Krishna Pathak, ‘The Eastern wisdom of ancient India’, in Synkrētic №4 (April 2023): 100-107.
Professor Pathak, you are the editor of a 2021 collection on mysticism in both East and West.¹ Does this work explore any direct or indirect connections between Hindu and Western philosophical traditions?
Thank you for giving me this wonderful opportunity to discuss my works and philosophical thoughts with Synkrētic. Yes, the book does explore the connection. I have a major chapter of my own in this book which is a brief comparative study of the philosophical aspects of both Vedic mysticism and Christian mysticism.² A dedicated section of the chapter argues that the source of cosmic origin in the Vedas appears to be ontologically and epistemologically ‘more mysterious than God in Christianity’.³ In fact, one of the main features of the book is that it contains research papers not only on Vedic philosophy and Christian theology, but also on Buddhism, Jainism, Advaitism, ancient Greek philosophy, and medieval and modern European philosophy. So, from the discussion of the book, the readers can definitely draw some sets of direct and indirect parallels between Hindu and Western philosophical traditions. I am pretty sure that the research material and the erudite inputs of this book will prove to be a very important reference source for any inquisitive mind.
You have been a member of the Kant society and wrote your PhD on the universalisability of Kant’s categorical imperative. In your research, have you come across any similarities between Kantian and Hindu ethics?
It is true that I was a member of the Kant Society and even today I am associated with the society in one way or the other. Since the fundamentality of Kant’s universalism theory and its indispensability in building an ethical society is similar to the concepts of Niṣkāma Karma and Svadharma given in the Hindu classical scripture the Srimad Bhagavad Gita, I realised that a worthwhile justification for writing a PhD would be the topic of ‘The Universalizability of the Categorical Imperative: Re-examining Kant’s Maxim of Duty’, and thankfully I successfully did it. Although the thesis is primarily an analysis of Kant’s moral philosophy and a defensive effort in favour of Kant’s universalism against the communitarianism and neo-Aristotelianism of the American philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre and the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, and since there are some ethical similarities between the Gita’s philosophy and Kant’s philosophy, adding an appendix to the thesis on their ethical affinities was much more demanding. So, I added a fresh chapter to the thesis titled ‘Nishkama Karma and the Categorical Imperative: A Philosophical Reflection on the Bhagavad-Gita’.⁴ If you allow me, I would like to briefly highlight two close similarities for the readers. Firstly, the doer or agency in both the Gita and Kant substantively has a moral character with the knowledge of good and bad, but due to internal and external factors, the agency fails to make the correct moral decisions. Secondly, both the Gita and Kant are non-consequentialists as they both speak about duty for duty’s sake or karma for karma’s sake.
In one article, you compare Kant’s epistemology to the work of Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. Are their concepts similar in any way?
I must say that as far as I know this was the first paper of its kind as I have not seen or read any other research paper on Kant and Krishnamurti till now.⁵ To your specific question about the conceptual similarities in their philosophies, I would say that their ways of thinking are quite different and so are their philosophical thoughts. For example, Kant speaks of the conditioned (human) mind which has twelve pure concepts as its own categories of understanding, apriorily applicable to all objects of possible cognition. That means, knowledge is impossible if these concepts are not applied by the mind. Krishnamurti, in an epistemological contrast to Kant, speaks of the unconditioned mind which gets knowledge of truth and reality directly. He calls it intuitive knowledge or highest intelligence, which can happen ‘when the mind is unconditioned or free from all concepts and sensuous representations’.⁶ For him, the conditioned mind ‘keeps us away from the truth and reality.’ However, two similarities in their philosophical positions can be mentioned: a) They both believe that the human mind is rational and can reach the highest point of intellect, and b) some mental representations involve spontaneity, particularly in case of intellectual intuition.
You have also written about the pessimist philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s reading of Upanishadic wisdom. Few Westerners had studied Hinduism in his day. Was Schopenhauer’s reading well-informed?
This is an interesting question. Let me respond to your question with reference to my comments on this in an earlier paper.⁷ See, Schopenhauer was a German by birth but was very much Indian by thinking. This must have been the sole reason, I believe, that he preferred the Indian idealism of the Upaniṣads’ monistic philosophy over German idealism. And since the Upaniṣads don’t talk of pessimism, I find it very difficult to call Schopenhauer a pessimist philosopher. Maybe that is a German way of understanding him. Nonetheless, you are right when you say that few Westerners also studied Hinduism in his day. For example, German Indologists like Gottfried Herder (1744–1803), Friedrich von Schlegel (1772–1829), Heinrich Heine (1797–1856), Max Müller (1823–1900) and a few others who were contemporary to Schopenhauer did study Indian Sanskrit texts including the Upaniṣads. But I am not sure, as I have no textual proof, of whether they were well-informed about Schopenhauer’s reading of Hinduism. I can only assume with reasons that it is quite unlikely that Schopenhauer’s life and works were unexplored by his contemporaries and successors.
Has Schopenhauer cut through in Indian thought in light of the attention he paid to its key texts? Is he read, quoted, debated by Indian philosophers?
Yes, Schopenhauer has been one of the many German philosophers who has the most cut through with Indian scholars, but as App indicates, possibly his ‘encounter with Indian thought is a historical sequence of events’.⁸ However, it is true that Schopenhauer is a figure who is widely known, read, quoted, and debated by Indian philosophers. In fact, Schopenhauer’s love for Indian wisdom fascinates Indian researchers, particularly those who work on the Indo-German relationship or the East-West connection and the vital role played by the shared intellectual histories of the two countries. Likewise, it would not be an exaggeration to say that philosopher Schopenhauer’s intellectual passion for Indian philosophy ignited many German and other European minds to study Indian philosophical texts. And now an enthusiastic trend to study Indian philosophy and the Sanskrit language is rapidly growing in Germany.
You have written in defence of vegetarianism. What moral duties do we have towards animals and do you think some animals have a moral sense?
You have asked a very pertinent question. Since I am known to be frank and loud in speaking my mind on animal issues, I always argue that vegetarianism is one of the issues which is directly linked with our moral duties and behaviour towards animals. What duties, you ask? Don’t we know that life in itself and in all forms is valuable, and that this is what determines the value of human life? So, we humans have no right to kill animals, if animals don’t accept such a human right to kill and give us their consent. And I am not convinced by the argument that animals have no moral sense. Some of them do have a moral sense, even better than that of humans. Don’t you think that unharmful animals are better than harmful humans? I think we should have fair reasons, though I know many of us don’t have, to support the claim that animal killing that serves the purpose of non-vegetarianism is justified. In fact, it is very irritating to argue with those who project animals as inferior beings and defend their sickness to human superiority. I hope you don’t get me wrong. Even if you do, I must submit a loud claim that we all have categorial duties towards animals, for example not to harm their lives (that means not to kill them, no matter whatever compelling reasons one has), to provide them with a favourable ecosystem, and to stop encroaching on them and exploiting their life.
The ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras is said to have taught vegetarianism, which some even think he picked up sojourning in India. How much stock do you put in the theory of early Greek-Indian exchanges?
I am happy that you have mentioned Pythagoras, who is believed to have been greatly influenced by ancient cardinal virtues like ahiṃsā (nonviolence) and vegetarianism. But if you ask me to prove this belief by producing a textual reference, I would say I have a very little stock to put in the theory of early Greek-Indian exchanges. For instance, I can cite the Roman philosopher Lucius Apuleius (124-170 AD) and the Irish William Drummond (The Rights of Animals, 1838) who were of the opinion that Pythagoras visited India and learnt a lot from this land.⁹ That precisely answers your question. However, even if there is no proof for whether or not Pythagoras picked up the idea of vegetarianism from India, I do believe that being a vegetarian is the best way to vitalise the human-animal relationship from the animal perspective, because animals are a human obligation, not a human prey.
There’s growing interest in non-Western philosophy in Western universities. What are some of the debates in contemporary philosophy in which you’d like to see more comparative engagement with Indian and Hindu thought?
This is true that non-Western philosophy is now in greater demand among the students at Western universities, also among the students at Eastern universities of Japan, Korea, Thailand, and several others. The reason that I can see is that the world has now realised that the Eastern wisdom of classical, ancient India has much more to enhance their thinking, their knowledge and their worldviews. This is why in my recent interviews published by the American Philosophical Association I suggested that Indian philosophy, be it Hinduism or Buddhism or Jainism, must be taught at Western universities.¹⁰ But as far as your specific question is concerned, I would say that I would like to see more comparative engagement with Indian and Hindu thought on the issues of the origin and function of language, cognitive patterns of intuitive knowledge, mystical orientation, divinisation of the environment, Vedic mathematics, metaphysics of rituals, metaphysics of silence, and Hindu cosmology, etc. if I am to list them.
Who is the one Indian thinker you wish every undergraduate philosophy student outside India knew and why?
Although every Indian philosopher and founders of various philosophical schools, particularly of the classical period, should be known and read by the students of philosophy, if you are asking me to pick one philosopher then I would say that it is Ādi Śaṅkarācārya, who had a very short span of life but his original Sanskrit writings and commentaries on the classical Hindu texts have treasured most of the ancient Indian wisdom. So, I would wish for students outside India to read Ādi Śaṅkarācārya and his philosophy, as I believe he presents deeper philosophical insights about life and the world than other philosophers do.
Conversely, which non-Indian thinkers do you think should be more widely read in the Indian academy and in philosophy schools in particular?
I will name Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the 18th century German philosopher whose profound philosophical thinking has revolutionised the human quest and efforts for knowledge and truth. His theories offer deeper cognitive reflections to a rational mind. So, I think Kant should be more widely read in the Indian academy, particularly in philosophy schools.
Krishna Pathak, ‘The Eastern wisdom of ancient India’, in Synkrētic №4 (April 2023): 100-107.