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Shiva Nataraja, 12th century bronze, Rijksmuseum

Indian philosophy is a variegated phenomenon. Clarifications are needed in this field. One is faced with several types of Indian philosophy in the historical record. For instance, there is the early Upanishadic phase, and the subsequent growth of Hinduism associated with the darshanas or “six systems of philosophy.” Moreover, Buddhism and Jainism were rivals to the Hindu religion over many centuries, though eventually losing ground. The different Indian religions are a subject of considerable complexity. 

Complex reactions in the medieval period are not mainline Hinduism at all, but something quite different. I am referring here to the Sant (bhakti saint) phenomenon and the creation of Sikhism, trends which were strongly opposed to caste practices. There was a very substantial gulf between the common people and elite custodians of Sanskrit texts. 

Latter day manifestations of diverse Hindu (and neo-Hindu) sects and exegeses can be confusing. In contrast, the radical development of contemporary Indian Rationalism, to some extent allied with Western science conceptualism, is very critical of traditional religion and attendant superstitions.

To get a bearing in these diverse channels is not straightforward. Only part of this ideological panorama comes under the conventional classification of “Indian philosophy.” The differences of interpretation are substantial amongst traditional and modern commentators. For instance, Vedanta is divided into rival schools. My independent research into Indian philosophy eventually gained publication in the book Minds and Sociocultures: Zoroastrianism and the Indian Religions (1995), pp. 389-825.

Three diverse figures, active in the introduction of Indian philosophy to the West, were the university scholars Friedrich Max Muller and Sir Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975), also the Vedanta interpreter Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), who established a monastic order.

Professor Max Muller (1823-1900) effectively became the founder of comparative religion, in the sense of a scholarly discipline. His major achievement is considered to have been his editorship of Sacred Books of the East, a fifty volume series encompassing diverse religions and published during the period 1876-1904. That milestone series was published by Oxford University Press. Academic studies of Indian religion became known as Indology.

Max Muller early studied in his native Germany with the philosopher Friedrich Schelling, at whose request he translated passages from the Upanishads. Muller became one of the pioneers in RigVeda studies (along with Horace H. Wilson). A Professor at Oxford University, one of his best known works is The Six Systems of Indian Philosophy (1899).  

Some critics have complained that classical Indian philosophy generally converges with Indian religion and caste. The historical context becomes important, wherever this can be reconstructed. The approach of the investigator can be relevant in this respect. Opportunism frequently misled popular Western enthusiasm for Hinduism commencing in the 1960s. Failure to grasp the necessity for critical evaluation has caused many disillusionments with various guru figures. Close comparison of behavioral traits can be revealing, some entities being more refined than others.

Indology became a discipline of repute at several major European universities. Hindu scholars came to study Sanskrit in European universities, assimilating the scholarly exegesis developing in the West, which was quite different to the pundit method of assessment. In America meanwhile, Sanskrit was introduced at Yale University in 1841. The American Oriental Society became a signpost to Indological researches. There were initially some Christian biases discernible in Sanskritist studies (a drawback from which Max Muller was not exempt).

Professors Surendra Nath Dasgupta (1887-1952) and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975) are perhaps the two best known Hindu commentators. Dasgupta studied and lectured at Cambridge; he  composed a five-volume History of Indian Philosophy (Cambridge, 1922-55). Radhakrishnan composed his two-volume Indian Philosophy (London, 1923-27), another famous work that became widely cited, the author becoming celebrated at Oxford. Such works are not  exhaustive in a field where many factors are debated. 

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
July 22nd 2010 (modified 2020)

ENTRY no. 26

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