systematically. Yoga, however, is primarily a practice of the will to transcend itself as a will and to achieve (or re-achieve) a primordial state of pure consciousness. It is an ancient practice of Indian life and culture, going back to the very earliest times of recorded history, as mentioned in the Ṛg Veda and the early Upanishads. It existed both prior to and independently of all philosophical systems. To the extent that a philosophy is extracted out of and built from this practice, some of its presuppositions and key notions are markedly different from Sāṁkhya. Larson very carefully and rigorously showed how these two different bodies of thought gradually achieved a sort of rapprochement, whereby Sāṁkhya accepted Yoga as a practical and effective means for the achievement of liberation, while Yoga, with modifications, accepted the theoretical framework of Sāṁkhya. The adoption, with qualifications, of the metaphysics of Sāṁkhya gave Yoga an explicitly philosophical cast, without reducing or mitigating its primarily performative and practical character as a form as meditation with its own set of methods. Thus, Larson always resisted the conventional translations of Yoga as "union" or "yoking." Pure consciousness, by definition, cannot be yoked to or united to anything else.
Much of the history and the philosophical contours of both Sāṁkhya and Yoga traditions are also detailed in two large volumes in the ongoing series of the Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, written in collaboration with Ram Shankar Bhattacharya: Sāṁkhya: A Dualist Tradition in Indian Philosophy, published in 1987 (volume 4 of...