Thursday, September 17, 2020

On The European Contributions to Ancient Hindu Philosophy

In the eighteenth century, when the East India Company arrived in India, the Hindus had no memory of their philosophical heritage. They had little awareness of their culture. They had a number of festivals and rituals, but they didn’t have the philosophical sensibility and the historical knowledge to connect the festivals and rituals with the Hindu philosophies which were developed between two thousand and four thousand years ago. With a significant part of the country being under the Islamic kings, there was no incentive for anyone in the country to launch an intellectual investigation into the past. 

The rediscovery of ancient Hindu philosophies was accomplished in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the intellectual giants from another continent, Europe: Friedrich Max Müller, Ralph T. H. Griffith, Charles Wilkins produced the first translations of the Vedas and the Gita; Henry Thomas Colebrooke, William Jones, and James R. Ballantyne have made major contributions to Sanskrit literature; Arthur Schopenhauer tried to use the teachings of the Upanishads to expand Kantian philosophy; then there is the work of German Indologists like Theodor Aufrecht, Richard Garbe, Hermann Jacobi, Paul Deussen and others. 

In the field of Vedic literature, the knowledge of the Europeans was far superior to the knowledge of their Indian counterparts till the middle of the twentieth century. The Europeans originated the intellectual structures and methods which are still being used for translating, interpreting, and analyzing the texts of ancient Hindu philosophy.


Ajit R. Jadhav said...

The assertion in the opening statement is too wide. If Indians themselves had ceased to have any memory of their philosophical heritage, then how come *some* of the scholars among *some* of the Europeans got to get access to it? By smelling mango trees in the spring? From the drops of the monsoon rains while standing under a peepal or a banyan tree?

The state of India when the Brits came here is a very complex topic, because too many elements, disparate by themselves, had gone into forming it---and evidence exists to show the operation of each such an element.

To name just a few (I wouldn't even dare aspire to be comprehensive): The extent of ossification of both the culture and the polity from within---precisely under the influence of the bad kinds of *philosophic* streams within the *Indian* systems of thought which had occurred even before the Muslim hordes invaded (recall the treatment Dnyaneshwar's family received from people who were very much Indians, caste system, etc.); the informal systems of dispensing the philosophical knowledge (from the wandering "saadhu"s to saints to preachers to temple-singers, to...); the destruction of the local culture by the Muslim rulers---and also, their own Indianization (they quickly learnt that if they were going to rule at all, their political structures had to be rather loosely held kind of federal structures); and above all: the radically unprecedented nature of this sequence of enlightenment and industrial revolution back to back (not just India but no part of the world had ever seen anything like these two at any point of time in the known history); the fact that the Europeans who took a merely academic interest and maintained highest scholarly standards formed, in fact, a very small minority, with their own prejudices, etc.

However, to therefore go to the conclusion you draw is not called for. Vedic knowledge, just to take one example, was being maintained, but its reach was socially limited (or, very limited). As another example: Very, very few Indians know this but there have been *organized* systems of awarding titles like "paramahans" and "jagadguru" etc. These systems have propagated in an unbroken manner throughout history, under all rulers---local or foreign. Whether good or not, these systems have always been there. Even today, many people from Kashi, Haridwar, the various Maths established by Adi Shankaraacharya, (or even place of pilgrimage like Nasik) would be able to attest to this fact. A lot of continuity has been there. Why, even in the worst of the Mughal times, you will find very direct evidence of "guru-shishya" tradition holding on, not just in music but also in Ayurveda, religious rituals, even philosophical debates. Modern Indians habitually say that we Indians aren't good keepers of document. What the hell? Some of the Brahmin families have their family history well recorded for centuries (going into 14th c. and earlier). Even non-Brahmin families have their family and title records that go back centuries.

It's a complex topic. And, at least to my mind, mostly meaningless. The world has changed a lot, and today, you can download all of the Vedas and most of their prominent translations within a matter of hours, for free. The "trouble" is, very few people study it. But then, how many people in the UK/USA bother to read Acquinas or St. Augustine first hand? Have bothered to do so in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries? Another point. Intellectual content, by itself, is dry. Too dry. You are more likely to learn more about Indian heritage by staying in small villages/taluka places for a long time (not just a few days of a vacation, but years, at least months), talking to *ordinary* spiritual practitioners among them, than by reading Vedas or taking selfies over the entire route from Alandi to Pandharpur. (Curiously, none travels on foot for the return journey. Just check out people's FB pages!)

Alright. Enough of a rant.

Anoop Verma said...

@Ajit, As usual it is good to have your prespective. I will make just one point -- it is not at all unusual for the people of any geographical area to forget their past history. Even the Europeans have unearthed the details of their history through lot of historical research into old texts, archeological sites, fossil records, etc. The same is the case in India. The ancient Indian texts had not been read, analyzed, and interpreted for several centuries when the British arrived. The British and German scholars started the process of collecting and reading the ancient texts. Once they translated the texts into European languages, there was revival of interest in HIndu philosophy in Europe and India -- as a result of this Hindu nationalism was born.

Ajit R. Jadhav said...



I think it is more usual for a people to seek to change the tone and texture of their history, and sometimes even its content (sometimes even manufacturing it), rather than outright to forget their history.

Do you really believe that Indians have ever come to forget, at any point of time over all these millenia, not just the prominent personalities like Raama and KrishNa (and yes, they *were* historical figures), but also relatively minor or less impactful figures like Raajaa Harishchandra or Raajaa Bhoja? *Some* people may today over-emphasis the personality and the deserts of Baajirao Peshwaa the first. They may succeed (or with technology, might have already succeeded) to a great extent. But it's a long stretch therefore to suggest that people have ever forgotten, or will ever come to forget, Raamashaastree PrabhuNe. Typically, this doesn't happen, though exceptions are always there. You know that there are pockets of people in India who till this day worship RaavaNa. Whatever your opinion of Mallus, you can't accuse them of having ever forgotten King Bali.

So, no, I don't think people forget history. They rather adorn and embellish it, change its tone, and sometimes even rewrite it---but they can do so only in parts. They don't forget history as such.

But yes, I am all for encouraging good studies of ancient Indian wisdom, even researches into history---esp. Indian history. When I read a news item like some 10 k BP artifact was found in Dwaarakaa, my first reaction is: "Wow! How did they find it? What kind of an artifact? How did they determine the date? What does this discovery suggest?" and not like "Awww... There goes yet another fake (or inflated) claim...," even though I do acknowledge that the latter is an ever-present possibility (just the way junk science is).

Another point. I don't know much about Hindu nationalism (nor do I much care), but from what little I have casually gathered (simply because it's been so rampant in the recent couple of decades), I think that they would rather locate the origins of their movement in something Indian. May be, in the works of ChaaNakya, Manu, Itihaas, and similar. I think they would retort that they never needed any help of the kind you mention. Privately, *many* (but *not* *all*) of them might even exhale an expletive or two at the Europeans, for having made the Veda's and all more accessible through translation into English. (Note, I am not talking about all Indians who know Sanskrit and Vedas. I am talking specifically about the Hindu nationalists here.)

Anyway, the topic doesn't interest me. ...So, let me leave the matter between you and them ;-)