Why We Should Revisit South Asian Philosophy

The foundations of Western philosophy aren't completely from the West.

If you have ever taken an Introduction to Philosophy course in college, chances are that it primarily focused on Western thinkers and thoughts. While Western philosophy has its own rich tradition, it’s a shame and a disservice that thinkers from other parts of the world, most notably Asia and the Arab states are not discussed in-depth, or at all in many cases. However, this is more than a cry for diversification of freshmen syllabi. As liberal arts are continually being questioned for their applicability in an age dominated by fields like science and technology, I believe philosophy in particular, needs to showcase diverse thinkers. This proposed change is also incredibly pragmatic as the shift of political and cultural power returns to the East.

While this article will focus on how South Asian philosophy is connected to Western philosophy I want to make it clear: all Asian philosophies, be it Buddhism, Hinduism, Daoism, etc. are significant in their own right regardless if they impacted other regions. This transmission of thought will be discussed today because of its direct impact on early Western thought – something that most readers will have some prior experience with. However, complex trade routes from East to West means many other philosophies were also shared indirectly between thinkers of the past. Understanding this influence between East and West is crucial to better appreciating philosophy as a whole. 

From India to Greece: The Long Tradition of Borrowing

Ancient Greece is unquestionably the birthplace of Western philosophy and it’s often traced back to 600 BC with the Socratic philosophers (Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle). Indian philosophy can be traced back to 2000 BCE with some of the earliest hymns and scriptures in the Vedas, which are broken into four sections: Mantras, Brāhmanas, Āraṇyakas, and Upaniṣads. During the Socratic era, it is well recorded that the Indians and the Greeks knew each other. Furthermore, modern historians and philosophers have suggested that Indian philosophy was fundamental to breakthroughs in the early stages of Ancient Greek thought. Another example is from another pre-Socratic thinker Thales (624-548 BCE). Thales believed that everything was made up of water. While this belief turned out to be wrong, it marks the start of Western metaphysics by attempting to connect everything to one thing – in this case connecting everything back to water. While this theory was revolutionary for Greece, Indian philosophical thought had already pondered this in the Rig Veda where it’s written that water is the foundational element – or pratishtha – that every other element is made up of in the Universe. While this overlap in thought may be a mere coincidence, this thought of connectedness must be first traced back to India. Furthermore, if this is simply a coincidence, it may suggest that an evolutionary progression of philosophical thought of humans exists.

When we look back at many Greek philosophers, it’s clear that their ideas have striking parallels to various Indian philosophers. One of the most obvious ones is Pythagorean’s belief (570-500 BCE) in reincarnation and an ethical decision to practice vegetarianism. In Hinduism, the concept of reincarnation can be traced back to the Rig Veda which is dated approximately 1500 BCE and was further expanded afterward. 

Another example is the discussion of Just War found in the Mahābhārata (300 BCE) and the Gītā (1000 BCE). Just War Theory is the philosophical justification for declaring war and a framework for some of the earliest “rules'' of war. The Mahābhārata would be incredibly influential to St. Augustine’s own Just War philosophy as the translations from Muslim philosophers of works from South Asia would be passed onto Europe. The Just War Theory from St. Augustine was adopted by the Catholic Church nearly 2,400 years later and it’s the foundation for much of international law regarding the matter.

Charvaka and Its Modern Influence

While Hindu philosophy is as broad as it is complex, it is covered more than the school of Charvaka. The school’s teachings, also sometimes called Lokayata, is comparable to rational egoism in that it emphasizes the importance of self-interest (something political thinker and philosopher Thomas Hobbes would take as the root for his political philosophy). Charvaka’s origins are difficult to trace because the first evidence of Indian materialism was recorded by the Buddhists in 500 BCE when describing thoughts of tribal philosophies in India. A formal creation of Indian materialism occurred in 600 AD, founded by Charvaka and Ajita Ajita Kesakambalin. The only writing that we have from these thinkers come from the Barhaspatya sutras. Unfortunately even these are in poor condition and many pieces are missing. Practitioners of this philosophy rejected anything divine, including key beliefs like karma, an after-life, and authority, instead prioritizing actions that maximized the individual’s well-being. As a result of this assumption, practitioners only believed in and relied on personal experiences and senses — if one cannot see it, it doesn’t exist. This philosophy would also influence Buddha and his appreciation for skepticism as he told the people of Kalama, "Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense." 

If this philosophy sounds familiar, it’s probably because you have some experience with the tradition of philosophical pragmatism, the creation and influence of which is often credited to American philosophers like William James (1842-1910), Charles Peirce (1839-1914), and John Dewey (1859-1952). While pragmatism is often vague, all sects can be broken down to the key principle that one must use philosophy and lessons only if the result of utilizing that philosophy benefits the individual. This practice, similar to the Charvaka teachings, places the individual as the key character in deciding ethical problems and consequences. On another level, the pragmatist school of thought attempts to use the scientific method which relies on personal experience and data to understand philosophy. Regardless of whether you know of these American thinkers or not, the connection to Indian philosophy is still important.

In modern American philosophy, objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand’s rejection of altruism is right in line with Charvaka's teachings. Rand’s ethics argued that one must do everything to prolong their own life if that is their wish. All other actions should become secondary if this goal is in question. Interestingly, Rand is becoming one of the most popular philosophers in India as a result of her contribution to objectivism which falls in line with the basic pillars of Charvaka’s lost philosophy. The rejection of authority and a re-emphasis on the individual spoke to American women throughout the 1960s seems to also speak to many Indian women today. The Fountainhead (1943) is her most popular book in India. The book celebrates the main character, an architect whose refusal to compromise leads to success. A story that celebrates an individual’s choice to pursue their own needs and desires makes sense to the younger Indian population. Rand’s thoughts often also praised values of hard work and determination, attributes that have been the pillars for many capitalist societies. India appears to be no exception, despite such views opposing some traditional values. In many ways this trend echoes the debate between Charvaka and Hindu philosophers that occurred thousands of years ago.

“While life is yours, live joyously;

None can escape Death’s searching eye:

When once this frame of ours they burn,

How shall it e’er again return?”

This piece is a short and very broad introduction to only some philosophical concepts in South Asia that have influenced the Western world. We should consider this discussion a starting point because Indian philosophy (and any other philosophy for that matter) holds great value regardless of whether it influenced Western philosophy or not. India is now the sixth-largest country in terms of GDP, has the second-largest population, and is the largest democracy ever. The people of India will continue to look inwards as they access political and social strategies into the future, which will include examining their long philosophical tradition. Countries like China have already done this philosophical reflection  (mainly with the revival of Neo Confucianism) on both the individual and governmental levels to guide them. 

Thinkers outside of Europe are often forgotten, partly because of their antiquity, but also because they don’t have direct connections to the West. However, understanding and acknowledging the important work from the East is foundational to understanding the foundations of philosophical thought in the West. I encourage you to look into the rich history of Eastern philosophy. There will be a few books that might be a good starting place. 

To further decolonize our minds:

The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way | Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā

Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames | Thich Nhat Hanh

LOKAYATA: A Study In Ancient Indian Materialism | Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya

Mencius | Mencius

Early Buddhist Metaphysics: The Making of a Philosophical Tradition | Noa Ronkin

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