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Book Review: An Introduction to Indian Philosophy

Not long ago, I ran into a friend who asked what I was reading at the moment. I replied that I was reading a book on the work of Kumārilabhaṭṭa, a seventh-century Indian philosopher of the Mīmāṃsā school. This led to a good deal of explanation about what the Mīmāṃsās thought, what Kumārila had to say in particular, and why I was interested in his work in the first place. After all that he said something to the effect that he thought that Tantra wasn’t a philosophy – or at least that as a “tradition” it wasn’t given over to much philosophical speculation.

This is not an uncommon view, and whilst it is more-or-less the case that “tantric” texts are more concerned with ritual, yoga, the consecration of images, temple architecture, the initiation of kings and so forth, than with discussing inference, perception, hermeneutics or refuting their opponents, this is not to say that this sort of discourse does not take place, or that the tantric traditions lack a philosophical foundation. This view, I think, says more about attitudes to philosophy than anything else – that all philosophy is essentially speculative and entirely theoretical in nature, and therefore of little interest for those who want to engage with this material practically. So why, my friend wanted to know, did I have this sudden interest in the Mīmāṃsās? Quite apart from their belief in the efficacy of vedic ritual and non-belief in deities except perhaps as linguistic constructs – which is interesting in and of itself; the Mīmāṃsās – and Kumārila in particular, provide an interesting perspective on how orthodox Brahmins thought of the esoteric Śaiva movements – the Atimārga and the Mantramārga – in that period. As I’m interested in the history of these movements, I wanted to get a more nuanced understanding of how their opponents (i.e. mainstream Brahmins) thought about them – which led me to getting interested in what mainstream Brahminism – of which the Mīmāṃsā thinkers represent a kind of “hardcore” philosophical stance – actually thought was important.

Here, for example, is Kumārila condemning the Śaivas (and other heterodox religions) in no uncertain terms:

“The texts that may not be drawn on, because they contradict the Veda and because we can detect their [base] motives, are, we are taught, [the following. Firstly they are] these well-known works of religion-cum-irreligion rejected by Vaidikas and accepted [as scriptures] by the Sāṃkhyas, the followers of the Yoga school, the Pāñcarātrika Vaiṣṇavas, the Pāśupatas, the Buddhists, and the Jainas. These hide in the shadow cast by a screen of pious observance containing some elements of the Veda’s teaching; but their real purpose is to win social approval, wealth, veneration, and fame. They are contrary to the Veda and incoherent. The greed and other [vices of their authors] are manifest. They have been composed on the basis of arguments framed within the limits of [the means of non-transcendental knowledge, namely] sense-perception, inference, analogy, and presumption. They are perfumed with the fragrance of a handful of teachings congruent with Śruti and Smṛti, [advocating such virtues as] non-violence, truthfulness, self-control, generosity, and compassion; but [at the same time] they propagate teachings of a quite different nature, teachings that are little more than means of making a living, by demonstrating the occasional successes of a handful of spells and herbs able to counteract the effects of poison, to subject people, to drive them out, to drive them mad, and so forth. And [secondly they are] the works even more remote [from the Veda] (bāhyatarāṇi) that prescribe [observances] that are contaminated by [culturally alien] practices proper to barbarians (mlecchācāramiśra-), such as eating from a skull-bowl (kabhojana-) and wandering naked (nagnacaraṇa-)” 1

An Introduction to Indian PhilosophyThis is where Christopher Bartley’s An Introduction to Indian Philosophy: Hindu and Buddhist Ideas from Original Sources (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015, 324pp, pbk) could come in handy. Ranging from the Vedas and Upaniṣads to “Śaiva thinkers” such as Utpaladeva and Abhinavagupta, An Introduction to Indian Philosophy covers the major themes and arguments of influential Buddhist and Hindu philosophies, and shows the influence of various traditions on each other other, how traditions represented their opponents, and how particular philosophers borrowed from their opponents. Intended for classroom use, each chapter has its own reccomended Further Reading, as wells as notes and questions for further investigation/discussion. The discussion of key thinkers and their schools is illumined by a wealth of translations of their writings – ranging from selections from the Upaniṣads, extracts from various works of Śaṃkara, Vasubhandhu’s Triṃśikā or “Thirty Verses” (on consciousness) to Abhinavagupta’s Bodhapañcadaśikā (“Fifteen Verses on Consciousness”).

The material is divided into two parts. Following the introduction and discussion of Vedic and Upaniṣadic sources, Part One considers Buddhist Traditions. There is a general introduction to the “Buddhist Ethos” (chapter 2) outlining general principles such as the Three Jewels, the Four Noble Truths and Anattā – “no substance, no soul, no self”. Chapters 3-6 then discuss various developments in Buddhist philosophy – Abhidharma, Sautrāntika, Madhyamaka and Yogācāra Buddhism respectively. Now admittedly, Buddhism is not something I am greatly interested in, but its nonetheless useful to have a general understanding of Buddhist thought, so that when, for example, later thinkers – such as the Śaiva Siddhānta Rāmakaṇṭha (which Bartley discusses in chapter 14) argues against Buddhist ideas – it is useful to have some idea of what he is refuting. Part Two is devoted to Hindu philosophical positions, beginning with the realist Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika, moving on to a somewhat brief discussion of Sāṃkhya and its influence on Patañjali’s Yoga-Sūtra (chapter 8), then the Mīmāṃsā school (chapter 9) which includes some interesting Buddhist views and critiques of the Mīmāṃsās. Chapter 10 provides an overview of Vedānta, and then Bartley walks the reader through Advaita Vedānta (chapter 11), discussing the major works of Śaṃkara and his contemporary Maṇḍana Miśra as well as later contributors to the tradition. Chapter 12 deals with Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta – the doctrinal foundation of the theistic Śrī Vaiṣṇava tradition and would be useful for anyone interested in the various Vaiṣṇava traditions. Chapter 13 considers Dvaita Vedānta and the works of Madhva and his commentators. Chapter 14 examines a variety of ‘tantric’ positions such as Śaiva Siddhānta, the Krama, Pratyabhijñā and individuals such as Rāmakaṇṭha, Utpaladeva, and Abhinavagupta. The book closes with a brief guide to pronunciation, a glossary of terms, and a list of influential thinkers of each particular philosophical tradition.

What is also helpful is that as he discusses the various philosophical traditions and their influences, Bartley returns to key themes – such as perception, the nature of the self, ontology, the authority of scripture, etc., and shows how the different schools dealt with these issues.

My only quibbles are minor – the chapter on Sāṃkhya and Yoga is rather skimpy, and given that Bartley’s later chapters deal with theistic traditions – the Vaiṣṇavas and Śaivas, it might have been worthwhile to say more about, for example, Mīmāṃsā objections to theistic traditions. Overall, I found An Introduction to Indian Philosophy to be a very readable and approachable introductory work, and well worth considering as a starting point.